WWE

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque’s quest to change WWE as we know it

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Paul Levesque, aka “Triple H”, has evolved from one of the top performers of his generation, to a prominent role behind the scenes as the Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative for WWE. I had the chance to chat with “HHH” about what he specifically looks for when he’s recruiting new talent, why this past year has been so challenging for NXT and how he presents new talent to Vince McMahon. 

(Don’t miss NXT Takeover: Orlando on Saturday, April 1 at 8 p.m. ET Live on WWE Network)

Me: You’ve had an incredible in-ring career; a 14-time world champion. As I look up and down the WrestleMania 33 card I see so many NXT alums and I wonder, what did you learn from your time as a performer that has helped you as an evaluator of talent?

Paul “HHH” Levesque: “Oh man … everything that I’ve learned since I’ve walked through the door. The funny thing for me is that I’ve been in a unique position during my career. I was fascinated early with the behind the scenes and production aspects of the business.

So, shortly after I came to WWE I was in creative conversations with Vince that led to me to being offered to come to production meetings, which I didn’t have to go to. I would get up early on TV days and go to these production meetings that I didn’t need to be a part of. People thought I was crazy, but I wasn’t trying to do anything more than learn. I wanted to learn what they were looking for.

The vision of what the talent thinks they want and what the office thinks they want are sometimes two different things.

I have the unique perspective of having both sides and that allows me to I think look at talent a different way, but to also to be able to say here’s what you need to be able to do. Here’s the way you need to be able to work at it. Here’s the way you need to perceive cameras and how cameras see you. How you put your character out there and how you put your brand out there.

At the end of the day for us, characters are all about charisma. So that’s the thing you’re looking for the most. I see a lot of unbelievable athletes come through the Performance Center; sometimes they have charisma, sometimes they don’t.

I’ve hired a lot [of people] that have charisma, but aren’t necessarily the greatest athletes we saw that week because you just can’t take your eyes off of them.

For example, there’s a guy that I hired in China that everybody on the team who was over there didn’t put this kid on the list and when we went through the list at the end of the day of who we’re going to offer an opportunity to come and train with the WWE I was like, ‘Where’s this kid?’ and everyone was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’

I was like, ‘No, where is he?’ He was heavy and a Mongolian wrestler, so he’s athletic but he’s heavier and in some ways he’s not anything we would look for, but he worked his butt off. He was always last, but he never quit man. He just went. Some guys would pull up with an injury and they’d go sit out. You could clearly tell that they were just gasping for air and needed to sit for a second. They’d be back ten minutes later.

He gutted through everything and you couldn’t take your eyes off of this guy. He did stuff that was funny, even though he didn’t mean for it to be that way. He was always the center of attention, even when he wasn’t doing anything!

Everyone was against him and I said ‘Is there anybody in this room who didn’t watch this guy the entire day? I’ve heard everyone talk about this guy. Why? He’s the sleeper money in this group.’

So we brought him [to the Performance Center] and there’s not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t send me a clip or a photo of him doing something where there’s 10 or 15 people around him watching. He’s just one of those naturally charismatic people that you can’t put your finger on why.

I look for that more than I look for anything else.

Is he ever going to do a moonsault? Probably not. Is he ever going to be a Shawn Michaels in the ring? I guarantee you he won’t. But, if he loves it, if he works hard and keeps himself straight, he’s probably going to make it and he’s probably going to be good.

That’s the biggest thing to me, the charisma factor.”

You kind of answered my next question, but I’ll ask it anyway. When you’re scouting someone, what do you specifically look for?

“Look, I mean there are other factors as well. I don’t want to make it sound like ‘Oh, look at this guy he has a big personality and forget all of the rest of it.’ Obviously athleticism, the willingness to do this, the desire to work hard, but then there’s leadership qualities that we really look for.

When guys go to a camp, sometimes people watch them and go, ‘You’re just making these people throw-up in garbage can because you’re working them so hard.’ I want to push them to where they’re really outside of their comfort range and then see what they do with it.

It’s really easy to be nice and be the perfect professional when you feel great, but when you’re on the verge of puking in barrel and you’re exhausted and there’s someone barking at you to do more and the guy next to you just fell on you because he’s at the same place you are, do you help pick him up or do you curse at him and go about your own business?

There are differences in how people react to things. I’m looking for leaders. I’m looking for someone that can be a professional. I’m looking for the consummate athlete on all aspects.

It’s not just one thing, but if you ask me the one thing I look for, charisma is king.”

Going back for a second to the guy that you were talking about in China; it seemed as though there was and still is a certain look that a talent needs in order to reach a certain level of success in WWE. Now, obviously there have been exceptions to the rule, but it seems like over the past few years you’ve bucked that trend. How did that transition happen?

