It is sometimes very hard to read anything related to God or Jesus Christ that isn’t the Bible. There is just so much trite theology and points of Calvinism a man can take before he cries out for something real to read. I do find that statement ironic considering the subject matter I am about to indulge in. That is, professional wrestling, or more prominently, a book by Shawn Michaels called Wrestling for my Life: The Legend, the Reality, and the Faith of a WWE Superstar.
The book is a memoir and details the faith journey of WWE superstar and professional wrestling legend Shawn Michaels. How he went from one of the most talented but troubled wrestlers in the industry, to becoming born again and dedicating his life to Jesus Christ. What got me interested in reading this book is, for starters, I am a wrestling fan who has watched the product since I was a toddler. The other reason being the nature of the industry Michaels is in, which is often full of darkness and unimaginable pitfalls.
Shawn Michaels, real name Shawn Hickenbottom, was born on July 22, 1965. Raised in a military family, he mostly grew up in San Antonio, Texas. Michaels grew up a wrestling fan, and got into the business at an early age when he realized college was not for him. Debuting in late 1984, he worked the territory system until he and his tag team partner, Marty Janetty, were picked up by WWE (then WWF). After a solid run as a tag team with Janetty, he broke up with him in late 1991. That began a legendary singles run in WWE where Michaels would have some of the best matches and programs in not only WWE’s history, but in wrestling history in general. With some of his most acclaimed matches being the Ladder match with the late Scott Hall at Wrestlemania 10, a 60-minute “Iron Man” match at Wrestlemania 12 with his most notable rival, Bret Hart. And the first ever “Hell in a Cell” cage match with the Undertaker at 1997 Bad Blood event that set the bar for cage matches. After this run, Michaels retired in March 1998 due to a back injury sustained in January of that same year. It was during this first half of his career that he gained the reputation of being one of the greatest in-ring performers of all time while also having the reputation of being difficult to work with and had many serious behavior and backstage issues with his peers, fans, and WWE in general. It was also during this period, due to his wrestling style and taking many “bumps” in the ring, that he gained a dependence on pain-killers and drugs.
After four years on the sideline, and becoming a follower of Christ, he returned to have another run as one of the best wrestlers in the world. Some of his notable matches in the late stage of his career was against Ric Flair at Wrestlemania 24 and his two matches against the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 25 and 26 respectively (26 being his final match). Michaels was consistently a major box-office draw in his career, especially in the apex of his career in the mid and late 90s. All in all, Michaels is held in high regard among wrestling fans and peers and is considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
The book begins at Michael’s last match at Wrestlemania 26 and the events of what made him decide to retire. This introduction gives some interesting insight to wrestling fans and the mindset of why Michaels retired in the first place. And while the book does have interesting wrestling tidbits, the book is not about wrestling. The rest of the book goes into detail how Michaels hit rock bottom after his first retirement from the wrestling industry in 1998 due to injury, and his testimony of Jesus Christ saving him and being born again with a new heart.
Michaels goes into detail how he met his second wife, Rebecca. After their marriage, Rebecca started to get serious when it came to her relationship with God and started to attend church and Bible studies. Michaels goes on to tell how he was raised Catholic, but was never serious about God. He was raised in a typical middle-class family and had God on the side. I think this accurately describes many in the western world in regards to their relationship with God. Michaels knew about Jesus, but never did he really “knew” about Jesus in a born-again, personal way.
What Michaels did see was a noticeable change in his wife’s behavior, especially with how peaceful she was. Michaels made a note in the book that Rebecca never nagged Michaels about his poor relationship with God at that time, and that she was at peace that the decision whether Michaels followed Christ or not was not up to her, but up to God. This was an incredible insight to read considering how many of us have loved ones who do not choose to follow Christ or believe in the Name Above All Names. Michaels owes a ton of credit to his wife for his coming to Jesus and it shows the huge blessing of what a Godly wife looks like. It is easy for a wife to harass an unbelieving husband instead of being encouraging. It is easy to rebel against a husband’s wishes instead of submitting to authority. It is easy for a wife to nag and take her frustrations out on her husband instead of taking these matters in prayer to God Himself. But the peace of knowing that the decision whether or not Michaels accept the truth about Christ was up to God and not herself, freed her to fully submit to the will of Christ and reflect Him through her.
