Last week, before Triple H was the special guest referee in the WWE Championship match between John Cena and Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam, before Bryan beat Cena cleanly in a magnificent match, before Triple H turned heel on Bryan and helped Randy Orton cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase to win Bryan’s title, he sat down for an interview with Bill Simmons and me. The WWE superstar and real-life front-office executive gave us a peek behind the curtain and into the head of the man who might be professional wrestling’s biggest enigma — as well as its future.
So how’s your job?
I’m in the office full-time. I work more now than I ever did. I’m not on the road full-time — I’m at every TV, every pay-per-view, but not traveling, not making live events. I just do occasional [on-camera] stuff when it works for the story line.
Who decides to put you in a story line? Does it come from the creative team?
Yeah, it can come out of creative,1 but the ultimate sign-off is Vince.2 Technically, creative reports to Steph,3 but Steph is kind of the aggregator. Her office does everything from the magazine to digital to the shows, so it’s funny when people will say, “Oh, Steph and the creatives.” She really doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day. I mean, she’ll weigh in on something if Vince asks or if the writers ask her what she thinks before they bring something to Vince.
“Creative” here and throughout is used as a noun, as shorthand for the creative team — which is to say the WWE writers.
McMahon, longtime owner of the WWF/WWE, and Triple H’s father-in-law.
Stephanie McMahon, daughter of Vince and wife of Triple H.
So she’s mainly big-picture?
Yeah. And because she’s not on the road as much, she’ll watch the shows from home and give us a completely different perspective. We say it all the time: It’s the hardest thing to see everything. You’re in the foxhole. We’ll do Raw and I won’t even see the whole show because from Gorilla Position,4 I’m that filter before it gets to Vince. So Vince sits in one seat and he talks to the truck and stuff, and I’m in the seat next to him talking to the truck and talking to the ring, and if something just changed in Segment 1, I’ve got to nip up5 and go get the change to everybody else, or I’ll call a writer in and say, “This just went down, we gotta go here.” It’s live TV. But when you’re at home watching it, it’s a completely different perspective. Sometimes we don’t see all the video packages or the commercials. You lose perspective. So Steph will see something and say “Hey, guys, I think you’re losing the plot here.”
Gorilla Position (sometimes shortened to Gorilla) is an area right behind the entrance ramp — right behind the curtain, if you will — where Vince McMahon sits and directs the show. It was named for the late Gorilla Monsoon, McMahon’s lieutenant, who institutionalized the spot as the first-base coach position it has become.
As in get up. “Nip up” is the term (Jim Ross popularized it while calling Shawn Michaels matches) for a wrestler jumping to his feet from a prone position. As with everything in pro wrestling, the in-ring lexicon bleeds into all conversation.
But for the most part, she controls the gigantic entity that creative is so that there’s continuity between the digital and the magazine, continuity between the domestic shows or the shows that run internationally, all of those components and those teams, which is a massive amount of people. But creatively, the final sign-off is Vince.
Some people might be amazed that he’s still so involved. What is this, like, 35 years for him?
That’s what he loves to do. It’s funny. I often think to myself, he’s a promoter and creative guy that somehow got caught up running a corporation. All the other stuff is like his day job, it’s “This is the shit I gotta do” — talk to finance people, see to this and that. But at the end of the day, he really likes to sit down in the room with the creative people and talk about creative.
It reminds me of Lorne Michaels at SNL. He doesn’t seem like he’ll ever leave. He just loves being in the middle of it.
When we did SNL, it was what I thought when I met Lorne. I’ll never forget it. When they showed us the script, Vince was like, “Lorne, this doesn’t work. I’m going to go upstairs with your writers and rewrite this.” That’s how he is, and that’s how Lorne is. I don’t care how big they are, they’re still going to have that — because that’s what they like to do. And I can relate. I don’t necessarily like sitting in a room talking about budgets for live events.
We have a saying in the business:6 “I do this because of the 20 minutes in the ring I get every night. It’s the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day that I just put up with to get there.” Like, getting on a plane and flying 16 hours and riding in a car and in a bus, and traveling and being in a hotel every night — this is the stuff you put up with to get the opportunity to get in the ring and do what you do in front of a crowd. It’s the same with the business part. All the stuff you have to do to have a business that runs.
Pro wrestling is widely referred to by insiders as “the business,” as in, “You have to do right by the business,” and Triple H himself is notorious for referring to “the business” in promos.
Do you find yourself getting a similar rush in the Gorilla Position role that you used to get in those 20 minutes?
