When Shawn Michaels won his third WWF Intercontinental Championship in 1995, he forfeited the belt, claiming he had been the victim of a Marine assault. This is the story of what happened that nearly fatal October 13th night in Syracuse.
“WWF favorite took a real-life beating outside a North Syracuse club as the 1-2-3 Kid (Sean Waltman) and British Bulldog looked on!” – Mike McAndrew, The Post-Standard.
In the mid-’90s, one of the highlights of the then-WWF was the tremendous in-ring work of Shawn Michaels. "The Heartbreak Kid" was a top performer in front of the camera, but behind it, he was pulling strings and acting unprofessionally as a member of the Kliq.
At this point, Shawn Michaels was generally perceived as one of the finest blossoming talents in North America, with a fast and dynamic style.
Despite this, Michaels was starting to act unprofessionally.
Two Kliq members were positioned highly at WrestleMania XI as Michaels faced Diesel for the WWF championship. HBK tried to hinder Diesel in the match by deliberately landing on his feet from a Jackknife Powerbomb, the move that would end the match.
The book Titan Sinking: The Decline of the WWF in 1995 explains that Michael’s bump had the effect of “significantly lessening the impact of the move and making Nash look foolish to casual fans in the audience who didn’t understand the mechanics of the business or its cooperative nature.”
Although becoming increasingly unscrupulous, Michaels had the authority and popularity to ensure he would be the future of the WWF.
Rising the Ranks
By In Your House 4: Great White North, four of the five Kliq members were scheduled for title matches, with two walking in as titleholders.
Shawn Michaels was set to defend his belt against recent signee Dean Douglas.
“The Franchise” had made waves in ECW with a straight-talking, traditional, worked-shoot gimmick, memorably throwing down the NWA title in 1994. Signed with the WWF by 1995, he was now climbing the ladder of Vince McMahon’s company.
Yet all plans for In Your House were to be scrapped by real-life events.
Vacating His Belt
On October 22nd, 1995’s In Your House 4: Great White North pay-per-view intro, Gorilla Monsoon revealed to the audience that Shawn Michaels was being stripped of his title belt.
He remarked, “Due to the severity of Shawn Michaels’s concussion, I am not allowing him to compete. However, there will be an Intercontinental title defense.
“I have asked Shawn Michaels to publicly forfeit the belt tonight in the ring,” Monsoon continued, “at which time I will take it and present it to Dean Douglas, making him the new Intercontinental champion with all the rights and privileges of that title. This is one of the most difficult decisions I had to make in my entire life.”
A sullen Michaels plodded to the ring to silently present the belt.
Shawn Michael’s Bloodshot Eye
Shawn Michaels’s appearance was disturbing, with a bloodshot right eye. The commentators noted the severity of his injuries, with Jim Ross revealing he “just got his stitches removed yesterday.”
However, after less than 15 minutes, in a clear powerplay, the title seamlessly transitioned from Kliq member to Kliq member as Intercontinental champion Razor Ramon dethroned Dean Douglas.
The match had an oddly muted finish when Ramon hit a back suplex. Douglas put his foot under the rope, although the referee missed this. The finish may have aimed to protect Douglas but instead had the opposite effect.
The finish had a rather apathetic feel to it. Douglas was soon persona non grata, remaining absent on a large scale on WWF television.
But off-screen was perhaps more interesting.
What Happened to Shawn Michaels on the Night of October 13th, 1995?
So, depending on the one telling the story, the real reason for Shawn Michael’s eye injury was that the Marines allegedly beat him up outside a club.
Nine days before In Your House, Shawn Michaels, flanked by Davey Boy Smith (his opponent earlier that night in Binghamton, New York), and the 1-2-3 Kid decided to check into their motel room an hour and ten-minute drive away in Syracuse before going out on the town.
The trio decided to wet their whistle at Club 37.
Michaels Was “Like a Lamb to the Slaughter”
Arriving just an hour before the 2 a.m. curfew at the club, the wrestlers engaged in a rapid and hefty drinking session.
From there, the events get slightly more blurred.
Apparently, Shawn Michaels started flirting with a girl, not knowing this was an ex-girlfriend of a marine.
Yet before things could turn violent, the club’s bouncer stepped in. He directed the wrestlers out of the club.
An intoxicated Michaels was placed into the passenger seat of a Pontiac Sunbird.
It was then that the Marines attacked.
In Titan Sinking: The Decline of the WWF in 1995, author James Dixon dramatically stated that Michaels was “like a lamb to the slaughter.”
The aftermath speaks for itself.
The police report notes the state of Shawn Michaels’s injuries. Having had his face stomped on and shoved into the bumper, Shawn suffered a laceration on the right eyelid, nearly torn off in the beating, two black eyes, and blood coming out of his ears. The attack was nearly fatal.
At the time of the attack, 1-2-3 Kid was passed out, and Davey Boy Smith – according to Jim Cornette – was trapped in the car’s back seat after HBK’s seat had been pushed back.
Bulldog himself sustained injuries after eventually freeing himself and getting involved in the brawl. Able to incapacitate two men, a third went to gauge Smith’s eye. Smith suffered scratches to his face and bruising but could still compete the next night.
HBK has stated in his book and on the ImPAULsive podcast that he has no recollection of the fight.
Jim Ross recalls that backstage personnel were not impressed with the scenario.
