Audio: Triple H on in-Ring Future, Using Celebs in WWE and More in B/R Exclusive
Triple H is seldom seen on WWE TV these days, but his influence is constantly felt by fans every Wednesday night on NXT.
The Game had a vision to reinvent the way WWE created new stars, and in 2012, he began putting the pieces in place to ensure that happened. NXT was quietly revamped into the competition-style show it once was into what it is today: a breeding ground for the talent of tomorrow.
He's competed on occasion over the years but has largely let his in-ring career take a backseat to what he's doing now with NXT. As solid as the weekly product has been, he has been especially praised for the quarterly TakeOver specials that have ranged from good to great to exhilarating.
The upcoming installment Saturday, TakeOver XXX, will be no exception as the brand's best, biggest and brightest will battle it out in a slew of sensational matches. Among them is Keith Lee vs. Karrion Kross for the NXT Championship, a six-man ladder match for the vacant NXT North American Championship, and Adam Cole vs. Pat McAfee.
As stacked of a show as it is on paper, the greatest may be yet to come from NXT as its continues to grow. Look no further than Raw and SmackDown for the wealth of NXT alumni as evidence for how successful the promotion has proven to be for most of the past decade.
Ahead of Saturday's anticipated TakeOver XXX event on WWE Network, Triple H took the time to chat about the brand's decorated past and promising future, if Pat McAfee vs. Adam Cole should be considered a "celebrity" match, potentially wrestling for NXT down the road, and more.
Click through to catch the highlights and listen to the full interview at the end.
TakeOver Without a Crowd and Making the Most of the Current Circumstances
In addition to the excellent in-ring action, NXT's rowdy crowds are a major reason the shows exciting, and the absence of the fans in recent months amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been noticeable.
NXT was forced to cancel its TakeOver event scheduled for WrestleMania weekend, which are usually among the best ones it produces all year because of the electric atmosphere. That caused fans to doubt whether NXT could continue to hold TakeOver specials in this current climate and do them well.
However, TakeOver: In Your House was proof that while crowds are a crucial component, talent can still thrive regardless of the circumstances.
Triple H admitted that running Full Sail University with only Performance Center recruits in attendance isn't ideal but that they're doing what they can to make the viewing experience as entertaining and compelling as possible.
"The WWE at its core is about our fans," he said. "Everything we do in the ring is geared towards them. Everything you do as a performer is geared towards getting a reaction. Every other sport is different: You're there to win first and the reaction is...you kind of want to tune it out anyway to a degree. It's completely different to what we do, but it's about being able to go out there, putting on the best performances that they can in this environment, build it up as big as possible, put out a set and a design and everything everything else that resonates with people and continue to move forward.
"I think what was successful about In Your House was that some of the nostalgia stuff helped connect the dots. This one, we have some pieces to help connect the dots, but obviously, we'll find out Saturday. The matches themselves are spectacular, so I have no worry about that."
Pat McAfee Won't Be a One-and-Done "Celebrity" Match
WWE's use of celebrities has been well documented dating as far back as the inaugural installment of WrestleMania over three decades ago. Thus, the company bringing in a celebrity for a show or going so far as to put them in the ring for a match has widely been accepted as commonplace by fans since then, for better or for worse.
Some celebrities are fans at heart, know exactly what they're doing and add to their angle. Others, unfortunately, clearly phone in the job or simply aren't suited to the role.
Thankfully, that has not been the case so far with former Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee in his feud with Adam Cole on NXT.
The two have history dating as far back as the summer of 2018, so the bad blood between them has obviously been brewing for some time. Despite growing up watching wrestling, McAfee has never been in the ring for a formal match before, and that's why fans have their reservations about his rivalry with Cole and their upcoming contest at TakeOver XXX.
McAfee has played his role remarkably well in recent weeks, but for some, his involvement has felt like a departure from what NXT is supposed to be about. The black-and-gold brand is a proving ground of sorts, though, and if McAfee exceeds expectations with his performance on Saturday night, then this storyline will have been worth it for that alone.
