Perhaps because he's been a bad guy on television for more than a decade, playing with our emotions against opponents from Owen Hart to Sting, it's difficult for hardcore wrestling fans to give Paul "Triple H" Levesque his just due. And now that he's the face of WWE's often controversial creative team, Triple H is more polarizing than ever.
But if you look back at his career, including an incredible 13 world title reigns, he rightfully belongs among the very best wrestlers of all time. For 23 years he's walked that aisle—and he has dozens of classic matches to show for it, including feuds with Mick Foley, Batista, Steve Austin and Daniel Bryan that will rightfully stand the test of time.
While wrestling fans may not always be quick to credit Triple H for his wrestling excellence, the outside world is less hesitant.
On Saturday he will be inducted into the International Sports Hall of Fame at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, joining a class that includes five-time world boxing champion Evander Holyfield and eight-time Ms. Olympia bodybuilding champion Lenda Murray among many others.
To celebrate, Triple H sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss his career, his new challenges as WWE's executive vice president for talent, live events and creative and his upcoming match against fellow wrestling icon Sting at WrestleMania 31 March 29 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Bleacher Report: Thanks to the WWE Network I've been able to study much of your career. And it's pretty overwhelming. But before I put you over, in the parlance of your industry, I have to ask you about Jean Paul Levesque. Because that French accent was not great.
Triple H: (Laughs). Well, that's quite a story. My last name is Levesque, but I don't speak French.
B/R: But you had the accent!
Triple H: When I went to WCW, I was never supposed to go in there as Terra Ryzing. That was a name (Killer) Kowalski had given me, and they said, 'Oh, we're going to repackage you. Don't worry about it. You'll never be on TV with that name.' But then they put my tryout match on TV, and I started working as Terra Ryzing.
A few months later, I get a call, and they say I need to go to the CNN Center on a Friday night to do interviews. That was a good sign, because they had never had me do interviews—it seemed like a good step forward.
I get down there and (Ric) Flair's there. He had just kind of taken over the booking. I didn't really know Ric at the time, and he goes, 'Hey, we're going to repackage you.' And I say, OK great. And he says, 'We saw your last name. Levesque. Is that French?' I said, Yeah. So he says, 'Great, go into the other room and cut promos on Alex Wright in French.'
Well, I don't speak French.
Triple H: Anyway, he was like, 'You don't speak French?' I said, "No! I'm from New Hampshire. I don't even have any French relatives that I'm aware of." So he says, "Well, go in there and cut promos in a French accent."
Oh my God! So I go in there with no prep time and they're rushing me. "Hurry up, we've got other guys waiting." (Laughs). So I end up doing the worst Inspector Clouseau. What's a French accent supposed to sound like? And I'm in front of Ric Flair! The guy's my idol. I'm completely freaked out.
A couple of those exist, and then there's one that following week. I get to TV, and literally as the show begins they go, 'Oh, by the way, you've got a live interview with Gordon Solie.'
B/R: This is the one I saw.
Triple H: Oh my God. Gordon Solie! This is the be-all, end-all television announcer of all time. Now I'm really freaked out. And, I don't want to besmirch the late Gordon Solie, but right before my interview, the agent Mike Graham comes up to me and says, 'Don't forget the French accent. And, oh by the way, Gordon is drunk.'
Triple H: 'He might not remember what he's supposed to ask you.' Oh my God! And this is live. (Laughs). They were phenomenal. I should have won an award.
B/R: That's a great story. And one people at NXT and young wrestlers in WWE could take to heart. Because you weren't always "The Game." Even when you went to WWE you did matches with Duke "The Dumpster" Droese and Marc Mero. That's not exactly the golden ticket to getting over is it? When did you feel like you really made it?
Triple H: It's funny, because it was actually when I was working with Marc Mero that I felt, "OK, clearly they must like me." Because they had just put a lot of money into bringing Marc Mero in.
I remember George "The Animal" Steele came to me at the TV where Mero made his debut. He worked a dark match and Steele said, 'Did we make a mistake bringing this guy in here?' It was just bad.
They put me with him on the road to work with him and get him up to speed. And I thought "if they're reaching to me to handle this guy and get him going, wow." It was kind of a confidence boost for me.
B/R: It must have felt good to get that boost. There's a lot we don't know that goes on before something ever hits television. When do you think you'd found something that was really working? With Chyna?
Triple H: As the business started to change, I wanted to change the character somewhat. Before the Chyna thing, I went through a series of managers. Mr. Perfect was my manager for a few days, then he jumped ship and went to WCW. I had Curtis Hughes for like a minute.
They were trying to find the right fit to put some bells and whistles on it—which was an investment in me as a character. At that point and time I started to feel like I was doing well. It just morphed from there.
B/R: Everybody talks about what it was like backstage, with the famous Klique and your battles with management. Now that you're wearing different shoes, and you're management, how would you deal with the Triple H of 1997-98, a smart, hungry and maybe a little manipulative guy? How would you deal with a young you?