Jim Ross has spoken on Grilling JR how “A pro wrestler losing to a civilian in a fistfight is unacceptable.”
Party Animal Nature
Booker Bill Watts, who briefly worked for the WWF in 1995, was amongst those irritated by the altercation. A traditional territorial booker at heart, he was one of those feeling a wrestler should never lose a fight in such a public manner.
Ross commented on his podcast Grilling JR, “Bill didn’t like the fact that that happened to a guy so highly on the card. If you don’t think you can win the fight, then somehow or another, don’t engage.”
He continued, “As I’ve always told the guys, pick your spots where you hang out. Going to a local bar and trying to become the alpha male in somebody else’s bar in another city you don’t live in is not really smart.”
Contradictions and Inconsistencies
One of the biggest questions hanging over the Shawn Michaels incident in Syracuse is how many men were genuinely involved and how many of those involved ambushed Michaels.
Although the figure nine or ten is often thrown around and is the number noted in the initial police report, differing accounts are contradictory.
In the book The Storytellers: From The Terrible Turk To Twitter, the figure of five is described as a “commonly accepted number.”
Triple H claims it was six in the A&E documentary about Shawn Michaels.
Ex-Rockers tag team partner and fellow party animal Marty Jannetty commented, “I don’t want to be disrespectful because I love Shawn. Syracuse, where he got in a fight with all those Marines, it was actually just one guy.”
The “one guy” was presumably the 23-year-old marine Douglas Griffith, whose ex-girlfriend Michaels had been flirting with.
There are even disagreements over the extent of the injuries. Some accounts have it that Michaels could have competed but was prevented by WWE.
And Shane Douglas doubts the integrity of the injuries sustained.
On Wrestling Shoot Interviews, he claimed he saw Michaels looking fresh as a daisy days before the event. Later on, according to Douglas, Shawn allegedly emerged from the make-up room, having undergone extensive prosthetic alterations to give the deceitful illusion of being severely pummeled.
Douglas remarked, “Those make-up girls must have done a number on you!”
The Concussion Angle
Whether real or artificial – the WWE (then WWF) decided to make the most of the situation.
In the words of Bruce Prichard, “You show the injuries to his face and make a story out of it. You’re dealt a set of cards, and you have to play them the best way you can at the time.”
The storyline started playing out on WWF screens in late 1995.
In an October 1995 interview, just days after the attack, Michaels spoke about his incident with the Marines.
A subdued Shawn detailed how nine marines had forced him to give up his Intercontinental champion to, in his words, an “extremely overrated and undeserving” Shane Douglas, a clear dig at the former ECW Champion.
On the November 20th, 1995 episode of Raw, Shawn Michaels was wrestling Owen Hart when, after sending “The Rocket” to the outside, Michaels started clutching his head, subsequently falling to the mat. An Owen Hart enziguri seemingly had reaggravated an injury from the assault, causing a concussion.
In a worked-shoot angle critically acclaimed for its realism, Michaels received oxygen and was stretched out of the arena.
WWE committed to medical personnel attending to Shawn, as did agents such as Rene Goulet and J.J. Dillon – a rare on-screen appearance of front office executive and former Four Horsemen Dillon on WWE TV.
Even on-screen heel Jerry Lawler seemed concerned, coming off commentary to take a first-hand look at what had happened.
Shots were panned to crying and distraught audience members.
Michaels has praised the storyline for “turning a negative into a positive.”
Becoming “The Showstopper”
Written off television for weeks, the angle helped build sympathy for Michaels.
On the wave of fan support, Michaels would become one of the top stars in the wrestling business.
Although HBK’s rise was inevitable and arguably apparent as far back as the break-up of The Rockers in 1992, this angle helped propel Michaels into superstardom as a top babyface main eventer.
Excerpts from Pro Wrestling Illustrated at the time show support for Michaels from fans.
One writes, “I have been a wrestling fan for nearly twenty years, and I have seen more tragic occurrences than I care to remember. Few incidents, however, shook me up as much as the brutal attack on Shawn Michaels outside a bar in Syracuse, New York, in October.”
He continued, “I am a 31-year-old man, and I am not ashamed to say I cried more than once after I heard about this incident.”
Michaels outlasted all opposition to win the 1996 Royal Rumble match.
Then, at WrestleMania in March of 1996, he was crowned WWF World Heavyweight Champion as Vince McMahon made perhaps his most iconic commentary call, “The boyhood dream has come true for Shawn Michaels!”
What Happened With The Lawsuit?
The real-life lawsuit was dropped in 1996 over fears that it would reveal the involvement of substance abuse in wrestling. This needed to be avoided after the steroid trial that saw Vince McMahon staring at potential prison time.
The Syracuse incident was later brought up at a time of simmering tensions between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, when “The Hitman” called out Michaels and the “nine cheerleaders that beat you up in Syracuse!”
The Syracuse Incident’s Legacy
The adaption of the real-life incident to WWE TV reinforced the cliched wrestling phrase, “Art imitates life.”
It must be noted that there are still some unreliable details in this tale. Michaels was intoxicated, The Kliq were out of town, Davey Boy Smith is sadly no longer with us, and the Marines did not want to come forward.
Although these circumstances worked in Michaels’ favor, the whole truth of what occurred on that infamous night may never be fully known.
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