"People look at this as a celebrity thing, and there is a component to that, but the truth is that Pat has wanted to do this for a while," Triple H said. "Not only like, 'I'd like to wrestle one time' or anything, Pat wants to be a WWE Superstar. He really does and in some ways he's custom made for it. It's a feeling now of whether he can do the job bell to bell. He's been working hard, but if you really look at this, it's been a couple of years in the making of just a moment a time when Pat sort of comes to the show in Indianapolis and starts this chatter with Adam Cole, and it built along that line.
"You can go back and say this is a 'celebrity' storyline, but I know Pat's not looking at it in that way. Pat's looking at this as 'I'm going to show you how good I can be' and we're going to continue doing business moving forward, so I see this as being more Ronda Rousey than I do the one-off like Lawrence Taylor or something like that."
Is NXT's Women's Division the Strongest It's Ever Been?
The strides WWE has made with women's wrestling in the last decade can be traced back to the early years of NXT when spotlighting women's wrestling was a foreign concept in many ways. It was the matches involving Paige, Emma, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley that set the stage for the great women's matches we see on Raw and SmackDown today.
That 2014-2015 period where the self-proclaimed Four Horsewomen ran roughshod over NXT's women's division is seen as the NXT women's division's best period by a contingent of fans, but the depth it has today is simply so much greater.
Triple H believes this is the best it's ever been thanks to the help and guidance of NXT coach Sara Amato and others.
"The roster, or the depth of the talent, has always been about, 'Think what you can do with them from there,' that's been the process," he said. "When you have that period of time when you have the Four Horsewomen just tearing it up and putting out match after match and moving forward, there's a moment where they all leave and I remember saying 'Please leave me Asuka' to Vince. 'If you leave me Asuka, I can rebuild around her, but I need an anchor.' Asuka was that anchor because she's just so amazing and can do anything, as you still see to this day."
Most former NXT women's champions have gone on to have some level of success on WWE's main roster, including Asuka. Although many women who have passed through NXT offered something of substance, the brand has never before boasted this much talent in its women's division at one time.
"I don't want to take anything away from any of them, because as they all moved up the line and have done incredible things, from Ember Moon to Shayna Baszler to even The IIconics from an entertainment standpoint or, man, there's so many of them. It's been amazing to watch them, but when you look at this moment in time, [there's] Rhea Ripley, Io Shirai, Dakota Kai, Candice LeRae, Tegan Nox, Shotzi Blackheart, and I'm sure I left out four or five women just in that run that you would go 'Oh my god' to. It is stacked.
"For those women, there's the Indi Hartwells, the Jessi Kameas, the Xia Lis and the people behind them that are right there, ready for that opportunity for them to come when somebody goes down on that starting roster and they take the spot and they knock it out of the park. They're just waiting for that opportunity. It's even deeper than people believe."
Will We Ever See Triple H Compete in NXT?
With Saturday marking the 30th installment of NXT TakeOver, it's actually quite amazing that the black-and-gold brand has managed to keep the focus solely on the talent of tomorrow and has largely resisted the urge to incorporate names from the main roster and outside of the promotion into the quarterly specials.
That includes Triple H himself, who has never competed in a match for the brand in its entire existence. He hasn't shied away from making the occasional appearance in front of the audience or on camera, but the WWE Hall of the Famer stepping inside the squared circle on NXT has never been remotely teased.
When asked about whether he would ever entertain the idea of wrestling a one-off for NXT if it made sense to do so, Triple H jokingly said, "I can tell you Paul Levesque hopes not." He went on to elaborate that his focus is solely on the behind-the-scenes side of things and that although it isn't impossible, fans of The Game shouldn't expect to see him lace up his boots on the brand he has spearheaded since 2012.
"I hate to say 'Never say never' to anything, but that's not what NXT is about, he explained. "It's about the brand. If we have the opportunity to use myself or Shawn [Michaels]'s stardom or reach or anything else, that's what we're there for. Whether it's taking the pictures with them as they come in the door so it opens them up to a larger audience or anything else, that's the intent of all of it. It's really about them and building the future, and I wouldn't want to take away from that in any way."
Conspicuous by his absence on the WrestleMania 36 card, Triple H had competed at every installment since 2008 before this year. He last wrestled in June 2019 during WWE's tour of Japan, and before that at Super ShowDown against Randy Orton in a losing effort.
