Professional wrestling fans had seen it numerous times before January 12, 1992, and since that date have been witnessed to it seems a million times more. A storyline component (commonly referred to as an “angle”) conceived where a somewhat successful tag team, usually at the behest of management due to storyline (or real life)philosophical differences among the team members themselves, gets split up but not before one member commits a heinous almost treasonous act that defines which member of the unit will be perceived as good and which one will follow a darkened path. Sometimes these “turns” as the wrestling vernacular is called work out well in the short term for business while on other occasions the effect has paid little to no dividends, either for the wrestlers involved or the minds that came up with the notion. This particular tale, however, told in front of a television audience twenty-five years ago (although it was taped weeks earlier), started with one “superkick” to the chin, but ended up causing two wrestlers’ careers to propel in two dramatically opposite directions.
When Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels were first brought together as a tag team in the spring of 1985, nobody could have had the foresight to recognize just how good these two would become as a pair. Despite a brief separation as Michaels returned home to his native Texas, the pair were reformed early that next year when both were signed by the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and given the name The Midnight Rockers. Their “hair metal band” style good looks along with their matching tights and bandannas made them an instant hit with the female audience, but their growing cohesion and ever-improving work as a tandem inside the ring got them raves from many wrestling fans and experts within the pro wrestling media as well. The growing popularity of the team catapulted them to two reigns as AWA World Tag Team Champions during the latter half of the 1980s and even their well-known partying lifestyle couldn’t hold them back from eventually finding their way into a full-time slot with the World Wrestling Federation (now known as the WWE due to losing a court decision to the World Wildlife Fund in 2002).
Despite being fired before after a short stay due to their immature shenanigans, the WWF management and fans alike could clearly see upon their return to the company that the Rockers (The “Midnight” was taken off presumably for WWF-exclusive licensing purposes) were a tag team on the rise. Their battles with the Hart Foundation (Bret Hart and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart), Brain Busters (Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson), and Orient Express (Pat Tanaka, Akio Sato, and later Paul Diamond) proved that the duo could hold their own against the very best despite not ever achieving tag team gold on an official basis (a title win over the Harts was nullified and never aired on television due to a faulty top rope and rumored politics behind the scenes involving Neidhart’s contract). As the years began to turn into a new decade, however, ideas on what direction the team would be going in began to change and shortly thereafter decisions were made, either from management or the wrestlers themselves depending on who is telling the story, that would affect the lives of both Michaels and Jannetty forever.
In late 1991, during what has been rumored to be an attempted power play by the two, the decision was made to permanently break up the team and give both an opportunity to advance their careers as single wrestlers (although it becomes apparent to many insiders that Michaels appeared on the surface to have more potential). So after teasing several opportunities where miscues caused growing dissension among them, an “intervention” was set up on the “Barber Shop” segment (hosted by Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake) for the syndicated show Wrestling Challenge to try and reunite both and continue their tag team partnership. But as the two had seemingly reconciled with each other and were raising the other’s hand to signify their partnership had been rekindled, Michaels delivered a powerful kick to the chin (aptly named “sweet chin music”) that floored Jannetty and followed it up by throwing Marty’s head through the Barber Shop window. This storyline element was clearly designed to position Michaels as a bad guy (referred to in pro wrestling as a “heel”) while gaining sympathy for Jannetty’s good guy (“baby face”) character. In a break from normal WWF code standards at the time, Jannetty was shown battered and bloodied while Michaels couldn’t help but gloat close by and verbalize that his time as a solo performer was now being put front and center for all the world to see. As the years have passed, it has been clearly evident that one of them followed the wrestling/football adage to heart and “took the ball and ran with it.”
Shawn Michaels’ singles career as “The Heartbreak Kid” soon began to see a meteoric rise, becoming paired up with manager Sensational Sherrie (Martel) for a few months and celebrated near the end of his first solo year by claiming his first of three reigns as WWF Intercontinental Champion. Over the next fourteen years of his career until his second retirement in 2010 (his first in 1998-2002 was due to injuries), his matches against an array of the “who’s who” of wrestling hierarchy thrilled millions across the globe as he became known by many to be the greatest in-ring performer of his or any era (even though he encountered his own demons before becoming a born-again Christian). He went on to claim virtually every major title in the WWF/WWE with four world championship victories and in a bit of irony won the tag team belts he could never officially win with Jannetty on five different occasions. In 2011 with his outstanding career seemingly in the rearview mirror, Michaels’ accomplishments in the squared circle were honored with an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. But while Shawn Michaels embarked on an all-time great wrestling journey, the same unfortunately could not be said for one Marty Jannetty.
A feud between Michaels and Jannetty after the “Barber Shop” incident never really got underway at the time due to Marty being suspended by the WWF after an altercation with police and a drug possession charge less than two weeks after the segment had aired. This would, unfortunately, serve as a precursor as continual changes in the ’90s and early 2000s with the WWF/WWE and other wrestling organizations would always be cut short due to issues caused by in-ring or real-life circumstances. While he did eventually gain some measure of revenge with a brief WWF Intercontinental title run by beating Michaels himself, Jannetty never gained a consistent foothold with audiences as he was never seen by the majority to be an equal to Michaels as a solo performer. A brief attempt to revive the Rockers gimmick with Al Snow only caused a lot of fans to see Marty as someone who unfortunately could never match his former partner’s success. His few flashes of brilliance were often parlayed with equally frustrating moments of failure as it became clear his legacy in the ring would seemingly be strewn with one missed opportunity after another.
While the two did make brief appearances together, the Rockers never became a force again on the wrestling scene. As Michaels diverted his attention in recent years to life in retirement, hosting hunting television shows and his intermittent appearances on major shows in the WWE, Jannetty has followed the path of many a wrestler whose time in the spotlight had already come to pass and are easily forgotten. In what can be described as being right out of the movie “The Wrestler”, Jannetty has continued to make numerous appearances both in and out of the ring for small independent companies and wrestling conventions which invariably brings up the similarities between his real life and the character played by Mickey Rourke. For an even clearer description of the diversity in the roads these two have traveled, one only need to go on YouTube to gaze at one of Marty’s most recent performances (well into his 50’s) in 2016 and Shawn’s upcoming role in the WWE produced film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone.
The irony of how this story has played out over the years in both cruel and majestic ways has been a tale the industry has only told better on very rare occasions or to others who suggest that this could be the ultimate narrative of pro wrestling’s highs and lows. For many of us, life has its way of kicking a person right in the “chops”, sometimes as a way to wake them up, but also sometimes as a reminder of how low it can go. Ultimately for both Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, that lesson was learned eventually as a vast television audience became witness to the end of the Rockers tag team and a decidedly different new chapter was forged for each as the carefully designed scenario played out on that “Barber Shop” set to the tune of some “sweet chin music” a quarter of a century ago.
(Thanks to wrestlinginc.com, Bleacher Report, wrestling-titles.com for information on this story and to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer and f4wonline.com for giving many the inspiration to write and talk about the world of professional wrestling. If you have any questions regarding us here at Pop Culture Cosmos contact us at email@example.com)