Everyone has a favorite wrestling match, one that just hits them in that special place in the heart reserved for great art.
Sometimes, it’s technical craft that compels. Two performers perfectly in sync, creating a tapestry of believable, powerful simulated violence.
On other occasions it’s the pure grandeur of the occasion, the pomp and circumstance of a particularly gaudy Las Vegas casino welded on top of a visceral battle of wills.
For those of a less serious bent, it could be the zany, madcap wackiness of two men pretending to fight, the weaponry and stakes moving right past ridiculous directly into Three Stooges territory.
Only rarely is a match all of those things at once, a bout so special it deserves to be put underneath proverbial glass, preserved for the ages as the perfect encapsulation of a moment and a time. For me, Diesel (Kevin Nash) versus Shawn Michaels at In Your House 7 is that perfect storm, a match that both owned its moment and created memories powerful enough to carry it forward into the present.
WWE has immortalized a different moment, the wrestling machine ensuring the Kliq’s “Curtain Call” at Madison Square Garden will live forever. But this was the troupe’s real goodbye, a daring, perfectly executed bit of hardcore tomfoolery that deserves to be part of wrestling lore. So, when I had a chance recently to talk to Michaels at length, I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask him about my favorite match.
“It was one of Kevin’s last matches with the company,” Michaels said. “And I believe, if I recall correctly, it was my first title defense on pay-per-view. My first time coming out as a champion after achieving that childhood dream. Having it be no holds barred, getting the opportunity to do the table spot with the power bomb. And of course the Mad Dog Vachon. Well—that really went well.
“It’s funny because I’ve talked about it now with so many NXT people. There are a lot of us that got into wrestling because we loved it. But one of the things that really drew us to it was having that opportunity to have that street fight or that no holds barred match. It’s like making music. We get out there and just play. There’s a lot of different instruments, so to speak. And I know that in the WWE at that time, we did not always have a lot of those tools available. So, to me, that’s what I remember most about that—having a bit more freedom in that match than we might normally have had at that time in the ring. And that always makes it a lot more fun, especially when you’re out there with your buddy.”
For years, Michaels and Nash were running buddies, both on screen and in the shark infested waters backstage where they battled for spots at the top of the card. Michaels, in particular, had climbed the ladder from the bottom rung as an opening act tag team specialist. Finally champion, these early moments would set the tone for his future—would he fall quickly back to the middle of the pack, or establish the new vision his boss Vince McMahon was promising fans in a fully post-Hogan era.
He needed both someone he could trust who was over with the audience and someone willing to do everything he could to make sure no one confused the HBK-era with anything that had come before. And who better fit that description than Nash, one of his best friends running out the string until he could paint his own picture of what wrestling should be in the 1990s?
“It probably shouldn’t matter,” Michaels said. “Everybody’s such a pro. Almost everybody understands that certain mistakes could happen and stuff like that. But look, I don’t think it would be genuine if I didn’t say it wasn’t just somehow always a bit easier and more relaxed when the folks are out there with you are people that you’re buddies with.
“You’re just certainly so much more relaxed when you’re out there with your friends. More so in a match like that, where it’s going to be pretty chaotic. You never have to worry about that person being upset with you about something connecting perhaps a bit more snug than you might’ve intended. There’s a certain amount of relaxation and comfort being out there with one of your friends.”
More than 24 years later, many of moments that stood out so vividly in 1996 have become WWE tropes—the crazy dive from the turnbuckle to the outside. The fire extinguisher. The brutal powerbomb through the table. The belt.
But, at the time, they were revelatory, the first sign that McMahon was taking the training wheels off his brand of wrestling and joining the modern era that ECW and others were trendsetting. It’s one thing to send a man crashing through a table at a Bingo Hall in a bad Philly neighborhood. It’s another when it’s the WWE champion doing, old school monitors following him to the floor while Vince and Jerry “The King” Lawler look on in wonder, afraid for a moment that their mics had been cut and they were no longer broadcasting the carnage live to the world.
It was the style of car crash match that can really only be two things—transcedently amazing or impossibly bad to the point you can’t look away from it. This was the former, perfectly executed and intricately laid out, with Michaels adding a speed and verve to all the major story beats that has made him a legitimate living legend in the industry.
“There are times I think when you know at a certain point this is going really well, but you were more focused on the completion and everything else and the totality of it,” Micahels said. “But certainly there’s a point in that match where you could hear a response and you can get a palpable feel for the emotion that is going into that response.
“As you do this job long enough you, believe it or not, begin to understand that there’s a palpable difference between sort of just a mechanical reaction and one reaction that’s filled with real emotion and sympathy or vulnerability, or again, true amazement from the fans. And when you get those, that’s when you get an idea, that as many guys will say, ‘We got them,’ and that’s always a good feeling.”
The match, for all its obvious excellence, could easily have fallen through the cracks, one of several bouts responsible for a shift in WWE in-ring style. But the leg won’t allow it. It’s the Mad Dog Vachon’s prosthetic leg that makes this something more than just hardcore wrestling, adding that kind of unforgettable oomph that separates WWE from its memory making rivals.
They foreshadowed the moment early in the match when Michaels removed Spanish announcer Hugo Savinovich’s boot and wacked Diesel with it. Turn-about, I suppose, is fairplay. It’s an interesting choice, dangerously close to camp while never quite removing the viewer from the moment. It’s a credit to both performers, who never let the mask slip for even a heartbeat, preventing the audience from taking a deep breath and relaxing. It’s inherently absurd but never anything less than deadly serious, a intricate dance the best wrestling provides in a manner unique to the genre.
“That was (former WWE booker) Pat Patterson, who always would come out of something unbelievably phenomenal from left field,” Michaels said. “Because he’s the one that knew Mad Dog and knew him well and thought that, ‘Oh, he’s not going to care. He’ll think it’s fantastic.’ And he was right. And so if that was something that again, clearly today, you know very well we couldn’t do that. Even then it was a bit even risky, but they both just thought it was fantastic. And of course, once they buy in and you get the green light, it’s fantastic.”
When it was over, a perfectly timed Sweet Chin Music solidifying the Heartbreak Kid as champion, Diesel rolled from the ring to give Michaels his moment. He wouldn’t return to a WWE ring until 2002, having fought and lost a bitter wrestling war.
For Michaels, the match served its purpose, maintaining his standing at the top of the heap while earning ****1/2 from Wrestling Observer editor Dave Meltzer who was generally loath to heap that level of praise on a WWE match. More importantly, he helped create a style in the ring that would help carry the promotion through the most lucrative period in its history—the legendary Attitude Era.