“So, I’m a big believer in talent is talent. It comes in all shapes, sizes, looks, feels, everything. I think sometimes there’s been a bad rap of like take this as the thing that’s most successful, so that’s what we’re going to give.

I think that’s happen here in the past. People can say whatever about WWE and look, is there a particular style of athlete [we look for]? Sure, it’s like that in anything.

If you’re shown steak all of the time, it’s no surprise that you’re going to eat steak. So when everybody coming to you with the same look and feel, a certain pattern begins to develop because that’s what being put in front of you and that’s what you have to select from.

My selection process is different. Yes, I understand what Vince likes and what Vince sees in an ideal archetype performer, but I also know him well enough to know that he likes a lot of different archetypes, so I’m not going to give him one; I’m going to give him a little bit of everything.

He’s going to see a Bray Wyatt and go (Vince voice) ‘That’s great!’ He’s going to see a Braun Strowman and go ‘Ah yeah, that’s my wheelhouse right there. I love that.’ He’s going to see Finn Balor and hear the girls going nuts and then see the paint and go ‘Geez look at that, I love that!’ That’s something that I don’t think would have been put in front of him eight years ago.

I sometimes wonder if Bray Wyatt would have been put in front of him 10 years ago. I don’t know that he would of. That doesn’t mean that Vince wouldn’t have loved him back then.

I want there to be so much diversity on every level. I want it to be international diversity. I want there to be something for everybody within WWE so you can gravitate towards characters that you can relate to. That’s still a work in progress.

It’s a work in progress when you look at the Performance Center and you look at the talent there and see that 40 percent of the talent is international now, there’s 17 countries represented. A quarter of the talent there is women. The diversity level is at an all-time high and that’s on purpose. We’ve done that for desired effect.

Is it showing right now on the main roster? Nah, not necessarily because it’s going to take a little bit of time to percolate up, but it’s there.

I want that diversity. When you talk about the women, I want there to be a Sasha Banks; the smaller, run her mouth, cocky, arrogant, little athlete. I want there to be a bigger, dominant athlete like a Charlotte. I want there to be a Nia Jax that brings a whole different danger component. I want there to be a Bayley that is this naïve, fan-friendly, little girl centric character that everybody loves.

Then you still want there to be the Bellas, who are like the Kardashians of the women’s division. You want that variety.

It’s the same with the guys. I want there to be a Cena, I want there to be a Randy Orton. But I also want there to be a Bray Wyatt. I want there to be a Braun Strowman. I want there to be a Finn Balor. I want there to be a Samoa Joe or a Kevin Owens. Big Cass and then a little guy like Enzo that can run his mouth nonstop.

I want that diversity.”

As I looked at the WrestleMania card and noticed all of the former NXT stars, I thought about how much the roster has changed over the last year. There have been so many guys and girls that have gotten the call-up to the main roster, how challenging has it been to deal with such a major transition to NXT?

“So that’s been the most challenging thing for me in the last year. When we had the draft, 16 talents got called up. I started over with the women’s division. Thank God I kept Asuka because she’s been the anchor. My male division was pretty much stripped down. I lost a lot of it.

Behind the scenes, the same thing happened. My executive producer that works with me on the show got called up. I got a new one; he made it two weeks before he got called up.

I lost my edit team that helped me get the feel and the look of the brand because they got called up. I was thrilled for them. They were so good that the office said, ‘Look we’re expanding, we’re going to do 205, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. We need these people.’

I’m very hands on with the writing of NXT and the team that was writing NXT with me got called up. When we split the brands, we needed a different writing team and they got called up.

So I started over with this whole new team and they needed to get their feet on the ground. It was really a brand new start over point for us. That’s challenging, but that’s also to me part of the strength of NXT. It’ll change, but it’ll be fresh and it’ll be different than it was a year ago. I’m not saying it’s always going to be better, but it’ll be different.

I just got a whole new behind the scenes team and it’s taken me since SummerSlam to get them, but I just got them and I’m really excited about it. I feel like for the first time since the draft, NXT is back in business and we’re going to rock and roll.

I’m looking forward to NXT constantly keeping us on our toes and the demand for more and more on the main roster, the demand for more and more shows, whether that is localized content in the UK, or the cruiserweight division or the women’s tournament that we’ll have coming up sometime this year.

All of those things are exciting opportunities and make NXT an exciting opportunity.”

Can you describe what it feels like to see a talent that has had success in NXT, but struggles to find their footing on the main roster?

“It’s hard for me. It’s hard for them. It’s a difficult situation. I say this to talent all of the time, careers are marathons, they are not sprints.

