February 13, 1997’s Thursday Raw Thursday special has, in the past 25 years, become synonymous with one thing: Shawn Michaels, in the process of giving a speech where he vacated the WWF Championship, told the viewing audience that, in addition to sustaining a career-threatening knee injury, he had “lost [his] smile.” Despite theoretically giving the title up due to a career-threatening knee injury, Michaels barely talked about his knee. Hell, he never used the word “knee” once. Instead, what Michaels said is best remembered for his references to “losing his smile.”
“I know that over the, uh, the last several months I’ve lost a lot of things and one of them has been my smile,” he said. “And, and I know it doesn’t mean a whole lot to everybody else, but it means a lot to me. So I have to go back and fix myself, and take care of myself, and I have to go back and I have to find my smile because somewhere along the line I lost it and I don’t care, really, I don’t care if it’s unpopular, and I don’t care if, uh, people want to make fun of me because I’m an emotional guy.”
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The live crowd in Lowell, Massachusetts appeared as if they weren’t sure what to make of the speech. At first, they were loudly booing Michaels and chanting “WE WANT SID!” for his scheduled opponent, Sycho Sid. They either thought that this was entirely a work or that he was being incredibly cynical about the injury. (Michaels, for his part, has told a consistent story for the last 15-20 years: his general practitioner was who told him never to wrestle again, he listened, and it was only after he saw legendary sports medicine/orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews that he realized that he could keep going.) And it probably didn’t help that Michaels had, at least on house shows, been teasing a heel turn for several weeks. But once Michaels was visibly crying, his voice repeatedly breaking, the backlash stopped and the fans were with him for the rest of the segment.
At the time, though, the part about having “lost my smile” was widely read by fans as a strange, if not outright whiny diversion. Jokes about his “devastating smile-ectomy” were fairly common for years after the fact. The whole situation was also shoehorned into a narrative that it was just another case of Michaels finding a way to drop a WWF title without doing a job, the third of what would become four times. Examining the specifics of those cases makes that argument a lot less credible, though: the first, in 1993, came when he quit after testing positive for anabolic steroids at a time when he swore he wasn’t using them, and the second was just nine days after he was attacked outside a club in Syracuse, New York, his eyelid almost torn off his face in the process and his eardrum possibly perforated. (The blame for the perception of that one is squarely on WWE, who advertised Michaels, even during updates recorded after the injury, right up until showtime.) Only the fourth occasion, where he effectively forfeited the European Championship to Triple H later in 1997 in a mock, “finger poke of doom” style match, really fits the reputation Michaels built up.
But with 25 years of hindsight, especially thanks to Michaels’ growth as a person and openness about his struggles with addiction, it reads a lot differently, to the point it feels ridiculous that it was ever joked about. Watching the speech back this week, I was struck by how the verbiage felt like an inverse of sorts of Jon Moxley’s recent return speech and even the mental health-focused portion of CM Punk’s return speech from last August. That this was someone who was trying to make it clear that needed to leave to heal emotionally as opposed to someone returning and evangelizing about having put the work in. And that’s doubly so since those in the know had concerns about Michaels that ran much deeper than which of his knee ligaments were or weren’t intact.
“Exactly what is the true story involving Michaels is anyone’s guess,” wrote Dave Meltzer in the February 24, 1997 issue of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “There is no doubt there was a knee injury. Anyone who does what Michaels does is going to wind up with knee damage. Obviously there are serious problems that were a lot more important to address than any knee problems. Just because someone appears on the surface to outsiders to lead a charmed life, in that they have money, looks, ability and can entertain outsiders and are admired and even worshipped by people who don’t know them, doesn’t mean that on the inside they are any less immune to the same problems that face each of us.”
A lot of the coverage of Michaels’ behavior in that era is of the “read between the lines” variety, but there were all sorts of warning signs that not only should have been obvious in the mid-1990s, but scream in your face in 2022. There were the instances of Michaels exposing himself (the April 1996 In Your House event, albeit after the show went off the air) or coming close to it (Royal Rumble 1996, getting as far as his pubic hair) during his post-main event mock-striptease celebrations. Or the multiple times where he lost his temper during pay-per-view main events, like when his match with Vader at SummerSlam ’96 came to a screeching halt after a miscue so Michaels could loudly call him “stupid,” or his arguments with hecklers and an audio technician during his match with Davey Boy Smith at the May In Your House show.
It wasn’t all speculative, though. Just read what Meltzer wrote about the Syracuse attack in the October 30, 1995 issue of the Observer: “The police report stated that Michaels was in the front seat, but was intoxicated and had passed out and was actually asleep when he was pulled out of the car and mercilessly pummeled and had no chance to defend himself.” There it is, in plain English: The number two babyface in the company had, while on the road, had gotten so intoxicated that he passed out in the car as he was leaving a nightclub. That Michaels had and would continue to have issues with addiction for the next several years is not in question, to the point that, as well as he came out the other side, going over all of the obvious warning signs make you wish that he had gotten help sooner.
In this case, though, we can take solace in the fact that Michaels eventually got married and had a kid, and it was his son seeing him passed out that freaked him out enough to get clean, which he has been ever since. This is a story with a happy ending. And going forward, it’s likely to serve as an indicator of how addiction and other mental illnesses really have changed over time. Sure, in the ’90s, Michaels’ substance abuse was seen as a character flaw, similarly to how others, like Kerry Von Erich, were unfairly viewed. But if you moved 1997 Shawn Michaels forward 25 years, there’s a very good chance that he’d be able to fully embrace his struggles in the public eye for it. Charting change is important, even if it serves as a reminder of past idiocy.