WWE celebrates 25 years of Triple H Friday night on SmackDown, highlighting the career of one its most distinguished characters.
A fixture of WWE programming, Triple H is now synonymous with the product. He has headlined WrestleManias, become the on-screen face of The Authority, and had programs with practically every major wrestling star from the modern era.
Looking back two-and-a-half decades, it is inconceivable to think that his WWE debut, as Hunter Hearst Helmsley in a match against Buck Zumhofe on Wrestling Challenge in April 1995, would go on to have such historical significance.
“Me and Buck Zumhofe?” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque. “You never could have guessed it.”
Then 25, Levesque was victorious in his television debut, winning the match with the Ace Crusher as his finisher, soon to be replaced by The Pedigree.
Gorilla Monsoon and Jim Ross were on commentary, and as the match was finishing, Ross presciently remarked, “We’re going to see more of Hunter Hearst Helmsley…”
Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Levesque reflected on his career, including his start in WWE.
“I don’t know that I had the confidence then, but I had the drive,” said Levesque. “That was the difference for me. I didn’t think I was the best wrestler—I still don’t. I didn’t think I was the best promo, and I still don’t. But I was constantly striving to be better.”
WWE has employed bigger stars than Levesque, though there aren’t many. He never reached the same peak as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or The Rock, but they never had his longevity. For the past two-and-a-half decades, he has been a massive—and often controversial—force within the company, known for his intense work ethic, tenacity and passion.
Levesque chose to leave guaranteed money in WCW for the promise of an opportunity in Vince McMahon’s WWE in ’95. He wrapped up his run with WCW after Starrcade in 1994, where he lost to “Das Wunderkind” Alex Wright.
“When I had my very first meeting with Vince, he said, ‘Why do you want to come here?’” said Levesque. “I had a deal with WCW, and they had offered me a deal to stay with guaranteed money. Vince wasn’t guaranteeing money.
“I wanted to work. It wasn’t about the money or the guarantee, I wanted to work every night with the best in the world and I wanted the opportunity to be great. I was looking for that opportunity, and when Vince called to offer me the job, that’s exactly what he said to me—‘You said in that meeting you wanted to work every night? Well, you will. If you want to be great, this is the place to do it.’”
Levesque has produced a highlight reel of memorable moments, many of which will likely be featured on SmackDown. Narrowing the focus on one particular memory, Levesque discussed his Monday Night Raw match with Ric Flair on May 19, 2003, signaling it out as one of the highlights of his career.
If this particular moment is overlooked, it likely is because it was only a one-night affair.
The story made complete sense. After facing Kevin Nash at the Judgment Day pay-per-view the night before, Triple H wanted an easy night on Raw. When Austin, who was the show’s co-general manager, demanded that Triple H defend his title against a former world champion, Triple H chose Flair, his manager, because he wanted Flair to lay down for him. But as the night progressed, Flair became determined to give Triple H a real match.
All of pro wrestling’s most fantastical elements were present as Flair challenged Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship, including the right supporting cast with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler on commentary.
If there was any doubt the stars had aligned, the setting was also just right. The show took place in Greenville, S.C., featuring an audience intimately familiar with the brilliance of “The Nature Boy.”
“That was Flair country,” said Levesque. “It was one of those full-circle nights for me with Ric, from him being a shell of himself to a point where we became such close friends.”
After spending the beginning of his career feuding with the likes of Henry O. Godwinn and Duke “The Dumpster” Droese, going to toe-to-toe with Flair was another pillar for Triple H to stand on in his quest to become a legend.
“I remember having a private moment with him that night before our match,” said Levesque. “I kept telling him, ‘Ric, it is 1983. It isn’t anything else. It’s 1983, we’re in Greensboro for Starrcade, and you’re the NWA champion.’ I remember saying to him, ‘Give me that Ric Flair.’ I can still see the look in Ric’s eyes. When we went out there, man, he was ‘The Nature Boy.’
“For me, that was like a dream sequence. As a kid, Flair was everything to me. In that town, in that manner, it was definitely a highlight.”
Now 50 and a father of three with his wife Stephanie McMahon, Levesque is a WWE executive. He was recently given the title of Executive Vice President of Global Talent Strategy and Development, a promotion from his previous position of Executive Vice President, Talent, Live Events, and Creative.
NXT is a major focus for Levesque, but it is not his only responsibility. Though he missed out on performing at WrestleMania earlier this month for only the second time in 25 years, Levesque’s contributions to the show were still there, just behind the scenes. His fingerprints were all over the “Boneyard” match, helping to oversee production of the cutting-edge match between The Undertaker and AJ Styles.
