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The spectacular end of a legend

At the 26th edition of the WrestleMania mega-show 14 years ago today, the giant duel between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker electrified the WWE fan masses. For one of the two legends, it was the end of the line – almost.

They called him “Mr. WrestleMania” – and it was a much-deserved honorary title: Few wrestling stars have left their mark on WWE’s premier big event like the “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels.

The ladder match against Razor Ramon in 1994, the 60-minute “Iron Man Match” with arch-rival Bret Hart in 1996, the high-class fights with Chris Jericho (2003), Chris Benoit and Triple H (2004), Kurt Angle (2005) and John Cena (2007) after his retirement in 2002, the emotional farewell match of the icon Ric Flair in 2008: The exceptional wrestler “HBK” went all out every year to live up to his reputation as a “showstopper”.

Fourteen years ago today, “Mr. WrestleMania” celebrated the final match that (almost) ended his career in an iconic duel with The Undertaker – and once again pulled out all the stops with his skills.

Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker: a WWE giants’ duel

It was March 28, 2010, WrestleMania 26 at the Arizona Cardinals NFL Stadium in front of officially over 72,000 fans: in the big main event labeled “Streak vs. Career”, Taker put his famous Mania winning streak on the line and rival Michaels put his career on the line.

The great legends’ duel had a history that went way back, with the two facing each other in the WWF back in the nineties: An early classic was the very first Hell in a Cell match that Taker and Michaels contested in 1997 – and which was then the stage for the debut of the third great Undertaker companion, his story brother Kane (Glenn Jacobs).

Behind the scenes, Michaels – who was once considered a “bad boy”, party animal and difficult character – and the Taker also had friction. “He got on my case,” Taker recalled in the WWE documentary “The Last Ride.”

The relationship improved when Michaels found his Christian faith, left the wild years behind him and in his second career phase only stood out for his excellence in the ring – the revival of his rivalry with Taker was to be his last hurrah.

An ending like a coup de grace

The Taker won his first big match at WrestleMania 2009, and the following year the tension was heightened by the career-ending clause – although experienced fans had to guess the outcome: the day before the show, WWE inducted Michaels into the Hall of Fame, just like Flair before his farewell match two years earlier. The signs were unmistakable that the then 44-year-old Michaels would retire.

However, in a spectacular and dramatically narrated clash, HBK did everything he could to keep the remaining doubts alive. Instead of Michaels’ career, the Streak seemed to be on a knife-edge instead, as Michaels systematically attacked the supposedly injured ankle of the Dead Man – including special moves from his old rivals Angle and Flair.

The big battle then ended with another skillful allusion to the Michaels-Flair duel: Taker fought his way out of Michaels’ Sweet Chin Music finisher, pulling off his famous Tombstone twice – but then hesitated when he tried to apply the move a third time.

Michaels then deliberately goaded the “Phenom” into giving him the symbolic coup de grace – as Flair had done two years earlier, teasing Taker with his own “head down” gesture and slapping him across the face. The enraged Taker gave him Tombstone number 3 and took the victory. The show ended with a final handshake and an emotional farewell from Michaels to the fans.

Iconic joint exit at WrestleMania 2012

While Michaels (now head of WWE’s NXT roster) actually retired, Taker, who was also 45 years old at the time, carried on. The following two WrestleManias saw similarly masterful duels with Triple H in 2011 and 2012, cleverly playing on fan fears that Taker’s beloved streak would end.

In 2012, Michaels was also the guest referee in the Hell in a Cell match – a deliberate throwback to the 1997 Taker-Michaels duel – and added to the tension with hints that he might betray his conqueror in revenge.

Instead, the “Dead Man” was victorious, helping the exhausted Triple H up together with Michaels, all three then looking on arm in arm from the entrance ramp into the stadium in Miami. The picture of the three weary showboating warriors became an iconic moment – it hangs framed in the Undertaker’s sanctum sanctorum, on the door of his gym in his Texan home.

In 2018, the trio tried to recapture the magical moment: For a nostalgic legends match in Saudi Arabia – for which everyone involved is said to have been paid millions – even Michaels came out of retirement at 53 to take on Undertaker and Kane with Triple H after all. However, the match failed completely and was a low point in the late work of the now also retired Undertaker and Triple H – the great WrestleMania duels, on the other hand, remain timeless masterpieces.

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