“He’s like Mozart or like Lennon and McCartney, as far as being an artist, like a Rembrandt. He’s a genius at what he does. And he’s a genius at painting the picture or writing the song. And there’s only a few people in the history of world as an artist have been up to the level of what Shawn Michaels does when he’s in the wrestling ring. That’s his form of artistry, and he’s the best at it.” – Chris Jericho in Heartbreak and Triumph
“He was so anti-establishment, so cutting edge, and so talented, you couldn’t help but watch. In the mid-90s, Shawn Michaels had evolved to the level as an in-ring performer where he was untouchable.” – Jim Ross
I grew up in a family where both sides watched professional wrestling. And when I was growing up, there was no one better than The Heartbreak Kid.
Shawn Michaels was a small guy in an industry dominated by exceptionally large men. His title reign followed the likes of Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, and Kevin Nash, each of whom is at least 6’7”, a stark contrast to Shawn’s 5’10”. Yet in 1996, Shawn became the WWE Champion and the first person in WWE history to have won every title in the business.
A lot of people rag on professional wrestling for being scripted. In 1998, after a decade in wrestling, Shawn Michaels crushed a vertebrae in his spine after landing on a casket mid-match. He was out of action for five years while recovering, only to return better than when he left, an astonishing feat in any profession. Had Shawn been healthy in the late 90s, wrestling’s peak years in popularity, he would have been as famous a celebrity as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
I’m not the only one who admires The Heartbreak Kid. In 2012, past and present wrestlers, his peers and pupils, voted Shawn as the Greatest Wrestler of All Time. I tried to think of praise I could write to convincingly demonstrate Shawn’s greatness, but I’ll leave it to his peers to do the flattering:
“For me, Shawn Michaels, as a total package, is my favorite wrestler of all time. Charisma, match quality, innovation, pioneering, interview style, moves I’ve never seen before, moves I’ve seen every day, all of it. Yeah, Shawn Michaels is the greatest of all time.” – Chris Jericho
“A lot of guys are great athletes, but they don’t have the mind, they don’t have the passion, the heart, the drive. Shawn has all those tools. Guys ask me who the best I’ve ever been in the ring with, hands down, it’s Shawn.” – Paul “Triple H” Levesque
“If you look at all the variables and look at it objectively, how do you not say Michaels is the greatest who ever lived?” – Jim Ross
“I have to say, from an all-around standpoint, I don’t think Shawn has any peers. I think Shawn is, in all likelihood, in a class all his own.” – WWE Chairman Vince McMahon
“He is what the marquee is all about.” – John Cena
As Paul Graham did in his “Heroes” essay, I’ve tried to identify any patterns in the people I’ve picked. I identified three:
1. Unsurprisingly, only two women made the list, a teacher and a writer. I’m going to chalk it up boys naturally having male role models growing up, and not latent misogyny.
2. I encountered most of these figures in high school. The first person was Shawn Michaels, who was wrestling as far back as I can remember in the early 90s. The most recent person is Fischer Black, whose work I didn’t find until it was mentioned in a finance book senior year of high school, and whose biography I did not read until my sophomore year of college. Everyone else falls somewhere into my high school years. I think this is due to high school being a natural learning and maturing stage where our views and ideas are formed. I would also attribute the increase in influences in high school to John Carmack, who I read about at the beginning of my freshman year and jump-started my curiosities for everything else in life.
3. Lastly, the most interesting shared trait among my idols is that they were outsiders. In his youth, Shawn Michaels was considered too short and skinny to be a main-event wrestler. He became WWE champion anyway. Warren Buffett lives in Omaha, Nebraska, not New York, New York. He’s the most successful investor in America anyway. Russ Roberts isn’t given an editorial page in the New York Times, but he teaches thousands of people economics in his spare time anyway. Fischer Black did not win the Nobel Prize despite his co-author winning for their paper and Black worked in industry for most of his career. Finance academics cite his work as the greatest in the field anyway. John Carmack dropped out of college. He became arguably the greatest computer programmer of the past two decades anyway. I admire each of these men for exemplifying that pure, honest love of one’s craft can reap great, hard-earned rewards.