At this stage of his career, he admits that he gains more satisfaction watching the NXT Superstars perform and succeed while sitting behind the curtain.
"That's so much more meaningful to me than the other part," Triple H said. "Now, that's also the other part of me that goes like, I'm so fond of all of them that going out there and performing or doing something with them...like, we did that episode of SmackDown or whatever it was and NXT got the emergency call and they all came in and we were all standing in the ring together cutting promos. That was a blast because we were all putting them out there in front of the world. As far as getting in the ring and wrestling, [I have] no desire at this point."
Comparing His in-Ring Accolades to What He's Been Able to Accomplish with NXT
This past April, Triple H celebrated 25 years with WWE, and his many greatest matches and moments were recognized on a special edition of SmackDown. The WWE Hall of Famer will go down in the history books as one of the best to ever do it for those achievements alone, but he's created a whole new legacy for himself heading NXT for all these years.
Without Paul Levesque revamping WWE's developmental system and laying the groundwork for the main event players that now occupy the top spots on SmackDown and Raw, there's no telling what the current landscape of the company would look like.
It's tough for Triple H to say what he holds in higher regard: his in-ring accolades or everything he's been able to accomplish through the rise of NXT.
"It's a different level of excitement, and the only thing I can, because I am a dad, equate it to is that analogy of as excited as you are about the things you accomplish and you succeeded, I'm like anybody else in this business," he said. "At one point, I saw it, I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen and wanted to do it and had a dream. I got to live that dream. Nothing can take the place of that, but to go forward and watch your own kids accomplish things and whatever their dream is, to see them do that. That excitement level they have and how proud you are of them and knowing they're going through the things that you did, it's a different energy but yet just as meaningful. It's the same with all of them."
There isn't anyone Triple H brings into the brand he doesn't believe can be a star in some form. Seeing them prosper both in NXT and eventually on Raw and SmackDown brings him greater joy than he can put into words.
"We watch a lot of these people come in the door, and it's dreams and hopes and everything else, and I go through the ups and downs in all of it and watching them do it and you're there with them," he said. "They get these opportunities, whether it's a TakeOver or their first match in NXT or the first time they get a main event match at NXT, watching them have that success, it's hard to explain how cool it is. Shawn and I are like two old dads sitting on a park bench backstage in Gorilla, jumping up and down for them and we can't wait for them to walk back through the curtain so we can give them a hug and whatever and tell them how great they did because it's awesome and it means a lot to us, as much as it does to them."
How Competition Has Brought out the Best in NXT
NXT was its own entity for a long time, isolated from everything else in WWE, because of its taped one-hour time slot on the WWE Network for many years. It wasn't until last September that the brand took that giant step forward in airing live on USA Network for two hours each and every week.
Of course, the move to prime time was no coincidence with AEW debuting Dynamite on TNT that same night. Although AEW has had a firm lead over NXT in the ratings almost every week for the last year, the competition has made both companies infinitely better, and it's the fans who are reaping the benefits more than anyone else.
Despite suffering from not having that usual electric atmosphere to play off during these unprecedented times, NXT has still managed to produce arguably some of its strongest content ever since its arrival on USA Network a year ago.
Even with that competition bringing the best out of NXT every week, there is something to be said for the other eras in NXT's illustrious history.
"I think it's hard to say ever that this is the best version or the best time or the best anything because you look at it and you're negating other people and certain moments in time. You look at people in the moment that they were there and you think they'd become something so much bigger than that later. It's hard to your finger on exactly the moment in time, but the roster is deep across all of it. I'm thrilled with the opportunity to go live, I'm thrilled with the Wednesdays [Night Wars], I'm thrilled with the viewership that we have, I'm thrilled with what we're doing. I'm thrilled with the competition and am glad that they're doing well and it drives everybody to do better."
The Game views TakeOver XXX on Saturday night as being the next step in the evolution of NXT and acknowledges that some notable names missing from the card just goes to show how stacked the roster truly is at the moment.
