NXT is ready to showcase the second half of its two-week Great American Bash special this Wednesday, highlighted by a main event between NXT Champion Adam Cole and North American Champion Keith Lee in a winner-take-all match. The show also includes Mia Yim against Candice LaRae in a street fight, which serves as an opportunity for two very talented wrestlers to stand out in a division overflowing with depth and star power.
Paul “Triple H” Levesque oversees NXT, and his vision has helped transform the brand into one of the top televised promotions in North America. Competing against All Elite Wrestling on Wednesday nights, Levesque has worked to provide an exciting, compelling presentation of pro wrestling, enhanced by occasional WWE talent but built around a core of NXT stars.
Levesque spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss the Cole-Lee title match. He also shared his insight on how talent can make their biggest impact even without the benefit of a live crowd, as well as explained his decision to hold a two-week Great American Bash special.
Justin Barrasso: Adam Cole starred for Ring of Honor and had some memorable moments as an important part of Bullet Club, so the fact that he succeeded in NXT is no surprise. But he’s become one of your cornerstones, leading NXT in a pivotal stretch of weekly television, most of which is live, a forum where he was not well-versed. Your women’s championship has changed hands since the move to the USA Network, but not the men’s title. When was the moment that Cole proved to you he belonged as champion?
Paul Levesque: You see it on camera, but Adam Cole is so good, so consistently good, that it is easy to look past him as our cornerstone. He never seems to have a down moment, even backstage. He’s just consistently a professional, and there is never is doubt in my mind who he is and the level of performance he’s going to give. He makes it look so easy and so smooth.
He’s also a locker room leader, but he’s not the guy saying, ‘I want to be a locker room leader.’ He leads without even trying to assume the role. People look at him for his consistency.
JB: A great example of that was this past November when the WWE flight departing Saudi Arabia was delayed and did not make it back in time for SmackDown, and the NXT crew, led by Cole and his match against Daniel Bryan, made it an incredible night.
PL: I can tell you, when they walked in the door the night that night, when NXT invaded, so to speak, it was a photo finish. They literally walked in the door as the show was going on the air. There was no leeway, we were live. Adam Cole was calm and in control. He was in his element.
When he became NXT Champion, there was no doubt in mind that he was the right guy. He was the perfect fit for the foundation we needed.
JB: Not to insinuate the NXT title will change hands this Wednesday, but how do you know when the time is right to make a title change?
PL: So much of this business comes down to guts and feel. There are a lot of people I trust, like Shawn [Michaels], that have experience and a feel for this. When it’s time for a change, you can feel that momentum. There is no math behind it or science to it.
The best in our business, they know that feel. That’s always been the art of what we do, which is a little harder right now without 15,000 people in the building giving us their feedback. But that’s what it comes down to for me, the feel.
JB: Keith Lee is a special talent, which he showed all of WWE at Survivor Series in November and again at the Royal Rumble in January. He is also a reason to watch every week, and someone you look to for leadership in NXT. What don’t we know about Keith?
PL: Keith brings a big presence, and he carries such enormous respect with him. He is a moment-maker and a reason to watch, and he knows that, but he’s also super open to a different manner of doing things.
When he first came in, there were some frustrating points. He wanted more, but I saw that ability. There were little gaps in his game, and the goal was for us to help him to be even more huge. He has limitless, pun intended, talent, with all the tools and ability, but we wanted to sharpen him up first before we let him loose. The second you let him go, as you see now, no one can take their eyes off him, everyone is watching.
JB: Counter-programming is a healthy part of competition, but the cynic in me has to ask: would NXT be running Great American Bash if AEW wasn’t running Fyter Fest?
PL: It absolutely is part of healthy of competition. Anyone that thinks it isn’t, to a degree, is being naive to the situation. You saw that back in the day when Clash of Champions was counter-programming [to WWE’s WrestleMania IV in 1988]. At the same point, it can’t drive your booking decisions.
Obviously there are counter-programming decisions, but I can tell you exactly how this came about. Almost all of these storylines were headed where they are now. There was a gap, timing wise, between In Your House and what will become the SummerSlam TakeOver, and you need a halfway point and a build. This is that halfway point. So it doesn’t change our decision-making process. I don’t counter-book, I book what’s right for NXT.
JB: Before we get into night two of the Great American Bash, I need to ask about last week’s main event pitting Sasha Banks against Io Shirai. I know there aren’t fans in packed venues to use as a barometer, but is there anyone right now in wrestling operating on a higher level than Sasha Banks?
PL: If there is, it’s a very short list, and that’s a list that also includes Bayley. They’re on fire right now. Sasha-Io, that’s a match people say was a four-day build, but it was built much earlier than that. You just couldn’t promote it until we did.
Sasha and Bayley, having them on the show is awesome. We have this collegiate-type pride where people want to come back to NXT. People carry that pride, and almost everyone that leaves calls me up and says, ‘Hey, I’d love to find a way to do something.’ Sasha and Bayley blow up my phone with ideas, and you can see the spark in their eye when they walk back in. It’s so much fun.
JB: This Wednesday marks a huge opportunity for Mia Yim and Candice LaRae, both of whom are extremely talented. They wrestle in a street fight, which is an opportunity to stand out in an enormously talented division.
PL: This street fight is one to remember. And that entire division is so stacked, so there is a scramble to be on top. There is a fight to be that person with a chip on their shoulder, the one saying, ‘I’ll give them a reason they have to pick me.’ You see it from Tegan [Nox], Dakota [Kai], Shotzi [Blackheart], and you see it from Mia and Candice. It’s like watching the ‘Attitude Era’ and asking yourself, ‘Who’s going to be the one?’ Mia and Candice, they’re looking to make that statement.
JB: Looking at your career, you were able to connect with the audience, whether that meant they loved or hated you, a skill instilled in your wrestling psychology by Killer Kowalski. How can the current talent stand out without the benefit of a crowd?
PL: How can talent stand out? By not being safe, and I don’t mean not being safe in the physical sense, but rather in their creative decision-making process. Without a crowd, you have to look at it as a little bit of freedom.
It’s really easy to be an older talent and want to try something different. But when you’re in front of a crowd, they want to see you play your greatest hits. That gets the biggest reaction. When there is no crowd, you have that ability to be less safe in your decision-making process.
Reactions are less immediate so you can experiment a little more. And when crowds come back, and the excitement level is contagious, my hope is that the talent keeps some of that freedom to experiment.
JB: Part of the beauty of pro wrestling isn’t what happens, but rather how it happens. Rumors are circulating about spoilers for this Wednesday’s show, but why should wrestling invest their time in the Great American Bash, especially the main event?
PL: I thought we had an epic show last week, and this week’s show is something special. I know there is a little bit of controversy around it, and this won’t be the first time I’ve taken it upon myself to manipulate that process, but what I can tell you is that this main event delivers. Adam Cole and Keith Lee, I think it’s a dream match between our two top performers from 2019, and they deliver here.
People are going to be very entertained. When you look back in a year, a match like this is going to make the demand even greater for the Great American Bash next year.