Yeah. Honestly, that’s how I got in this role anyway. If you go back to the Clique,7 why were we all in the same car? Because all we talked about was business. All five guys, we obsessed about it. Not in a bad way; we just loved the business. We constantly talked about it and constantly were coming up with ideas, even if they weren’t for us.
The Clique (sometimes spelled “Kliq,” since everything in the wrestling world in those days was misspelled for optimum coolness) was a posse of wrestlers including Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and X-Pac. They were an exclusive group, always rode together from town to town, and were known for having a lot of backstage sway. As such, they were often derided for the perceived misuse of that power.
Starting a year after I got to the WWF, Vince would say, “Hey, you have an opinion on this, what’s your opinion?” And I’d give Vince my opinions. Sometimes he liked it, sometimes he didn’t, but we kind of established that working relationship so that when Russo left in the middle of the night to go to WCW,8 I went to Vince and I just said, “I understand how creative works. You can’t bounce ideas off yourself. So if you want to bounce ideas off me, I’m happy to just hear you out and give you my opinion. Not saying you need it, just saying it’s there.”
Vince Russo, the WWF Magazine editor turned creative team member who became one of the driving creative forces for the WWF in 1996 during the Attitude Era. He was known for his edgy story lines and fast-cut crash TV format. He left for rival WCW in 1999, with little or no notice, after a fight with McMahon.
So two days later, my phone rang, and Vince said “Hey, pal, you got a minute? You talked to me about bouncing around some ideas. Can I run a couple things by you? See what you think?” And that started it. Shortly thereafter, it was, “You want to start coming to production meetings? I could really use you in there.” And I’ve been doing it since probably ’98, ’99.
All the best wrestlers in the company have input on some level, right?
Depends on the guy. You know, Austin — I don’t mean this in a disparaging way — Austin would look at something and go, “That sucks, I ain’t doing that. Come back when you get something better.”9 But I would go, “Well, what are we trying to get out of this? What if we did this?” And then Vince would be like, “That’s a decent idea, but what if we took that, but did this?” I like that process. I think that was what worked with Vince.
Steve Austin famously left the company after refusing to lose to Brock Lesnar, because he didn’t think doing the match on a free episode of Raw was a good use of their combined star power. For what it’s worth, you rarely hear this kind of complaint from the guy booked to win.
Did the other wrestlers get competitive? Like, why this guy and not me?
There were guys that looked at it like, “Well, that’s bullshit.” There were a few guys who went to Vince and said, “Hey, I’d like to be involved like that too.” What they didn’t get was — I’m not trying to put myself over,10 but there’s a level of additional work that comes with it. So when everyone else’s call time is one o’clock, I’d be there at 10 o’clock. Even if we had to drive in from the last show and I got in at four in the morning, if I told Vince I’d be at that production meeting at 10 a.m., I was at that production meeting at 10 a.m., bleary-eyed but ready to go. And those other guys would do that once or twice and be like, “Well, I’m not doing that. I’m not making more money from that, no one’s paying me extra.” I never looked at it that way. I’ve heard this saying before: Success is not a destination, success is what happens along the way. I dig what I do every single day. Everything else takes care of itself.
Putting somebody over is in-ring slang for having somebody win a match, as in “Tonight we’re putting Jimmy Snuka over on Greg Valentine.” It evolved to mean making somebody look good in the ring, regardless of win or loss, and then (of course) to backstage lingo, as in inflating somebody’s (or one’s own) ego. These days, to avoid seeming cloying, almost every compliment exchanged between wrestlers is prefaced with “I’m not trying to put you over, but … “
When you came to WWF, creative was just Vince and Pat Patterson, right?
Pull back to before Raw. Go back to Superstars and Challenge.11 You come up with one match or angle that’s the focal point in the show. Everything else is just “who needs the love, who needs an enhancement match.”12 When I first came in there, you’d wrestle four times in one taping. Sometimes you’d wrestle a fifth time for a Coliseum Home Video13 exclusive. You’d get there early, do some print stuff, take pictures, whatever. Maybe you’d shoot an angle.14 And after your matches you’d go downstairs and you’d wait your turn to do your market-specific promos.15 You’d be in there until three in the morning and then you’d move on to the next day. But with Raw16 everything was different.
WWF Superstars of Wrestling and WWF Wrestling Challenge were syndicated TV shows that ran from 1986 to the mid-’90s, and for much of that time were the WWF’s primary outlets.
