I wanted to watch Shawn Michaels’ last match at WrestleMania XXVI. Unfortunately, the event cost $54 on pay-per-view. If you ordered it in HD, it cost $64. I thought this was amazing. Sixty-four dollars??? That’s six “Max and Ruby” DVDs! (Note: In the old days, I would have joked, “That’s three cases of beer!” Shoot me.) I already feel bad enough about still kinda-sorta-just-a-little-bit following professional wrestling, but having that $64 order show up on my DirecTV bill was a signed confession telling the Sports Gal, “You married an enormous loser.”
Then I remembered something
If I wrote a running diary for ESPN.com, I could write off that $64 as a “work expense.” Even better, I could tell my wife that “I had to watch this for work.” Woohoo! I spared her the ignominy of watching it live Sunday night, waiting until Monday morning to watch it by myself on DVR. Here’s a running diary of what transpired
0:00: We’re coming to you (not) live from Glendale, Ariz.! The WWE somehow packed 72,000 fans into the Cardinals’ football stadium. I have only been there once. Super Bowl XLII. Helmet Catch. Giants 17, Pats 14. Let’s move on. Our announcers: Michael Cole, Jerry “The King” Lawler and Matt “I Can’t Believe A Porn Star Hasn’t Used This Fake Name Yet” Striker.
0:01: For our first match, tag-team championship belts are on the line: R-Truth (a rapper/wrestler) and John Morrison (an entertaining Jim Morrison ripoff) challenging the champs, The Big Show and The Miz (carrying two belts apiece, for some reason). R-Truth came out prancing and singing his hit song, “What’s Up?” The lyrics go like this: “Shshshn cnbcnsbdb fhdehsh fhdhs dhdhan dbdjdndjd dbdbdbdbdb shshsnhs ffrhdhhjs xbcxbbffgfhhj WHAT’S UP? WHAT’S UP? WHAT’S UP? WHAT’S UP?” I don’t think he wrote that one with Burt Bacharach and Carly Simon.
0:03: Our first shot of tonight’s Spanish announcers: Hugo Savinovich and Carlos Cabrera. Someone will be thrown through their table tonight. Oh, yes.
0:05: Miz and Morrison start off the match. According to Cole, they were former buddies and tag-team partners until they had a falling-out. (What? That never happens!) I continue to be dumbfounded that The Miz — once upon a time a skinny “Real World: New York” roommate named Mike who referred to himself as “The Miz” and cracked his housemates up with fake wrestling speeches, then went on to a moderately successful “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” guy as he continued to refer to himself as “The Miz” — somehow became a WWE tag-team champion named “The Miz.” This is like Darryl Strawberry winning “Celebrity Apprentice,” then becoming a Fortune 500 CEO.
0:06: Cole tries to claim that Big Show is 486 pounds and seven feet tall. All wrestling heights/weights get bumped by 14.3 percent. It’s just the rule. By the way, it continues to bother me that Big Show wears the black tights with straps over both shoulders as opposed to the single strap. All giants should wear a single strap. You hear me? One strap!
0:09: Big Show pins Morrison as I fight off the urge to make a “This is the end ” joke. Four minutes for a tag-team title match? Really? Teaming R-Truth and Morrison made about as much sense as having T-Pain sing with the remaining Doors.
0:11: We see a WrestleMania Week montage. That’s right, WrestleMania Week. They have a charity golf tournament, an art exhibit, a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a reading challenge, even a Fan Experience setup called Wrestling Axxess where you can get autographs, buy memorabilia, learn wrestling moves, visit the Undertaker’s graveyard, walk down a WWE entrance ramp with your own music playing (OK, that sounds cool), get photos taken with WWE divas and try HGH for the first time. (Note: I made only the last thing up.) Why haven’t I attended this yet? I have no idea. Seriously, I can’t think of a single reason. Just the chance to play golf with Sgt. Slaughter alone should have gotten me on an airplane. Maybe next year.
0:12: Time for a “triple-threat match” with three legacy kids: Ted DiBiase (son of the Million Dollar Man, although he refuses to go with a “Jr.”), Cody Rhodes (son of Dusty, although you wouldn’t know, because he doesn’t have a white perm, a pot belly and 38DDs) and Randy Orton (son of Cowboy Bob, and a decent bet for a Shawn Michaels-type career if he ever gets his head on straight). These three used to have a gang called “Legacy” until egos imploded it. “Why not keep a cohesive, successful unit together?” an anguished Lawler wonders. I don’t know, Jerry. I don’t know.
