What happens when you put two of the best in-ring performer of their generations up against one another in a big match at the grandest stage of them all? Fireworks is what you get. An in-ring masterpiece is what you get, and an unforgettable classic is what you get. This is exactly what happened when Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle went toe-to-toe at WrestleMania 21.
It wasn’t the main event, though Kurt Angle felt that it definitely should have been. It’s hard to argue because there was simply no better match on the card that year. However, them main eventing simply wasn’t on the cards, because WWE had two very vital marquee matches.
The first one from the SmackDown brand saw JBL defend the WWE Championship against a young, up-and-coming John Cena. The main event saw Triple H defend the World Heavyweight Championship in what was set to be the conclusion of the fantastic Evolution storyline (though it technically ended a few months after that). From WWE’s perspective, it’s understandable why those two matches had a higher place on the card than this one.
For one, it saw the coronation of both Cena and Batista, who would be the two biggest stars of the company for years to come (with Cena going at it full-time for five years longer than Batista). Secondly, they were World Championship matches. As for the importance of storylines, there was no bigger match on the card than Batista vs Triple H. It was the culmination of what’s famously now-called Triple H ‘s “reign of terror”.
However, no matter how important those matches were, on the night, they didn’t come anywhere close to Angle vs HBK in terms of match quality. Believe it or not, when they did lock horns that night, it was the first time they ever did so. Not only were the two constantly separated due to the brand split, but Kurt Angle had started his career when Shawn Michaels had already finished.
Subsequently, the first time that Angle ever met Shawn Michaels was at Survivor Series 2002. That happened to be the night of the very first Elimination Chamber match, where Shawn Michaels last eliminated Triple H to become World Champion one more time (and for the last time in his career). Angle recalled watching that match from the back, impressed more than ever.
In an interview with ESPN, he recalled their first meeting, saying:
The first time I met him was at Survivor Series — I think it was around 2002 or right around that time. I watched him sell that whole match. He went through five guys, he got down to Triple H and pinned him to win the title. I remember him coming backstage. I didn’t know him. I never watched pro wrestling before that. I said, ‘Hey, uh, Shawn. You’re, you’re pretty good.’ He just started laughing like ‘who the hell is this guy telling me I’m pretty good?’ It was a compliment from me, saying damn, man, I haven’t seen anybody like you without being overbearing. He would tease me about that in the years to come.
Being from separate, brands, the two had their first major on-screen interaction at Survivor Series 2004, but it was at Royal Rumble 2005 when the seeds were planted. Shawn Michaels quickly eliminated Kurt Angle. A furious Angle would storm back to the ring and cost Michaels the Rumble match, proceeding to assault him as well.
It led to an interbrand feud, which turned out to be extremely entertaining in its own right. It was a very simple story – Kurt Angle wanted to prove that he was better than Shawn Michaels at everything, including singing his own theme song. This led to the extremely memorable segment where Kurt Angle sang “I’m just a sexy Kurt”.
Interestingly enough, the match itself happened completely on the fly and there was no prior preparation. While it’s not uncommon for superstars to sit and plan spots during their match beforehand, especially the big ones, that wasn’t the case with Angle or Michaels. Instead, they simply got to know each other better during the week of the show.
What ended up happening in the ring can best be described as pro wrestling magic. It was two performers at their absolute best in what turned out to be an all-time WrestleMania classic. We can’t recommend the match enough, and if you haven’t seen it before, go to the WWE Network and check it out.
From the movesets to the pace to the psychology of it all, Michaels and Angle had a masterpiece of the match, all on the fly. The final five minutes is as thrilling as you can expect for any match, and at the end, Kurt Angle ended up winning the contest. In fact, between WrestleMania 19 and 22, Angle had a whole string of incredible WrestleMania contests. Out of the four, this happened to be the only non-World Title match that he had.
This match also further proved why Shawn Michaels was and always will be Mr WrestleMania.