An enhancement match, also known in the biz as a “squash match,” features a star going up against a hapless nobody. These matches served to showcase the star without giving away any high-profile matchups.
Coliseum Home Video was the WWF-owned video company that produced innumerable pay-per-view and “Best of” videos during the ’80s and ’90s.
“Angle” is wrestling lingo for “story line,” though here it could mean an interview or anything outside the ring that furthers a story line.
Everyone remembers these from childhood, when wrestlers would specifically reference their upcoming shows — “Barbarian, when I get my hands on you Saturday the 16th in Poughkeepsie … ” — that made even the smallest shows feel significant. It was a Territorial Era conceit that would soon fall by the wayside as wrestling became dependent on live TV.
WWF Monday Night Raw has blazed a trail for pro wrestling into live weeknight prime time, a spot that would eventually be the spawning ground of the “Monday-night wars” between WWF and WCW.
Bad for the jobbers.
Bad for the jobbers, yeah, but the show became the draw. It wasn’t just a promotional vehicle to get you to go to live shows anymore. And even then there were a lot less pay-per-views. Now the drive is every four weeks.
That was 1995. It’s 18 years later, and the writing team is, what, 10 or 15 people now? Marketing, PR — there are a lot of people involved.
There’s a lot of people involved, but a lot of it is throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks to Vince. It’s just what resonates with him. He’ll take a lot of creative direction, though sometimes he does it kicking and screaming. Maybe he’ll disagree with something, but then the crowd seems to be buying it and he’ll change his mind. Other times he feels strongly about something and that’s the way we go. But at the end of the day it’s his sign-off.
But a lot of people weigh in on stuff. Talent17 weighs in. The agents18 have to go through the process. I always laugh when the fans or writers say, “It’s so simple; I don’t know why they don’t just do this with the story.” Well, there are 20 factors why you can’t even come close to doing that, from talent going “I’m not doing that” to “I hate that guy, I don’t want to do that with him.” I hear things all the time like, “Why don’t they just do this with Taker?”19 Well, he physically can’t. He’s beat up. There are so many factors. It’s really like putting together a massive puzzle with pieces that move. It’s a massive undertaking.
“Talent” means wrestlers.
Agents (or road agents) are primarily ex-wrestlers who help the wrestlers choreograph a match based on brief instructions from Vince McMahon or creative.
The Undertaker, one of the longest-reigning WWE stars.
Speaking of writers, when do you first remember the Internet becoming a factor? There were dirt sheets before then, but they really blew up on the web. I know you guys pretend you’re not listening to it, but come on.
When I got into the business, obviously the dirt sheets were there. In my mind, it was like a gossip column. I remember Dallas Page20 coming in. I used to go to the Power Plant21 every day just to train with Terry Taylor.22 Page would come in and he’d be so upset because the dirt sheets were ripping him apart all the time. Especially Wade Keller,23 who was fucking brutal: “Page is a waste of skin. I don’t even know why he has a job there.” Stuff like that. Page could do no right and it really bothered him. I would say “What do you care? Who cares what he thinks? Just do what you do, man, and worry about if they’re cheering or not.” But he’d say to me, “You don’t understand, man. Bischoff2425 puts a lot of stock into this.” So one day he came in with a dirt sheet and Keller had ripped him up and he got so mad that he went into Jody Hamilton’s26 office and got Wade Keller’s phone number. We were all in the office; it was me and Terry Taylor and I think Big Show,27 and Page called and left Keller this scathing message. A little while later, over the intercom, they say “Page, Wade Keller’s on the line.” They get on a phone together, and boy, they hit it off. And they’re talking and Page is saying, “I just don’t understand why you’re giving me such a hard time. Yeah, I’m coming into this late,28 but I try and I work harder than everybody else.” From then on Wade Keller was digging Page.
That’s Diamond Dallas Page, former WCW superstar and current yoga guru.
WCW’s old training facility in Atlanta.
Probably most famous to mass audiences for his run as the Red Rooster in the WWF, Taylor was a Territorial Era great who went on to work as a trainer and booker.
Founder of the Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter — which he started while still in high school in 1987 — and the subsequent website pwtorch.com.
Eric Bischoff, WCW head honcho.
Eric Bischoff, WCW head honcho.
A former head trainer at the Power Plant who before that was a booker, an independent promoter, and half of the tag team the Assassins.
A.k.a. Paul Wight, who was then a young WCW wrestler known simply as the Giant.
Page started wrestling at the advanced age of 35 after years as a manager and announcer.
