Shawn Michaels vs Shelton Benjamin: Philosophy of the Match

United States Champion Shelton Benjamin reacts to the cheer of the fans as he enters the ring during a WWE Smackdown event at Rose Garden arena in Portland. (Photo by Chris Ryan/Corbis via Getty Images)
United States Champion Shelton Benjamin reacts to the cheer of the fans as he enters the ring during a WWE Smackdown event at Rose Garden arena in Portland. (Photo by Chris Ryan/Corbis via Getty Images) /

Shelton Benjamin vs Shawn Michaels was a hallmark match for their career and still stands the test of time in WWE.

Professional wrestling is a form of entertainment that utilizes bodily movements and theatrical elements to physically tell a story. The background of these stories gets created and developed through several means, including spoken promos, videos, and other build-up matches, yet the main form of storytelling remains the action in the ring. These stories range from feel-good comebacks to comedic relief, to heart-breaking or violent rivalries.

The unique medium of using maneuvers and athletics derived from sports along with gestures and expressions in between for storytelling, conveys plot and character development. In this framework, I wanted to write an article about the philosophy of an iconic match by dissecting its moments and analyzing the match’s flow and its visual significance. In this article, I will be talking about Shawn Michaels vs Shelton Benjamin from Monday Night Raw on May 2nd, 2005.

This match is widely acclaimed not just for the all-time great finish of the springboard dive intercepting Sweet Chin Music, but for the entire match itself being a classic to behold. It is a contender for one of the greatest Raw matches of all time if not one of the greatest WWE matches overall. What makes it more fascinating is that there is not much of a backstory to the match; it was a rather random pair-up coming out of the “Gold Rush Tournament” to crown the new number-one contender for the World Heavyweight Championship. This was a first-round match pitting the legendary Shawn Michaels against the then promising up and comer Shelton Benjamin.

Since the backstory is minimal in this match, it is the actions and motions within the match that construct the story for itself.  Both superstars are widely known and beloved for their athleticism, technical soundness, and ability to be underdogs and take punishment from bigger wrestlers while displaying emotions till it is time for a comeback. By this time, Shawn Michaels is a 20-plus-year wrestling veteran who has accomplished almost everything there is to the business, including being a multiple-time World Champion. Benjamin on the other hand, was just 5 years into his career and had won tag team titles and was the then reigning Intercontinental champion, but was yet to be featured in the main event scene.

From the start of the match, Benjamin tries to one-up the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels by using skills from his amateur wrestling background. There is a fast-paced trading of holds, with some actions being more about taunting the other than actually inflicting pain in the early stages. Benjamin’s youthful energy and desire to prove himself against an all-time great are seen, and here it starts to become a battle of two different eras. Despite both of them having a similar style of wrestling, it is the up-and-comer using his technique and hunger to try and win against the wise veteran. You can see that Michaels is being outdone in the grapples and the holds as he fights for the ropes, and his expressions betray frustration. He might still be at the top of his game as a wrestler, but the years of pain and tear on his body have definitely slowed him down which angers him.

Benjamin’s expressions show him taunting Michaels and being cocky, which is his way of getting into Shawn’s head. It is the younger generation trying to outwrestle and outsmart the experienced wrestler while gaining the notice of the crowd and his opponent both. While Shawn Michaels might not be able to match Benjamin’s athleticism at that age, he has seen and done it all and has the experience to know how to battle this onslaught. HBK wants to show Shelton how it’s done, but the constant reversals get to him. The younger generation is showing what they got and trying to prove that it is their era now, while the older crew represented through Michaels is hanging on to claim that it is still his company to rule over.

I mentioned earlier how while both of their eras differed, their styles matched. This can be added on to by the fact that both of their heights and body statures were pretty similar. These details added another layer to the match, where it is almost like Shawn Michaels is fighting a younger version of himself. Michael’s thought process started by focusing on how to combat an athletic opponent, while now it becomes a contest of stepping into Benjamin’s shoes and seeing possible next moves from that angle of when he was younger.

