All that remained was a pair of black boots. Black boots that signified the end as they stood proud but lonely in the middle of the squared circle. They had belonged to Paul Levesque, a man famed for leaving everything in the ring whenever he stepped inside it, smearing canvas after canvas with his blood and sweat for over 25 years. On Sunday, 3rd April, 2022 however, there was no crimson or perspiration being shed. Any pain or anguish being suffered was emotional rather than physical, for this was the day that Paul Levesque had to take everything with him when he exited through the ropes. Apart from that pair of black boots.
The man who has come to be known as Triple H (or Hunter Hearst Helmsley if you’re still working with gimmick government names) for the last quarter century was leaving his treasured footwear behind at the opening of night two of WrestleMania 38 as a gesture of retirement. The former 14 time World Champion had been forced to prematurely bring down the curtain on his in-ring exploits on 25th March this year, after a severe cardiac event, exacerbated by viral pneumonia in September 2021 left The Game perilously close to Game Over.
Speaking to ESPN’s Stephen A.Smith on First Take, the Cerebral Assassin said of his condition at the time, "I was nose-diving and sort of at the 1-yard line of where you don't want to be really, for your family and your future. There's moments in there when they're putting you out for stuff and you think, 'Is this it? Do you wake up from this?' That's tough to swallow and makes you think differently.
"I will never wrestle again. First of all, I have a defibrillator in my chest, which, you know, probably not a good idea for me to get zapped on live TV.”
When the signature growl of Motörhead’s ‘Time To Play The Game’ exploded out of the PA system at AT&T Stadium in Dallas last Sunday evening, it marked Triple H’s first main roster appearance since his hospitalisation. On a weekend of rapturous receptions for marquee returns (Cody Rhodes and Stone Cold Steve Austin also made memorable reappearances to the WWE ring at WrestleMania 38), there wasn’t much to top it.
Levesque kept his speech short, simply saying thank you and welcoming everyone to WrestleMania, a line famously delivered at the event down the years by his father-in-law and company chairman Vince McMahon. At an event that he has become just as synonymous with as his best friend ‘Mr.WrestleMania’ Shawn Michaels has, it felt like a fitting sense of closure, even if it was a finale thrust upon The Game rather than him being able to go out on his own terms.
There would be no retirement match, no handpicked opponent for that last, glorious programme. Instead, an emotionally charged return to the event where he made so many memories with the likes of The Rock, The Undertaker, Daniel Bryan, Batista, John Cena and Shawn Michaels. And then all that remained was a pair of black boots.
Just over 24 hours earlier, at the American Airlines Center, roughly a 25 minute drive from the AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Levesque would make his first surprise return of the weekend, one which also came with its own seismic sense of emotion and finality. As Tommaso Ciampa departed up the ramp following his loss to Tony D’Angelo at NXT: Stand and Deliver, the former two time NXT Champion, who represented the brand as both its top heel and babyface at one time or another, was greeted by the man who had placed so much faith in him over the previous five years. An embrace and a few words were shared between the two men in a moment which highlighted where Triple H’s legacy now lies. The future.
Ten years ago, a third WWE brand was launched, born out of an ill-advised gameshow style concept, NXT was transformed into a developmental division for the company, with the intention of moulding the superstars of the future. Whereas the initial iteration of the brand had seen WWE talents ‘mentor’ newcomers to the promotion (despite the fact that, in some cases, the ‘rookies’ were actually more experienced than those they were serving under, as was the case for Daniel Bryan being paired with The Miz), the new NXT was a permanent weekly fixture, recording television out of it’s own studio within Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida.
Seth Rollins would become the brand’s inaugural champion in 2012, before dropping the title to Big E ahead of a promotion to the main roster as one third of The Shield. Bray Wyatt and his Wyatt Family spawned out of the Orlando territory as did, most noticeably, the cornerstones of WWE’s ‘Women’s Evolution’, The Four Horsewomen - Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Bayley. By 2015, NXT Champion Kevin Owens was showing up on Raw to not only confront John Cena, but defeat him cleanly and emphatically as well. In August of that same year, the black and gold brand was selling out the Barclay’s Center for their now iconic TakeOver: Brooklyn event.