What really put Michaels on the path of change was a comment his toddler son made to him while witnessing him about to pass out from another round of taking painkillers. This moment gave Michael introspective and broke him spiritually. Afraid of what the man he is becoming, he realizes his son is noticing his drug-induced behavior. Often God uses fatherhood as a wake-up call to repentance, as no father wants to expose his weaknesses and sins to his son. At this point, he cries to God and becomes a changed man.
Michaels gets into the journey of his conversion which included going to a local Bible study. Michaels also had a deep emotional reaction when reciting the infamous “sinners prayer” and credits this as the moment he got saved. I had a chuckle and smile at this since the sinner’s prayer is so often criticized in some evangelical circles. But it was not the “sinners prayer” that saved Michaels, but the pursuit of the narrow gate and the will of the Father. That journey and desire to know Jesus Christ is what saved Michaels and made him a changed man. It is one thing to recite a magical prayer, it is another to diligently seek after God. It is one thing to go to church, it is another to knock on a bible studies door, searching for answers. It’s one thing to ask a pastor for advice. It’s another to ask God for wisdom in the privacy of prayer. All of our journeys are different, but it is the pursuit of God and His righteousness that makes our stories come to the same road and stop at the same door. That being Jesus Christ and the gospel.
Most of the rest of the book is Michaels detailing his spiritual journey with God and the trials and triumphs He has gone through. These include getting back into wrestling and the pitfalls and opportunities he encountered. He gets into the origin stories of how he got into the hunting industry and his new appreciation of the outdoors. He talks candidly about his brief forte into online pornography, and his finacial woes and trying to trust God through them.
An interesting part of the book that should be noted is Michael’s impression of Jesus Christ. Pro wrestling is often laced with “tough guys” or those who are proclaimed to be tough, to an almost obnoxious level. But Michaels makes a point to the audience that Jesus Christ himself was a very tough man. Especially the physical abuse he took on the cross. This is evident in scripture when Jesus refused to drink spiked wine before getting crucified as He wanted to endure the cross with a clear and sober mind. This part was refreshing to learn, as Jesus has constantly been portrayed in art and media as some long-haired soyboy who looks like a prancing fairy in one medium, and a somber dower weakling hippie in another picture. We rarely get the actual Jesus Christ in scripture that was not only physically tough, but mentally and physically as well. He was a stonemason doing hard work, and became a traveling preacher, teaching very hard messages and proclaiming that men repent and believe the gospel. He also suffered triumph and betrayal in His ministry, but proved He is the Son of God by continuing forward with His mission of the redemption of mankind.
The final chapters of the book detail the forgiveness and reconciliation of another legend in the wrestling industry, Bret Hart. Every wrestling fan knows about the professional and personal feud between Michaels and Hart and both had been bitter with each other for nearly a decade after the “Montreal Screwjob” in late 1997. Michaels goes into detail how after he had his conversion, he opened up in an interview about the screwjob and finally admitted that he knew about the doublecross going into the match and apologized. He then chronicles the journey of reconciliation between him and Hart after his return to WWE in late 2009. Michaels talks about the importance of forgiveness and its freeing nature.
A lot of the criticism of Michaels journey will be made from his return to wrestling, and Michaels does address the issues of his return. He goes into detail on his reunion of the controversial D-Generation X group and how it changed from the 1998 version. He also goes into detail about the bone-headed and God-awful (pun intended) storyline that had him teaming up with “God” to face Vince and Shane McMahon at a PPV. Michaels gives an honest account and defends his actions on these wrestling storylines. He also gives a brief story on how a brother in his congregation confronted him on using profanity in a promo he did.
I think the bulk of criticism and debate will be the question of if Michaels should have returned to wrestling in the first place. While it is one thing for brothers and sisters to bash Michaels for killing cute cridders in a hunting show (an opportunity and hobby he picked up), it’s another thing when Michaels returned to an industry that has a reputation of being low-brow entertainment. Pro Wrestling does not have the most sterling reputation and is often compared to pornography as the lowest form of entertainment on the asherah pole. For every Hulk Hogan that promotes vitamins and prayers, we have Ric Flair, promoting sex and booze. For every promotion that has tame, story-driven wrestling, we have ECW that is full of blood and guts. Sex and violence drives the ticket sales to the bizarre freak show full of over-the-top characters.
It also does not help that Michaels went back to a company that promotes and sells the infamous “Austin 3:16” catchphrase based on a promo by Steve Austin in June 1996. Michaels makes no mention of the Austin 3:16 catchphrase, and Austin himself did a forward in the book. It would have been interesting hearing his take on this particular catchphrase. Since the phrase is so blasphemous to a follower of Christ but also one of the most famous and marketed catchphrases in wrestling history. I am also disappointed that Michaels did not address the Chris Benoit murder-suicide since it would be interesting hearing his take from a believer’s point-of-view on the greatest tragedy in wrestling’s history.
