I've written about this match before, at length, so I'm going to cheat and do a bit of recycling, but before all that I want to talk about what this particular match, Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker from WrestleMania 25, meant to me and why it's my favorite.
I've long felt Undertaker was overrated. As the big man with a great look and an even better gimmick that he worked to perfection, he was so predictably dominant. He was a main event level player from the moment he walked through the door and while that's certainly not a mark against him or the legacy he'll leave behind when he retires, it made it that much more difficult to invest in his journey through his illustrious career.
Shawn Michaels, for me, is the exact opposite.
He worked from the middle, forced to overcome ridiculously unfair generalizations and preconceived notions about what he should or shouldn't be able to accomplish based on a variety of factors he had absolutely no control over. You do not decide how tall you are in life. You can work out harder than everyone else at the gym but unless you're blessed with the genetics you're never going to look like the bronzed gods Vince McMahon always salivated over.
All Michaels could do was be better in every single area he possibly could be while working as hard as his body could handle. To my eyes, he was the best who ever laced up a pair of boots when he climbed between those ropes. He was so good, in fact, that you didn't really think much about the fact that he was so much smaller than all his opponents, so unassuming. He made up for perceived shortcomings through a combination of talent and an extreme drive and determination.
He was also incredibly flawed as a human being, due at least in part to the constant doubt cast upon him by his detractors, and sometimes even his supporters.
I grew up poor. I struggled through childhood, suffered through illness, and I've spoken to far too many people who stopped just short of telling me I wouldn't amount to anything in life. I've worked hard to prove them wrong and I've been an asshole along the way. I always wanted to succeed where they thought I couldn't.
At some point I realized I was at least somewhat misguided in my aim.
This isn't Hollywood; there's no script designed to bring this story to the most satisfying conclusion possible. No matter how many guidance counselors, or friends, or family tell me so, I cannot do anything I put my mind to. I can try as hard as I possibly can and maybe I'll get there but maybe I'll fall just short and have to live with that.
That's the lesson this match (and the follow up at WrestleMania 26) teaches.
Shawn Michaels may be the best in history, and he may have fought hard and overcome so much to get to that point, but that does not mean he was going to beat Undertaker's streak at WrestleMania. He tried. He would fight and die trying again in the rematch a year later. He came up short. That's life.
You will not always win, no matter how good you are.
But you must always try, because that's what living is.
On to the breakdown of the match.
They opened with Michaels using his speed and quickness to get in and out with effective offense like chops, strikes, and elbows. Despite the respect he had thanks to his long, successful career, Michaels is still the much smaller man physically. He more than makes up for it with a brash attitude that he backs up with intelligent planning, however. This played out in the form of a crotch chop to suck Undertaker in, only for Michaels to jump over him, fake a knee injury upon landing, and use the opening created by the referee stepping in to hit a Lou Thesz press and a series of punches.
They've done so little up to this point and already the match is outstanding.
Once Undertaker got control, there was little Michaels could do to stop him. Old School connected clean but Michaels found an opening when "The Deadman" charged him in the corner. Again the speed of the smaller man was used to his advantage.
With said advantage, "The Heartbreak Kid" started working his opponent's legs. Because how do you effectively nullify the offense of a big man? Cut his legs out. Michaels locked in an inverted Figure Four and went about doing just that.
Undertaker, so difficult to get down and keep down, powered his way out and went about methodically weakening his opponent. Once he felt he had done enough, he attempted a chokeslam but Michaels was ready for it and countered into a crossface. 'Taker tried to roll to fight it off, even turning over for a brief pinfall attempt, but Michaels turned him back over. The eventual break was Undertaker again powering out with a side slam.
We're heating up.
Michaels found some momentum going back to the offense he opened with, chopping away at Undertaker's chest before coming off the ropes with his patented flying forearm. A pair of inverted atomic drops was followed by a clothesline that set up a flying elbow. Except "The Deadman" got up, so Shawn called an audible and came down with a double axe handle. Undertaker caught him and attempted a choke slam but Michaels twisted off and fired off Sweet Chin Music.
And it missed.
Undertaker sold like it didn't, at least at first, dropping to the mat like he was shot. This was one of only two mistakes made in the entire match.
They recovered nicely, though, with Michaels looking for the Figure Four again and Undertaker countering into the Hell's Gate submission. The crowd swelled in anticipation of the first near finish, but Michaels got to the ropes.
Now we're really hot, despite the miscue.
Michaels managed to get an advantage for a time right after but that came to an end when he tried a moonsault from the top rope to 'Taker on the outside and "The Deadman" stepped to the side while helping Shawn crash to the mat.
But wait, it got better.
Michaels sold while the referee was pleading with him over something, presumably to get him some help. Undertaker spent this time recovering back in the ring. Once he was well enough to get up, he went for it all in the form of his over the top rope suicide dive. Just before he did so, Michaels shoved the referee out of the way and put a nearby camera man in his place. They were out of position, however, and Undertaker ended up landing right on his neck.
Had he been seriously injured, this would have been one of the worst botches ever. But because he came out okay, this was a monster spot that will be remembered forever.
Because Undertaker was nearly dead at this point, Michaels revived the referee, dragged him into the ring, and begged him to count Undertaker out. He didn't care about winning via count out; he just wanted to win.
Michaels sat in the corner like a child bouncing back and forth hoping the referee would get to 10.
He only made it to nine.
Michaels, pissed, tried to hit Sweet Chin Music when Undertaker stood back up. To his surprise, "The Deadman" side stepped and hit a chokeslam.
Now it was insane.
Undertaker attempted a Tombstone. Michaels dropped off for a Superkick. Undertaker caught it and tried a chokeslam. Michaels broke it and stepped back just enough to hit Sweet Chin Music.
Now we're into legendary territory.
Michaels kicks his feet around frustrated but musters the energy to kip up and wobble over to pick Undertaker up. He's met with a rejuvenated "Deadman" grabbing him, dragging him to his feet, and setting him up for the Last Ride. Michaels slipped out once and attempted a roll up but Undertaker avoided it, grabbed him up again, and this time followed through with his powerbomb that got elevation like we had never seen before.
The live audience is buzzing like the building has tinitus at this point. The atmosphere is unreal.
Undertaker, exasperated at his own inability to finish his foe, went for a flying elbow from the top only for Michaels to roll out of the way. It took a minute for the two to get back to their feet. When they did, Michaels rushed over but was sent over the top rope. He tried to skin the cat but Undertaker caught him in perfect position for the Tombstone. Michaels desperately attempted to hold on to the rope to avoid it but "The Deadman" dragged him to the center and hit it perfectly.
"I am not believing this," Jim Ross commented. "I just had an out of body experience!"
Undertaker stood up and took his straps down. Time to end this. He picked Michaels up for another Tombstone but "HBK" countered into a DDT, though it didn't really connect well. 'Taker stayed down long enough for Michaels to hit his flying elbow. He then tuned up the band and connected clean on the button with Sweet Chin Music after Undertaker stood up and turned around.
There are no words for this anymore. Already legends on their way to the Hall of Fame, these two became immortal here.
Both men hardly had anything left, using each other to get back to their feet. An epic exchange of punches and chops ended with a big boot. Another Tombstone attempt was reversed before Undertaker came back from even more chops to send "HBK" into the corner. He followed strong but ran into a big boot himself.
Michaels went up top to try another moonsault but Undertaker caught him perfectly and hit one more Tombstone piledriver.
About as close to perfect as they could get.
Actually, if you take away the first Sweet Chin Music mistake and the ugly delivery of the DDT it would have been perfect.
Either way, this match was a thing of beauty, unlikely to ever be topped.