Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels
Inducted by Andrew Ardizzi
Dreams are fleeting, both in the literal sense during our sleeping hours and in the abstract. Asleep, we only ever get snippets of the totality of the experience, and shortly after waking up bit by bit the details become fuzzy and ultimately fade to black with time.
We dream about the paths of our days, the trails we’ll leave behind and what lays beyond the foliage in front of us. Wrestling is no different.
Each fan out there dreams of a match featuring two of their favourites, perhaps two legends, or two superstars that have simply never met before. That’s why Ric Flair arriving in WWF in 1991, or Jon Moxley leaving WWE in 2019 and then competing in NJPW’s G1 Climax tournament were such big deals. They were personifications of possibility.
When dream matches come true, it draws your eyes, heart and soul into the experience. Serendipitously enough, sandwiched directly between Flair’s debut and Moxley’s cowboy, globetrotting escapades with 14 years separating it from them on either side of the opening and closing ring bells, is Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 21.
The genesis of the match was not unlike any other one. It began at the Royal Rumble, like so many old WWF and WWE feuds did “way back when.” Like any other Rumble, both Angle and HBK — who called Smackdown and Raw home respectively — were aiming to win the unique battle royale so they could go on to WrestleMania and challenge for one of the company’s two world championships.
Michaels hit the ring at the 19th spot, and Angle came in after him as the 20th entrant. Angle, however, only spent 37 seconds in the match as he was eliminated by HBK. Minutes later Angle retaliated by returning to the ring to angrily, jealously pull HBK out of the ring. HBK’s night didn’t even last 5 minutes.
Two stars of the day vying for the top prizes, multiple world titles between them and two greats from disparate generations with two contrasting styles. The old adage goes that styles make fights. In this case, styles made magic happen inside a WWE ring on one of the biggest events of the wrestling calendar.
When Legends Collide
Once the bell rang, the match delivered on its promise; and it truly began in typically defiant HBK-like fashion with not a collar-elbow tie-up, rather a brisk slap across the Olympian’s face. Angle and HBK then quickly revved the engine and hit 60 mph in a split second as the stoically irate Angle shot in for a double leg takedown and proceeded to embarrass Michaels in an amateur wrestling exchange where Angle countered every single movement HBK made as he tried to scurry toward safety.
The match continued on, the crowd split between cheering HBK, cheering Angle; the dueling chants reminding you how split fans were between the WWE stars. They also simply reminded Angle of how much he “still sucked” after the opening wrestling salvo. What proceeded though was a bit different than you’d expect, and it’s perhaps a small piece of why this match is still held in such high regard.
Many of the greats in combat sports do one of two things: they excel and overwhelm, or they use the tools their opponent brings to the game against them. After being utterly embarrassed in the opening sequence, HBK outgrappled the Olympic Hero with a series of headlock takeovers, mat wrestling and body part work to ground Angle and keep him from getting the advantage.
How did Angle respond? He started beating the tar out of HBK with his physicality, his pure strength and he above all abandoned his wrestling and brawled with Michaels. They flipped the script on each other and delivered to fans something they didn’t expect, yet everything they didn’t know they needed; the match moved to the floor and culminated in an Angle Slam into the ring post. A clear, concise attack on HBK’s notably troublesome back.
From here Angle took over and re-imposed his own wrestling acumen on Michaels: grinding, wearing, attacking every body part on HBK’s person and forcing the apex babyface to work from underneath Angle’s smothering attack for the majority of the match. Naturally defiant as he was, HBK slid in another slap to Angle’s face.
How does that saying go? Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face? Well, this was no punch, but unlike before where Angle’s instinct was to outwrestle and embarrass the Heartbreak Kid, he just straight-up clotheslined Shawn into his next life with a thumping, sweeping attack that emphatically put Michaels on his back.
The Match Breaks Down
No longer was this a wrestling match, it was a fight between two prideful men. This was the story of the match though. There was no denying that Angle was the more physically imposing, that he was the better athlete, the better wrestler and the bigger threat. But for HBK, his entire purpose in this match was to undermine Angle’s ego, undercut what Angle believed to be his strengths, use his high-risk offence and overall outthink his physically superior foe (low blows included). It’s why the match worked, why their back and forth exchanges captivated and psychologically kept you invested in the match. You couldn’t figure out what was coming next, because they kept you separate in the present from how you view them historically by having them work outside themselves as much as they stayed true.
What also made it work was its pacing. For all the moments that led up to the middle of the match, they slowed the whole match down using an outside table spot where they laid there and let the crowd absorb the match as they slowly crawled along the floor and even more slowly back into the ring. Spent, wasted and exhausted they slung fists and chops back and forth like two boxers who’d fought 12 rounds full steam ahead.
Wrestling is funny though; it’s a lot like a sandwich. It’s an analogy used a lot in outlines on how to write stories, essays or even some features; it surmises that a story has two “ends” and the meat (real, vegan or “otherwise”). The buns can be plain enough, set the stage for what to expect and moreover how it’s going to “end.” But the meat and the condiments of the story are where the taste comes from, it’s what you remember most once it’s been eaten.