The flashy style, wanting to be the best in the division, and wanting to prove that you belong without being intimidated by the older guard- it is all that HBK is all too familiar with from 15 years back. The match plays on this by displaying a graphic early on about how both are three-time Intercontinental champions and multiple-time tag champions. The early arrogance and taunting of Benjamin further this since Michaels was known to be a cocky young buck at his age too. Michaels knows that feeling and wants to prove that he still is at the top of his game by shutting down Shelton. His opponent’s cockiness prompts him to be more aggressive, but the frustration often results in hastiness and not being able to accurately reverse Shelton’s offense.

After a while though, finally, it seems HBK has got a grip on himself and pulls out complex maneuvers, pins, and hard-hitting forearms and chops to combat Benjamin’s flashy offense. It is time for the veteran to teach a lesson. We observe Michaels going back to the fundamentals of professional wrestling to gain an upper hand. He is using patience and going old school to cut down Benjamin’s new age move-set. This is until Benjamin goes all reckless and clotheslines HBK hard and both of them tumble over the ropes to the floor. The move worsens Michaels’ pain and frustration, while Benjamin lands on his feet as an athletic display.

Shelton continues reversing complex moves as they both trade blows. Michaels continues to kick out of combinations though which shocks Shelton and makes him wonder what he has to do to secure the win. His inexperience is shown in these vulnerable moments through expressions of disbelief. For Shawn, this has now turned from a match with nothing to prove due to his existing stature, to a match he is desperate to win. The stakes of the match have now gone up and transformed into a battle of respect to show that he still has what it takes to hang with the newer generation, which fuels his never say die attitude.

Michaels reverts to his trademark moves and does his kip-up after being knocked down. Benjamin is not one to back down as he imitates HBK with his own cheeky kip-up right after. A network of intricate reversals follow that present this mirror imaging of both their in-ring styles, and this is to the backdrop of graphics mentioning how both started off their careers with a win. The crowd is getting really invested now, and Shelton is finally feeling the effects of this match with doubt gleaning on his face. The physical struggle is shadowed by the struggle to prove themselves at this point. Michaels faces difficulties keeping up with the pace and is searching for that one mistake from his opponent that can bring a win. Benjamin’s youthful impatience, or dare I say Ruthless Aggression, comes out through his exasperated reactions to the veteran Shawn’s kick outs.

Michaels bleeds and is in pain but manages to reach for whatever he has left to continue his momentum against the now very legitimate threat of losing to the upstart Benjamin. This is soon turned again as Benjamin plasters innovative and athletic moves that look like they finished the match, before the last-gasp efforts of his opponent. He is losing focus as he is unable to put HBK down, while the latter remains composed in the match and has his willpower intact. This is the gap of big-match experience between the two, and the difference in their demeanor shows it despite Michaels being on the worse end of the offense.

Finally, this inexperience and impatience catches up to haunt Benjamin as he rushes to the springboard for a desperate dive. This is where Shawn remembers his youthful mistakes and misjudged attempts to favor flashiness and speed over the fundamentals. He recognized that this is a long game of endurance and composure while his opponent looked to dominate him athletically. The moments preceding the dive show Shelton jumping into this move without a second thought, while Shawn is experienced enough to predict the move. He recognizes that this is the way Shelton will look to win and knows that mistake from early on in his own career. But this time, he is able to correct it by being on the other side and being the one to end this display of amateur ring awareness.

HBK plays possum to not let Shelton know that he is waiting for the jump, and this pretense of grogginess convinces Shelton to make the dive. The Sweet Chin Music heard around the world is played as Shawn thrusts his leg with a kick to the diving Benjamin and pins him to win the match. That dazzling finish is a poetic end to this classic match, with Shelton coming so close to winning and yet being so far from it. He ended up being a hero despite the loss by showcasing what he had and winning Shawn’s respect, but it just was not enough that day. Shawn reverted to his prime form with his awareness, as well as athleticism to time that kick correctly as well as land it accurately before the pin.

The shots of bloodied Shawn Michaels post-victory lying on the mat, panting and in pain, drive home the sentiment of him being spent and using all he had to win that match. There is disbelief in him winning by such a small margin, and that staring at the fallen Benjamin is an endorsement where no words are necessary. Michaels maintains his legendary status by winning and managing to soak as well as dish out so much pain. But in the process, Shelton comes out as a rising star to take seriously, perhaps with some mentoring. It is a classic match because of what it portrays, the fluid in-ring action, and the crowd excitement surrounding it. It goes down as an all-time great and remained relevant to the future of both their careers.

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