Over the last few years, there's been a concerted effort to get one man in the WWE significantly more over than anyone else in the company. At all times, he has been made to look strong and important. His presentation and booking have been handled magnificently...
Wait. You thought I was talking about Roman Reigns? Nah.
Bow Down to the King.
Facing the facts
Let's be clear: I'm not presenting any of the following as objective truth. It's simple speculation from observing the company over the last few years. While I may have a (strong) penchant for working myself into shoots, I'm approaching WWE's current poor situation with a few central tenets:
- Your viewers need to trust your product, and moreover, trust the people behind the product.
- It is easiest to work those already invested in your product.
- The biggest WWE fans have very little faith in the company and its booking, and do not trust the company to do "what's right" (i.e., what the fans want).
- The WWE brand is more important than any individual star. Stars can get hurt, stars can get stale, stars can leave the business. But a brand that has proven it can consistently create new stars never gets old.
Taken as a whole, it seems that the inevitable transfer of power away from Vince McMahon is the opportune time to restore trust in the fanbase. To do that, though, the successor must be presented as a fresh start: someone that the fans view as a real-life face.
Crisis in Connecticut
WWE is a heel to its audience. Vince's on-screen character, combined with backstage rumors and anecdotes, represents something inherently negative to the audience at large. Moreover, that the company is seen as desperately out-of-touch with what its audience wants--an accurate sentiment, judging by the ratings if nothing else--kills the audience's faith in the product.
The top babyfaces mandated by the company are loathed by its most ardent fans, and those who are viewed to be "wronged" by management are the most beloved members of the roster. Read that again: The most effective way to push a face in modern-WWE is to encourage fans to feel that the performer is not respected by the bosses. That's a quintessential sign of an unhealthy company.
And as we've seen over the last year, WWE is the "wrong" kind of heel--the company has go-away heat with hundreds of thousands of viewers, as the ratings and ticket sales demonstrate. The single most important thing for the company is to get the fans back on its side; in essence, to "get over" with the fans. But fans do not trust Vince to right the ship and give them what they want; they'll never accept backstage Vince as "the good guy" to lead the company into the future.
The brand needs to be rebuilt in the eyes of its fans, and that can only be done by someone they trust and respect. The brand must be "turned" face, and the easiest way for fans to believe that's happening is to place their savior in charge.
Backstage politicking has a very longstanding history in this business, and in this company. What's not surprising is that a man that consistently proved himself incredibly adept at backstage politicking--Reign of Terror, see the--continues to be a mastermind backstage. But while Triple H was viewed negatively, rightly, as a real-life heel for his prior history, he has in fact turned into a "reality" face. This is important to note: his on-screen character has consistently been a heel.
The only thing that's changed is the shoot interpretation of his role in WWE, which has been done slowly, deliberately, and unbelievably successfully. Hunter's real-life face turn is hardly an accident: that it has been so consistently effective (lack of any consistency being a hallmark of the main roster and Vince'ism) means it's by design. The bettering of his shoot reputation inevitably contributes to hardcore fans reacting to him on-screen as a face, despite his apparent positioning as a storyline heel. This is the Reality Era: the fans know enough about backstage to have it affect their reaction to the on-screen product--but only just enough to make it even easier to work them en masse.
Triple H, the mastermind politician, the man who previously had a reputation of nefarious backstage deeds, now gets "YES" chants for destroying the alleged top babyface in a fair fight.
Triple H. Getting "YES" chants. The man who made it his defining goal to wipe out the "YES" movement, garnering massive heel heat in the process, is now serenaded with those very same chants.
What a time to be alive.
How has this been done? How has Reign of Terror Triple H become the most beloved babyface for the smarkiest of smarks?
It's actually not hard at all to create a real-life face. Have him run a really good wrestling promotion and sign basically every hardcore wrestling fan's dream performers: Kevin Owens, La Sombra, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, etc, etc, etc. (Then have him take selfies with all of these people and broadcast them far and wide on social media--including a selfie announcing Nakamura's signing that went live on Twitter one day before Triple H dismantled Roman Reigns on the February 22 episode of Raw to a rapturous ovation.)
Have him launch a Global Cruiserweight Series, only on the WWE Network, that will draw in talents from around the world that wrestling fans intensely desire to see given credit on a big stage. Have him run a women's division that is treated so well and has such talent that it headlines pay-per-views that are not-subtly named, "Respect."