That’s this match.
In a mirror of the opening moments, HBK mounted his comeback routine, kipped up, hit his top rope elbow and got into position for the superkick. Much like the opening slap, Angle countered it, grabbed his foot and turned Michaels belly down and secured his anklelock submission dead centre in the ring. HBK countered. Angle got up and took a swing in an attempt to violently shellshock HBK with another clothesline, but HBK ducked and attempted another superkick. Angle countered and hit the Angle Slam. The match kept building and building its substance, making you wait for the big moments to come to bring you out of your seat, or off your couch and on the floor, crouching hands cupped around your mouth like I tend to.
Angle covered, Michaels defiantly kicked out. Frustrated, much like he’d gotten previously in the match, he moved to match HBK’s high-risk offence with his picture perfect soaring moonsault. HBK rolled out of the way and Angle came crashing down. Looking to capitalize, a battered and beaten HBK slowly picked himself off the mat and climbed the turnbuckle all too slowly. Once again, Angle being the superior athlete sprung to his feet, climbed the ropes and Angle Slammed HBK to the canvas.
HBK kicked out at 2.99. Angle was despondent.
The Pay Off
For every physical advantage Angle had, he couldn’t put away HBK. That was a calling card of Michaels throughout his career: he was simply far too defiant, far too resilient and far too gutsy to ever stay down. That’s why people still remember his last singles match too where he remained defiant until the bitter end, even though physically he had been dissected by Undertaker. Like that match, as it was here, it was a quintessential Shawn Michaels story. And if he hadn’t thumbed his nose at Angle enough already, as Kurt was verbally berating his beaten-down enemy, that’s when it happened. Third time was the charm.
Sweet Chin Music.
The crowd erupted for what they had been waiting for. Michaels covers.
One. Two…. point nine, nine.
They had the crowd in the palm of their hands.
By this point, HBK had very little left. As he struggled to his feet, seemingly unsure of what to do next, as the crowd shouted “let’s go Angle,” Kurt picked Michaels’ ankle from the mat, rolled him over and turned him once again into an Anklelock out of nowhere as the match neared the 26-minute mark. Much like the beginning of the match, he fought frantically to escape. He crawled and clawed to the ropes, but Angle pulled him back to the centre. He tried to roll and roughly push Angle off him, but Angle kept a vice grip on Michaels’ ankle. Shawn simply couldn’t shake him, and only found himself back where he started the match: centre of the ring, Angle’s hands clasped onto him and blanketing his every move with smothering aggression that threatened to tear all the ligaments in HBK’s ankle. If not break it outright.
One Final Push
HBK made one final push, crawling to whichever set of ropes were closest, only for Angle to drag him back to the centre each time. Only, the final time, Angle dropped down and grapevined Michaels leg and transitioned into more of a heel hook.
Forty-five seconds now.
Michaels writhed and fought to escape, but had no refuge to escape to. Overwhelmed by the pain, after nearly two minutes in an ankle lock, Shawn Michaels tapped out at the 27:27 mark. Angle had won. The sandwich? Complete.
The reason why this is remembered so fondly, far beyond their rematch that same year at Vengeance when HBK got his win back, is because for that first time we were seeing two legends of the era on opposing “brands,” who had overcome so much to excel at the top of the business, go head to head. The match was gripping, well-paced, gave you breaks when you needed them, dialed up the intensity when it was called for and told the story of two people claiming to be the best; who feuded over that greatness.
Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels are two of the best to ever set foot in a WWE ring, not simply because the promotion tells us they are, but because they simply are. Looking back at the bodies of their work, all of those individualities pieced together made the final product of this wrestling sandwich into the image we now hold in high regard as one of the greatest WrestleMania matches ever.
At WrestleMania 21, Michaels and Angle took fans on a ride, where the story of who they were spilled out into the ring and in front of us, showcasing everything they were and were capable of. We remember it because of the high spots. We remember it because of the quiet moments. We remember it for the failed superkicks as much as we do the one that hit Angle’s jaw flush. And we remember it for the closing sequence in which HBK fought valiantly to escape, only to fail in spite of all his resilience. He simply lost to the better wrestler, one who had dominated him the whole match.
This dream match, once a mere pipe dream, is a pinnacle of storytelling. It’s a hallmark of what wrestling can be, and one of the best matches ever, featuring two of the greatest ever.
Wrestling Headlines.com welcomes Angle vs. Michaels, from Wrestlemania 21, into the Hall of Fame class of 2021.
Related Links: Kurt Angle On His Match With Shawn Michaels At Wrestlemania 21
Wrestling Headlines Hall Of Fame 2021: “Macho King” Randy Savage vs. Ultimate Warrior, Wrestlemania VII
LOP Hall of Fame column archives