"You look at TakeOver XXX. McAfee vs. Cole. Io vs. Dakota Kai. Keith Lee vs. Kross. You've got the North American title ladder match and the depth on that," he said. "Once you get past that, you're not even taking about the [Tommaso] Ciampas and people like that who aren't even in this. There's a lot of people still who aren't even here in this moment and in this time who are big players, main event players. You're seeing the Cameron Grimes, the Bronson Reeds, the Damian Priests, the Thatchers, Dexter Lumis, all these people that are coming out and establishing themselves and becoming bigger stars and household names at the same time you still have all those other people. It's deep and it's awesome to see."
Triple H's Mount Rushmore of NXT's Best Matches Ever
The "Mount Rushmore of wrestling" questions have been among the most debated between fans for the last several years, and NXT hasn't been immune to them.
With Saturday's TakeOver special being the monumental 30th installment, it's only appropriate to ask what a Mount Rushmore for the greatest TakeOver matches ever would consist of. However, there aren't four obvious answers because of how many amazing matchups TakeOver has hosted over the last six years.
Triple H weighed in on the situation, saying, "There's been so many. I can throw anything with [Johnny] Gargano and Ciampa on there. I can throw Bayley and Sasha in there. Then there's moments like when Shinsuke came in and he wrestled Sami Zayn and just have sleeper written all over it. There's the first North American title ladder match that was just crazy. Anything Adam Cole has done pretty much since he's been with us."
Ultimately, the mastermind behind NXT refused to settle on just four matches, explaining that there are an abundance of them and that to name only a handful would be to negate the rest.
"People ask that all the time," he said. "'What's the Mount Rushmore of the this or that?' It's such a ridiculous almost ask to narrow that down to four people or four matches or four anything because they've all been impactful and they've all been great. If you were to say pick four matches that were bad, it'd be hard to do, so trying to pick the four best is crazy difficult."
Why NXT's Perceived Biggest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength
Fans have often wondered when NXT could potentially peak in popularity, especially with stars constantly being brought up to Raw and SmackDown at random.
At the end of the day, NXT is a feeder system for WWE's main roster. It started out as "developmental," and although it has grown to become a viable third brand for the company, it still serves as the stomping grounds for many up-and-comers and competitors looking to hone their craft.
Detractors have pointed to that as being NXT's biggest weakness, when in reality, it's actually among its biggest strengths. As wrestlers filter out to other shows or companies, it forces NXT to keep replenishing the pot and either create new names or bring them in from elsewhere, ensuring that the product never gets stale with the same stars on top.
Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa are perhaps the only exceptions as far as wrestlers who have stayed exclusive to NXT over the years. Everyone else is practically fair game to be called up whenever, and as long as the timing is appropriate, Triple H sees no issue with that whatsoever.
"When we first started in NXT, we did Arrival and everything and there was a time we were calling up a lot of talent to the main roster, and I remember hearing it a lot from people that this is the end," he said.
"'This is the problem with NXT, it's a feeder system. Every time you build a star, they leave and go someplace else. It spells the demise of it in general.' At that point in time, I kept saying, everybody thinks that's the weakness, [but] that's the strength. Because you don't get yourself in that position of 'This guy's been here for 15 years and I've seen him do everything there is to do.' There's constantly something new. There's constantly something exciting. Somebody's moving. Somebody's coming back. Somebody new's coming through the door. There's always something like that happening."
Future stars have to start somewhere, and for a lot of people, that place is NXT. What Raw and SmackDown do with that talent is essentially out of Triple H's control, but as far as developing that talent, NXT does as efficient of a job as any promotion and always feels fresh because of the circumstances surrounding the show.
Few companies have that type of benefit, but NXT has used it to its advantage.
"As good as the era with the Four Horsewomen was, you got into the Asuka era and then Shayna Baszler and there was so much talent there," Triple H said. "Now you're getting to see Io Shirai carry that. Now you're getting to see Rhea Ripley carry that. Now you're getting to see Tegan and Candice and Mia Yim and all these other women carry it. It's not the weakness, it's the strength, and that freshness is what carries it. Feeding the system, yes, feeding Raw and SmackDown and NXT, and that's the key. It's a constant supply."
WWE NXT TakeOver XXX is this Saturday, August 22, at 7/6c, only on WWE Network.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.