When high-profile athletes retire from their sport, there are a few branching paths they can take. Some step into broadcasting while others opt to step away from sports completely. But for those who still have the itch to stay around the pursuit that's occupied the bulk of their attention for most of their lives, there's the option to become a coach. Say what you want about the tenuous ties between professional wrestling and "real" sports, but if you're trying to train a generation of new stars, you couldn't do much better than tapping into the mind and experience of Shawn Michaels.
Over the past few years, Michaels has taken on a key role with the WWE's Performance Center in Orlando and the associated NXT brand, which showcases many of the stars of tomorrow who train there. On this particular Wednesday in mid-October, he's running through some last-minute planning and decisions ahead of an NXT TV taping that will carry them through to one of their biggest shows of the year -- NXT TakeOver: War Games 2.
As he steps away from his responsibilities for a few moments, Michaels quickly slips out of serious mode. It doesn't take a lot, either, as even when he was in the midst of planning for one of the show's biggest moments, he wore a headband and a black T-shirt while being surrounded by decision makers in various levels of formal wear.
Michaels joked about how unlikely a role this would've been for many to foresee when he was at the peak of his troublemaking powers -- both on- and off-screen.
Shawn Michaels on what he enjoys most about coaching at the WWE Performance Center.
"For me to have a huge influence or impact on anybody is probably not a healthy thing," Michaels tells ESPN. "It's 30 years later and I still have no idea why this company still has me employed, or is letting me talk or instruct or coach younger talent, because it's obvious that it's not good for the wrestling business in any way shape or form. They're all going to be incredibly bad influences -- and hopefully, that'll all be because of me."
Once he settles in, though, it's clear that Michaels' self-deprecating humor is a thin shield he puts up to downplay how emotionally invested he's become in the careers and lives of those that have been placed under his care.
"I always wondered, after wrestling for 30 years, and in a sense never having to have a real job or really have to work a day in my life, what I would do after I was done doing that," Michaels said. "Then I get to stumble into this job at the PC, and clearly I still do not have to grow up, which is phenomenal. You get to coach a bunch of other young men who you are encouraging not to ever have to grow up, and you can't beat it."
Michaels, 53, has been a part of the wrestling world for more than 34 years, in fact. He's a four-time world champion and an undeniable WWE Hall of Famer, having earned the nickname "Mr. WrestleMania" against the likes of Bret Hart, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Razor Ramon and Ric Flair at the WWE's iconic showcase, to name a few, before you even begin to explore his gaudy list of accomplishments.
He had two runs in his wrestling career, with a four-year gap in the middle due to an injury-related retirement. During that time, Michaels established his own wrestling school, with students including Daniel Bryan and Brian Kendrick, and made sporadic non-wrestling appearances in the WWE.
In all of those experiences, Michaels had the chance to learn from and work with his heroes on a regular basis, and bequeath that knowledge to the next generation. The process of "making it" in the WWE has changed a great deal since Michaels first broke in with the company in the late '80s, as has the stigma about geeking out about something that everyone involved in the scenario is passionate about.
"Not all of them, but the majority of them, at least, grew up watching me. I can see myself the way I was with Flair, and Tully Blanchard, and Arn Anderson. In my era, you weren't allowed to talk about it -- you couldn't sit there and look at those guys and tell them, 'Holy cow man, I never thought in a million years I'd get to be in the ring with you or talk with you.' You couldn't do that. That cat's out of the bag with all of these guys -- they all did interviews before I got the job here, so we already knew about that."
Most of the time that boils down to wrestlers picking Michaels' brain in his class, which brings together some of the best and brightest minds training at the Performance Center. The affection and the relationship that Michaels forges with each of his students, however, often emboldens guys and girls who grew up idolizing the "Heartbreak Kid" to work with him in the ring.
He's largely resisted the urge to step back into the ring and wrestle a match since retiring in 2010 (with the notable exception of his one-off appearance at Crown Jewel in November). Every once in a while, though, Michaels finds the right opportunity to take part in a match -- as was the case in November 2017, in his hometown, in a spot that both suited the ongoing storylines of NXT and didn't take anyone too far out of their comfort zone.
"On a fairly regular basis, especially my guys, they're pitching a lot of ideas where I'm 'in there doing something,'" said Michaels. "I've usually begged off from it every time. But this particular show, it was in San Antonio, it was with Adam Cole and Drew McIntyre, and I can't recall all the circumstances, but it was just something where [it was like], 'If you don't mind doing it.'"
The effect Michaels has on guys like Cole and McIntyre, who are each seemingly on their way toward the upper echelon of WWE in the near-future, is clear any time you bring him up.
"Shawn Michaels, to me and to so many people, is just the greatest in-ring performer of all time," Cole noted back in April. "He's a big reason I decided to pursue pro wrestling myself. I saw him, and I was so amazed and captivated by what he did that I said, 'Oh, someday I want to do that.' To be able to share a ring with him in any capacity was huge, and for him to be the guest referee in that match was so awesome.
"Shawn Michaels is Shawn Michaels, and he doesn't have to do anything. For him to choose to want to do that and be involved in that as a special guest referee, and to be able to be in the ring with him and watch the relationship he has with our audience, is magical and so cool. There's little things that he does, little mannerisms that he has, little ways that he carries himself, where you can learn so much just watching Shawn as a special guest referee."
Michaels got to step into the ring again recently on an NXT U.K. tour, as the special guest referee for an untelevised six-man tag-team match
"Every now and then, we have little ideas here and there about inserting me," Michaels said. "As long as it's not too strenuous, and I can get out there and not embarrass myself too much, I'm always thrilled to do it."
Despite the tag-team match he'd go on to have in Saudi Arabia a few weeks later, Michaels appears to be genuinely committed to taking a back seat and watching the next generation of performers grow.
Shawn Michaels on the evolution of his friendship with Triple H.
"I know, on one hand, us old guys are always getting asked to come back and do stuff," said Michaels, "But I really am one of those guys that want [to let the young guys take the spotlight]. I'm thrilled with the direction of the WWE and NXT, and I want the business to move on into the future."
While it's unlikely he'll be teaming up with Triple H again inside of the ring, given how the match played out and numerous other factors, Michaels gets to live out his friendship on a near-daily basis in Orlando. Paul "Triple H" Levesque, the man who rode with Michaels and "The Kliq" early in his career, and later teamed up with Michaels to form D-Generation X, has made the Performance Center and the WWE developmental program his passion project as a high-ranking WWE executive.
Levesque brought Michaels into the fold, and now they work side-by-side with NXT and the Performance Center as they shape the future of WWE.
"It's great," said Michaels. "For he and I, other than the fact that he's in a suit all the time... it's very much the same relationship we had all those years on the road, that we sort of did in the car. Now we get to do it, in some form, in a much bigger, corporate setting. It's honestly still the same guys, sitting around and driving up and down the road -- that's what we do. It's just that now, somebody is actually driving us, because he doesn't actually drive himself anymore.
"We're sitting in the back, throwing out ideas, writing shows, coming up with creative things of that nature," Michaels continued. "Look, you cannot beat it -- honestly. I get paid to hang out with my buddy, and it is extremely tough to complain about that. I still have absolutely no idea how I've stumbled into the unbelievably blessed life that I have, but I try not think about it too much, for fear I might wake up one day."