Sledgehammers, Stone Cold and matches with Shawn Michaels: Triple H on his 25 years with WWE

WWE

His ring name was Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a snooty "Connecticut blue blood" obsessed with proper etiquette. His debut match for promoter Vince McMahon was on April 30, 1995, during an episode of WWF's "Wrestling Challenge." He defeated the immortal Buck Zumhofe in that match with a modified diamond cutter, his short-lived finishing move before adopting his signature "Pedigree."

Over the next 25 years, Paul Levesque would become known simply as Triple H. He would go on to win 14 world championships and be the main event of dozens of pay-per-views. He would lead D-Generation X and Evolution. He hit a lot of people with a sledgehammer and helped create a new appreciation for Motörhead.

On Friday night's WWE SmackDown, that career will be honored in a special 25th anniversary celebration, albeit under the less-than-ideal circumstances the WWE has adjusted to in the current, crowdless environment. Now the executive vice president of global talent strategy & development for WWE, Levesque has learned to adapt as WWE enters its second month of adjusted television tapings for SmackDown, Raw and NXT, the brand he created.

"You have to try -- because it's one of the few things you can control -- to keep a little perspective to your own life in doing this. But there's a certain point and time where anyone that's in business thinks to themselves, 'Uh, what I wouldn't give for a couple of days at home.' And then you get a couple of days at home and you're like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to lose my mind if I don't get out of this house,'" Levesque told ESPN on Tuesday, with a laugh. "But I'm enjoying it. It's challenging, like all things are. But I can't tell you how many dinners I've had with my kids, which is a rarity."

It's hard not to think about what's changed in the wrestling business since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, from the personnel decisions to the adjustments with WrestleMania, which was pre-taped and shown over multiple nights. It's harder to fathom the gulf between the current shows and the legacy of Triple H, and how a packed arena would react to his music hitting or his spraying a gulp of water into the spotlights while standing on the apron.

But for Levesque, who has transitioned into his role as an executive and a caretaker for the next generation of WWE stars, watching how today's WWE talent operates without an audience has been one of the more fascinating aspects of the current product.

"It's been amazing, and to be honest, I've been really impressed with it," he said. "Especially for some of the younger talent. There's a certain point, if you've been doing this for a long period of time, where the adrenaline and that buzz of the crowd is what gets you through the physicality of it -- and you need that. If the red light of the TV camera isn't on, I'm not falling down for anything.

"But the talent that has been at this a long time -- they have a comfort that carries over. To me, where it would be difficult is if I had been doing this for only a few years, and I'm young and just getting relaxed when there's a lot of people [in the building]. Then all of a sudden that goes away. And we're like, 'OK, all the stuff that we taught you to do? Forget all that.' That would be overwhelming."

That's why Levesque has been pleasantly surprised by how the talent has adapted. "I think that's the desire to just entertain," he said. "They're just hell-bent on making sure they can put out a good product."

It's that type of approach that Triple H has focused on for 25 years -- and in that time, he's made a lot of memories. We spoke to him about a few of his favorites.

What is your favorite WrestleMania match?

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Triple H relives unforgettable WrestleMania moment

WWE superstar Triple H recalls his Hell in a Cell match with The Undertaker at WrestleMania XXVIII, a match he will never forget.

Probably myself vs. The Undertaker in "Hell in a Cell" [at WrestleMania 28]. They billed it as an "End of an Era" match. Shawn Michaels was the guest referee. I think it was the most meaningful for the three of us -- the end of all of our time together, the last big hurrah in the ring. So that one really stands out to me.

I'm glad you mentioned that match. I was there for it in Miami. It's my go-to example when I'm trying to explain to a non-believer how pro wrestling, when perfectly executed, can make you feel. There's a near-fall, after Shawn superkicks the Undertaker, that happens so late in that match that the entire crowd was convinced it was the finish. When he kicked out of your pin ... it was like Times Square on New Year's Eve in that crowd.