As followers of Christ, we are commanded to come out of the world. As believers in Christ, our citizenship is not in this world, but the Kingdom of Heaven. A Christ follower who is in the pornography business, will get out of that business. A Christ follower who is in the business of dealing drugs, or scamming people, will stop drug dealing and scamming. But can the same be said of the entertainment industry when the entertainment is subjective? We often hear of actors who claim to follow Christ but who partake in violent and sexualized R-rated movies. The same can be said of musicians and other artists who in one breath, claim Jesus Christ as their own, and in another sing about being a gangsta, partying, and other trite nonsense. The same can be applied to pro wrestling.
This was one of the major early struggles for Michaels in his journey as a follower of Christ. However, it should be pointed out that Michaels has been in the wrestling business since he was a very young man, and the impression one gets from reading this book is that Michaels loves wrestling and cares a lot for the business that he invested so much time in and found so much success. He loves the people in the business and genuinely cares for the industry in general. People will have their opinions, and play arm-chair pastor with that decision. It is easy when you are a blue-collar worker to pass judgment on another’s livelihood or how they make a living. But when you have worked a questionable career your entire life, and get saved, the situation becomes a lot more complicated. An actor, musician, game developer, author, photographer and other creative types will have to make sometimes career altering choices that will affect the livelihood of their families and themselves. There is a real cost to following Christ.
I will admit that the question is a fair one to ask and debate on. But whether or not it was the correct one will be up to God and God alone on judgment day. What Michaels did encounter was opportunities that opened up for him. Some of which I did not even realize. Such as the public prayer when Eddie Guerrero died in 2005 and talking with others about his faith in the locker room. He also goes into a story of how the participants on the 2002 November Elimination Chamber event prayed together with Michaels before they went to have their match.
What strikes me most about Michaels is how at peace he is in retirement. He has no desire to put on the tights and get in the squared circle again. He has no desire to get another win from a match, or have another run at a world title. He has no desire to go down the ramp to hear the roar of the crowd as his awful entrance music plays. To Michaels, he is finished with his career in the ring.
The book was written in 2015, and as of 2022, Michaels did compete in one more match at Crown Jewel 2018. The event and match turned out to be a debacle, despite Michaels being paid millions of dollars for that one match. And to his defense, he did regret it. Other than that one million dollar lapse, Michaels has kept his word.
Wrestling fans like myself always hear the phrase “never say never” when it comes to wrestlers hanging up their boots and calling it a day. But the truth is few stay away from the ring for long and often older wrestlers stay in the business far longer than they should. For some, it is all about the money, always chasing another big payoff, always trying to get another big run. For some, it is what they only know how to do, having crafted their entire lives around the wrestling business. And for some, performing in the ring is a high. A very strange drug that they crave. Despite wrestling being predetermined, performing in front of a wild crowd generates a certain buzz that the wrestler can’t get enough of. It is the same with other sports, be it football, basketball, boxing or even golf. It is being in the moment, being in the middle of the spectacle that is intoxicating to a sports entertainer. And for many, the faucet for that special high is suddenly shut off from them. Many are injured and their bodies can’t go on. Others are ostracized from their sport because of drug abuse, a suspension, or black-balling from a locker room or front office. To wrestlers, being thrown from the top of the card to becoming a jobber can have devastating effects on their career and ego. Wrestlers each have their expiration date and a time to hang it up. But one of the most common things one will see when they do, is that they have no peace. The itch is there, the passion is still there. Bitterness in the old timers is common when watching interviews. Few, very few, have peace.
Being an athlete at the top level is both an incredible blessing, and a very cruel curse. To be able to compete at the top level of any sport is a thrill. To be a gladiator, playing a game you are good at, competing with others to see who is the best at what they do. Even something as predetermined as wrestling has its competition, as everyone wants to be the best performer they can be. It is an incredibly physical and demanding career to have. But as followers of Christ know, death came into the world because of our sins. Instead of bodies that live forever, we have bodies that die. With time comes age. With age comes decay. Our bodies start to break down. Our mental capabilities become slower. Our spirit to win or perform might be there, but the aging body says otherwise. This blessing of an athletic and competitive body is ripped away due to the curse of death. Though one might compete like a Greek god, the realities of life strip the illusions of grandeur, and in the end we are all human, waiting for the day we all stand before God on His throne and give an account for our lives. This is the gift and torment of many who are blessed with physical gifts to perform like professional wrestlers. The gift is like lilies in the field, here one day and gone the next.