[Editor’s note: Wade Keller contacted Grantland after the publication of this interview and insisted, plausibly, that the writer Triple H was referring to is not Keller, but rather Bruce Mitchell, then a writer for Keller’s newsletter. Keller wrote a full response at his website.]
Eric Bischoff, WCW head honcho.
Completely. I was like, “You just worked30 the dirt sheet guy!” It blew my mind that these guys don’t even really have an honest opinion. There’s a lot of guys over the years I’ve seen put over [in the dirt sheets] and I just didn’t get it. But then I realized, those guys give them insider dirt. In the Attitude Era, we’d be on a plane and there’d be four of us traveling in first class or something, and a week later, I’d read the conversation verbatim in the dirt sheets. I’d be like “Fuck, how does that happen?” Because it had to be one of the four of us. I always thought, just do your job. If the crowd reacts to you, positively, negatively, if you’re getting a reaction, they’re going to push you. That’s what nobody gets. We don’t tell the fans who’s going to be over. We put somebody on the table, fans react, and then we decide where to go with them. What people forget is we have a focus group every single night, 10,000 people somewhere. We didn’t get Austin over. Austin got over with the fans.
“Work” is wrestling parlance for “fool,” imported from old carnie speak, as in “working the crowd.” Now it’s a catch-all for getting someone to believe something.
There’s been a lot written about you on the Internet over the years.
I wish I had the brainpower and the wherewithal and the drive to be as maniacal and devious as people fucking think I am. I’d be fucking Darth Vader. I’d run the Empire, and I guess maybe that’s how some people see it, right? They’d say “Oh, he went in there and he buried31 this guy,” and it’s like, fuck, I had nothing to do with that. I didn’t even know he was coming in until I saw him that day.
To beat a guy in such a way as to deflate his popularity entirely. Triple H was accused numerous times by writers over the years of using his backstage influence to “bury” anybody who was encroaching on his stardom.
But they do get things right sometimes. There was this guy on Reddit posting results recently.
The night we brought Lesnar in,32 the fans were chanting his name, and Vince said to me, “How do they know we have Lesnar here?” They didn’t! They’d heard rumors that Lesnar was a possibility. But if you watched that crowd, they were fucking blown away when he walked out there. And that’s the difference. People think they know, but they really don’t know any of the inner mechanics of what we do. Every now and then there’s something in there that will be right on, and I think that’s because talent put it out there. Talent hear things and that’s fine. We don’t really put much thought into it, to be quite honest. We just dislike when people ruin stuff for fans. It’s like telling kids Santa Claus is fake. Why do it? It doesn’t benefit anybody other than the ego of the person who put it out there. I never understood that. Why would you tell people what’s going on? Isn’t that the whole point of what we do, to keep them on the edge of their seats? I mean, yeah, we see where the Internet is going. We’re giving fans more access now and doing shows like Total Divas. But I laugh, like, when writers say “Oh, CM Punk laid the pipe bomb and lifted the fourth wall in a promo.”33 So let me get this straight, you think we put him out on TV, he broke fucking everything we were supposed to do, and then sat down Indian-style and started blistering everybody, and we didn’t think Let’s take him off the air? If that would’ve been a shoot, it would’ve been off the air the second he started.
Brock Lesnar made a surprise return to WWE after several years of MMA fighting on the episode of Raw after last year’s WrestleMania.
A promo is an onscreen monologue or interview a wrestler uses to promote himself or a match.
You mention Total Divas. How do you decide how much of the real stuff to give away on that show?
Contrary to popular belief, we’re not really trying to hide anything. People know what we are, they know what we do, but, you know, a magician is not really conjuring black arts. He’s a magician. He gives you an illusion. I’m friends with Criss Angel. Criss has offered me a million times to go downstairs and see the setup. I don’t want to see it. I just want to go, “God, how did you do that?” And that’s all what we’re trying to do. You can see everything else, that’s cool. We just don’t need you to see the piano wire that’s holding up the girl that’s levitating.
The reality shows are what they are. It’s creative reality. In our business, they never know what’s real and what’s not. So, like, at WrestleMania when the girls on Total Divas got cut34 — I saw on the Internet, “Oh, isn’t that horrible? They manufactured that whole thing to crush those girls’ spirits.” As if we thought that far in advance, that we thought, You know what we’ll do? On the busiest day of the year for us, we’ll play those girls all day and then pull it out from under them. No, the show is a fluid, live event. One match doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you have an allotted amount of time for a show, if one thing goes two minutes heavy, and one thing goes one minute heavy, the third one goes a minute heavy, another one goes two minutes heavy, you’re six minutes heavy and all of a sudden a match is gone. Nobody wanted that to happen. They prepared as hard as anybody else, they were as excited as anybody else, but it’s part of the show, right? So what do we do? Do we cut Rock-Cena in half, or do we eliminate the Divas match? It’s unfair, but if I’m a fan, I think I’ll pass on the Divas match and watch the entire Rock-Cena match.
