This was the match that most of us were looking forward to the most on this show. The anticipation was off the charts for this one as it was Shawn Michaels' triumphant return to the ring after four years since retiring in 1998 due to a back injury. Michaels had returned to the WWE on Raw in a full-time capacity as a member of the re-booted nWo. However, the group would disband pretty soon after "HBK's" shocking return. Triple H left SmackDown and returned to Raw once his ex-wife Stephanie became the GM of SmackDown. This roster change resulted in the reuniting of the two old friends from back in the day.
When it seemed as if we were going to get a D-Generation X reunion in 2002, HHH crushed everyone's dreams by turning on "HBK" and thus becoming a heel. Things would get extra personal between the two when HHH viciously attacked Michaels in the parking lot. Michaels eventually returned to challenge "The Game" to an Unsanctioned Fight since he wasn’t sure if he could still go like he used to. Michaels clearly wanted the freedom of anything goes rules to get revenge on his former best friend.
This match definitely lived up to all the hype! It also proved to everyone around the world that Michaels was still in the argument for the greatest overall in-ring performer of all time. HHH was the perfect first opponent for HBK after his four-year retirement since both men trusted each other and Triple H was willing to do anything to make HBK feel as comfortable as possible. This fight started off with a bang and quickly evolved into a hardcore brawl. HHH beat down Michaels by focusing on his back, which scared most fans since they knew he was returning from having back surgery. Both men got busted open as the match wore on. HHH played the part of the methodical assassin by targeting the injured back of Michaels. HBK soon made a comeback and even ended up performing a top rope flying splash onto HHH through a table set up outside the ring.
Michaels eventually brought a ladder into play, which he chose to climb to the very top of to drop a flying elbow onto HHH. All these high spots got a huge ovation from the crowd and helped the match crescendo to its finest moments. HBK earned the ultimate victory after HHH tried to counter his Sweet Chin Music finisher into a Pedigree, only for Michaels to counter it for a pinfall victory. After all the drama, near falls, and overall storyline going into this match, it made sense to have the finish come off as if Michales emerged victorious with an out-of-nowhere pin rather than a definitive win in his first match back.
In his first match back in four years, HBK went nearly thirty minutes (which says a lot about his level of self-confidence at the time, even if he was a bit concerned about his level of in-ring rust). After the match, HHH did the unthinkable by using a sledgehammer to further injure HBK's back - this further cemented Hunter's positioning as the villain of all villains. This post-match attack was also a smart way to get Michales off TV for a while after experiencing such a joyous moment, as he got stretchered out by EMTs soon after. Nobody knew for sure if this was a one-time situation for Michaels or if we’d ever see him wrestle again.
Fortunately, "The Showstopper" caught the wrestling bug again and popped back up on WWE TV to enjoy a second run with the company as an active wrestler before retiring in 2010. This is one of my favorite matches of all time that I remember being super excited for at the time and I still remember the feeling of joy watching it for the first time. I was a fan of both guys but was mainly a huge Michaels fan since he was one of the first wrestlers I remember watching live on TV rather than on old wrestling tapes. This match featured violent high spots due to its nature of being a hardcore brawl, but both men employed a ton of psychology in order to tell the fans a logical story in the ring. Michaels returned as if he had never left!