by Irvin Muchnick
Shawn Michaels heads the 2011 World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame class, and no one not blinded by personal resentment could fail to see that he deserves it. Michaels was one of the great workers of his generation, both in the ring and at the mike.
But I break ranks with the hero-worshippers in also pointing out that the Heartbreak Kid’s Hall of Fame induction the night before WrestleMania is a teaching moment that will likely go both wasted and without significant remark, except for right here.
Michaels was intimately involved in one of the most heinous episodes in the industry’s history. No, folks, I’m not talking about the 1997 “screwjob” with Bret Hart. I’m talking about the punishment chair beatdown – which included one clear and vicious head shot – delivered by Michaels to Lance Cade on the October 6, 2008, edition of Raw. Cade would die less than two years later, at age 29, from “heart failure.”
Before reviewing that sordid chain of events, let me make it clear that I recognize ugly stuff has always happened in this business. In 1952 Wladek Kowalski accidentally severed most of “Yukon Eric” Holmback’s left ear during a match in Montreal, and this helped catapult the erstwhile babyface “Tarzan” Kowalski to superstardom as heel “Killer” Kowalski. He talked about Yukon Eric’s spontaneous ear amputation in publicity interviews, even joked about it, all the way up to and beyond Eric’s 1965 suicide. By most accounts, Kowalski was a sweet soul in real life. To my knowledge, no one ever blamed him for what was obviously an industrial mishap, or even for proceeding to exploit it.
In today’s era, though, industrial death happens much too frequently and cuts far too close to scripted reality for my stomach. That is the lesson of the story of Shawn Michaels and Lance “Cade” McNaught, whom the former had trained in San Antonio and mentored through a career that came crashing down, along with his very life, in a piece of arcane inside code which seemingly didn’t know when to stop.
The background is that Michaels had rewarded Cade with a clean pinfall victory over him on television, and etiquette called for the young star to show gratitude to the veteran legend. Either defiantly or cluelessly, Cade chose to depart without shaking Michaels’ hand in the dressing room.
In return, WWE booked a “no disqualification” match on Raw in which Michaels battered Cade with a steel chair 19 times by my count — 12 times before the pin and seven times afterward. The first was square on the top of the skull; the subsequent ones were distributed with more humanitarian discretion across midsection, back, and torso.
(At http://www.youtube.com/WrestlingBabylon#p/a/u/0/2lolKpQ_Dms, this video clip is overlaid with audio of my interview about it on Connecticut public radio, shortly after Cade’s death and during Linda McMahon’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.)
You can’t hang this borderline-criminal act entirely on Michaels; it was a sickeningly mortal byproduct of corporate culture. A year earlier, following the Chris Benoit murder-suicide, Vince McMahon had said on a CNN documentary that WWE was eliminating chair shots to the head. But as the incident on Raw the next year showed, McMahon’s words were meaningless. Chair shots to the head would remain heavily and gleefully promoted all the way through the December 2009 “Tables, Ladders, and Chairs” pay-per-view, by which time Linda’s race for elected office was in high gear.
Say what you will about WWE’s decision to auction off the autographed chair Michaels used on Cade (it fetched $315). Much more disturbing was what happened to Cade’s health. I don’t know if he also previously had a painkiller problem, but there is no question that his infamous seizure on an airplane flight, which necessitated an emergency landing, came a few days after the Raw beatdown, and his release by WWE followed a few days after that. He undertook some drug rehab and had one more WWE stint, which ended abruptly months before his death.
Spare me the calls for a Nobel Prize for WWE for footing the rehab bills of Cade and others. Above all, please spare all of us this revolting remark by Linda McMahon as scrutiny of her and her husband’s stewardship of their billion-dollar company undermined her electoral ambitions: “Who knows what causes people to have addictions and do what they do?”
Nor was the Michaels-Cade fallout an insolated event. In 2003 the Undertaker leveled Chris “Kanyon” Klutsarits with a sick head chair shot, seven years before Klutsarits’ suicide. See http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzA3MDU0MTI=.html.
There is a school of thought holding that systematic death in worked entertainment is OK, that it’s the omelette you just can’t make without cracking eggs. I disagree. I call on Shawn Michaels to acknowledge in his Hall of Fame speech that signature moment with Lance Cade, and to explain to the world why the celebration of his career on April 2 is not compromised with disgust.
NEXT: Did Lance Cade Have Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy? It May Not Be Too Late to Find Out