The 1991 Survivor Series was an overall forgettable event.
Stacked top to bottom with a legion of WWE performers in the twilight of their career – guys like “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Sgt. Slaughter and Tito Santana – and characters even hardcore wrestling fans couldn’t pick out of a police lineup, the PPV is rarely mentioned or remembered as anything more than the standard WWE show for that period.
But while the Thanksgiving Eve affair – now 25 years old – isn’t considered a classic, it is arguably one of the most important shows in WWE history. Fans in attendance, and those watching on closed circuit TV, would bear witness to the commencement of two legendary careers.
A Texas Twosome
Mark Calaway’s contract with World Championship Wrestling was set to expire, and barring a sudden massive push, the 6’10” ginger-domed mastodon was looking to move on.
Calaway debuted as “Mean Mark” Callous and teamed with the equally massive Dan Spivey in the aptly-named tag team, The Skyscrapers. A former heavyweight champion in two other federations, the Texas native hadn’t found much success in his short stint with WCW. Not long after kicking off a feud with the Road Warriors, Spivey left the WCW and Calaway was forced into a crowded singles scene.
Mean Mark wisely hooked up with manager Paul Heyman (then known as Paul E. Dangerously) and worked a few forgettable mid-card programs against Johnny Ace and Brian Pillman. His highest profile match in his eight months with the company would come at Clash of the Champions XI against US Heavyweight Champion Lex Luger.
Calaway had come a long way from his humble debut as Texas Red in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). Working the contest with busted ribs, Calaway cared little about putting gold around his waist. His focus was on match quality. He was scheduled to meet with Vince McMahon the next day to discuss possibly signing with the WWE (then WWF). He knew without a doubt Vince would be watching the televised match.
Michael Shawn Hickenbottom, another Texas native who cut his teeth in the WCCW during Calaway’s tenure, made his national wrestling debut in 1986 at the age of 20 in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA). Going by the ring name of Shawn Michaels, he was paired up with old friend Marty Jannetty after only two singles matches. Verne’s son Greg had plans to turn the young men into their version of one of the most popular and financially successful tag teams of that day, The Rock N’ Roll Express.
The athletic and magnetic duo were billed The Midnight Rockers, thanks in part to Michaels’s love of the song “Rocking After Midnight” by the British metal band Judas Priest. Jannetty and Michaels donned tiger-striped tights and worked a high-paced match style that was unusual for the time.
“Some people complained that we were doing too much, highspotting,” Michaels recalled in his 2005 memoir Heartbreak and Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, “but everything we did flowed within the story we were telling in the ring. We weren’t just doing crazy moves just to do them.”
Michaels and Jannetty found instant success thanks to their athleticism and natural good looks. The team eventually captured the AWA World Tag Team Championship after a bloody feud with Buddy Rose and Doug Somers. All of the attention prompted Vince McMahon to offer Michaels and Jannetty a contract. The pair signed with McMahon while still holding the AWA belts.
The Rockers made the jump in June 1987 but were abruptly fired a few weeks later for a bar incident that, according to Michaels, was “blown out of proportion” thanks to word of mouth and backstage jealousy. The team bounced around different territories before being given a second chance with McMahon’s company. The Midnight Rockers re-signed with the company a year later.
Rechristened as just The Rockers, Michaels and Jannetty found quick success and won the tag titles from the Hart Foundation though the title win isn’t recognized in the WWE record books. Jim Neidhart renegotiated his contract, the belts were put back on the Hart Foundation and the Rockers title victory never made TV.
It was obvious to McMahon and his inner circle that while Jannetty was a talented performer, it was Michaels who had the real upside. In the storylines, dissension brewed between Michaels and Jannetty. In real life, the pair were having issues due to a miscommunication between Jannetty and management over pay and a drunken fist fight. According to Michaels’s book, during a contract negotiation, Jannetty claimed that WCW offered the team a lucrative guaranteed contract. Michaels inquired with WCW brass about the offer and claimed Jannetty greatly exaggeration the terms of the deal.
Jannetty has stated in numerous interviews that Michaels was “the driving force behind the idea to quit the WWF” and when Vince McMahon agreed to let them walk, Michaels went to McMahon and claimed it was all Jannetty’s idea and that “he had no intention of leaving the WWF.” The Rockers stayed with the company, but McMahon decided to split the pair and have Michaels turn on Jannetty.