You know, when you're putting those things together, you kinda have that feeling of what it's going to be like: "Oh man, when we do this, it's gonna be huge." But then when you experience it ... it's a whole other level. It's that goosebumps moment. But for us, after it was all done and we're standing on the top of the stage together, the three of us ... none of that part was thought about beforehand or scripted out. That was just us being real.

I think that's the part that resonates with me the most. The emotional connection between three performers with that level of respect for each other, all just standing there and taking it in together one last time.

What's your favorite non-WrestleMania match?

It's tough for me to put one down on paper. I feel like there were so many matches and so many performers that I worked with that were so instrumental to my career, that I feel like I'd be not giving credit to someone. And to be honest, for every match that I had where I thought it was a great match at such-and-such pay-per-view ... like if I said to you, "This pay-per-view match with The Rock was my favorite pay-per-view match of all-time," I probably had a better match with The Rock someplace else, that wasn't televised, in front of just 10,000 people that saw it -- and we thought it was an even better match.

In the 25 years of my career, I had so many talented people to work with. When you're able to put down that level of performance every night, it's tough to pick one.

When you have a house-show match that you think goes even better than a PPV match, what's happening in that match to make you feel that way?

Just everything. When you're in the zone. When you don't have to think. When there's stuff that's never even talked about or mentioned [before the match] that just took it to a whole different level. I can remember working with [Steve] Austin in a match in Chicago at the Allstate Arena, which is the old Rosemont Horizon. It's so loud in there. It's one of my favorite buildings. I think it was shortly after Shawn dropped the title to Austin, and he's white hot. And it's so loud in the building that night. It's the peak of the Monday Night Wars, so we're going all-out. Putting on pay-per-view [level] matches every night.

We probably went 50 minutes in the main event. And I can remember being on the mat, about a foot away from Steve, and we're both looking at each other, yelling at each other as loud as we can ... and neither one of us could hear the other one. Like, I'm trying to tell him what to do. He's trying to tell me what to do. And neither one of us can hear it. Nights like that are just magic. And there are too many of them to remember.

Do you have a favorite opponent?

There's been a bunch of them. Honorable mentions, for sure: Austin, 'Taker, Rock for sure, Mick Foley. But if there's one guy where I could have rolled out of bed on five minutes' notice, and as long as I got my boots tied in time we could have gone out there and done 45 minutes and tore it up without ever looking at each other beforehand? It would have had to have been Shawn.

When we're talking 25 years, we're talking 25 years of friendship and traveling up and down the road. We joke about it now: I know what he's going to say sometimes before he says it. He knew what I was going to do in the ring before I did it. Even now, doing NXT, we can be in an arena watching something that we're trying to produce, and we make eye contact and know exactly what each other are thinking. So if I was going to say anybody, it would be Shawn. Which is more of a credit to him than to me, because he probably could have done that with anybody.

What's your favorite behind-the-scenes moment of the last 25 years?

My wife and I have a foundation that we started called "Connor's Cure." It's a pediatric cancer fund. There was a moment where we brought Connor, this little boy, to some events to give him something to look forward to. He had come to an event to meet Daniel Bryan, who he was friends with, and do an entrance with him. All the talent was there, because it was the middle of rehearsals in the afternoon. They play Daniel's music. Connor comes down to the ring doing the "Yes!" chant. This little boy is sick. He's in the end stages of cancer. But you wouldn't know it from his personality. So he goes to the ring and all of the talent comes out, and they're around the ring. They're chanting his name. I get in the ring, and I tell him to punch me. And he doesn't want to do it, but he finally does. He punches me and I go down. He jumps on me, hooks my leg and the referee -- that just happened to be there, because we were doing rehearsals -- slides in and counts one, two, three. He gets up and just jumps up and down.

It was one of those things that wasn't scripted or planned. All the pieces came together. Incredible moments like that are just so meaningful. And that was absolutely one of them.