The Story Of Shawn Michaels' Return & The Greatest Comeback Match Ever At WWE SummerSlam 2002

HBK proved he still had it, four-and-a-half years after retiring

Tony Khan and the AEW hype machine have basically told us that CM Punk is coming back without actually telling us that CM Punk is coming back.

Assuming we're not incorrectly reading the room, this is quite an exciting development, because it means that the return of one of pro wrestling's great enigmas, a genuine star that walked away from the industry in disgust over seven years ago, has been set into motion.

And the dreamy-eyed viewer can't help but wonder what a CM Punk comeback is going to look like, after so many years.

Expectations from wrestling fans always tend to run high. And for someone like Punk that has had subjective "five star" matches to his credit (vs. Samoa Joe and John Cena, certainly), there's hope that the outspoken "Voice of the Voiceless" can equal the brilliance of his golden prime.

Recent history has shown us that a long in-ring hiatus doesn't necessarily mean there'll be rust in one's return. Both Edge and Christian Cage bounced back from nine and seven years of retirement, respectively, to demonstrate that their skills had not deserted them.

To a lesser extent (timewise), Daniel Bryan came back after a three-year absence from the ring, and quickly reminded us why The Wrestling Observer named its best technical wrestler award after him.

As SummerSlam approaches this coming weekend, now's as good a time as any to remember one of the all-time great pro wrestling comeback stories. It's especially timely, since it involves two men who, as the stories have it, are presently beset by an unfortunate creative and personnel-related civil war within WWE.

So let's remember some happier times, shall we?

The 2002 SummerSlam is often hailed as the greatest of the entire SummerSlam chronology. It was a night in which Kurt Angle and Rey Mysterio somehow packed a 20-minute match of the year candidate into nine frenetic minutes. Where Edge and Eddie Guerrero further demonstrated the consummate wrestling you'd regularly find on Thursday nights. Where Rob Van Dam and Chris Benoit did what they do best if given 16 minutes to tear the house down. Where Brock Lesnar toppled The Rock to become WWE champion in the perfect template for a torch-passing main event.

It was a night where reviewers held SHIFT and struck the 8 key with great frequency.

And it was a night where the best match of all featured someone that hadn't wrestled in close to four years.

At WrestleMania 14 in 1998, Shawn Michaels gutted his way through a WWE title loss to Stone Cold Steve Austin. For Austin, it was a moment of ascension, but for HBK, it was a painful sunset. A litany of accumulated injuries (particularly to his back) meant that 32-year-old Michaels was facing an uncertain future in wrestling, and that the red-hot Attitude Era would have to roll on without one of its most dynamic stars.

Wwe shawn michaels nwo 2002


In fact, by the time Michaels wrestled another widely-seen match, the Attitude Era would have been over for close to a year and a half.

But it was damn sure worth the wait.

By 2002, Michaels' virtuosity felt relic-like, a memory of a bygone time in an industry very much still "Here today, gone tomorrow" in terms of the occupancy of its stars. When Michaels returned to television to act as mouthpiece for the New World Order early that summer, the reaction wasn't exactly nuclear. After all, we'd gotten used to seeing Shawn in non-wrestling roles - what's one more, especially if he's not going to be donning the boots ever again?

If Michaels were to wrestle again, well, that would be another story.

Michaels' membership in the nWo didn't last, because the nWo didn't last - five weeks after Shawn's surprise return, Kevin Nash tore his quad during a ten man tag on Monday Night Raw. With Scott Hall gone, Hulk Hogan on SmackDown, and the group down to just Michaels, X-Pac, Big Show, and Booker T, the watered-down black-and-white was liquidated altogether.

According to Michaels, out of the nWo dissolution came a creative idea - he proposed to Vince a match pitting the boss against himself. In story, Michaels would stand up for all the wrestlers that the ever-demanding McMahon had callously driven into the ground, leaving them behind when they were too hurt to continue wrestling.

Michaels also proposed that the eventual match be a street fight, to account for each man's limitations (in Shawn's case, the idea that taking repeated bumps may not be ideal for his body).

McMahon was on board with the idea, but in a subsequent conversation, he said that Triple H had asked into the match. Vince and Shawn both agreed, understanding that Helmsley was more suited as a ring general to work with a potentially-limited Michaels.

