On August 23, 1999, Triple H defeated Mankind on WWE Raw to win his first WWE Championship.
The win was the culmination of months of build and a monumental promo in which the former leader of D-Generation X first referred to himself as The Game. It also solidified Triple H as the lead heel in Vince McMahon's traveling circus, setting him up for a run at the top of the industry that would see him win 14 world titles.
Little could fans have known at the time, though, just what his victory on that August night would mean for the in-ring product in WWE.
Looking Back To Propel WWE Forward
It is no secret that Triple H is a devout wrestling historian. His love and appreciation for Ric Flair, Harley Race and other traditional, territorial wrestlers has been well-documented. Much of his in-ring style has been adapted from those aforementioned stars.
When he won the title in 1999, WWE was still largely defined by the wild and chaotic brawling main event style popularized by Steve Austin and The Rock. While Triple H would still engage in those types of matches to great success, including a series with Cactus Jack in early 2000 that single-handedly elevated him in the eyes of the fans, he would slowly start to alter the company's style and introduce his vast knowledge of wrestling moves and psychology to main events.
Beginning shortly after his first title win, Triple H began bringing a more technical style to the WWE product.
He worked limbs, picked his opponent apart by targeting a knee or an arm, and used that to set up the finish. It was then that he began looking like the Cerebral Assassin he would later become, resembling Flair, Race and even Arn Anderson.
With Triple H on top of the company, the main event style slowly began to evolve from ringside brawling and overbooked messes to a more traditional, ring-based match.
By the time 2003 rolled around, The Game was utilizing obscure wrestling maneuvers like the Indian Death Lock, first seen in his WrestleMania XIX match against Booker T. It was the latest attempt by Triple H to fuse the wrestling world he once emersed himself in as a child with the industry he now championed.
The Significance of In-Ring Work
Triple H's first title win came at a time when WWE was assembling one of the greatest rosters in its history. Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle would change the culture of WWE, bringing greater emphasis to the mat game while erasing the every-match chaos that was a staple of the Attitude Era.
It was with and against those Superstars that The Game would thrive.
For the first time in his career, he had the political pull to implement the style he wanted and the peers to pull it off with. His matches against those Superstars proved to McMahon and high-ranking officials that the company could tell the spectacular, sometimes ludicrous, stories it needed to keep the audience's attention while delivering an extraordinary in-ring product.
WWE had proved it could bring the creativity to the table, but it was WCW who was synonymous with in-ring greatness, thanks to its diverse roster of cruiserweights, mat technicians and bona fide icons.
The rise of Triple H to the main event scene in 1999 planted the seeds for the wrestling revival within WWE that would attract some of the hottest free agents in the industry to the promotion. With Benoit, Jericho, Angle, Guerrero, Perry Saturn, Dean Malenko and a young nucleus of Edge, Christian, The Hardy Boyz and Dudley Boyz revamping the roster, Triple H could inject the company with the old-school wrestling influences of his fandom.
Suddenly, he was working 30-minute mat classics with Benoit on pay-per-view. He was grappling with Kurt Angle and keeping fans invested in red-hot wrestling matches against the flashy Jericho. He brought psychology back to the forefront of the product, while still pulling out the brawling when necessary to the story he was telling, such as the emotionally intense rivalry with Vince McMahon that defined the first few months of his post-title run.
Wrestling took precedence in the wake of his first championship win, one's ability to deliver in the ring as integral as their ability to tell a story or captivate audiences with catchphrases or character work. Triple H's rise to the main event and his first title win held his fellow Superstars accountable.
No longer would plunder-filled brawls be enough to skate by on.
A Heel Centerpiece
Until Triple H, WWE had a long history of building its main event around a popular babyface. Heroes were the centerpiece of McMahon's show. Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and The Rock were all performer McMahon entrusted the health of his company with.
The Game obliterated the preconceived notions that the top star in the company had to be a babyface.
Beginning with his win in 1999 and running all the way through 2006, Triple H was the undisputed top star in McMahon's company and the star around whom the top stories and matches were built. In the years that preceded his run as a full-time star, McMahon felt more comfortable with booking heels as the emphasis for his main stories.
As much tension as there is between the two, CM Punk's run as the arrogant, loud-mouthed bad guy who ducked challenges or relied on outside interference to help him retain his title while subsequently touting his greatness as WWE champion in 2012 was just a modern take on the same character Triple H portrayed during his initial run as champ.
The Miz, Seth Rollins and Edge all benefited from the Triple H's groundwork. He seized the opportunity and proved to officials that a hero is only as good as his or her villain, so booking a bad guy in a position of dominance and superiority is not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.
A Diverse Worker and Boss
One of the most underrated elements of Triple H's run as a main eventer, which really began with his WWE Championship victory over Mankind on that fateful summer night in '99, is his selflessness when it came to adapting his own style to that of his opponent.
He could take to the mat for a submission-based battle with Benoit or Angle, then turn right around and brawl with Kane or Shawn Michaels in a Street Fight. While appreciating wrestling history and working to change the culture, he was also able to adjust to the talent he had to work with.
It was that appreciation for different styles and recognition that each was important to the company's overall quality, while championing that ultimately prepared him to thrive as the COO and head of Talent Relations nearly two decades later.
Having worked with many different Superstars, of many different backgrounds, he understood the dynamics that make up the best roster imaginable. He accumulated talent from around the world. There are traditional wrestlers, high-fliers, brawlers, heavyweights, cruiserweights and the best women wrestlers on the planet.
He has drawn on his experience working at the top of the industry with a vast array of talent to help mold his NXT roster into one of the best collections of Superstars in the industry.
Without that initial championship win to really catapult him into the main event stratosphere in WWE, there is no telling what course his career would have taken or whether or not Triple H would be in the position he is today.
Whereas Austin, Rock, Undertaker, Kane and Mankind were already established attractions, Triple H had a lot to prove. That first win gave him the confidence he needed to build himself into the star he would become, introduce his more traditional in-ring style and appreciation for the art of professional wrestling, and eventually mold the future of the company via NXT.
Often overlooked, the significance of Triple H's victory to the long-term success and value of WWE is undeniable.