A mixed-gender, eight-person tag match featuring the Tons of Funk and the Funkadactyls versus the Rhodes Scholars and the Bella Twins was cut from the card at the last minute due to time constraints, and Total Divas dramatized the event when the show started airing months later.
It’s funny. I think there was a point where I scoffed at the idea of the palate-cleanser match35 to go between the main events, but right then at ‘Mania, I missed it.
The match with the Divas was supposed to go between Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar and the Rock vs. John Cena.
Vince has this saying, and I hate when I quote him because it makes me feel like he’s right, but everything we do is storytelling. You can’t keep people way up here the whole time. You’ve got to sit people down to make them stand back up. Otherwise they get tired of just standing up. There’s a reason there was a popcorn matchup during intermission during the old days, to get people back in their seats. It’s crowd interaction. When you don’t have that, when you give them a match where they are physically screaming for 30 minutes, you can’t keep it going. They have to exhale at some point. And if you don’t give them that, you hurt the overall flow of the show. Nothing we do exists by itself.
One of the biggest differences in today’s programming versus 10 or 15 years ago is the TV-PG rating, and the end of the hard-core stuff. Was there a point after ECW, after Foley in Hell in a Cell, when you reached a point there where you were like, “All right, how much further can we take this?”
All that stuff is just special effects. It’s crazy special effects that you’ve never seen before, but if the story’s not good, it’s still a crap movie — it just has a bunch of stuff exploding. Visually, it’s unbelievable, but you’re bored 20 minutes in. At a certain point in time, those special effects just started to become all we were.
We were putting together a Hell in a Cell match once with Shawn and me against Vince and Shane36 and the Big Show.37 And Shane is the king of daredevils, and we were putting together all these crazy spots, and it’s just bothering me. Vince was like, “I can tell you don’t like any of this. Why?” It was because all we’re doing is putting together a bunch of special effects. And I said “People paid a lot of money to see Shawn and me stick your head up Big Show’s ass, but we’re jumping off a cage, landing on tables. Why?” And Vince said, “You’re right. Start over.” We could fall off all that stuff that day, but it’s not what they wanted to see. It wasn’t about the special effects; it was about the story line.
McMahon, the son of Vince who was sometimes an in-ring performer. He has since left the company.
At the Unforgiven PPV in September 2006.
We reached a point where everything just became special effects. We had to pull back and go back to story lines. People will look at the Attitude Era and they’ll go, “Ahh, the golden age,” but then they’ll look back at the ’80s with Crockett Promotions and the WWF and say, “Oh, that was the golden age, too!” So, which is it? Because they couldn’t be more different. That’s as PG38 as you can get.
One common complaint from Internet wrestling fans about the WWE centers on the company’s switch to a more family-friendly format — a far cry from the bawdy and bloody Attitude Era.
A great example is the Undertaker-Michaels match at WrestleMania 26. That match, it breathed. It had a pace. It didn’t have 40 bumps, but the story line itself was what made it great.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the story, and it’s not about the bumps. Mick Foley39 was the king of guys who would take chair shots with his hands down.40 I used to say to Mick all the time, “Let me get this straight: Reality-based, you turn around and you see a guy swing a bat at your head, you just put your hands down? Is that what you would do? Because that to me is bogus. You’re just appeasing people who want to see you get hit in the head with a chair. You’re not telling them a story, you’re showing them it’s crap.” There’s always going to be a certain group of people who like horror movies just for the special effects and the slasher stuff. It doesn’t matter. That’s why schlocky B-films work. They’re terrible. The dialogue is horrible, the acting is bad, but there’s a certain group of people that just love them because a guy killed a guy with a pencil through his neck. It’s just crazy.
The legendary wrestler who made his name on masochism.
That’s why we’ve had eight Saw movies.
That’s why we’re doing Leprechaun 7.41
WWE recently bought the rights to reboot the Leprechaun franchise, starring dwarf wrestler Hornswoggle.