0:15: DiBiase and Rhodes join forces and beat up Orton as the WWE pipes in fake booing for the first time. Am I the only one who’s always wanted to see a triple-threat match in boxing or the UFC? Wouldn’t this save boxing undercards?
0:20: If you had 5 minutes in the office pool for DiBiase and Rhodes turning on each other, you just won. “This works in the favor of Randy Orton,” Striker tells us. Glad he’s here.
0:24: The Viper (Orton) cleans house, pulls off five quality moves (including a double DDT), milks his gimmick a little (as the talented lunatic who makes weird faces, rolls his eyeballs, goes too slow and always seems like he’s one meltdown away from murdering everyone in the stadium), then finishes off DiBiase with his patented RKO (a midair version of the Stone Cold Stunner). I haven’t enjoyed a young wrestler who can’t quite reach his considerable potential this much since Rob Van Dam. Um, not that I watch wrestling or anything.
0:32: Next up: A 10-man “Money In The Bank” ladder match (basically, a battle royal with ladders and a suitcase full of money dangling 20 feet above the ring) featuring Kofi Kingston (the best Ghanaian wrestler working today); MVP (solid name); Evan Bourne (happy to be here); Jack Swagger (this generation’s flag-waving Hacksaw Jim Duggan); Shelton Benjamin (somehow still walking); Matt Hardy (ditto); Dolph Ziggler (Striker: “Perhaps the most sinister of the minds in this match”); Intercontinental champ Drew McIntyre (Striker: “Perhaps the most underhanded and egocentric competitor”); Kane (the Bruce Buffer to Undertaker’s Michael Buffer); and Christian (who doesn’t need a nickname or a last name). Guy who grabs the suitcase of money wins.
Striker favors Christian to win, explaining, “I cannot tell you how much that experience, how valuable that, to know what it’s like to climb that ladder, to know what it’s like to incapacitate your opponent, to render him useless and climb your ladder on the way to destiny.” Perhaps Striker should stop talking.
0:35: Just an FYI: I love ladder matches. The creator of this idea ranks right up there with the creator of the NBA shot clock and the guy who wondered why NFL goalposts shouldn’t be moved to the back of the end zone.
0:37: But seriously, you have to love any sporting event that leads someone to scream, “This is a great opportunity for Dolph Ziggler!”
0:39: Update: three ladders now in the ring, at least 12 “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”s from the crowd (and counting), and Cole just used the phrase “ladder sandwich.” I’m having fun. I’m not gonna lie.
0:43: Effective use of split-screen there: They showed a replay of Ziggler getting knocked out of the ring in Screen 2 as Kane was choke-slamming Ziggler onto a ladder on Screen 1. So if you’re scoring at home, the WWE pulls off split-screens with ease during live events with 10 wrestlers, three ladders and eight things happening at once, yet CBS can’t figure out how to put two March Madness games on the same screen.
0:45: Funniest running plot of ladder matches: when someone climbs the ladder without realizing that nobody is close enough to stop him, so he has to slow down dramatically to give them time to catch up. Or as it’s more commonly known, Rasheed Wallace speed.
0:48: Our winner? “The All-American American,” Jack Swagger. No, really. That’s his nickname. He gets a title shot within the next year. The crowd seems confused.
0:50: Striker follows a promo for the April 25 “Extreme Rules” pay-per-view by explaining, “Every match is extreme rules — certainly a night to be seeing, extreme rules.” Maybe you oughta stop talking for a while, Champ.
0:53: Our 2010 WWE Hall of Fame Class: Gorgeous George, Stu Hart, Mad Dog Vachon, Wendi Richter, Antonio Inoki, Bob Uecker and Ted DiBiase. During the montage from the ceremony, we learn that DiBiase’s speech ended with him screaming “Everybody’s got a price!” as money fell from the ceiling and DiBiase cackled like crazy. This is definitely what Michael Jordan should have done in September.
