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Heartbreak Hotel: Shawn Michaels rocks Memphis Wrestling

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To hell and back with HBK

The new WWE three-disc DVD release WWE: Shawn Michaels – My Journey
features more than 20 memorable bouts from HBK’s career, with interview segments with Michaels discussing each one, including the following:

    • vs. Undertaker – WM 25
    • vs. Undertaker – Casket match from Royal Rumble
    • vs. Bulldog – One Night Only
    • vs. Jericho – WM 19
    • vs. Hart – IC Title from Canada
    • vs. 1-2-3 Kid – Raw
    •  vs. Mankind – Raw
    • vs. Angle – WM 21

On select matches on the DVD, Cole and Michaels also provide alternate commentary, including the Hart bout, which could be interesting if HBK is candid.
The collection also includes early bouts in his career with partner Marty Jannetty, collectively known as the (Midnight) Rockers, against “Playboy Buddy Rose and Pretty Boy Doug Somers for the AWA tag titles and against The Nasty Boys. There’s even a World Class bout with Michaels getting squashed by the One Man Gang. Unfortunately, none of HBK’s heel stuff in Memphis Wrestling is included, which is a shame, as he displayed early on a natural heel charisma that would serve him well as he built a career in the World Wrestling Federation.

I wish I could say that I had Michaels pegged for superstardom all along. Sure, HBK was already more than capable in the ring in Memphis in 1987, my first exposure to the man who would become World Wrestling Entertainment’s most consistent big-match performer in history.

Maybe I couldn’t get past the mullet, dorky sunglasses and zebra-striped banda-essentials of his Midnight Rockers gimmick with partner Marty Jannetty, who together came off like cheap copies of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson — the originators of the rock-band tag-team persona in Memphis. Even Morton and Gibson had trouble in Memphis matching the popularity of the Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn and Stan Lane, in part because the Fabs’ gimmick had been on the scene first.

Although it was the Gagnes who initially pushed the duo in the struggling AWA, you can’t blame Verne for the dopey name. While Michaels concedes they were emulating Morton and Gibson, he says they weren’t consciously thinking of the Midnight Express, another top-notch tag-team of the mid-’80s era, when coming up the Midnight Rockers name. The Midnights — Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey — undoubtedly influenced the Rockers’ in-ring work, though, as the two longtime Memphis boys took tag-team wrestling to a new art form in the ’80s, working with Morton and Gibson to produce some of best tag matches of the decade.

Michaels for years has claimed that initially Verne balked at the name, thinking fans might misunderstand the term “Rockers” to mean rocking chairs. (Can’t imagine how Vince McMahon and his expanding WWF were outfoxing Verne in the ’80s.)

Michaels and Jannetty, two admitted hardcore partiers during that time, developed the name because they viewed the gimmick as an extension of their true selves. Getting loaded is one thing, but at least Micahels and Jannetty never endangered their lives or careers with the evil sin of smoking. At least, according to this public-service announcement.

For entrance music — which was becoming an art form in itself among the boys after guys like the Freebirds paved the way — the Rockers chose Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight,” reflecting their lifestyle at the time.

Living after midnight, rockin’ to the dawn
Lovin til the morning, then I’m gone, I’m gone

I took the city bout 1 a.m, loaded, loaded
I’m all geared up to score again, loaded, loaded
I come alive in the neon light
That’s when I make my moves right

That nice slice of Judas cheese fit the two perfectly. In fact, while the Rockers were building a solid rep for their in-ring performance, highlighted by fantastic bouts with Rose and Somers (many of which were televised nationally on ESPN) their antics outside the ring had them living their gimmick too much.

During a run as AWA World tag title champions, Michaels and Jannetty finally got the call they’d been waiting on from Pat Patterson and the WWF. The Midnight Rockers dropped the belts in May 1987 and bolted for greener pastures under Vince’s circus tent. They lasted about a week.

Their perceived arrogance at their first and only WWF TV taping in 1987 made them immediately disliked in the locker room After a night of hard partying following a WWF show, which allegedly included property damage to the bar area, they were fired by Vince himself, who didn’t think the two were worth the trouble. Michaels has since claimed that wrestler Jimmy Jack Funk (Jesse Barr) unjustly stooged them off to the office out of jealously. As the firing story goes, Vince met with the Rockers, telling Michaels, “Nice boots. They’re made for walking.” Maybe that was just Mr. McMahon talking.

Suddenly limited in options, Michaels and Jannetty crawled back to the AWA, who had no choice but to take them back, as the group’s talent level was at an all-time low. Because the AWA wasn’t running many shows, the Rockers also begin appearing frequently in Memphis in fall 1987. At first, they were pushed as babyfaces, feuding with fellow rock ‘n’ roll rip-offs Mike Davis and Tommy Lane, the RPMs. TV announcer Lance Russell’s enthusiasm for their work was evident, strongly putting them over to the fans.

Although a far cry from its heyday, Memphis was still drawing decent crowds in 1987, between 3,500 and 5,500 fans at the Mid-South Coliseum on a weekly basis. Clearly, though, Michaels and Jannetty weren’t thrilled about being there. Supposedly, Bill Dundee locked the two out of the Nashville Sports Arena dressing room wearing only their tights in snowy conditions after listening to the Michaels and Jannetty complain about the drive on icy roads from Memphis.