The old ECW had so many great moments, but sometimes if you go back and watch a whole episode or a pay-per-view, it’s like porn. It can get to be too much.
Paulie’s42 genius was he made stars out of a lot of guys who couldn’t make it anyplace else. There were talented guys, too, but a lot of the mainstays — he hid their flaws, he shot up their strengths, he gave them a ton of special effects. And if you watched the show then, it was just a highlight reel. That’s all it was. And it was different, it had never been done before. But it was like watching porn in a way.
Paul Heyman, former ECW owner and current evil manager in WWE.
When I was going to work a program with Foley at one point, I had somebody make me a VCR tape of his Japan stuff. Just to kick around some ideas. He was like, “Well, they’re not that great.” And I was shocked because I’d heard all this great stuff about them. He’s like, “Just look at the spots, and try not to look at how many people are there.” There were some of them that looked like maybe there were 25 people there. And Mick was in all this C4-exploding barbed wire. No semblance of any kind of story. Literally, sometimes Mick would be helping the guy set up the prop. It was just, “For our next trick, folks, we’re going to set this table up with barbed wire and we’re going to set this explosive, and then he’s going to throw me through it, OK? Ready?” And they would go do it. So I got zero out of that. I had no idea. I told Mick and he said, “I told you. It’s all hype, dude.” It just took on a life of its own because people had never seen it before.
Bringing it back to the present day, you were talking about Heyman making stars out of guys. Now you’re running the talent department, from signings all the way up.
Yeah, that’s mine. Everything that has to do with talent, from the legends43 to the developmental system, to the live events and all of its operations and the towns we book, to where the pay-per-views are, all of it. Obviously I have a massive team that does all that, but they report to me.
Many wrestling stars of yore have signed “legends” contracts with WWE, which means they get paid a salary to appear at various WWE events and have merchandise and DVDs and such produced with their likeness.
I started in the office full-time a few years ago. Vince had been bugging me for a while, saying “When are you going to stop messing around in the ring and come get a real job?” So one time when I was injured, I shadowed him in the office for three months. I did everything he did. When I finally started full-time, he was like, “Take a few months. I want you to dig into everything. Have meetings with finance, dig into every part of this company and see what you think needs work.” And the thing I came back to him with was we have this huge global marketing juggernaut, but we’re a victim of our own success. We’ve shut down all the other territories. There’s almost no place for guys to go learn, and when they do, they’re learning how to work in a junior high in front of 50 people. It’s a completely different thing than working in front of 10,000 or a million on TV with a camera in your face.
So I started this little division called talent development. It was basically to build a bridge between creative and the developmental wrestlers. Now, other than Vince saying, “OK, you can have that amount of money,” he doesn’t have anything to do with it. Honest to god, he hasn’t even seen the Performance Center yet. He’s supposed to go next week.44
WWE just opened an enormous new Performance Center in Orlando, where all of its present and future recruits will learn the craft.
So now you can train guys from day one instead of recruiting all your guys from other companies.
You have to give talent the tools to succeed. First of all you have to find the right people, the right athletes. Sometimes for guys who have been in the indies for five or six years, it’s harder to break them of bad habits than it is to start them fresh. Some guys won’t have it. You say, “I know you worked someplace else, but that’s just not how it really works. It might’ve worked there, but let me show you how it works in the real world.” And no matter what you show them, they say, “Man, listen, I know how to do this. Don’t show me that. I know how to do it.”
There’s a lot of pride in pro wrestling.
There is. One thing that kills me about the Internet is that if you look hard enough, you can find someone to love you. And you will find a website dedicated to you that will tell you that you are the greatest thing on the planet. And you go on Twitter and the people who say you suck, they get blocked. And pretty soon, everybody’s telling you, “Dude, you are the greatest, why doesn’t WWE hire you? You’re the greatest thing in the world.” And you start thinking, Yeah, why don’t they hire me? Those guys are idiots. They don’t know anything. That’s where some guys get it in their heads and they can’t get it out.
But it’s also a business where you have to have a big ego to get in there in the first place.
You have to have a big ego, but asking questions is not a weakness. It’s a strength. It’s great to know that I’m really good at this, and I have all the faith in my ability to take that gamble every day. It doesn’t mean I can’t get better if somebody is willing to help me. That’s why I went to Kowalski’s school.45 When I looked at the schools that were available, I thought, Kowalski was a big star. He knows how to be a big star. He’s been there, maybe he’s figured it out. So you have to have a healthy ego, but you also have to be willing to learn and understand you don’t know everything. Nobody does. Even Vince, he’ll tell you he doesn’t.