(Random note: Imagine if wrestling Hall of Fame inductions were scrutinized like baseball inductions? Just scores of sabermetricians skewering DiBiase’s credentials with new-wave stats, then arguing that Rick Rude had a much better case. And what about Bob Uecker becoming the first guy to make the WWE and baseball Halls of Fame before Pete Rose? What were the odds on this in 1985? One million to one?)
0:55: The Hall of Famers get introduced live to the crowd. (The highlight: Vachon raising his arms like a mad dog and pretending to growl at everyone, even though he’s in a wheelchair. That killed me.) Why doesn’t the WWE Hall of Fame actually exist yet? Like people wouldn’t go there? Come on.
1:00: Next up: Triple H (longtime WWE superstar, married Vince McMahon’s daughter in real life, also goes by “The Game”) against Sheamus (the first-ever WWE champ from Ireland, redheaded, pasty, temperamental, not a stereotype at all). No titles on the line. My favorite true Sheamus fact: he started using the nickname “The Irish Curse.” Now that’s comedy. Today, he goes by “The Celtic Warrior,” and as Striker tells us, “Sheamus is the product of years of a strong, proud, pure Irish bloodline.” Is this the Westminster dog show?
1:04: The staggering first-year success of Sheamus reminds me that we desperately need a WWE wrestler named “Masshole.” Just a beefy troublemaker from Boston with a kicking accent who comes out to Aerosmith music while spitting Skoal juice into a red cup, takes everything personally, wears Boston jerseys, feuds with anyone from New York and has a finishing move called “The Sucker Punch.” This wouldn’t be a huge hit?
1:08: Striker successfully uses the word “apex.”
1:12: Some sad news: After nearly two decades of top-notch wrestling, Triple H is edging dangerously close to the Hulk Hogan Mammary Zone, when great pecs suddenly morph into what look to be bad breast implants, depending on the position of the wrestler’s body. Also, I just tried to detach my own retinas with an apple peeler.
1:17: Triple H pins Sheamus. Half-decent match that seemed rushed. That doesn’t stop Striker from calling it “a classic” and gushing, “The triumph of wills, the triumph of spirit, the triumph of Triple H!” He’s worse than Lord Alfred Hayes, Dusty Rhodes and Steve McMichael combined. If there was a God, he’d be fixing a headset cord under the Spanish announcers’ table tonight right as two wrestlers plunged through it.
1:24: The setup for the Rey Mysterio-CM Punk match involves Rey’s 9-year-old daughter and a birthday party gone horribly wrong. I’ll spare you the details. Just know that I enjoy CM Punk’s gimmick: He’s the self-proclaimed savior of a world in which wrestlers act with integrity and remain drug-free. His entrance speech got the crowd inordinately riled up; they just showed a 14-year-old fan jeering him and giving him two passionate thumbs down How dare you tell us that our wrestlers can’t use drugs! YOU NEED TO GO DOWN!
1:27: If Rey loses tonight, he has to join CM Punk’s Straight Edge-Society. But as Cole points out, “It’s much more personal. It’s about basically being called a coward in front of your entire family.” So there’s that.
1:33: CM Punk’s tattoos have me thinking about the biggest differences between wrestling now versus when I loved it most in the ’80s. My top 26 in no particular order: (1) tattoos; (2) no more signature managers; (3) more finishing moves with definable names; (4) six times as many belts and title changes per year; (5) 10 times as many hot chicks who may or may not have an amateur porn background; (6) better interviews; (7) worse announcers; (8) more guys who seem like they might be, um, doctoring their training; (9) better TV production; (10) better ideas for gimmick matches; (11) tag teams being allowed to succeed even if they don’t have a catchy name or gimmick; (12) exploitation of own real-life family now allowed and encouraged; (13) everyone gets their own specially made entrance song; (14) WWE.com; (15) Internet clips; (16) wrestling blogs; (17) message boards; (18) pay-per-views that cost more than a dinner date for two; (19) infinitely more daring matches and aerial moves; (20) better video games; and crap, I couldn’t get to XXVI. A noble effort, though.
1:34: Rey escapes with a pin as Striker yelps, “Daddy’s coming home!” I can’t figure out a way to mute him. I’ve tried everything.
