Shawn Michaels is the guy I idolized when I was a kid. I liked the Rockers to begin with, and he was always my favorite part of the duo. After he put Marty Jannetty through the "Barber Shop" window, he was one of the first "bad guys" that I liked. I really didn't know why, but he was this new flamboyant kind of character in how he carried himself and with his entrance.
I stopped following wrestling religiously for a couple of years, but when I came back to it in '96, Shawn Michaels was everything. To me, he was a perfect combination of risk taking, showmanship and athleticism. He had the ability to make anyone look like they were having their best match ever, and then he in turn looked like he was having his best match ever. WrestleMania 10, the ladder match with Razor Ramon for the Intercontinental championship, is one of my all-time favorites.
His match with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 12, I think, is a masterpiece; anybody who has wrestled for more than 20 minutes knows it's hard to do, but that match is over 60 minutes long, and there's never a part where you're like, "Come on, get to it." There wasn't for me anyways.
I think for me, a lot of the appeal was that Shawn was one of the first "smaller" wrestlers. He's not small by any stretch of the imagination, but compared with the people who were world champions or the main guys at that time, he was a smaller guy. He was a very good athlete his whole career, and he was kind of the first to break that mold.
My first wrestling gear was pants with the trunks over top. People were always like, "Why do you wear the trunks over top of your pants?" My answer was always, "Well, Shawn Michaels does it." It can't be wrong for me. If Shawn Michaels is doing it, that's what I'm going to do, and there's no way that it can be wrong. The first 10 years of my career on television, I wore my trunks over my pants.
I was kind of this shorter, chubbier version of him. I'm not classically good looking or anything like that, but very early on in my career, my kind of side moniker was "Showtime" Eric Young, a play on the "Showstopper." I wasn't trying to be Shawn Michaels, per se -- I'm trying to do my own thing -- but there was no bigger influence in my career. That was the case when I started my career, and even now, he's a guy that I still watch religiously, trying to pick up little things that he did.
Certain things I do, like the whip into the corner where I flip up the turn buckle and land on the apron, are things that he did. I remember one of the first times I was in a wrestling ring training, and the second they let us work on with open ring time, it was one of the first things that I started practicing, because I wanted to be able to do it. Because he did it. I still do it to this day, and very few people do it all the way through.
It was mostly just little things, things he did that I tried to add to my repertoire. It's like this weird lineage -- first it was Ric Flair, whom Shawn idolized and borrowed from and made them his own thing. I think the evolution of wrestling is that everyone steals or gets inspiration from everyone before them, and that's just how it is. If something is working, you try to take whatever is working and make it your own.
I think a lot of guys could be accused of taking from Shawn. There are so many people in pro wrestling now that were influenced primarily by him. It's weird -- having met him now and knowing him, he's obviously well aware that he was good at wrestling, but I don't know if he fully grasps the overall effect that he has had on performers today. You see it everywhere.
Moving forward a little bit in my career, I started doing tryout matches and dark matches with the WWE. My first one where I worked was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. How it would go is, you would show up, and you would have your bags, and you would go into the locker room. You would put on your gear and head down the ring side in case people needed to work on stuff. They wanted to see if you knew how to lock up, and some chain wrestling, and some basic spots. They would kind of pick who was going to work that night from that look.
Once I get to the back, there's this bag beside me that wasn't there when we first got there, and in walks Shawn Michaels. My heart just starts beating a mile a minute. There's a guy I've idolized for going on 12, maybe 15, years. He's sitting right beside me, and I didn't even realize it. This was 2002, just as he was about to start his comeback from his surgery. He comes into the room. He sits down, he's quiet. Out of respect I stand up and shake his hand and introduce myself. Then we start talking about the weather and start talking about his flight in -- you know, he's feeling rusty and this, that, and the other. I'm thinking, "I can't even believe that I'm sitting in this changing room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before Monday Night Raw, and I'm having a conversation about the weather with Shawn Michaels." It was blowing my mind.
Eventually, I got picked to do the one and only dark match against another local guy. I can't remember his name, but I knew him a little bit. I wouldn't say that he and I were friends, and I would say that he wasn't a great professional wrestler, though he was somewhat competent. I was in this spot where I was going to have to work extra hard, because it's basically my job interview. This match is the first time the WWE is going to see me work in person. I wanted to be good.