Triple H studied under Killer Kowalski, a superstar villain of the Territorial days, who earned his nickname when he accidentally severed Yukon Eric’s ear in a match.
So in developmental, you give them all those tools, but they’ve got to be willing to use them. So you’ve got to find the right athletes, the right human beings, the right mental attitude, and then they have to be open to the creative process. And they need an inner charisma and an X factor to them. There’s a lot of times you can look at a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing in the ring but you can tell he’s going to be a star.
Give me a recent example.
Well, is Ryback the most skilled guy in the ring?
He’s doing pretty good, though. When we did the Nexus, obviously we already kind of saw Wade Barrett had it, but Ryback was the guy that stuck out. And it wasn’t just because he was the biggest guy — that’s what everybody thinks. But that physique is a blessing and a curse. If you look like him, when you walk out from behind that curtain, they go, “Whoa, look at this guy, he’d better impress me. Because if you stink, I’m going to crap on you right away.” Then it’s “The big guy can’t move. The big guy is terrible.”
How big can the developmental program get?
People see NXT,46 but NXT is just the guys in developmental that are ready for TV. We have at any given time between 75 to 100 people in developmental, and that might get bigger. The new performance center has seven rings. When we built it, I thought, OK, if I was a kid today and I wanted to get in the business, what tools would I need? We used to learn how to cut promos by cutting promos in the mirror. Now we have an HD camera set up so you can push the button and cut a promo and watch it back. There’s a 6,000-square-foot strength-and-conditioning program that’s overseen by Joe DeFranco,47 the NFL combine guy. We have a full physical therapy and rehab, a doctor-run staff, green-screen rooms, we have an audio room that can train the next Michael Coles.48 We have one ring that’s a big padded thing so guys can do moonsaults without killing themselves. And we set up a dummy in there so you can practice all your stuff and not take years off your career. Learning is when you make the most mistakes. We have so many tools there on every level for them to succeed, and people to help them right from the start, from your footwork all the way to the character.
NXT is a show that’s basically the WWE’s minor league. It airs on TV in Canada and Europe, but in the U.S. it’s only on Hulu.
DeFranco has a website.
WWE’s lead play-by-play guy.
Some guys go through a lot of different characters, right?
Well, Damien Sandow was one. He was in developmental, got let go, then got brought back. When I took developmental over, he was in his second run. I sat down with him and said, “You’re a good hand, but I’m not buying your product.” One day he sent me this promo and said, “Check this out, I really like this.” He sent me the Damien Sandow character. I said “That’s interesting. Go down that road a little bit more.” The further he went down that road, the more it worked. Now he’s in the roster, but he paid his dues to get there and worked hard at it and took a long time. That’s the process now — to help these guys get through that.
To bring in more Bray Wyatts and fewer Husky Harrises?49
Bray Wyatt — real name Windham Rotunda — first appeared on TV as a generic up-and-comer named Husky Harris, but was then repackaged and recently re-debuted.
Steph was just talking about it this morning with me. We took that kid, put him back in developmental, repackaged him, set the table for him, and put him into story lines. Last night I’m working with him hands-on. We were riffing, like “This is how we’re going to do this.” Then I watch him come out. I’m in Gorilla with the headset on, trying to get cameras to call it right. And when it’s a fucking home run, it’s just as much juice as me going out there and doing it myself.
And listen, I’m not trying to take credit, because it’s all him. If somebody asks me who created Bray Wyatt, I tell them: Bray Wyatt did. We just helped set the table. That’s the whole point. We give these guys every tool possible to succeed.
It’s to ensure the future of the business. Right now, probably 85 to 90 percent of our roster came through our system in some way. Five years from now, 100 percent of our roster will have come through there. We had seven guys in the past year at WrestleMania that weren’t on the roster the year before. Those guys come up to me and say, “I know we talked about this down there [in developmental], and I didn’t understand it then. Thank you for hanging in there with me, because I get it now.”
There are rumors that after the Performance Center, a physical Hall of Fame might be on the way.
Everybody always asks that question. Halls of fame are not a lucrative business. But here’s the bigger reason: If and when the time is right to do a Hall of Fame, it’s not just going to be a place where you walk in and say, “Oh, look, there’s a pair of trunks.” If we do it, it’ll be an immersive experience. With technology the way it is, a 4-D experience, whether it’s a ride, or, picture this: You walk into a locker room, lights go down, smoke comes out, and Andre the Giant walks out in a hologram and stands there and talks to you. That’s what it has to be. But is the Hall of Fame the priority? Absolutely not. It’s out there someplace in the stratosphere. But if we do it, it takes a lot of research because we want to do it right.