1:40: Long montage detailing the history of the Bret Hart/Vince McMahon feud, which had real-life roots: the famous “Montreal Screw Job” in 1997, when Vince stole Hart’s belt Bennett Salvatore-style without warning him first, leading to Hart spitting on him and cold-cocking him after the match. I’d be more excited for the revenge match if Hart’s in-ring skills hadn’t been diminished by a 2003 stroke, and also if Vince and Bret weren’t a combined 116 years old. Throw those two factors out and I’d be nervously pacing the room.
1:46: Wrinkle for this match: Bret’s entire family will be our “lumberjacks” tonight; if anyone gets tossed out of the ring, the lumberjacks throw them back in (and can rough them up if they want). Yet another idea that could work in other sports. The WNBA should try it.
1:52: I’m not saying this match sucks, but 72,000 people in Arizona just came to the same realization: “This is a perfect time to either pee or get food.”
1:58: After hitting Vince’s body with a steel chair for two solid minutes, Bret does his signature sharpshooter (slowly), gets Vince to tap out and keeps it going for another 25 seconds, either as a vicious act or because he can’t stand up. Thank God it’s over. Let’s just say that the last 12 minutes veered a little too close to Randy “The Ram” Robinson territory. I feel bad. That match made me feel bad.
2:04: Michael Cole mentions for the 72nd time that 72,000 people are here.
2:07: Next up: Edge and Chris Jericho for the World Heavyweight Championship in a battle of you’re not gonna believe this former tag-team partners turned bitter enemies! That never happens! I hate that there’s a WWE title, a World Heavyweight Championship AND an Intercontinental title. It’s everything we despise about the NCAA men’s tournament and the NIT co-existing, multiplied by a million.
2:10: I’m rooting for Edge for three reasons:
A. He always has the same crazed look on his face that Matthew Lillard had in the last 10 minutes of “Scream.” They even look alike.
B. I’ve always enjoyed his entrance music. On this day I see clearly every-thang has come to liiiiiife It’s just plain catchy.
C. He had enough success that he adopted a second nickname/gimmick as “The Rated-R Superstar.” I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: When you have a nickname for your nickname, you know you’ve accomplished something in life.
2:13: Striker points out that Edge (Toronto) and Jericho (Winnipeg) hail from Canada and once trained together like brothers, leading to this exchange
— Striker: “It’s almost like a brotherhood that has been severed.”
(We see Jericho deliver a hard karate chop across Edge’s chest.)
— Lawler (joking): “Would you do that to your brother?”
— Striker (serious): “I have four sisters, so no.”
(He talks in cliches, he can’t shut up, he can’t say anything that isn’t completely obvious, he can’t sell jokes what else can’t Matt Striker do?!?!?!)
2:21: Good match. Crowd is into it. In other news, I’d like to be known as the Rated-PG-13 Superstar from now on.
2:26: Uh-oh, our referee was just inadvertently knocked down by an inadvertent punch. That never happens! Jericho takes advantage by hitting Edge with the title belt, then pinning him to retain the Not The WWE Or Intercontinental Title. Tragically, Edge takes his frustrations out by spearing Jericho on top of the Spanish announcers’ table. I say “tragically” because Matt Striker wasn’t underneath it.
2:28: On this day I see clearly every-thang has come to liiiiiife That song is called “Metalingus” by Alter Bridge. Thank God I’m not drunk right now or I’d be downloading it. How do you think “Wicked” by Wicked Liquid (Josh’s “Real World: Washington” band) ended up on my iPod last week?
2:32: We see highlights from tonight’s battle royal which took place as “a dark match” before the pay-per-view started. Apparently $64 wasn’t enough money to get to see it. I’m not even telling you the winner in protest.
2:39: I’m skipping over details of the 10-woman diva match that just happened; it was excruciating enough live. It ended with the only unattractive woman in the match executing something called the “hog splash.” Say no more.
2:45: Can I interest you in John Cena taking on Batista for the WWE title? Our storyline: Batista (a tattooed, muscular, brooding bully) has held the WWE belt for much of the past five years, but Cena gets more attention and gets paid to make bad action movies. And now Batista is jealous. Or something. One shocker: During the “how these two guys came to hate each other” montage, Cena referred to Batista by his first name. You want to guess it? I’ll give you a few seconds. Hold on.
