To listen to Paul (Triple H) Levesque talk about World Wrestling Entertainment’s white-hot NXT brand is akin to listening to a proud father talk about his son’s first game-winning grand slam in a Little League game.
Quite simply, he gushes with pride.
And rightfully so, as the wrestling legend turned WWE’s Executive Vice-President of Talent, Creative and Live Events is the driving force behind the increasingly popular brand that has churned out stars like current WWE World Heavyweight champion Seth Rollins and major stars like Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Rusev, to name some from recent years.
It comes as no surprise during a conference call with the man known simply as Triple H that he is feeling as good about his “baby” as ever, a day before NXT’s next major special, NXT Takeover: Unstoppable, which is live on the WWE Network May 20th at 8 p.m.
On this day, Levesque is gushing about NXT’s most recent live shows, a new venture for the rapidly expanding brand.
“We did two shows in Philadelphia and one in Albany,” he said. “They were met with (rave) reviews. Our fanbase for NXT continues to grow through the WWE Network and I think through social media.”
“The shows were met with tremendous success. I’m proud of all the talent and everybody for the process, but I’m especially proud that in Philly, on the first night on Thursday, that show was headlined by the NXT women. Charlotte and Sasha Banks, they main evented the first night and when they were done, they were given a standing ovation. I think that what we are doing in NXT changes the perception, the position and what women do in the industry and I’m very proud of that and I’m very proud of them for doing that,” Levesque said, adding that the NXT live tours will continue.
Besides producing some of the main players on the current WWE roster, NXT has become home to a number of up-and-coming Canadian talents, most notably Quebec natives Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. Both have made their Raw debuts in recent weeks, Zayn in spectacular fashion in his hometown of Montreal, in the ring with John Cena, for the United States title no less. Owens also debuted with Cena, and will face Cena next weekend for the U.S. title on the Elimination Chamber show.
Heady stuff, indeed.
Perhaps, but very deserving as well, Levesque said.
“The showing that Sami had a few weeks ago on Raw with Cena and his performance there was awesome,” he noted. “It continues to speak well for the brand. Kevin Owens, I think everybody saw (Monday) night, coming out on Raw and just making an impact as well, it speaks to not only how good they are, but to the faith that the WWE is starting to have in the NXT brand.”
Levesque offered specifics on the decision to bring both Zayn and Owens up to Monday Night Raw, the company’s flagship program seen by millions every week.
“There’s a lot of collaboration on any of that,” he said when asked how the process to call up Owens happened. “I’m constantly in Vince’s ear about who’s ready. It’s a constant thing. He’s busy. He doesn’t get to see all of NXT. He doesn’t get to see all of the show, he gets to see bits and pieces. I show him, if I feel like he needs to take a look at something. Sometimes he’ll say to me, ‘I need something for this,’ and I’ll bring him a video of somebody.
“The Kevin Owens situation, as being specific, and even the Sami Zayn situation, those were a collaborative effort. I don’t know who first brought me the idea of the Sami in Montreal thing. I don’t remember exactly. We tend not to dwell on whose idea it was or where it came from. We just take it and run with it. Same with the whole Kevin (Monday) night deal. (The) idea comes up, great. Clearly in something like that, Cena is a big supporter of NXT and of what we do. I’m sure at some point in time, John weighed in. It’s not like we surprised him with that yesterday or anything. It’s part of a larger process of bringing guys up. It’s not just haphazardly thrown together at the last minute.”
Levesque also noted the significance of Cena’s support for NXT and its latest call-ups. Cena, while currently not headlining main events at monthly shows, remains the face of the company. His blessing and his support are priceless.
“I’m excited that John is a confident enough performer in his own right to be able to take guys like Sami and Kevin and give them opportunities and give them time to shine,” he said. “I’m thankful to him for that.”
The call-ups also obviously have the support of Levesque himself, who offers them basic advice before their big debuts.
“At the end of the day, on all of this, you give them that platform and it’s up to them to succeed or not and to do what they do,” he said. “It’s one of the things I try to tell those guys when they get brought up. I said it to Kevin last night, ‘You’re here for a reason, do what you do. Don’t second-guess yourself, don’t think twice about it. You can do this. Do what you do, man. Go out there and be you and do what you do.’ ”
Those debuts, along with Neville’s ascension to the main roster following WrestleMania, are what NXT is all about, Levesque said. Where that talent comes from is secondary, Levesque said.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘Oh this guy’s an indie guy,’ ‘This guy didn’t have experience.’ I don’t care where people come from. Indie guys are great because they have experience. Whether I agree with their style, or anybody does, it’s irrelevant. They have experience in front of crowds and that’s something you can’t teach. As we bring in new talent, we need to give them that experience because that is the way they learn to really put into use what we teach them.”
WrestleMania 31 was a significant moment for NXT, Levesque said, adding a last-minute decision to add a live NXT event to the week-long celebration of wrestling may prove to be a key moment in its history. And one that almost wasn’t, he said.
“San Jose was a little bit of a tipping point,” he said. “That all came together last minute. An opportunity arose for that facility, I jumped on that opportunity and I had to jump through a lot of hoops to convince some people that it was a smart thing to do.
“There was a lot of concern from the exec team. We had a lot of things going on at WrestleMania week. I pushed for it hard and then executed it. There were a lot of people that still weren’t convinced. Vince not being one of them, he was on board with it but he was getting a lot of pushback in some ways on it. I think somewhere in his mind he was hoping, ‘Geez, I hope this goes well.’ And then when we got to WrestleMania week, the buzz was so big.
“A lot of that exec team came and were blown away by the fans, by the energy in that building, by the performances that they saw, by the brand that they saw. That was the game changer a little bit for a lot of people.”
While Levesque looks like a genius for his San Jose call, and while he loves what he has built with NXT, he admits he can’t lose sight of its purpose.
“It’s a third brand,” he said. “My goal here is to get talent ready to be on the main roster. For me to look at it otherwise, and everybody that is here, whether that be somebody that I’m bringing in for a couple of shots, or somebody that’s under contract with us at the Performance Center, or whatever, my goal is in the long term to create stars. I want to look at it and say two years from now that every performer at WrestleMania came through this system.”
Given the current success of NXT, and its rapidly growing fan base, Levesque said that every single performer in NXT is in no rush to rise to the main roster.
“The talent here have this unbelievable pride in what’s going on down here,” he said. “It’s one of the things that I love the most about it. It’s a team, they’re proud of it, they want it to grow and they want it to succeed and they feel like they’re a part of it.”
“I don’t think there’s very many guys that are sitting here in NXT going like, ‘Man, how long am I going to sit here before I get the call?’ They’re having a blast. I don’t think there’s any place else they’d rather be. If they can’t be on the main roster, they want to be here on NXT.”