If WrestleMania, the annual World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per-view extravaganza, is the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, then Shawn Michaels is Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady all rolled into one.
Michaels might not have as recognizable a name as wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and The Rock, but he is the man wrestling fans refer to as "Mr. WrestleMania."
On wrestling's grandest stage - WrestleMania sells out stadiums regularly and, like the Super Bowl, has cities bid to host it - Michaels routinely steals the show. He will be in the spotlight Sunday - perhaps for the final time - when he faces a wrestler known as The Undertaker in one of the main events of WrestleMania XXVI at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Despite his age (44) and being a 26-year veteran of the ring, Michaels - whose real name is Michael Hickenbottom - continues to dazzle fans of the sports entertainment genre with his overt athleticism and ability to play out compelling stories in the ring. His match with The Undertaker at last year's WrestleMania is considered by many wrestling pundits to be the most entertaining match in the history of the event.
"I still think that, day in and day out, he [Michaels] is the best in WWE by far," said longtime announcer Jim Ross, who has known Michaels since the latter broke into the business in 1984. "On any given night against any given opponent, he will steal the show."
The fact that Michaels, nicknamed "The Heartbreak Kid," is still wrestling, much less captivating crowds, is remarkable considering that his career appeared to be finished at 32. A serious back injury and a struggle with prescription drug abuse kept Michaels out of the ring for more than four years, but he eventually experienced a rebirth - both personally and professionally.
While pro wrestling matches are predetermined and not a legitimate competition, the physical toll they take on the wrestlers' bodies is real.
In 1998, Michaels, suffering from two herniated disks, believed his career was over. Michaels, who had dreamed since childhood of becoming a pro wrestler, was told by doctors not to wrestle again. He underwent surgery in January 1999 to have two vertebrae fused.
Unlike his smooth moves in the ring, Michaels' transition into everyday life was anything but.
Bitter about having to leave his livelihood, he was also taking as many as 35 pills a day between painkillers and muscle relaxants.
"I didn't go through a lot of missing the ring and missing being out there," said Michaels, who had opened a wrestling school and made occasional nonwrestling appearances on WWE television. "The anger was more about not being able to finish something on your own terms that you started."
Things began to turn around once Michaels married in 1999 and became a father in 2000, but he still struggled with drug addiction. In 2001, he became a born-again Christian and subsequently kicked his habit.
"The start of the change for me came with meeting Rebecca," he said of his wife. "Seeing something that was more important than you and more important than wrestling and more important than having to leave something when you didn't want to. And then the stakes got upped with the birth of our son [Cameron].
"Again, there's something else that's more important than you, more important than wrestling. That slowly led to my salvation, and that's the ultimate to where you find out that it isn't all about you."
For those who had worked with Michaels in wrestling, it was a stunning transformation for a man who had a reputation - well-deserved, he said - for being a prima donna.
In 2002, Ross, then the head of talent relations in WWE, visited Michaels and floated the idea of a comeback.
"I felt like it was unfortunate the way he left the business and the baggage that he carried on with him when he went home," Ross said. "I felt that he was one of the most talented performers I had ever seen on any level in any promotion, and that he deserved the opportunity to hear somebody say to him that he had more to give to this business, and that's exactly what I said.
"Through those conversations and other conversations he had in the company, he came back and I don't know that he missed a beat."
While he might be the same performer in the ring, Michaels' perspective on the wrestling business has changed significantly.
"If we're not a good steward of what God gives us, he takes it away. I think that's what happened," Michaels said. "I wasn't a good steward of the gift that he gave me in this line of work. I abused it, so he took it away.
"I've tried to come back and use it in a positive way. It's him, family and then your job. It's not the end all, be all anymore. It's important that my wife and children get the man that they bargained for."
Michaels' 17th appearance at WrestleMania on Sunday night could very well be his last. The stipulation of the match is that he must retire if he loses, and while the result of the match will be scripted, Michaels' retirement might not be.
He said it is getting harder and harder to live up to the fans' expectations for him.
"It's like a guy on a wire; for the first time he looks down and he realizes he's on a wire," he said. "All these years I've been going along and I've never really looked down from the wire. And then you wonder, 'Well, if I slip, will they catch me or will they watch me fall?'
"I've got an opportunity that most people don't get - to go out with my head held high and be able to hear, 'He didn't stay around too long.' That's important to me, and I'd like to do that before I slip on that wire."
WrestleMania XXVI When:
Sunday, 7 p.m.
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.