That would have been like my 53rd guess. I would have gone Antonio, then Vinny, then Salvatore, then Sonny, then Joey, then Miguel, then
2:50: The crowd is JACKED. Huge pop for the intros. Cena always draws a passionate mix of adoration and hatred; he’s the WWE’s biggest star, like a more benevolent Stone Cold Steve Austin, only he’s never totally caught on as a babyface (I will explain why in a second). And Batista isn’t just the WWE champ; he also holds the imaginary belt for “The Guy Who Seems Like He’d Beat The Crap Out Of Everyone Else If These Guys Were Really Fighting.” A worthy main event on any other card.
2:53: During a conversation about Batista breaking Cena’s neck two years ago, Striker utters this beauty: “I can tell you from experience being in the ring that your neck means EVERYTHING to your success.” You know, as opposed to the other sports.
2:56: During a closeup of Cena squirming out of Batista’s prolonged, behind-the-back-and-actually-this-is-making-me-a-little-uncomfortable-and-I-wish-they’d-do-another-move-soon bear hug, we see Cena tell him, “Hit me in the back,” followed by Batista immediately kneeing him in the back. And just like that, wrestling was ruined for thousands of kids between the ages of 7 and 14 who thought it might be real.
(My moment happened in 1981 or 1982: Sixth row, MSG, brass-knuckles match between Greg Valentine and Pedro Morales. Somebody missed a punch and the other guy went flying backward like he had been belted. I was crushed. I will never forget my stepfather turning to me and saying, “See? See? I told you!” This would be a good documentary: “The Day I Found Out Wrestling Was Fake.” Maybe someone could even tell the story about the time I ruined it for them with this paragraph.)
3:03: Batista barely kicks out after 2.93 seconds as the crowd groans in disbelief. Solid match so far. OK, here’s the one thing that killed Cena’s chances of ever getting 100 percent approval from fans: He wears jorts. Can you name one person in your life who wears jorts? The cynical side of me wonders if Vince McMahon knows this — hence, an early jorts recommendation for Cena and the knowledge that he’d be a polarizing WWE star for the next 20 years.
3:04: Cena locks Batista in the STF (stepover toehold facelock) and Good lord, Dave Batista just tapped out! Was it a good idea to have a title change hands on a tapout in a stadium with 72,000 people in it when most of those people can barely see the ring? Striker is undeterred: “The passion, the power, the grandeur, congratulations, John Cena is the new WWE champion!” At least until he has to leave for four months to make another action movie.
3:09: And now, our main event: Undertaker versus The Heartbreak Kid (Shawn Michaels) in a “Streak vs. Career” match. Three things you need to know about this one: First, HBK and Taker wrestled an all-time classic at last year’s WrestleMania. Anticipation for the rematch resides at DEFCON 1. Second, Taker has never lost at WrestleMania. Seventeen straight. The best streak in fake sports. And third, Michaels is the best wrestler of the past 20 years. If HBK loses this match, he has to retire. That’s the deal. Heavy stakes.
3:13: Michaels enters the ring with “Sexy Boy” playing for possibly the last time. Striker calls him “arguably the most decorated superstar in WWE history.” You can read more in his new book, “Arguably, Perhaps: The Matt Striker Story.”
3:15: Undertaker’s creepy gothic entrance never gets old. Wait, that’s not true. It got old about 10 years ago. Remains cool if you’re there in the arena/stadium though. The fireworks make it. I’ll be honest: I’m borderline giddy for this match. Wish we could have wagered on this. My fake line would be Undertaker -300 and I would have parlayed him with Cena.
(Note: That’s sign No. 324 that you might have a gambling problem you come up with fake lines for wrestling matches.)
3:23: I’ll give you one guess as to which announcer just compared Undertaker’s 17 straight to Joe D’s 56 straight and Orel Hershiser’s scoreless streak.
3:29: Things wrestling and porn have in common, Vol. 78: An inordinate amount of guys in their 40s who have the long-stringy-sweaty-hair-while-balding-in-the-front thing going. We’re seeing two of the greats right now.