That night in New York, Triple H opened the show to a rabid standing ovation from the 15,000 strong crowd. It was surreal to witness a brand with no household names selling out a major arena of such a size, but as the proceeding four years would be testament to, the ‘developmental’ from Orlando was much, much more than that and it was Levesque at the helm.
Flanked by the genius of his mentor William Regal and the late, great Dusty Rhodes, Triple H established his vision for NXT almost immediately. The focus wasn’t on the same level of ‘sports entertainment’ that his father-in-law values so dearly. It was on genuine character development and in-ring workrate. There was no ‘look’ that was favoured down in Orlando and, with just an hour of television a week and four major shows or ‘TakeOvers’ as they became known, a year, the product was far less exhaustive to follow than that of the main roster, where the combined five weekly hours of Raw and SmackDown, coupled with a Pay-Per-View every month, could feel like a slog to even the most ardent of WWE hardcores.
Despite his Hall of Fame career, one which saw him form two of the most legendary factions in WWE history in D-Generation X and Evolution, as well as winning every major title available, headlining multiple WrestleManias and working some of the most seminal rivalries professional wrestling has ever known, it is Triple H’s dedication to the future that has become his most impressive, and important, work.
“Man, Triple H has done more for me than anyone in my career,” begins Kevin Owens as we discuss his time in NXT and what The King of Kings taught him during their time together in Florida.
“I can’t get into how important and how helpful he’s been to me for the last several years, it’s just great to see him back, though he’s not going to be in the ring any more which, selfishly I really wish he was because I always wanted to wrestle him and we both always thought it would happen eventually. He’s always been an anchor for me. He was always there any time I needed anything and he still was, he and I kept in contact even after this happened to him. So to see him back it feels like things are back to how they should be because he’s so crucial.”
Even those who developed in the precursor to NXT, Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) were still coached and advised by Triple H, as Trinity Fatu aka Naomi shared with me ahead of WrestleMania, last weekend.
“I learned from H on the road early on. I was on the first NXT but it’s totally different from what NXT is now. A lot of my experiences with H when I was coming up were very hands on, when I was part of the Funkadactyls, coming up with a whole entrance and taking me and Cam (Cameron aka Ariane Andrew) under his wing and showing us how this all works and then transitioning me to the Glow, that was all Triple H.
“Everything I have taken from him has always helped me or advanced me or I’ve learned from. He’s really straightforward. I’ve had sit-downs and talks with him through frustration and he’s helped me through all of that so he holds a special place in my heart and I think he’s done so much behind the scenes, especially for the women’s division, people don’t realise just how much he does. He’s always fighting for us, like with the Four Horsewomen. He had this vision and saw what these women were going to bring. He saw that, no one else. Without him, I’m not sure what would have happened."
In the modern day, as NXT moves further away from the black and gold years and onwards with it’s newfound ‘2.0’ era, one which is yet to see many of Levesque’s fingerprints due to his absence, there are still those superstars who have transitioned from the brand in recent months to the main roster who have benefited tremendously from his teachings and behind the scenes work.
One of whom is Austin Theory, the 24-year-old upstart who is currently serving as Vince McMahon’s latest on-screen protegé and was also involved in one of the most talked about matches of WrestleMania weekend, where he went one-on-one in a losing effort to SmackDown commentator and former NFL star Pat McAfee, before eating a Stone Cold Stunner from a returning Steve Austin.
“With Triple H, he knows how to do business and he knows how to get stuff done,” explains Theory, who was promoted to Monday Night Raw not long after NXT went technicolor during the second half of 2021.
“He was always somebody in NXT where, if I ever had a question or wanted to talk about something or just had an idea, he was always there ready to bounce ideas around. He’s a busy guy, he’s always got a lot of stuff going on, so it’s cool to see someone that busy still have time for something so small.”
Likewise, the members of Imperium, now a seemingly disbanded group following the call ups of the recently rechristened Gunther (Walter) and Ludwig Kaiser (Marcel Barthel) but not Fabian Aichner, to SmackDown this week, echoed the sentiments of Levesque’s ability to not overcomplicate matters while also being able to take the time to understand and address the concerns of those who put their bodies on the line for his brand every week.
“I dealt with him when I signed with WWE and he was a straightforward guy right away, very easy to talk to,” begins Gunther, who was tasked with holding down the UK division of NXT for over two years as the brand’s dominant champion.