Even though we say it’s a third brand, it really is and you might never make it out of NXT and you’ll do really well in your career, but if you do get the chance to go to Raw or SmackDown, it’s like starting over. You’re starting over with new management and new everything. The job is the same, but you’re starting over and you have to re-earn your stripes. It’s a slightly different product.

It used to be that way in the territory days. You might be over in one territory and take the gamble to go to another territory and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

It can be frustrating for them. They ask a lot of questions and we try to give them as much guidance as we can.

The other thing though that everybody has to remember is that in today’s world if you’re not “The Guy or The Girl” at the very top, the number one draw, you can still be a talent on Raw or SmackDown and working all of the time and be doing very, very well for yourself.

Do you always want more? Yes. Will that come over time? Maybe.

You reinvent yourself, you work hard. You continue to do the things you’re doing.

Back to the career being a marathon and not a sprint; when you’re a few years in, being on Raw or SmackDown and you’ve only been in the business for four years or whatever, it’s not a bad place to be.

If two years down the line you get that ride up to a much higher level, it’s a pretty good run.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque on the future of NXT and his match with Jinder Mahal

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For the first time ever, USA will air a special one-hour NXT special tonight at 7 p.m. ET and the head honcho of NXT, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, took some time to talk with me about how some of the brand’s biggest stars have upped their game in 2017, the three-to-five year plan for NXT and his match with Jinder Mahal in New Delhi.  

Let’s keep this first one simple, is this the most important night in the history of NXT?

“It’s one of them. I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity when you think about the original concept of what it was. This small developmental thing in Florida that has grown and evolved over the last few years to where NBC Universal, one of the largest television and entertainment companies in the world is willing to give up a primetime slot on a Wednesday night to air an hour of NXT programming. That’s pretty cool to me.

I’m really proud of everything that it has accomplished. No matter how it does, I see it as an opportunity to expose a lot of people to NXT who haven’t seen it yet because as much as people talk about it, or you hear about it on Raw like ‘this person was an NXT champion or this person came from there,’ there’s a lot of people who have never seen it because it just airs on the network. Hopefully this is their chance to sample it.”

How did this special airing of NXT on USA come about? Was this an idea that NBCU came to you about, or was this something that you pitched to them?

“They approached us with it as far as I know, I wasn’t there when it happened. Every year we do ‘WWE week’ on the USA Network and with Raw being on Monday, SmackDown now being live on Tuesdays and now there’s the content that they can fill the rest of the week with. Tribute to the Troops on Thursday is the signature event of the week.

Wednesday was the perfect opportunity for us. They presented it to us this year as an opportunity and I was asked if I would be interested in creating a show for that and I was like absolutely. Is that a trick question?

I’m really excited about the show. Coming out of the last TakeOver that we did, there’s a new champion, but there was also an injury to Drew McIntyre and it forced us to reboot a little bit and come up with a new number one contender, but it allowed us to put on an excellent show for USA, which includes the NXT champion Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas against Fabian Aichner, who some fans saw in the Cruiserweight Classic. He’s just a phenomenal performer.

The Authors of Pain will be on there as well and then in the main event Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole in a match that will help determine the eventual number one contender to the NXT champion. It’s a really strong show.”

It’s fair to say that Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas’ first few months in NXT were rough to say the least and now I feel like with Zelina Vega, he’s really starting to find his stride. What have you seen from him in the past few months that gave you the confidence to put the title on him?

“I’ve seen the same thing you have.

There’s a curve to doing what we do when you walk in the door for the first time, no matter where you’ve been. People talk about other promotions around the globe, but I haven’t seen anyone who doesn’t come in the door that doesn’t feel a difference when they walk in. That can lead to a lot of things. Intimidation, loss of confidence. You can take a step back.

It’s also a different style for him. There’s a lot of factors and I think when he first came in … and I’ve seen this with a lot of talent, whether that be Hideo Itami, Ember Moon, really, really talented people walk in the door and it takes them awhile to get their feet under them. It takes them awhile to get used to the style change. It takes them awhile to get used to how we shoot television. To have that confidence is really what it comes down to.

If you look back to where he started to where he is right now with us, it’s a completely different performer. As I saw that taking place over time I thought, now he’s starting to get it, how do I give him the platform to regroup?

It’s hard to have a guy all of a sudden go from being not good to being really good. So what’s that shift? What’s that platform that allows him to grow even more?

That was Zelina Vega. With the way we presented it, she came in, gave him the confidence and put him back on track. It all led him to changing who he is as a performer. I think you see that now. The swagger that he has. He comes off like the cocky, arrogant guy who knows he’s that good and he is.”