(Other porn/wrestling parallels include individual gimmicks; finishing moves; a preponderance of pseudonyms; illegal drugs; a booming DVD market; pay-per-views; tattoos; horrible acting; artificially enhanced bodies; premature deaths; a lack of college degrees, writers and directors; and scenes that vary in length and can include anywhere from two to 30 people. Read more in my upcoming book, “Columns That Could Never Ever Run on ESPN.com Under Any Circumstances.”)
3:36: Grueling match so far. A near-replica of the last time, actually: lots of near-pinfalls, guys getting thrown around like rag dolls and fans going bonkers. We just had the highlight: Undertaker clearing off the American announcers’ table, getting super-kicked onto it, then Michaels moonsaults (like a reverse flip/dive) from the top rope on Undertaker’s legs (and decimates the table). That’s the closest we came to Matt Striker getting injured. Dammit! Undaunted, the crowd starts a “This is awe-some!” chant. Agreed.
3:41: Taker kicks out from a Michaels superkick. Something tells me Michaels is about to go down. Get ready for a tough spring, San Antonio: first Michaels, then the Tim Duncan Era no!!!!!!! Michaels kicks out of Undertaker’s patented move (the tombstone piledriver followed by crossed arms for the pin)!!! Nobody kicks out of that one! Could Michaels pull this out?
3:42: Nope. He’s still getting worked. They just went for a Rocky/Apollo “end of the 14th round” homage: Undertaker not wanting to punish Michaels anymore, Michaels gamely trying to climb back to his feet, then Taker finally telling him, “Stay down!” Nope. All we’re missing is Talia Shire closing her eyes and bowing her head.
3:43: Michaels gathers enough strength to defiantly slap Taker one last time. That was a mistake. Tombstone, cross, pin and scene. Eighteen straight for the Undertaker. And again, we’re in Glendale. This is weird. Especially now that we’re watching a fireworks display with “18-0” in big letters. Couldn’t Undertaker wrestle a second time tonight, then lose on a fluke move that features six different holding calls and someone pinning him after catching his tombstone on the back of his helmet?
3:46: Taker lifts Michaels up as the crowd gives HBK a much-deserved standing ovation. Great moment. That’s followed by the handshake and hug. Another great moment. You never see the Prince of Darkness show compassion. I mean, he’s the Prince of Darkness! Taker leaves the ring, allowing Michaels (now tearing up) to soak in one last standing O. Third great moment. You’re damned right these were great moments. Hell, even Matt Striker shut up for once to let it breathe. Or they cut off his mike. One or the other.
A quick Michaels story: When WrestleMania XIV took place at the Boston Garden, I got press passes and brought my buddy Birdman with me. Michaels wrestled Steve Austin in the main event with Mike Tyson as the referee, but his back was profoundly messed up thanks to two herniated discs. There were rumors that the Heartbreak Kid might bow out. He didn’t. During the match, you could see Michaels gritting and wincing through every bump. Austin pinned him for the title, then Tyson decked him with a right cross as the crowd went ballistic. They drank beers, toasted the crowd and left the ring. The event ended. Even the lights dimmed to signify things were done. Time to go home.
Not yet. Birdman wanted to stick around to see how injured Michaels really was. He had been lying in the ring during the entire Tyson/Austin celebration, unable and unwilling to move. Once the event ended, Triple H (his best friend) and Chyna (their “valet”) scurried over to help him backstage. With the cameras off and nobody watching, Michaels scraped himself off the canvas, then stood in place for a couple of minutes. Finally, the three of them started moving toward the exit — slowly, painstakingly — with HBK’s arms draped around his two friends. Only then did we realize how much pain Michaels had endured.
Shawn Michaels didn’t wrestle again for four years. That’s how long it took his body to recover. Was that night worth it? Only he knows. Twelve years later, he wrestled a monster farewell match and announced his official retirement one night later. We’ve seen a handful of phenomenal wrestlers and phenomenal performers over the years; only Ric Flair and Michaels can say they were both at once.
More importantly, I have no favorite wrestlers left. Snuka, Savage, Hogan, Austin, Michaels they’re all gone. You know what that means? It’s time to stop ordering WrestleMania after 26 years. As with Michaels, it was a long and memorable run. As with Michaels, you have to know when it’s time to walk away. And I will. Twenty-six was enough.
(Well, at least until my son becomes old enough to watch wrestling. And then? I’m back, baby!)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.