One Man Survives While The Other Emancipates
The Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan was the spot for the 1991 Survivor Series. A night before Thanksgiving tradition, the main event involved a WWF World Heavyweight Champion defense for Hulk Hogan. The match would be the first ever singles contest on a Survivor Series card.
Vince McMahon eventually saw the potential in Calaway thanks in small part to his in-ring work but mostly due to a cameo role in the Hulk Hogan feature Suburban Commando as the evil Hutch. Calaway’s costume in the film looked remarkably similar to that of a mortician in the old west.
Calaway debuted at a taping of WWE Superstars in November 1990, billed as Kane the Undertaker. Three days later, at the 1990 Survivor Series, he was the mystery partner of Ted DiBiase’s Million Dollar Team and dropped the Kane from his name. Now just year removed from his debut, The Undertaker was given his first title shot against the iconic Hogan.
In a back-and-forth slugfest with the “Immortal” Hogan, an interfering Ric Flair and Tombstone Piledriver onto a steel chair eventually helped Undertaker best the champion. The stunned crowd of over 17,000 fell silent as the Dead Man left ringside with the belt, making him the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in WWF history (a record later broken by Yokozuna).
The next match on the card was a classic 4-on-4 format that saw The Nasty Boys and Beverly Brothers teaming up against The Rockers and Bushwhackers. Michaels and Jannetty worked as a cohesive unit for most of the contest until Jannetty accidentally knocked one of the Nasty Boys into Michaels, causing him to be eliminated. A visibly furious Michaels was forced to leave ringside and a split seemed emanate.
It was the beginning of the end for the Rockers. For Michaels, it was the dawn of a new beginning.
During an installment of Brutus Beefcake’s interview segment, “The Barber Shop,” the Rockers met face to face and aired their grievances. The allies seemed to have put their differences behind them until Michaels superkicked Jannetty to the floor and tossed his dazed partner through a set window. Jannetty laid bloodied on the concrete while Michaels ripped up a photo of the team. Michaels, the white meat babyface, had turned heel.
The Barber Shop segment jumpstarted Michaels’ career and quickly catapulted Michaels into the Intercontinental Championship picture. At the suggestion of longtime friend Curt Hennig, Michaels adopted the nickname “The Heartbreak Kid” and worked as a vain, cocky heel. After every Michaels match at live events, his departure was announced with “Shawn Michaels has left the building,” a nod to the phrase “Elvis has left the building”.
The former partners were scheduled to feud after the breakup but Jannetty was released before their first scheduled match due to an incident outside a Florida night club. He was booked on charges of resisting arrest with force, cocaine possession and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Jannetty eventually returned to the WWE and the Rockers finally faced off in a series of matches in 1993. Jannetty bested his former partner and stripped him of the Intercontinental Championship but dropped the title back to Michaels less than a month later thanks to interference from Shawn’s new bodyguard, the debuting Diesel.
The Undertaker faced off against Hulk Hogan six days after Survivor Series at This Tuesday in Texas. Hogan recaptured the belt but more Ric Flair interference in the match led to the title being vacated.
Not long after the title reign lasting less than a week, the crowds usually shocked into silence at the appearance of the nearly 7- foot “deadman” eventually began cheering the moment the first death bell ran to announce the presence of the wrestling mortician. McMahon had no choice but to turn The Undertaker babyface.
On March 28, 2010, Shawn Michaels wrestled the final match of his career, facing off against The Undertaker in the main event of WrestleMania XXVI. In a contest billed as “Streak vs Career,” The Undertaker and Michaels traded signature moves and near pin falls for close to a half hour. The Phenom would eventually get the best of The Heartbreak Kid, pinning him after delivering his signature Tombstone Piledriver, and continuing his streak of Wrestlemania victories.
After the match, the combatants shook hands and hugged. The Undertaker disappeared back into the locker room area, leaving Shawn Michaels alone in the ring as the show came to a close.
The following night on Raw, Michaels gave an emotional farewell speech. His exit up the ramp and into retirement was met with the ring announcer informing the audience that “Shawn Michaels has left the building.”