They tell you, "No one's here to see you. Keep it easy. Don't go out of the ring. Keep it super basic. Don't do anything stupid." That kind of thing. We wrestled the very first match in the show. I go out to the ring, and there's probably 20,000 people in the crowd for Monday Night Raw. Absolutely mindboggling. They announced me from Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I got to play the local kid, and people were going crazy. I can still remember it clearly, and I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
We go out, we do this match and it's eight, maybe 10 minutes. We come to the back, I shake everyone's hand and say thank you and listen to everyone's feedback. Everyone seemed to be pretty pleased with it, which made me really happy. Shawn is sitting there near Gorilla position, and he leaned over and said, "Hey man, good work. That's one of the best dark matches I've ever seen." In that second, I almost started crying. I'm a really emotional person. I'm kind of getting choked up saying this story right now. But that was massive to me.
This guy, in wrestling, is like a god to me. He didn't have to say that, but he said it. It was a really pivotal part of my life and my career. I was getting to the point where I'd been wrestling for about five years, and that was kind of my line of demarcation where I was going to. After five or six years, reassess the situation and maybe I'd go back to school. Maybe I'd stop wrestling, maybe I'd stop doing it as much as I had.
At that moment, Shawn Michaels leaned over and said, "That's one of the best dark matches I've ever seen." I never doubted myself again.
That's the God's honest truth. From that night to this moment, there's never been a point in my wrestling career where I wondered if I belonged. That might be wrong, and I'm not saying that it's always been true, but in my life, in my career, that was the absolute pivot point where I said, "I can do it." The person that I believe -- and I think there's a lot of people that agree with me -- is the best in-ring performer ever changed my life again.
That was 2002, and in 2004 I signed my first wrestling contract. That was my only goal in wrestling. When I started, I said, "I want to say that this is what I do for a living, this is my job." At that point, in 2004 when I signed my first contract, my goals had been reached. I was done with all the goals that I had set going into wrestling. From there, I set new expectations for myself, but I'd reached the promised land.
I owe a lot to Shawn. And yeah, I would hear horror stories of him being difficult, and I heard him say it at the Performance Center before, where he was a difficult person to deal with. Because he was someone I idolized, I always hoped and prayed that wasn't the truth, or at least an exaggeration. But for me, luckily, my interactions with him couldn't be further from that, and he's a completely different person now then he was in '95.
So I'm doing my thing in TNA, and I'm still wearing my underwear over my pants because Shawn Michaels did it, and I'm still doing the flipover spot in the corner and taking a backdrop in every match. I'm there for 12 years, and I was able to do some incredible things, work with some great people.
Even though I wondered if I'd ever get a chance with WWE, I eventually get this chance with NXT. I'm spending time down in Orlando, Florida, and there's this rumor going around that Shawn's going to be there for a class. One day I'm going to this session at the performance center, where guys sit down and watch their matches from the weekend. We'd critique each other, what we like, what we'd change. It's this amazing tool to sit down with these brilliant minds in wrestling, to break down the tape on it.
So I walk into the class, and there's Shawn Michaels, and there's only one chair open, right beside him. I sit down, and we watch WrestleMania 25, him against the Undertaker, which I think is the greatest pro wrestling match ever. For me, there isn't a better match, between the athletics of it, the movement, and most important to me (and something that I think Shawn prided himself on) is the storytelling.
It's this kind of good versus evil, light versus dark. A masterpiece. I'm pretty sure I said it to him that day, and I'll say it any time anyone asks me. It was this weird moment, sitting in this room and sitting beside him, watching it. He's kind of like me, in that I don't really like watching my stuff, and I could tell he was kind of freaked out by it a little bit. Terry Taylor, who was running the thing, kind of sprung it on him, but it was a very cool moment for me.
Then we get to my first match in San Antonio, right in Shawn Michaels' backyard. It's me versus Tye Dillinger, which is a guy I trained, and he's another guy that idolizes Shawn Michaels like I do. That night I got to bounce the ideas for that match off of him. Shawn has a good relationship with Tye and me, and he wanted to be involved, and so he was.
A lot of the reason the match was as good as it was, was because he was there. The pressure of him sitting there at Gorilla and watching, because this is kind of his baby, we go out and we execute it to a T. We come to the back, and he's kind of hyped up and bouncing around.
"I'm sitting there in San Antonio, my first kind of big match working for the WWE and my hero is excited about something that I did."
I fought hard to hold back tears again. Hunter's there, and all these people are there. I'm almost crying, and they don't know it, but I was very emotional. It's complete joy, jubilation even as I thought of every step along the weird journey that led me to this moment.
He's running some classes at the Performance Center now. Whenever I'm going to be in town, Shawn invites me to kind of come by, help with things, and that's something I will 100 percent do. I've been joking with my wife saying I'm going to have to move to Orlando full time, because he's moving and he's going to live down there and be at the PC all the time. Even at this stage, I feel like I need to take the opportunity to be around him as much as possible.
And that's my love letter to the Heartbreak Kid.