But you own a lot of the iconic artifacts of wrestling history, right?
One of the things we do is try to be the caretakers of the business. We have 130,000 hours of library footage. We’re perpetually looking for whatever else is out there. This past year, I got the first WWWF championship belt that Buddy Rogers lost to Bruno Sammartino. The night we put Bruno into the Hall of Fame, Bruno saw it. He hadn’t seen it since the day they switched it. He was amazed.
I got the NWA title that Harley Race wore, and Harley was in my office one day and I showed it to him. Harley had tears in his eyes, and he says, “See that dent right there? I smashed my head on it in St. Louis.” I love that aspect of the business.
The only thing you don’t have is the trunks of the guy Pat Patterson beat for the first Intercontinental title.50
The first Intercontinental title tournament, putatively won in Rio de Janeiro by Pat Patterson (the same guy who went on to be a backstage player), never happened. It was a useful lie from the pre-cable, pre-Internet days.
No, we have them. They’re behind a locked door.
Speaking of Bruno, he was estranged from the WWF/WWE for decades. You spearheaded his Hall of Fame induction. Is your passion for the history where your drive to mend fences comes from?
Time goes on and everybody changes. I wasn’t there for the fences to fall apart, so it’s easier for me to go in there and say, “Can’t we just fix this now?” But it’s a long process. With Bruno, one day I went into Vince’s office and asked what he thought of Bruno in the Hall of Fame. He says, “It ain’t going to happen.” I say, “Would you care if I try?” He says, “Hey, if you want to waste your time, go ahead.” And it took eight months to get Bruno there. I think people think Vince sits in his office counting money and checking the list of people he hates. But he honestly doesn’t care. He’s moved on. Some guys will want to come back and have a personal meeting with Vince, and he’ll be like, “What do they want to meet with me personally for?” And I’ll say, “They just want to bury the hatchet.” And he says, “There is no hatchet.”
With Bret Hart there was a hatchet, right?
Yeah, there was a hatchet, but even then Vince would say, “It was what it was. We didn’t get along.”
The reason why I do what I do is that I believe that where you came from is important, how we got here is important — not just for us but for our fan base.
The question you probably always get after the Hall of Fame is the WWE television channel.
If I had to say what is one priority we think about on a daily basis, that is one of them. But it’s not so easy to put together. It’s not the NFL Network. You have to think about how our business is different. Don’t look at us as a Mayweather or De La Hoya fight, look at it as Rocky. Rocky is a movie that just happens to be about boxing. It’s really about characters and story lines and relationships and all those things, and the backdrop is boxing. You can go back and watch the final fight in Rocky a thousand times. If you dig that movie, if you like the characters, you’ll watch the whole movie over and over.
But that’s a very limited number of people that go back and watch boxing matches, unless it’s like the Thrilla in Manila. But to go back and just watch a regular boxing match, or a Super Bowl, what’s the implications of that now? It doesn’t mean anything. Our stuff is different.
So how many more do you have left? How long until you’re just a front-office character and not an in-ring performer?
In this business, you’re always an injury away from being done anyway. But listen, I spent 40 years of my life in the wrestling business. I spent 40 years trying to avoid having a real job, and somehow I ended up with one. But the job is not 9-to-5, it’s 24/7. And it’s family. Vince comes over when I’m cooking at the grill and the first thing he says is, “Hey, in Peoria yesterday I noticed something.” I’m like, “Can I just cook the hamburgers, please?” It’s like that when I wrestle, too. Contrary to everybody thinking it’s always an ego play with me, thinking I always just want to get in the ring, sometimes I’m like, “Really? Can I just not? Can’t I take this time off?” Getting ready to wrestle is like getting ready for a car crash. Getting ready to work with Brock Lesnar is like knowing you’re going to get hit by a bus and the bus is going to back over you. If I’m going to work WrestleMania, 16 weeks out I have to start training like I’m Mayweather getting ready for a fight. I have to find time to do that.
This past WrestleMania I was in a suit at a global business partners summit giving a speech, and when I got done I ran right into a room, put on jeans and a T-shirt and a leather jacket, and ran to the car because I was going to Axxess51 to sign autographs and be Triple H. It’s a lot of work.
Axxess is the live WWE fan fest that they hold before big events like WrestleMania and SummerSlam.