By Mike Mooneyham

Feb. 11 2007

Bad attitude. Prima donna. Manipulative. Drug problems.

But he was the “Showstopper” and one of WWE’s top names, so Shawn Michaels was given a pass.

Nearly a decade has passed since those days, and Michaels finds himself in the same role, minus the negative baggage.

Sure, his hair’s a lot thinner, and he’s sporting the wrinkles that come with the territory of a man who’s nearing his 42nd birthday. But Michaels has provided a spark to a company that badly needed one, and is knocking on the door of the world title at the biggest wrestling event of the year.

“The Heartbreak Kid” will challenge John Cena for the WWE heavyweight title at Wrestlemania 23 – WWE’s equivalent of the Super Bowl – April 1 at Ford Field in Detroit.

Shawn Michaels

Shawn Michaels

Although WWE owner Vince McMahon sees the 29-year-old Cena as the future of the company, Michaels brings a wealth of history to the show. Michaels, who started working with WWE in 1987, is one of the company’s longest-tenured performers and one of the greatest to have ever stepped inside a WWE ring.

Michaels also has completed an amazing comeback since undergoing disc fusion surgery after getting seriously injured in a 1998 Royal Rumble casket match against The Undertaker. He temporarily retired but returned in 2002 and has since regained his status as one of the sport’s all-time greatest performers.

Ironically WWE business is booming at a time that coincides with the absence of Triple H, Michaels’ DX stablemate, who had been penciled in as Cena’s Mania challenger before suffering a severe quadriceps tear for the second time in six years last month.

While Triple H will miss his first Wrestlemania since debuting with the company, WWE has seized the opportunity and turned the setback into an advantage, forcing them to go with a much fresher and more intriguing matchup between Cena and Michaels. Michaels has been turning back the clock to another era, and literally forced the company’s hand when deciding on a challenger for Cena.

A renewed push surrounding the company’s biggest titles, along with seemingly less emphasis on silly and overdone gimmicks and bad-taste controversy, also has tended to serve WWE well in recent weeks. The build to Mania is always strong, but this year the company seems to be moving with more focus and direction, and the numbers attest to that.

A recent edition of Raw on the USA Network drew 5.8 million viewers, its largest audience since the June 27, 2005, edition and its highest rating in the 12-34 age group since 2003. More than 5 million fans tuned in to the Feb. 2 episode of Smackdown, earning that show its highest rating since moving to The CW Network in September and its highest overall rating in more than one year.

Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at CW, praised Smackdown in a recent article on

“I have to say the WWE, Vince and Linda (McMahon), have been incredible partners. They really have been. I have to say they are excellent show producers. They know their characters better than anybody. They understand what their audience is looking for, and who their audience is, better than anything. They have been doing this for a long time, and their business is more than just this show. It is truly a whole culture, a phenomenon.”

The Undertaker puts his unparalleled 16-year winning streak at Wrestlemania on the line when he meets Batista in the co-headliner for the WWE world title. It will mark the first time two babyface vs. babyface matches will headline a Wrestlemania event. One plan being discussed is to have Taker’s streak come to an end with Batista turning heel, while another faction backs Mr. Kennedy (Ken Anderson) as the successor to Batista’s crown.

– TNA gets the rare opportunity to show its stuff on Monday night when Spike TV airs a 9-11 p.m. “This Is TNA” special in a time slot normally occupied by Monday Night Raw. This week’s Raw is being pre-empted due to the Westminster dog show. The TNA special will be replayed on Thursday from 7-9 p.m. followed by a new edition of TNA’s Impact show. Raw will air on Thursday from 8-10 p.m. on USA Network.

– Hulk Hogan, who had been scheduled to meet Great Khali at this year’s Wrestlemania, may not be making it to the big show after all.

Hogan reportedly is in hot water with management after taking a personal call from WWE office worker Ann Gordon and having her read aloud a confidential list of potential candidates for this year’s Hall of Fame – while on a radio interview with Tampa-based shock jock Bubba The Love Sponge.

Hogan’s appearance would have marked the 20-year anniversary of his epic showdown at the Pontiac Silverdome against the late Andre The Giant.

WWE also had considered Hogan being involved in the Donald Trump-Vince McMahon angle at Mania. Initial plans had Michaels in that spot against Booker T, with Trump and McMahon in their respective corners.

The seven-foot, 500-pound Paul “Big Show” Wight, who has been plagued by back problems, torn muscles and a herniated abdomen, also had been mentioned as a possible opponent for Hogan at this year’s event. But lingering injuries had taken a toll on his massive frame, and he announced in December that it was time to step away from the ring.

“I’ve reached a point in my career right now where I am a little run down and hurt pretty bad physically,” Wight told the WWE Web site. I can’t compete at the level I want to compete at, and that’s the most heartbreaking thing.”

“I think every athlete reaches a point in their career when he really has to check himself and evaluate what is going on,” Wight added. “Anybody who knows me knows I need a break. People go through life so fast sometimes they miss it; I just want to put on the brakes.”

Wight, who dropped the ECW title to Bobby Lashley at the December to Dismember pay-per-view in Augusta, is the only performer to have held the WWE, ECW and WCW world heavyweight titles. He said his departure was bittersweet and called the business a family.

“I’ve been traveling and I’ve been in this business for 11 wonderful years. I’ve been able to work with almost every top superstar in this business that’s ever meant anything … I’ve had some very memorable matches and I’m thankful for it.”

The 35-year-old Aiken native was an all-state and all-conference standout in basketball and excelled in football, baseball and track at King Academy, a small private school in Batesburg. He was recruited by more than 50 colleges, including Clemson and USC, and finally settled on Wichita State University.

Wight lives in Tampa, Fla., with his second wife, Bess, and four dogs, four cats, a bird, a fish and a turtle.

“My wife has a thing for animals; that’s why she married me. The next thing that walks in that house better be on two legs and call me Dad – and not be a chimpanzee with a speech machine,” Wight told The Aiken Standard. Wight has a daughter, Sierra, from his first marriage.

Wight said he just needed some time for himself after an 11-year run. He added that he wants to possibly reinvent himself and do a WWE film – preferably a comedy – in the near future.

Hulk Hogan, still smarting over being shown up by Shawn Michaels at the 2005 Summer Slam and a shoot interview that accompanied it, ripped Michaels in a recent interview, saying that HBK is considered to be a good worker simply because he “flops around and flips around.”

– Dusty Rhodes has moved from the Smackdown to the ECW creative team at the request of ECW lead writer Dave Lagana.

– Quote of the Week comes from announcer Jim Ross during last week’s Raw: “This is as big a sports entertainment as the Super Bowl was last night, and it’s not raining.”