Triple H: It's funny, a lot of that has taken on a life of its own. It is really made out to be bigger than it was. I remember at the time everybody was talking about this supposed feud between Undertaker's crew and our crew, the Klique and the BSK's. Like it was this big turf war.
We all went to the same places every night! We were all at the same clubs, hanging out at the same table. But we would kind of work this scenario for the guys who weren't involved in it. During that time we were all together. All the time! But people made this huge deal out of it. A lot of that was hyped up.
B/R: But you were young and hungry and looking to improve your position. Do you relate to wrestlers today with the same mindset you had?
Triple H: As far as the talent goes, when you see somebody who's really hungry, and talented, and has a bright future, you are willing to allow them to spread their wings and try things. And sometimes they are going to make mistakes, and you're going to have to reel them in and control them. And if it gets too bad, you have to really step in.
I have the ability to look at this differently because I went through it. If you're smart with it, and I think this is how Vince (McMahon) was with us, he allowed us to go through all that without crossing a line that was too much for him. He controlled us but allowed us to expand our wings and grow.
Seth Rollins and I went through a similar thing. He's so talented, and he was very cocky. Like we were. We were so full of ourselves and thought we knew more than we did. We thought we knew better and were going to show the world.
Some of that is a good thing. You don't want to squelch that. You want to almost embrace that. But you have to protect those kids from hurting themselves. I could see how much talent Seth Rollins had, but he was manifesting that self-destructively. And I was trying to help him point that in a positive way.
I was trying to help him. And we had to have some pretty stiff conversations about it. We had to get there. But I never tried to hold him back as a talent from growing and trying things. And even using that, using those feelings. If I'm pissing him off and he feels I'm holding him back slightly, use that as a character tool and get that out of him.
He and I have talked about this a lot, from when he was in developmental to today. You have to work with talent no different than you do your kids. You've got to let your kids do things and experiment with their lives. And they are going to fall. But you have to be there for when they are really going to cross a line to say "no, not that step."
B/R: You mentioned self-destructive, and though it wasn't in this context, it made me think of Mick Foley. I often think of the two of you together, because I think you really carried each other to new heights in those matches in 2000. Did you feel like those were the matches that got you ready to be "The Game?"
Triple H: Absolutely. And one of the things that working with Mick did, was show people "wow, this guy will go through anything too." I earned a different level of respect.
I think for Mick and I, through all the different versions of us working together, we're both trying to prove ourselves. Mick had worked with Undertaker and worked with Shawn (Michaels) and worked with Steve (Austin) when they were the top guys, but he was kind of the guy who was with them. I was a guy trying to come up too.
I remember having a conversation going into the Royal Rumble in 2000, because we were the main event. We were the title match and headlining. It was a big moment for both of us. We both had something to prove that night. It was a step forward. We weren't working with someone else who was a megastar. We both came alive that night.
B/R: I don't think you get enough credit for where wrestling is creatively. For a long time wrestling was stuck in that 1970s style, with everyone doing their version of Jack Brisco or Ricky Steamboat. It seems to me that you, The Rock and Stone Cold really changed that.
When I see wrestling today, it's a reflection of what you guys created with the false finishes, finisher stealing and pace. Did you realize while you were doing it that you were reinventing what wrestling looks like?
Triple H: I don't think any of us said, "Hey, were going to do this differently. We're going to change the business." We were just doing it. You know what I mean?
To look back on it now, even things like DX driving to WCW with the tank and all that, we knew it was kind of a big deal. But if someone said that 20 years later that it would be a moment in time everybody looks back at, I would have said, "Are you out of your mind?"
We were all so busy in the moment, we were all so competitive, we were all so driven to succeed—that's part of what made it all work. It's funny how some of the things that were so successful started. The People's Elbow was something that Rock started doing because we were trying to make Taker laugh at live events. We were all trying to come up with the goofiest stuff we could to make him break character.
I think it was Foley at TV one night who dared him to do it live. And we were all on it. "We double dog dare you to do it." Rock said, "I'll do it." And the place erupted. We were just trying things man. It was a new frontier and a new horizon.
And if he did something cool? I wanted to come up with something cool too. My version of it. We were doing stuff that we wanted to see, that we thought was cool.
If Austin cut a great promo, Rock wanted to cut a better one. Foley was the same way. Taker, same deal. We were all just so driven to do it. That's where it came from. What else can we do to take the crowd further?
B/R: The hardest part of looking back at your career is deciding what to ask you about. There's so much, we can't possibly cover it all.
Triple H: That'll just set up more interviews.
B/R: I'm ready. One of the things I did want to ask you about was Evolution. How did you walk that fine line between being a ripoff of wrestling history, in this case the Four Horsemen, and doing your own thing with a historical influence. Are you still looking to do that today? Your version of one of the classics?
