"Guys, there's something wrong."
The line itself was innocuous. JBL could have delivered it during any match and at any moment. But context is key—as was delivery. This was no regular wrestling call. The hushed and serious tones, first made famous by announcers Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler when Owen Hart plummeted to his death in a ring entrance gone very wrong, told wrestling fans everywhere that this wasn't just part of the show.
In the parlance of the wrestling world, JBL was shooting.
Triple H, the son-in-law of the boss himself and a bona fide wrestling legend, did not look good. Fighting Curtis Axel, against doctor's orders, his poor brain seemingly took one jarring blow too many. The man who kicked out of roughly 10,000 finishers during his WrestleMania 29 match with Brock Lesnar was finally brought low by two right hands delivered by a newcomer getting what is likely his only shot at the big time.
"I need water, just give me water."
Hunter looked confused. He couldn't quite make it back into the ring, choosing instead to sit on a chair ringside to try and gather his thoughts. When he asked for the water and then didn't send a single drop spewing out of his mouth in true Triple H style—that's when we knew it was serious business. Shoot or work? The signs, including Triple H's refusal to abide by doctor's orders, all pointed to work.
They were singing another song all together.
"Guys there's something wrong."
This time it was announcer Michael Cole delivering in code. Cole, who transformed his reputation overnight when he dealt with Lawler's real-life heart attack on the air with grace and dignity, was using the same voice he used to get through real-life tragedy as Triple H dropped to one knee, unable to return to the ring he's called home for 18 years.
Is Triple H alright? Can he come back? Wasn't it very brave of him to risk life and limb to step into the ring and compete in the first place?
Those are the questions everyone should have been asking after a bravura performance during the final segment of Raw. Instead, it was a finish met resoundingly with boos. With fans online complaining about Triple H stealing the thunder of the debuting Axel. With impromptu celebrations of his expected absence from the scene.
The question is "why?" Why did the audience sit on its hands as Triple H and Lesnar battered each other at WrestleMania? Why are his endlessly long promos something to dread rather than savor? Why can't he get the crowd to love him, no matter how many tricks he pulls out of what must be some rather long sleeves?
There might be a complicated answer to that question, one involving advanced metrics and plenty of mathematics, small focus-group studies and plenty of advanced degrees. My answer is simpler—nobody likes Triple H.
Hunter is a student of wrestling history. He knows that when they get to a certain age, respected veterans of the sport are hard to truly boo. Ric Flair could play a heel until the day he dies (and almost surely will do so), but at some point, all the way back in 1989 if you ask me, audiences simply refused to boo Ric Flair.
The same was true for Shawn Michaels upon his WWE return after a lengthy hiatus. The crowd may play along in part, but deep down inside, it doesn't want to hate a man it respects.
Triple H views himself on the same level as those other two men. Technically, he has all the credentials in the world. Looking at it on paper, you could make the case that he's every bit the iconic star that Flair or Michaels are. That he's like the Rock, only a Rock who stayed true to the business he loved.
He may feel he's earned the respect of the crowd, that no one could possibly boo him because his tenure in the company demands wrestling fans love him as much as he loves the wrestling business.
But nobody loves Triple H. Nobody ever has. Nobody ever will.
Part of the reason Triple H fails time and time again as a babyface is structural. He doesn't really understand what makes a good babyface tick, or, if he does understand, he just doesn't want to do what is necessary to make the time-tested pattern work for him. His match with Lesnar at WrestleMania is a perfect example of his failure to work a match as anything but a kick-butt heel.
A babyface has to, at some point in any good match, make the heel look strong. He has to be vulnerable, weak, nearing certain doom. Triple H doesn't want to work a match that way. His every instinct is to destroy and cut off his foe, never to nurture an opponent's heat.
Perhaps that was bred in him during his days in the Attitude era, when wrestlers competed fiercely for spots behind the scenes and weren't above the little tricks it took to catch McMahon's, or the crowd's eye. Triple H understands subtext, realizes that, though wrestling is predetermined, what happens in the ring matters. He doesn't want to look weak.
Despite being an aging veteran, which is a nice way of saying washed up, he insisted on being just as tough as Lesnar. Better at submissions than Lesnar. His opponent's equal in every way.
As much as that may have soothed his ego, it absolutely killed the match. Hunter doesn't look convincing trying to sell for his opponent. His heart clearly isn't in it. In that match, his best friend Shawn Michaels could barely be bothered to care, barely changing facial expressions as his former partner stiffly took Brock Lesnar's offense.
If he doesn't care, if Hunter doesn't care, how can the crowd care?
Which leads us inevitably to Triple H's biggest failure as a babyface—everyone in the arena, in front of the cameras and behind them, in the back or up in the cheap seats, knows that Hunter is a jerk.
Whether true or not, we know it.
He's a manipulator, a schemer, the guy who married the boss's daughter. While others earned their spots at the top, he coasted on nepotism, inheriting a position that might have otherwise gone to someone else.
Any attempt to put that behind him, to overcome it, is doomed to failure. Time for Triple H to drop the babyface facade. We've seen it—and we're not buying. Hunter's way too bad an actor to pull off anything but Hunter. And Hunter can never be anything but despised.
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