Professional wrestling is grotesquely darker and more cruel to its performers than any form of entertainment. The best athlete does not always win, and the wrestlers are at the mercy of greedy promoters, terrible bookers, back-stabbing colleagues and the always changing whimsical audience. The wrestling crowd often chews a wrestler up only to spit them back down the card. It is no wonder many who exit the business are often broken men and women who cannot find rest or sense of it all.
Family life is almost non-existent as the life of a wrestler is constantly on the road going from town to town just to give a live audience fifteen minutes of choreographed violence. Affairs are common, life events are missed. There are absentee fathers and mothers. It is no secret that the mortality rates among professional wrestlers is significantly higher than that of other athletes from other sports. With many dying prematurely under 50, even more so under 40, and deaths under 30 are not shocking in the least. There was a point in the 00s that there wasn’t a week that went by without hearing about another wrestler that died, with tributes and obituaries being very common to wrestling fans. Week after week, for years, wrestling fans were subjected to news about the death of a hero or idol. Some of them died from heart attacks after years of abusing drugs, while others died from drug overdoses. The countless concussions and injuries take its toll on the body in a business that has zero health insurance and often forgets the critically injured. Having been taken off TV, and become just a memory in the fickle audience’s mind. The most extreme cases being suicide, with many taking their own lives due to money issues, family breakups, drug overdoses, dead careers, brain damage, and health issues.
The fact is, that Michaels could have become another statistic for the wrestling death list. At one point in the late 90s, you could of easily put Michaels in the deadpool of soon-to-be deceased sports entertainer. He could have gone out in a blaze of glory to become another tragic “legend” in people’s minds. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love, even when Michaels was dead in his tresspasses, made him alive in Christ. It is because God is great that He guided Michaels down the path of righteousness, to a heart of repentance, which ultimately led him to recognize that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who died for our sins and resurrected from the dead. Michaels is one of the very, very rare performers that is retrospective and grateful that God saved him from inevitable destruction. God gave Michaels a new heart, new desires, new passions, and wisdom to know that all things pass away, and there’s a time and place for everything.
As of this writing, Michaels is still a follower of Christ, and is working for the NXT branch of WWE, working with some of the younger up-and-coming talent. When it comes to “wrestling” in a spiritual sense, I often come back to the wrestling that Jacob did with God as his brother, Easu, was coming to him. Like Jacob, everyone will at one point in their lives will wrestle with God. We will wrestle with him about our choices, our difficulties, our anger and passions. Our fear and hope. We will all try and wrestle with God, either trying to get away from him, or demanding His blessing. The fight is painful, and we are bruised by the memories of our evil deeds and actions. But God proves righteous and holy. Through our wrestling and our pursuit for His blessing, we are rewarded with a new name, and a new heart. Despite past and present mistakes and dark valleys that we go on, we know that God is still there for us with his rod and staff to discipline and guide us.
The question remains if Michaels did the right thing in getting back into wrestling. The fact is, wrestling, while still full of degeneracy, is better than it was 30 years ago. Wrestlers are more conscious of injuries, especially concussions. Video games have replaced drugs and partying for most young wrestlers. Hazing is becoming a thing of the past. And more wrestlers are coming to accept Christ as their savior.
Is it fair to say Michaels planted seeds that have sprouted because of the Holy Spirit? Or has the Holy Spirit worked in spite of Michaels and the wrestling industry in general? In all we do and in every action we take, we have to soundly judge ourselves, and our motives. It is healthy to have retrospectives on why we take the paths we do, and where we are headed. We must judge the fruit we produce. Are our actions productive and fruitful to the Kingdom of Heaven? Or are they toxic and bad for the body of Christ? Are we speaking helpful and fruitful words that speak truth, heal and uplift others? Or are we speaking words that are spiteful and damaging to others? These are the important questions we must ask and judge ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as we follow Jesus in the dark valley we call life. Michaels could have vanished into the aether and never been heard from again. But Michaels also knows what is important to him first. That being Jesus Christ and the legacy he leaves as a father and husband. He now lives for something other than the wind generated by the voices of the crowd or a championship belt made of dust. He lives for something that is real. He is living his life a repentant man knowing the truth and believing the gospel ushered in by the blood of Jesus Christ. And if you don’t live for something, you don’t live for much of anything.