‘Don’t think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire.’ (Samuel Johnson).
There was a very significant ‘sporting event’ in the UK last week. Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United for the past 26 years, announced his retirement. This was momentous. He is one of the most successful soccer managers of all time. I’m sure, even though my knowledge of American sport isn’t great, that he’s one of the great team sport managers of all time too. He’s won 38 trophies in his time at the club and that includes 13 Premiere League titles. That’s an incredible record. Off the top of my head, other top coaches would include Lombardi, Mourinho and, a little bit of bias here, Sir Clive Woodward. Ferguson’s retirement has been met with article after article, documentary upon documentary, and all because of his achievements…and the gap he will leave behind.
Now, I’m a Middlesbrough Football Club fan. If you’re in America, look them up. They’re a small club who’ve had some great times (League Cup winners, UEFA Cup finalists) but also some horrible times (administration in 1986). It’s painful supporting them but you’re just born that way when it comes to your team, your guy. Now, I was never a huge Ferguson fan; he was argumentative and his team always got the decisions, BUT I can see the gap that will be in football now that he’s gone. During his retirement speech on the pitch on Sunday evening he asked the fans to get behind the new manager, David Moyes, as much as they did for him. It was this that got me thinking.
The retirement of a legend is a huge, emotional deal, but often it’s the gap they leave behind which is often insurmountable. To follow in the footsteps of greatness is a terrifying prospect. To this end, I started thinking about wrestling’s ‘big retirements’ and what happened afterwards. I know we’re living in the era of the comebacks and part-time contracts, but when that moment comes, there is often a big shift, a change in the landscape or…a hole that cannot be filled. I’ve focused on three of the ones that have meant the most to me. I know there are retirements such as Mick Foley, Stone Cold and Trish Stratus but I’ve decided on the three below for specific, personal reasons.
‘Never lose sight of this important truth, that no one can be truly great until he has gained a knowledge of himself, a knowledge which can only be acquired by occasional retirement.’ (Johann Georg Von Zimmermann).
I’m starting with perhaps the biggest loss to WWE. The Showstopper. The Heartbreak Kid. Mr Wrestlemania. The strange thing is, I was about the write a sentence starting with, ‘Even towards the end of his career he would regularly put on great matches’ but that seems ridiculous. His two bouts with The Undertaker were huge, legitimate ‘twice in a lifetime’ moments. It’s almost as if he got better the older he got. He was a huge personality and a legitimate ring technician who told beautiful stories in the ring.
Interestingly, he’d already disappeared once, in 1998 after a back injury sustained by The Undertaker during a casket match. He carried on for a while after that but then had to give it all up. The injury, and who he had become, had taken its toll. On his return, yes he won the World Heavyweight Championship early on but, by and large, Michaels wasn’t back for titles, he was back to prove he was the best. Did he manage it? God, yes. Even television matches were great (remember the hour long match versus Cena in 2007?). He was a man who cared about legacy, the legacy of a man who could give back to the company that had made him. He didn’t like who he was when he first retired, but we sure as hell loved him more on his return. Matches with Angle, Jericho and HHH were always of such a high standard that when the streak versus the career match was announced for Wrestlemania XXVI, many were concerned because if, as likely, he lost the match, where would the guaranteed four/five star matches come from?
When Taker finally tombstoned Michaels into the canvas, the moment had come. The retirement of perhaps the greatest in-ring technician in the history of the company was complete. The problem was who could possibly fill his place? Admittedly, that one guaranteed ‘great’ moment of almost every Raw was gone but Michaels, like Jericho now, knows the product isn’t about him. It isn’t about one man and never should be. With Michaels, he doesn’t want anyone to replace him because no one needs to replace him. Recent Raw episodes have had some really strong three/four star matches. Young guns are being given a shot. Big moments are still being created.
What Michaels did on his 2002 return until his retirement was to show the young guys the way. Follow him, learn from him (and his mistakes) and be the best you can. Yes, there is a gap. For many, he is their favourite ever wrestler. The man who can’t be topped. It’s the time for the younger talent to fight for the spotlight though. It’s time for Punk and Bryan to grab the bull by the horns and become the best of their generation, and to do it the right way.
Yes, Michaels has returned on several occasions but he has never wrestled again. In fact, his contribution has always been to further a storyline, to greatest effect during the ‘End of an Era’ match which, in a way, was the send-off that many will remember even though no retirements took place.
‘Retirement may be looked upon either as a prolonged holiday or as a rejection, a being thrown on to the scrap-heap.’ (Simone De Beauvoir).
