Game of Thrones: Nick Khan, Triple H, and the Future of WWE

When Nick Khan was hired as WWE's Chief Revenue Officer and President in August 2020 nobody could've foreseen the damage he would inflict on WWE or how he would seemingly get an iron grip on the company's future. Like his predecessor George Barrios, Khan came to the job with no knowledge of the wrestling business. Unlike Barrios though Khan came in at a critical time not just in WWE but in the relationship between Vince McMahon and his presumed heir apparent Triple H. In a year and half on the job Khan has completely altered the line of succession, reportedly supplanting Hunter as next in line. This piece examines the two most pertinent questions resulting from this shift: How did this happen and how does this impact WWE's future?

Triple H: Heir Apparent

The groundwork for the current situation was laid on January 30th, 2020 when George Barrios and Michelle Wilson were ousted from WWE by Vince McMahon. During their decade plus run as co-presidents Barrios and Wilson did a lot of damage to WWE that I detailed in a piece a couple years ago. Even though he was behind the corporatization of WWE and all of its detrimental consequences, Barrios, in his rare public appearances, only came across as a greasy snake oil salesman. He never appeared to be ambitious. He had his role and he operated within it. There was also a backstop to Barrios' deleterious behavior and that backstop was Triple H and NXT.

NXT had been established first as a game show replacement for WWECW then transitioned into a developmental brand to replace FCW. Along the way Triple H took over and instituted his vision for NXT which was that of what Hollywood Chris Hall called a "super indie fed". Using a mix of homegrown talent and premium indie talent, Triple H turned NXT into an alternative to the main roster within WWE. It was critically lauded and beloved by the fans so much so that most observers believed that Hunter was the obvious heir apparent to Vince and most fans wanted him to take over ASAP. Therefore, NXT was the backstop to everything Barrios and Wilson did, the glimmer of hope for the future of WWE.

Enter All Elite Wrestling. When Tony Khan's upstart promotion announced it would be running a nationally televised primetime wrestling show Wednesday nights on TNT, Vince could not abide that. He decided to weaponize his much beloved developmental/super indie hybrid. For the preceding six years Triple H ran NXT autonomously, doing his own thing with his own crew in Florida away from Vince McMahon and in the relative safety of the WWE Network. In August 2019 it was announced that NXT would expand to two hours and move to USA Network head-to-head with AEW Dynamite thus taking away its autonomy and security. The tweaks to its longtime format necessary to accommodate the expanded, live format and AEW being the shiny new toy proved to be too much for NXT to overcome. They were dominated by AEW in the ratings out of the gate. While they did get an occasional viewership victory, AEW routinely trounced them in the demos, and beat them across the board most weeks. Not even Vince’s quick fix solutions like including NXT in the brand supremacy storyline of Survivor Series 2019 or sending Charlotte Flair to NXT to feud with then-NXT women’s champion Rhea Ripley could turn the tide. By March 2020, just two months after he fired his co-presidents, Vince had grown frustrated with the embarrassment of being beaten in the ratings every week and demoted his son-in-law as punishment. That was the situation Nick Khan walked into when he was hired in the summer of 2020.

Enter Nick Khan

Prior to taking the job with WWE, Nick Khan had spent twelve years as a powerful agent with the Creative Artists Agency. His clients included a couple ESPN hosts, Ariel Helwani, and WWE itself. As WWE’s agent, Khan helped negotiate their two billion-dollar TV deal with USA and Fox. When Nick Khan walked in the door on August 5, 2020 he was already a made man. He was also exactly the kind of person Vince likes in the role, a savvy businessman who's completely ignorant as to how the wrestling business works (Khan publicly implied that his wrestling fandom ended at WrestleMania IX). This way Khan can’t question Vince’s ideas on their merits.

Khan wasted little time further making a name for himself, spearheading negotiations between WWE and NBC Universal leading to NBCU's streaming service Peacock acquiring the WWE Network for a billion dollars in January 2021. That deal effectively rendered WWE financially independent from its fan base something Vince had been dreaming about for decades. He further ingratiated himself to the company by negotiating an unspecified seven-figure deal with Warner Bros to plug their Netflix movie Army of the Dead (featuring WWE Hall of Famer Dave Batista) which led to the infamous zombie lumberjacks at WrestleMania Backlash, one of the more ridiculous moments in recent memory.

In his first nine months on the job Nick Khan was responsible for bringing in three plus billion dollars. That earned a lot of trust and a lot of power within the company. In April he began to exercise that power, orchestrating the first of several rounds of talent releases. Again, WWE was hardly in a financial bind. The motivation behind these releases was simply the retention of more of their money. Seeing Vince’s willingness to bless his decision, Khan decided to make a major move, one George Barrios would’ve never dared make.

NXT Takeover

By March 2021 the head-to-head with AEW had done a number on NXT. The need for star power precluding the ability for stars to move up and fresh blood to come in as well as the booking going from more story oriented to focused on popping a rating had made NXT a shell of its former self. Those changes contributed to AEW's domination in the ratings which further exacerbated the tension and frustration between Vince McMahon and Triple H. On March 30 it was announced that NXT would move to Tuesday night starting in April per an agreement between USA and WWE, a move tantamount to a surrender in the lopsided "war". That announcement proved to be both a death knell and an opening.