“He opened the door for international talent to come into the company and make a career in America. 10, 15 years ago that was something that was very unlikely so without his decision to open up to those markets and to people like us who started working in Germany and Austria, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Kaiser, the former Barthel, continued his stablemate’s appreciation of what The Game has achieved on the management side of the business.
“Anyone who’s been around him or has worked with him knows how busy he is and how passionate he is and how much work he puts into everything. And it’s all for the business. We’re all really connected to him because real recognises real. Like has already been said, we’ll always be grateful for him opening the door to international talent like us and also for giving us the opportunity to work with somebody like him.”
For a man who’s detractors have consistently pointed to the ‘burying’ of talents to maintain his own lofty position in the upper echelons of the card, Triple H’s passion for either producing new talents or introducing WWE audiences to those who have impressed him and NXT management on the independent circuits across the globe feels like an honest, well earned reprieve from a career where cynicism and scorn was regularly ready and waiting in response to any move he made inside the ring.
Of course, it would be remiss to gloss over Levesque’s entire career as if there weren’t any missteps or poor decisions. The Booker T feud from 2003 still sticks in the craw of many fans, while the decision to have The Game reign supreme over Sting at WrestleMania 31 remains baffling to almost everyone. Introducing an injury ravaged, part-time Kevin Nash, supremely wonderful though he may be, to the CM Punk programme in 2011 was a major momentum killer at a time when Punk was the hottest act in the world. And maybe let’s just completely erase the 2002 feud with Kane from our collective memories.
There are other times where The Game could have done a better job at elevating others, but is he alone in being imperfect? Plenty of our favourites have made decisions that have been beneficial to themselves and no one else. They have also used their political stroke to earn victories that should have been defeats but, in the grand scheme of things, have the supposed ‘buryings’ that have been levelled at Triple H not been offset massively by his star-making efforts with Batista and Randy Orton? Or him doing the honours in spectacular fashion for the likes of John Cena and Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 22 and 30 respectively? Was THAT run from 1999-2001 not two solid years of some of the most sensational heel work in WWE history?
With NXT and the establishment of WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando over the last seven years, Triple H has rewritten his legacy. He is not simply a Hall of Fame level performer. He is not merely a former World Champion, he is the man who opened up WWE to new ways of thinking and performing. Two of his hires, Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, though not manufactured within the ‘E’s Performance Center but rather developed in the likes of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Ring of Honor, were two of the most important pieces of last week’s WrestleMania card, being that they were tasked with carrying their respective programmes with Steve Austin and Cody Rhodes solo on television for weeks on end.
Elsewhere, Bianca Belair, very much a product of the Orlando facility, stole the show for the second straight year, defeating Becky Lynch for the Raw Women’s Title only 12 months after downing another of Triple H’s famed Four Horsewomen Sasha Banks, in an equally jaw dropping bout at last year’s ‘Mania.
During his post-WrestleMania press conference, Cody Rhodes confided that Levesque was his favourite wrestler and was almost moved to tears when he described how the pair had reunited upon Rhodes’ recent headline making return to the company from All Elite Wrestling.
Theirs was never an NXT affiliation, but the respect Rhodes clearly holds for the 14 time World Champion was abundantly clear in every word he spoke last Sunday morning. Those he helped found AEW with - The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega - all discussed at length the possibility of moving to WWE with Triple H when their contracts were expiring with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Though the trio decided they were better suited to following their ambitions of founding a new upstart promotion that could potentially rival WWE, they had nothing but positive experiences to share of their negotiations with The Game, further reinforcing his standing within the industry as not only a performer, but as a promoter and businessman.
In cementing NXT as WWE’s most scintillating product between 2014 and the Covid era, Triple H changed the game and exposed the ‘E’s more casual audience to a variety of styles and products they were previously unaccustomed with.
He made WWE’s product more diverse and international, while also helping to ensure that women’s wrestling was finally taken seriously by the company. NXT 2.0 may not have been Paul Levesque’s original vision for the brand, but as long as he’s able to influence the direction and be there for those in Orlando who need him, we can likely rest assured that a corner will be turned from the difficult first few months 2.0 has undergone.
So while all that remained on WrestleMania weekend was a pair of black boots, they were not a sign that this was the end, but rather, a new beginning.
Watch WrestleMania 38 on-demand now at www.wwe.com/wwenetwork