Why else but to make Hunter look good do you have X-Pac (a noted backstage ally of Triple H, how convenient) out here giving "shoot" interviews about how Triple H had to damn near beg to let Roman kill him after TLC? Keep in mind, over a literal two-year build, basically the only time Reigns actually got over with the crowd was the brief period after TLC and the following Raw in Philadelphia. And how about that: Triple H is not only responsible for this great idea that finally worked, but he had to fight hard to let it happen. Triple H is so smart, and so convinced that his ideas work, that he insisted it be done--and, surprise! It worked. Roman immediately got over... but then his booking--presumably when Vince followed his own ideas again--immediately shifted to its prior nonsensical state, and the crowds hated Roman even more.
And, lo and behold, who got the actual injury redemption angle at the Royal Rumble? Triple H was off-screen for a month. That return is guaranteed to get you a pop, because wrestling fans love surprise returns, even if they aren't very surprising. But look at the context: it's in Orlando, the home of NXT. Roman was "injured" during the Rumble match, but walked to the back under his own power. If you can walk to the back, you should be going back into the ring, not leaving for 30 minutes. That sort of thing makes it obvious that they're trying to manipulate the crowd--a notion that the crowd hates. "Don't try your underhanded tricks; we are onto you; you can't fool us."
You know what the crowd does love, though? Actually being manipulated. We wouldn't be fans of professional wrestling if we didn't love getting worked. The key, then, is to disguise the actual work behind a veneer of what we think they want us to believe.
BOOKER OF THE YEAR Triple H is in a main event angle on the main roster in which he is literally the only person that looks good, and in fact everyone else in the angle, shoot and kayfabe, look like dolts. This is due to him consistently being made to look like the coolest wresting promoter in history all the while presenting him as a vicious badass in story.
Can that really be an accident?
What I am not sure about is how Vince McMahon fits into all this. It is plainly evident that Triple H is the beneficiary of all this, but is Vince purposefully allowing that to take place?
Vince is in on it: His stubbornness is well documented, as are his philosophies. It would hardly be shocking that a 70-year-old man at the head of a billion dollar company is resistant to radically changing his ways. But while McMahon had great luck many times during his successful quest in turning WWE into the only relevant wrestling company in America, the simple fact remains: the man's a billion dollar promoter. He knows the wrestling business, and he must be able to see that the product he's currently putting out is being resoundingly rejected.
It wouldn't surprise me in the least bit that Vince is willing to make himself look a real-life fool--his character (and thus, presumably, the man himself) has always demonstrated a propensity to "show ass" as a heel--in order to put the company, his actual legacy, in a substantially better position going forward.
Vince isn't in on it: His stubbornness and tired philosophies are just that, and his mind has lost its edge in his advanced age. It may be too far to say that The Game is playing Vince, but he's certainly maneuvering the climate to his favor, making Vince look out-of-touch in the process.
R Evolutionary booking
The booking of NXT demonstrates this in some very important ways. Think back to the absolute terror the entire internet wrestling community had when it seemed apparent that Eva Marie, a dreadfully horrible performer in literally every aspect, was receiving a push to the NXT women's championship--the single most well-booked title in the entire company.
People were so invested in this angle, they were streaming the match live via Periscope. They had to know if Eva was going to take the title and signal the death of NXT: Vince was getting involved, Total Divas needed a big angle, etc. And how did Trips respond? My God, he gloriously overbooked the entire show to play into our worst fears--and then had Bayley go over. Not only does this put Bayley over, massively, as the quintessential "women's wrestler," as she said rather pointedly in her pre-match promo, it does something even more devious: it makes us bigger Triple H marks.
Yes, the Michael Cole references to "corporate" and the presence of Charles Robinson "overseeing" the refereeing of the match are not subtle, are clearly works, and are designed to roil NXT smarks into a fervor. The glory of all of it is that it plays on our shoot, real-life fears: what if Vince gets jealous when he sees NXT getting all this hype and buzz and decides to kill the single best thing about the product--its women division? What if E! and Total Divas have an Eva title angle in their contract? What if ...
Using Cole (who, hell, even put over face authority figure of William Regal), and Robinson, and then overbooking the match to a preposterous degree: Nia Jax pulls the ref out, Robinson sneakily tries to three-count an Eva roll-up victory, Jax massacres Bayley while Robinson plays dumb, and then, even through all of that, innocent and pure and wonderful wrestler Bayley overcomes--it literally lays out our absolute worst fears about WWE mindset and booking, and then squelches them entirely.
"Triple H doesn't do this shit to us." He understands what we like, why we like it, and he gives us it--and what's more, he makes us struggle and pain and yearn desperately before finally granting the audience a collective, jubilant release.