So the match and the story came together - a supposed DX reunion led to Triple H double-crossing Michaels, and then trying to run him off altogether with a parking lot assault. Michaels swore revenge, thus he challenged Triple H to a street fight at SummerSlam.

Triple h hbk summerslam wwe 2002 graphic


There were still lingering questions, not only concerning how much the 37-year-old Michaels could physically endure, but also how rusty he might be. Four and a half years is a long time, after all.

To prepare for the match, within the week of it taking place, Helmsley suggested that the two rehearse the physical part of the match in the training ring at WWE headquarters.

While some of the greats are more comfortable doing this sort of physical run-through of an entire match layout, Michaels admits to being the opposite. In fact, after only a few bumps in the practice ring (including a sunset flip), Michaels called off the remainder of the practice run. He said it needed to be in front of a crowd, that practicing just didn't feel right.

With a very minimal dry run, and lingering questions about what a recently-reactivated Heartbreak Kid could do, Michaels made his entrance at the famed Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, in the semi-main event position.

Wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, the notion of a confrontation more fight than wrestling match was underscored (though Triple H did wear his standard ring attire, alas).

Nearly 28 minutes of physicality followed - some light, some heavy, virtually all compelling.

To watch the match is to forget that Michaels sat at home for so long, because it was prime "Showstopper" from start to finish. After hitting an early plancha to remind everyone of the spring in his step, Michaels began a long period of selling, after Triple H methodically worked over his lower back.

Basically, if you're part of the crowd that laments the supposed lack of "selling" today, this match is your Shangri-La.

Michaels did indeed do a masterful job convincing the crowd that his long-ailing back was hanging on by a thread, as Helmsley deposited him with backbreakers across his own knee, and onto steel objects. Michaels also bladed in the early going, putting him behind the proverbial eight ball.

This allowed Michaels to valiantly fight back from underneath, overcoming all the accumulated damage to shove Helmsley to the brink. "The Game" was soon busted open himself, as Michaels' comeback attack had whipped Long Island into a frenzy.

Table and ladder spots followed. Rust? What rust? Also, what career ending injury?

Shawn michaels ladder triple h wwe summerslam 2002


The ending wasn't as emphatic as the preceding action, however - Sweet Chin Music was countered by Triple H, who attempted a Pedigree, only for Michaels to jack-knife cradle him for the flash win. The crowd exploded nonetheless, and it was an appropriate enough capper to a comeback for the ages.

At the time, it wasn't clear if Michaels would ever wrestle another match. A "wait and see" approach was taken to judge how his body felt in the aftermath, and if he felt a more sustained schedule was feasible.

Clearly, he could still be Shawn Michaels inside the ring - but could he be Shawn Michaels long term?

As time would reveal, absolutely. From then through 2010, Michaels was every bit the generational performer that occupied WWE's upper card from 1992 to 1998 - perhaps even better in some respects.

As for the SummerSlam street fight, the brawl gave us Michaels at his most undistilled - a masterful worker who thrives on details, knows how to time his comebacks, and understands the value of storytelling. Triple H deserves his share of credit for holding up his end of such an emotional roller coaster, but there are few others (if anyone at all) that he could have had this exact match with.

Three months earlier, the idea of Shawn Michaels even having another match, let alone one of this calibre, was barely even a thought. Now we were all breathlessly anticipating the next one.

For many, the match is babyface Shawn Michaels idealized: the older, wiser gunslinger overcoming the odds against an ex-World champion in his prime, a man once a protégé of his - teacher vs. student, friend vs. former friend. In the end, the man who taught "The Game" everything he knew had one extra trick up his sleeve, indicating that he didn't teach him everything that *Shawn* knew.

That in itself is a microcosm for the SummerSlam match: just when you think Shawn Michaels can't surprise you any more, he finds a way.

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Justin Henry

Written by Justin Henry

In addition to writing lists and commentaries for Cultaholic, Justin is also a features writer and interviewer for Fighting Spirit Magazine, and is co-author of the WWE-related book Titan Screwed: Lost Smiles, Stunners, and Screwjobs.