Observing how much heat the Rockers had with the boys, the promotion slowly turned them heel, with the team finally caving to the overtures of unusual heel manager Mark Golleen, who quite possibly had the worst accent in wrestling history-which covers a lot of ground.


Bad attitudes or not, it didn’t affect their work, with the two new heels bringing the house down in bouts with the Nasty Boys who, of course, were tailor-made to be considered babyfaces in a territory like Memphis.


Michaels especially took to the new role, with his early heel interviews in Memphis a harbinger of his eventual singles character in WWF/E. To hype an AWA World tag title defense against local tag legends Jerry Lawler and Dundee, Michaels harped on the age of their opponents, calling them the “Over-the-Hill Gang” — which probably didn’t do them any favors legit behind the scenes. During the promo, Michaels also slyly acknowledges the heat they have in the back. I would have loved to have seen the look on Lawler’s face backstage during that promo. (Lawler was none too pleased with me when I hurled this insult at him in only my second interview as a pro: “The only reason Lawler’s not over the hill is because he never climbed it in the first place.” Incidentally, I lifted that line from the late, great Dan Shocket in the Apter mags.) Aw, well, Lawler has always maintained that personal issues draw money, so he probably got over it really quick.

Playing the heel in Memphis also enabled Michaels to emulate his hero, Ric Flair, taking exaggerated bumps when selling for the babyface’s comeback. The first time I saw Michaels wrestle in person, the Rockers had a great bout with the unlikely team of “Nightmare” Ken Wayne and Scott Hall. Wayne could more than keep up with the Rockers, as he’d had excellent tag bouts in the territory for years with former partner Danny Davis against the likes of Morton and Gibson. Hall couldn’t do much but simple power moves, for which the Rockers sold like crazy. The elevation on Michaels’ selling for a Hall backdrop would have made Flair envious.

At the time, I was only starting to grasp the business side of wrestling, but even then I knew that Shawn Michaels would be a star with the right gimmick. Admittedly, though, I didn’t foresee how much of a player he’d become.

In a move that would alter the future of Vince’s company, the WWF took the Rockers back in 1988, with the two practically begging for another shot. Their second TV debuts aired in June 1988, with the Rockers appearing on both of the Former Fed’s two syndicated shows at the time, WRESTLING CHALLENGE and SUPERSTARS OF WRESTLING. Vince shortened their name from the Midnight Rockers to the Rockers, but they kept the Judas Priest entrance song until new music could be tailored for the team.

The Rockers had a great run, despite being overshadowed a bit during a time when Vince was pushing juiced-up monsters in the prime spots. Still, they shined in the tag ranks, having great bouts with the Hart Foundation and Demolition. They actually won the WWF tag titles from Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart, but Vince changed his mind and the decision was reversed, with the official reason given on TV that the ring ropes had broken during the bout, creating an unsafe environment for the participants. Whatever.

Michaels’ big break came after Jannetty nearly got the two fired again, after learning the Legion of Doom was making more money than them for the same commercial shoot. In his book, Michaels says he pleaded with Vince not to fire him, saying he wanted to wrestle as a single anyway and was not leaving with Jannetty as a team to go to WCW, which had offered them a spot … at a significantly lower rate than they were already making. (Shrewd negotiator that Jannetty.)

Gotta credit Vince for realizing Shawn’s potential as a singles wrestler, helping to orchestrate one of the most memorable heel turns in WWF history.

Since that time — and four WWF/E heavyweight title reigns and one World title run later — Michaels has arguably been the company’s greatest performer.

Although he doesn’t take as many insane bumps as he used to, Michaels has showed no signs of slowing down, carrying younger stars like John Cena to some of the best matches of their careers. Michaels has a way of bringing out the best in everyone and making them appear like superstars, much like his hero Flair did in the role of the traveling NWA World champion in the territory days.

Following his upcoming WRESTLEMANIA rematch with Undertaker, Michaels will reportedly take an extended leave of absence, fueling rumors that he will lose the bout and his career forever. (“Forever” nowadays is kayfabe for “Until Summer Slam.”) No doubt that will help DVD sales.

You can purchase the new Michaels DVD below. (Your favorite rasslin’ Web site receives a small commission on each DVD sold, so you are encouraged to purchase several dozen copies for your family and friends.) I’ve also provided a link to the Memphis Wrestling DVD featuring the Rockers and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express.

  1. Cousar
    March 11th, 2010 at 12:43 | #1

    Remember the AWA music video for the Rockers that stupidly kept showing an alarm clock sitting on a table?

  2. Sean D.
    March 11th, 2010 at 19:58 | #2

    Wasn’t part of the backstory on the “broken ring ropes” thing was that the match was part of a Saturday Night Main Event taping, but NBC pre-empted or cancelled the show so the WWF ignored it and the broken ropes were only used as the excuse later as word of the finish and Rockers title “win” got out?

    Shawn’s Barber Shop heel turn is still one of the best turns ever done by the WWF/E. The fact this was part of the marathon TV tapings they used to do makes me appreciate it that much more. Rewatching the Andre turn recently (where all the Piper’s Pit segments from the taping were shown) I could almost hear the fatigue setting in for ANOTHER Pit segment with Hogan and the Brain.

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