NXT's booking philosophy is radically different than the main roster's--this is fact. Without getting into the details too much, NXT relies on tiering its performers to create stars that people will pay to see, while WWE's muddled 50-50 booking creates only a massive midcard morass. NXT actually makes its stars "look strong," while WWE can't even decide how they want to tell their stories.
In recent weeks, Heath Slater pinned Dolph Ziggler, Dolph Ziggler pinned Kevin Owens, and Kevin Owens won the Intercontinental Championship. This devalues all the performers, makes the belt look meaningless, and loses fan interest.
Meanwhile, what is the only aspect of the main roster that hardcore fans currently recognize as being coherent and headed in the right direction? ... Surprise! The women's division that people have long known Vince has zero interest in, and just so happens to be the most notable part of NXT, Triple H's baby.
Given Vince's lack of interest in serious women's wrestling, that his backstage allies like Kevin Dunn are noted misogynists, and that the women's division in NXT, run by Triple H, is basically the hardcore wrestling fan's dream, it seems obvious that Vince has ceded control of running that division to his son-in-law.
Taking this into account, it's very notable that the only performer on the entire main roster that's actually getting a clear "star" push is Sasha Banks--a performer in the division that Triple H is overseeing.
Making their marks
Triple H, a 46-year-old executive, is walking into the main event of Wrestlemania the champion, and as a face. The murderer's row lineup of Smark Cities in the weeks leading up to Mania, starting last Monday in Detroit, will all (with the possible exception of Nashville this Monday) hail Triple H as the biggest babyface this side of Bayley on the planet. He literally can't lose, no matter the result in Dallas.
If Roman goes over: "Fucking Vince, pushing a guy we don't want. Another piece of evidence that Vince simply doesn't get us anymore."
If Trips goes over, he gets an all-time enormous face pop as a part-time wrestler, full-time executive, presumably about to take over the reigns of the company. What's more, he then gets to put over a face the crowd actually likes--Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, whomever.
Literally everything that could happen makes the man look good.
But they aren't just making "Triple H" marks; they're making "Triple H productions" marks. This gives WWE so much more leeway to operate with the product, because we trust him. The fanbase doesn't trust Vince, at all.
Since the birth of the authority, what has made Trips look bad for shoot? Nothing. He and Stephanie massively helped Bryan get over. He's inoculated himself from any complaints and placed himself as uniquely responsible for any successes--and keep in mind we can't actually know what he does or doesn't influence backstage, just that he has influence. But he has constructed an identity that, to be quite honest, is one of the most powerfully constructed wrestling identities of all time. This is truly Reality Era.
They're not just making Trips look good as a performer, or as a uniquely capable backstage politician. They're constructing an army of Paul Levesque marks--they are in essence protecting the future of the product by making the owner-elect beloved.
He must know that once he takes the reigns, his on-screen role will have to be significantly neutered, and diminished. It may be tempting for his ego to stay front and center, but his role as "benevolent hand from above" in NXT is possible because he only makes vanity, shoot, appearances, to talk about how this product (that he created) is for you.
But Triple H has a massive ego, you say. There's no way he could keep himself off the product if he was running the show. But again ... he doesn't have to be on the product for us to be utter marks for the man. We'll all be aware that he's running the show. He can come out for his vanity appearances to massive, sustained face pops, from his legions of devoted followers.
What's more, once he's in charge, he can no longer hide behind, "Well, Vince is running the product so poorly that Trips has to be on-screen as a major storyline player." But if he's giving the fans a successful product that they love, he'll get more real-life credit and success than any kayfabe angle could grant him.
How strongly has Hunter positioned himself? His backstage politicking is well-known, and I readily concede his deviancy. I've written a few thousand words about how he is a master manipulator of other people to benefit himself.
And I care not at all.
The man presents us with Bayley, with Sasha Banks, with Shinsuke Nakamura, with Sami Zayn, with Asuka. You think I'm going to care about how he uses other people who don't suit his purposes if he gives us those sorts of stars and treats them well? You think I'm going to dislike Triple H if he books Bayley and Sasha Banks to be crossover, mainstream icons for their breaking of gender barriers in pro wrestling?
Hell no. Let him run everything (something that his noted ego would suuuurely hate).
Triple H is absolutely the smartest man in wrestling. He gets credit for, as Geno said on the most recent Cageside Live, "literally everything," that goes well, and bears zero responsibility for stuff that goes wrong. Judging from the last few years, it is quite plausible that Triple H is more McMahon than Vince McMahon himself.
All hail, the King of Kings.