“We were able to do something and present it in a different way,” said Levesque. “It’s not like that concept, if you want to use the term cinematic, hadn’t been done before—there were boiler room matches and even Rock-Foley had their match at Halftime Heat, with multiple camera shoots and pre-tapes and doing things in a different way. But this was different.”
With the exception of Shawn Michaels, there are few performers Levesque knows better than The Undertaker. In recent years, Mark Calaway has been unable to physically perform in the manner he once did, so Levesque took particular pride in producing a throwback Undertaker performance at this year’s WrestleMania.
“I have such an incredible, high-level amount of respect for The Undertaker,” said Levesque. “I’ve watched the ups and downs of that character over the last few years, not only as a character and the performer you see, but as a human behind the scenes. And I’ve seen enough to know what he’s gone through with his struggles.
“I know what it’s like to go through that struggle as a performer, doing this here and there, and losing that mojo. If there was one thing I wanted to come out of that ‘Boneyard’ match, I wanted it to be a platform for him to be The Undertaker. To be that legend and have him be everything he needed to be, with all of that aura we felt the first time people saw him, or share the mystique we felt being in the ring with him. I wanted for that to come back, and I wanted him to feel it.
“That match re-lit the aura. It was important for Undertaker, it was important for AJ and it was important for the team that was part of it, from shooting it to the editing process in the studio. Everyone had one goal in mind, and that was to create the epic return of The Undertaker. When he rode his bike down that highway at the end and the engine was roaring, and the Metallica song was playing, you couldn’t help but think, ‘The Undertaker is back.’”
If that WrestleMania moment marked the high point of WWE’s year, the absolute low point took place last week when the company laid off a significant number of employees. Despite turning a profit in its first business quarter, due in large part to lucrative television deals, WWE still laid off on-screen performers and other employees last week. As one of the rare WWE executives that is also a voice in the locker room, Levesque expressed his feelings about last week’s massive cuts.
“It’s really tough,” said Levesque. “I’ve never seen anything like this. These are unprecedented times. You think about what has happened in a very short amount of time to all these sports and businesses across the world, the effects won’t be seen for some time. The next few months are unprecedented, there’s never been anything like it. It’s a really tough spot for everybody, and hard decisions have to be made.
“They’re uncomfortable, and you can second guess this till the end, but it was a difficult couple of weeks and hard decisions were made. I wish everybody well. I look forward to when this is all behind us and over, and hopefully we can all be back in the same place making magic together again. Hopefully I’ll never see anything like this again.”
With WWE continuing to generate headlines by filming during the coronavirus, Levesque was asked about the creative challenges of the current circumstances.
“The hardest part of all of this is that everything changes minute by minute,” said Levesque. “The second you think we have a handle on it, you get a phone call and it all changes and none of what you just got done doing is worth anything anymore. It is what it is, and we’re doing the best we can.
“With Raw, SmackDown, NXT, just like with WrestleMania and now with Money in the Bank, we’ll do the best we can to put out a product that hopefully people are enjoying. We want to put out a product that people can enjoy, and we want to be as safe as we possibly can and make sure everybody is well.”
A student of the late Walter “Killer” Kowalski, a part of Levesque’s pedigree is his connection to the past, present, and future. He is deeply embedded in the success of NXT, and he has built a coaching staff at the Performance Center to create and enhance WWE’s newest stars. And he is grateful for the people who have believed in him for the past 25 years.
“It’s hard to even put into words, to express that thanks,” said Levesque. “Everything in my life, everything, is due to Vince, so I’ll never be able to thank him. To anybody I ever stepped in the ring with, or offered a piece of advice backstage, from Kowalski to [Terry] Taylor to Jody Hamilton to ‘Chief’ Jay Strongbow to Jack Lanza to George ‘The Animal’ Steele, the ones that carried it forward for me.
“To every performer I was ever in there with, the ones backstage, the people making video packages. People talk about my return at Madison Square Garden [in 2002], people like Adam Panucci that put together the video, things just change your career. None of those things happen by accident, and those people are part of my success and I can’t thank them enough. And for every fan that wanted to see me, or was paying to see someone else shut me up, I have thanks for all of it.
“I get a privilege to do the greatest form of entertainment in the world in WWE. When this is done right, there is nothing like it. It assaults all your senses, it’s the most adrenaline-packed thing. To me, there is nothing else like it. I’m blessed to still be here 25 years later.”