Triple H: Yeah sure. At the end of the day, in the wrestling business, there isn't a whole lot of super original s--t. Even guys' styles. Everybody had someone they grew up watching and thinking "man I want to do that." You take five or six different things from other people and incorporate them.
We started to do Evolution, when Flair and I became friends and I started to see him losing all his confidence. I knew he could contribute. As we started talking we said, "Man, we should really do something to get people talking. Take a couple of young guys and get something rolling."
I went to Vince and said, "Let me take two guys we think have some potential but have just been floating around kind of doing nothing. And let me make a little group with them." Originally Flair was going to be the spokesman. If you compare it to the Horsemen, Ric was going to be J.J. (Dillon).
He said, 'That sounds really cool.' So Ric and I started watching everybody, and we picked Dave and Randy. There's a story out there that it started with Mark Jindrak and Dave replaced him, but that's not true.
The office's suggestion was Jindrak. Dave was always in it. We even shot a vignette of all of us walking down the street together. Jindrak was actually in the shot. It was the first thing we did together, and I felt like he didn't fit with us. Ric felt it too. So we shot it with all of us walking down the street together—but then I had them shoot one without Jindrak in it.
B/R: That must have been awkward.
Triple H: I had them shoot one without Dave in it too so Mark wouldn't go, 'Why wasn't I in it?' We shot all different combinations. But ultimately we went with one that had Dave, Randy, Ric and I. We could feel it with Dave and Randy right from the get-go. There was just a cohesiveness. For whatever reason, Jindrak didn't fit with us. It was nothing personal.
B/R: I'd say it went pretty well. Certainly right up there with the Horsemen and DX on the list of the great stables.
Triple H: It's funny, we weren't trying to say "let's be the Four Horsemen." But we did say "let's do something different than everybody else." In the Attitude Era everyone was in T-shirts and jeans. They had gone away from anything else. So we said, not that we were trying to be the Four Horsemen, but Ric has always been styling and profiling, so it makes sense. We all went with suits and ties.
Randy hated it. I floated them both some money so they could buy some suits and stuff. I think Randy wore his for about two weeks. It was just fun. You just kind of make it happen. When you look back at it, it looks like a really good plan. Well, it was a loose plan and it morphed.
B/R: Going into the Hall of Fame at the Arnold's has to be interesting. It's a nice honor—but at the same time it's a way of saying you're getting a bit older.
Triple H: I noticed that awhile ago. That I was getting older.
Triple H: I got in the ring to get ready for WrestleMania, and I really noticed it. As soon as I hit the ground. For me it's a huge honor to share with a group of guys like Arnold and Bruno (Sammartino). Mark Henry is in there for his power-lifting accolades in addition to his WWE career.
When you look at the people being inducted, it's a huge honor. To have Arnold want me to be a part of that personally is a bigger honor for me. It's a group of people who weren't just successful in their chosen sport, but transcended that to do other things. It's cool to be in that group.
B/R: Even this year, you have Evander Holyfield, one of the legendary boxers of our era. Don "The Dragon" Wilson. You know, it wasn't that long ago you'd never find a wrestler in a Hall of Fame like this.
Triple H: Thirty years ago they go, 'You're going to put a WWE guy in there? They're not even athletes.' That's how they'd look at it. And it's the craziest thing in the world.
When you break it down, no matter how you look into our business, there's a massive athletic component to it. And our talent are globally known. And most of them, if they want to, end up giving back, to the business or their community or a charity and doing other things that benefit others.
B/R: You touched on it a little—getting ready for your match at WrestleMania. We talked in depth about your last match with Daniel Bryan. It was a legitimate classic. This is different. I don't want to make too much of it, but you and Sting are a combined 100 years old. Can you pull this off?
Triple H: I'm hoping that's the most depressing thing I hear all day. (Laughs)
B/R: Yeah, that was rough. I took the gloves off. (Laughs)
Triple H: Because that's pretty depressing. If I hear something worse than that, this day is going to be pretty s----y.
B/R: I'm the winner!
Triple H: You're the winner on the "Depress Me" meter. I'm in a grouping, with one other guy, that has the combined age of 100.
Listen, it's a lot of pressure. I haven't wrestled since last year. Sting hasn't wrestled in God knows how long. We were talking about how I'm getting up there—he's 10 years older than me.
I don't know what I've got. I don't know that he knows what he's got. So, we're going to see. I guarantee you this, though—we will leave it all out there. We're going to have 75,000 people giving us a lot of motivation to do it.
I know for him, this has kind of been a dream he thought was never going to happen. Both stepping into the WWE ring and going to WrestleMania. I'm glad that we could make it work out for him—and for the WWE Universe.
I think it's something our fans are really going to enjoy, no matter how it goes physically, just being there and sharing that moment. Witnessing Sting at WrestleMania is huge for them.
Jonathan Snowden covers Combat Sports for Bleacher Report. He's the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.