A man intrinsically linked with Michaels is Flair if only due to how the retirement came about. His career is almost unparalleled. A sixteen time world champion with over 30 titles to his name, he is a true legend of the industry. I’m not going to focus on his career; that isn’t what this article is about, but on his WWE retirement. In November 2007, Flair announced he would ‘never retire’ and entered a pseudo-mini feud with Vince McMahon where every singles match held the stipulation that if he lost, he would be forced into retirement. On and on he rolled until that fateful night in Orlando when Michaels mouthed ‘I’m sorry. I love you’ and super-kicked Flair to oblivion.
The following Raw held one of the most emotional retirement tributes the industry has seen. Flair, a bit of an emotional wreck at best, was beside himself as legend after legend, colleague after colleague came out and hugged him. The WWE was proud to proclaim Flair as one of the best they’ve seen. Watch it again and smile as the main-eventers bow down to The Nature Boy. Then, off he went. Into the sunset to enjoy his retirement.
Only, he didn’t. After a few appearances on Raw, he did the unthinkable and signed for Ring of Honor and then actually wrestled again, against Hulk Hogan on the 2009 Hulkamania tour. Then, to make matters worse, he joined TNA in 2010 and continued to wrestle. The retirement from wrestling had, in fact, only been from WWE.
Here the issues are twofold. Firstly, in a way, no one could replace Naitch. It could be argued that the three wrestlers here were one of a kind, but Flair was such a huge personality that brought with him the history of wrestling (from the territories to the top worldwide companies) that he was irreplaceable because those sort of wrestlers aren’t around anymore. Yes, you can get a Punk or Bryan who work their way up from the bottom, but Flair really did (does?) present a link between the 70’s & 80’s and the modern-day product. No one could replace him because he was the last of his breed. That’s why the WWE retirement was so emotional. It was the end of an era.
To some, the return to the ring leaves a sour taste in the mouth but Flair simply represents the old pugilist who can’t stop swinging. The hit-man taking ‘one last job’. He’s addicted to the business. He loves it. His way of giving back is to keep putting in. In fact, there is perhaps only Flair who could go to ROH and TNA and then return to the WWE and be cheered to the rafters. We love Flair and, after his recent tragedy, we want him back in the fold. Where he’s safe.
‘Age is only a number, a cipher for the records. A man can't retire his experience. He must use it. Experience achieves more with less energy and time.’ (Bernard M Baruch).
For me, this was the most emotional simply because I didn’t see it coming. Nobody did. Edge had defeated Alberto Del Rio the night before at Wrestlemania XXVII. In a way, this retirement, and the shock of it, is the most documented simply due to Adam Copeland’s excellent interviews on his DVD. This is a man who has been forced to close the door on a huge part of his life. Flair came out of retirement. Michaels might not want to but physically the opportunity will always be there. Edge has no choice. If he wrestles again he has the potential of paralysis at best and death at worst.
Edge might not be as iconic as Michaels or Flair but, in a way, he is the most relatable. We’ve seen the human side of him (particularly in his speech on the Raw after Wrestlemania which is almost heartbreaking to watch). He is fallible. He is mortal. He is, well, like us. Michaels is one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Flair is, in the best possible way, a, historical artifact. Edge is a man who we feel we can be an equal to. Now, in no way am I playing down his achievements. He’s done more in his career than most of us will ever get close to, but the manner of his retirement, the emotion, the pain, is relatable.
A gap was left in the WWE when Edge retired, of course it was, but more in terms of a man had lost his strength and could no longer do the one thing he wanted to do, entertain us. Amaze us and, let’s be honest, make us happy. To link it back to ‘If’, the Rudyard Kipling poem I used last week, Edge is the true symbol of this line, ‘If you can walk with the crowd and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch’. He is a man for all people.
Each of these retirements signifies something different both to us and to the men discussed. Michaels was the symbol of perfection and wanted to retire at the top fighting the best. Flair retired but Naitch felt the itch as any old boxer does. Edge was physically forced to end at the top. In a way, all of these men left a gap that could not be filled in the company but, also, a gap that didn’t need to be filled. We miss them, of course we do, but we also admire and love what they did for the business. On those odd occasions when they make a return, we cry and cheer with the best of them and, knowing Flair, he’ll be crying with us.
‘If you ask me if I’d do all this again...if you’d ask me if I’d travel all the roads, log all the miles, hope on all the flights, all the sleepless nights, all the surgeries, all the injuries, all the metal rods in my teeth, all of it...you ask me if I’d do it again? In a heartbeat.’ Adam Copeland.
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.