For years while NXT was immensely popular, Hunter’s philosophy of pro wrestling clashed with Vince’s "sports-entertainment". NXT's popularity and existence on the Network had hidden the fact that it ultimately wasn’t fulfilling its intended mission to make new stars for the main roster. The percentage of NXT mainstays that went on to success on Raw or Smackdown is alarmingly low. There was indisputably a lack of synergy between the developmental brand and the main roster. Still there were no reports of any imminent changes in store for NXT prior to the move in September 2019. Once NXT failed to beat AEW the long-term lack of synergy became untenable. Nick Khan saw this as an opening and began the process of dismantling everything Triple H had spent eight years building.

The first step was multiple rounds of releases of NXT talent some of whom hadn’t even made it to TV but all of whom had been scouted and selected by Hunter and his team. These releases were done without regard to whether those being fired were currently involved in a story or about to be involved in a story.

The second step was the rebranding of NXT and replacing of Triple H with Vince as overseer. That step began to take shape in August when Khan announced in a Summerslam weekend interview conducted by former client Ariel Helwani, that NXT was going to be completely overhauled. Within a week of that announcement, advertisements began to air for the launch of NXT 2.0 on September 14th. When that day arrived, it was clear that things were very different. The Capitol Wrestling Center had been transformed. Gone was the familiar black and gold. In its place was a garish mix of colors meant to look like graffiti but that came across more like a 90’s Nickelodeon vibe. The booking also changed. It began to resemble the main roster even more but given the fact Vince McMahon and Bruce Prichard are overseeing creative now that’s no surprise. It should be noted that this seizure of control was done while Triple H was out recovering from a major cardiac event which is a little icky if you ask me.

The third step was doing away with Hunter’s existing scouting system and replacing it with something else. In that same aforementioned Helwani interview Khan outright said that WWE would no longer be bringing in indie talent and would instead create their own talent. To further this change, the "Next in Line" program was initiated. With the "NIL" program WWE recruits athletes right out of college and groom them in the WWE style of wrestling without having to worry about beating the versatility out of them. The main problem with the "NIL" program is that these athletes aren’t exclusively wrestlers. They’re track and field stars, basketball players, and football players. We’ve seen football players transition well into wrestling but I don’t know that the type of athleticism of basketball players or track stars translates well into wrestling. There’s also the issue that a sameness could develop if everyone is trained the exact same way. It also comes across as WWE trading in nearly 100 performers, most of whom were talented professional wrestlers, for a crop of people who may not be as skilled or passionate about wrestling but can be paid less. Nonetheless it’s certainly more in line with Vince’s vision which makes it more cost-effective in his and Nick Khan’s eyes. They even had Triple H put over this program strong in a press statement despite the fact that Hunter is smart enough to know how questionable an idea "NIL" is and that it replaced the system he had set up.

The fourth and final step in dismantling all of Hunter’s hard work was putting Bron Breakker over Tomasso Ciampa and then releasing the vast majority of the longtime backstage NXT personnel both of which took place last week. Among those released was NXT writer and close friend of Triple H, Road Dogg as well as Hunter’s right hand talent scout and on-screen NXT GM William Regal. Also on the chopping block was Samoa Joe. Joe was released in April of last year but personally brought back to NXT by Triple H. Joe was medically cleared after being unable to compete for over a year for unknown reasons and defeated Karrion Kross for the NXT title. Joe was set to defend it on the debut of NXT 2.0 but on the Sunday prior to the show it was announced via a video message on Twitter that Joe had to vacate the title because he was mysteriously medically unable to compete again. Joe was never seen on TV again and according to reports was being used as a trainer behind the scenes. With the removal of these individuals, the only people left from Hunter’s team are Shawn Michaels in creative and Matt Bloom and Sara Del Rey as trainers. Otherwise everything Hunter setup has been ripped out root and branch.

According to a report from Dave Meltzer, this takeover and transformation of NXT and the developmental system writ large was aided and abetted by higher-ups within WWE who feared for their jobs should Triple H take the reins from Vince. As such they sided with Nick Khan and his plan to supplant Hunter. That kind of infighting within a company is toxic but given the starkly different visions of Hunter and Khan/McMahon it’s not all that surprising. The loss to AEW cost the Triple H wing a lot of power and Nick Khan took full advantage inexorably altering the future of the company.

Other Entrenchment Efforts

In addition to the successful efforts involving NXT, Nick Khan also expanded his grip on the company in other ways. In May multiple high-ranking staffers from WWE's international offices were fired. Based on a report from PWInsider, this was done so that Khan could personally oversee these offices and make sure they’re in alignment with WWE HQ. That sounds on its face like an exercise in making things more efficient but it also has the effect consolidating the power Khan has amassed.

A New Heir?

In December Meltzer shocked exactly nobody when he reported that in just over a year on the job Nick Khan had successfully overthrown Triple H and become the presumptive heir apparent to WWE should Vince retire or die. Those words should be as terrifying to wrestling fans as they are unsurprising. Given all the changes he’s instituted, it’s clear Khan would only continue to pull WWE further away from wrestling especially considering that he doesn’t truly understand how wrestling works. The idea of Triple H taking over gave fans hope because Hunter was on the pulse of wrestling. He went after the best wrestling talent and allowed his creative team to write wrestling stories. While it’s certainly true that AEW has taken lot of NXT's formula and created a much closer working relationship with the indies, WWE did not have to retreat. That was a choice. They believe that they can create TV stars despite the fact that they are ultimately a pro wrestling company. They have chosen marketability over aptitude and passion and that’s a dangerous gamble that isn’t likely to pay off. Nick Khan is totally bought into and amplifying this vision. With Nick Khan in and Triple H out, the glimmer of hope that once existed in WWE's future has been put out leaving WWE's future in a permanent state of darkness.

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