THE CLIQUE – 1995 – 1997
Michaels returned to the ring, as a crowd favorite, in June 1995. He went onto defeat Jeff Jarrett at the July pay-per-view event, In Your House, to win his third Intercontinental championship. This led to a title defense against Razor Ramon at SummerSlam, in a ladder match, which Michaels won. Around this time, Michaels became the alleged leader of a backstage group known as The Clique. Others perceived the group to have sufficient clout with WWF owner Vince McMahon, becoming dominant wrestling figures in WWF for several years in the mid-1990s. Michaels disputes the perception, saying that McMahon pushed only deserving wrestlers. Michaels’ fan base was later nicknamed “The Kliq” as an inside reference to the real “Clique”. In October 1995, he was legitimately attacked by several men outside a bar in Syracuse, New York. Shortly afterwards, at the In Your House: Great White North pay-per-view, Michaels forfeited the Intercontinental championship to staged rival Dean Douglas because he was, according to WWF, unable to compete. Later in the night, Douglas lost the championship to Clique member Razor Ramon. The next month, during a match with Owen Hart on an episode of Raw, Owen performed a kick that struck the back of Michaels’ head. They continued the match, but Michaels collapsed in the ring, supposedly because he had suffered a concussion in the Syracuse incident. The concussion was scripted, which was kept from most fans at the time. A retirement angle was written so that Michaels could take some time off, after he came back from an injury too soon.
After teasing a retirement, Michaels returned to WWF at the Royal Rumble match in 1996, which he wound up winning for a second year in a row, to receive a WWF Championship match in the main event at WrestleMania XII. Around this time, Jose Lothario became Michaels on-screen manager. At WrestleMania XII, Michaels defeated Bret Hart in the ‘sudden death’ overtime of their sixty minute Iron Man match, a match where the winner is determined by the number of scoring conditions by a certain time limit, which had ended in a 0�0 tie. On May 19, 1996 in an incident known as “Curtain Call: The MSG Incident,” Michaels won a steel cage match, a match where the ring is surrounded by a steel cage, against Kevin Nash. After the match ended, Scott Hall, who was about to leave WWF to company rival WCW, came to the ring and hugged Michaels. Although Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Nash were seen as villains at the time, in contrast to Michaels and Hall, they were also members of The Clique, and joined in the good-bye hug as a group. The incident was seen as a rare breach in “kayfabe”, the faux action and storylines that promoters wanted the fans to see as real. As WCW gained momentum due to the signings of Hall and Nash, Michaels held the championship for most of the year. Michaels’ championship reign ended at the 1996 Survivor Series event, where he lost to Sycho Sid, his former bodyguard. Michaels recaptured the championship from Sid in January 1997 at the Royal Rumble.
On a special episode of Raw, dubbed Thursday Raw Thursday, Michaels vacated the WWF championship; he explained to fans that he was informed by doctors that he had conjured a knee injury, and that he had to retire. His speech was regarded as controversial, as Michaels was allegedly unwilling to lose to Bret Hart at WrestleMania 13 (since it was noted that he was going to have a rematch with Hart at WrestleMania). Michaels contemplated thoughts of retirement and stated that he “had to find his smile again,” which he had “lost” somewhere down the line. After knee surgery by Dr. James Andrews, Michaels returned a few months later, briefly teaming with Steven Austin to win the WWF Tag Team Title. In his autobiography, Michaels reveals about his real-life feud with Bret Hart, claiming that Bret did interviews on live television claiming that he [Michaels] was faking his whole injury.
At SummerSlam, Michaels officiated the WWF championship match between champion The Undertaker and Bret Hart. The match ended in controversial fashion, with Michaels hitting Undertaker with a chair (unintentionally, as he was aiming for Bret after he spat in his face). Michaels was then forced to award the championship to his nemesis, Bret Hart. At WWF One Night Only, held in Birmingham, England in September, Michaels defeated The British Bulldog to capture the WWF European Championship. The fans at the event were so appalled at the result of the match they booed Michaels out of the building, to the extent that they littered the ring with rubbish. With this win, Michaels became the first Grand Slam Champion, a distinction made to a professional wrestler who has won all of the major titles in a promotion. During the 1997 SummerSlam event, a feud culminated between Michaels and The Undertaker, after Michaels struck The Undertaker with the usage of a steel chair. At the October pay-per-view event, In Your House: Badd Blood, Michaels and Undertaker participated in the first Hell in a Cell match, a match contested in a ring surrounded by a steel cage made of metal. During the match, it saw Michaels fall off the side of the 15-foot (5 m) high structure through a table and saw him as the winner in the match. The match received a 5-star rating from Dave Meltzer.
In the summer, Michaels joined forces with real-life friend, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Hunter’s then-girlfriend, Chyna, and Rick Rude to form the stable, a group of wrestlers, D-Generation X (DX). Moving away from the family-oriented product, this marked the beginning of the WWF Attitude Era. Michaels continued his rivalry with Bret Hart and his reformed Hart Foundation, which was now a pro-Canada stable. Michaels taunted the group and Canada by engaging in acts, such as blowing his nose with and humping the Canadian Flag. Michaels later claimed the flag desecration was Bret’s idea. Michaels’ feud with the Hart Foundation culminated in a championship match at Survivor Series in 1997 against Bret Hart. Michaels came out of this match, dubbed by fans the “Montreal Screwjob”, as the WWF Champion. Michaels now held both the WWF and European championship at the same time. Michaels, however, lost the European championship to group member, Hunter Hurst Hemsley, who often was referred to as Triple H (HHH), when he pinned him during a farcical match, making Triple H the European Champion.