Well yeah and it gave him essentially the mouthpiece he needed because obviously English is still a challenge for him, but having her there and having her express his confidence gives him the ability to just focus on being a standout in-ring performer.

“My goal … and I try to combat this with NXT all of the time, as we’re putting performers out there people will come to me and say like ‘well we shouldn’t have Andrade do this promo because it’s not his strong suit’ and it’s like well he has to learn to do it right?

You have to put them out there and you have to give them the ball. Sometimes you have to throw the guy the ball, while understanding that he might fumble it, or he might fall down, but he has to get used to catching it and then eventually he’s going to run for a touchdown.

We run that fine line of what their performances are. Putting the spotlight on their strengths, but not hiding the weaknesses to a point where they’re covered up. They’ll never grow that way.

I want to make him a well-rounded performer. I want him to continue to get better at English. I want him to continue to grow as a performer to a point where he doesn’t need those other things, but that’s not where he’s at yet, so we try to do the best we can with him right now.

To your point, she brings a totally different dynamic to him that allows him to just be that cocky, arrogant champion.”

So NXT has gone through a lot of changes since you created it. What’s your vision for what’s next? Is it a weekly spot in primetime on USA? Is it presenting the brand as a legitimate alternative to Raw and SmackDown, where it doesn’t act as developmental for those brands? Where do you see this product going in the next three-to-five years?

“It’s funny the terms people put on things. Like a ‘legitimate alternative.’ Well if you don’t like one and you watch the other it’s an alternative right?”

Sure.

It’s an alternative now. I think that the more variety you can give the better. Raw is presented a certain way. SmackDown is presented a certain way. NXT is presented a certain way and there are markets for all of those products.

Do I see it not being developmental? Look in some ways the brands are just the brands and as talent improve and move up, where they end up, whether that’s Raw, whether that’s Smackdown, or if that’s NXT at some point in time, they’re all just going to be part of a brand.

I think there’s going to be a learning curve where NXT will always sort of be developmental for some, but I think we’re going to reach a point where we’ll say, ‘Well clearly this guy or girl isn’t developmental, he or she has been on the main roster. They’ve done this or this on the main roster and now they’re back down doing this in NXT.’

I think there’s going to be that shift back and forth. I think you’ll see, as you said earlier, a more legitimate alternative brand, although, I think on the lower and middle end of the roster, you’re going to have talent who have only been in the business for two years. The first time you’ll see them perform anywhere will be on NXT.

As talent come in from other places who have not yet had that experience to be on Raw or SmackDown, I don’t care where they’ve been, they’ll need the learning curve.

In some sense it will continue to be developmental, but it’ll be different from where it is today because I think you’re going to see talent move up and move down. I don’t think it should be seen as a demotion when they go to NXT. I think it should be seen as they’re competing in a different environment.”

Outside of Braun Strowman, I don’t know if there’s anyone who has impressed me more this year than Johnny Gargano. His performances stick with me every time I watch him. When I think about the five best matches I’ve seen this year, his name pops up multiple times. What has he done to up his game this year?

“I think he’s become a storyteller. There’s a lot of emotion in Johnny Gargano’s matches.

He knows his role. He’s the underdog who will never quit. You’re not going to beat him easily and he can always pull it out. He’s willing to tell a phenomenal story.

It’s the hardest thing sometimes … we have this conversation in the Performance Center a lot, Shawn [Michaels] will have it with guys, Matt [Bloom] will have it with guys, it’s about storytelling and that’s truly is what we do. The spots are the spots, but the storytelling is key.

When guys learn that and then they get in the ring with guys who are in the process of learning it, the difficult part is to try and get them to do what you’ve learned and not reverting back to doing what they do.

Johnny is one of those guys who has begun to learn that process really well and then brings everybody up with him and that’s a really impressive thing. He just gets it, but he’s also one of those guys that is 24/7. There are a lot of people who are that way, but it’s different with him.

You can be having a conversation with somebody else about their angle, or their match and you see him two feet away listening to the conversation trying to help figure it out, or give his point of view. He’s in the pocket all of the time. Those are the type of guys you love to work with because it’s passion. He’s passionate about the business, which is why he’s successful and will continue to be successful.”

I have to ask about the match with Jinder Mahal in New Delhi. Were you surprised at all by the reaction you got there? From what I read and watched on YouTube you got the biggest reaction of the night.

“It’s funny, you see a lot of comments to the reaction of the fans there. India is totally different market and WWE is huge there. One thing that people forget is the first time I went to India to perform was in 1996. I’ve been on their TV for a really long period of time.

There are certain guys there, in that market, who transcend the business for them. When we were talking to our television partners there about the marketing for the event, it was one of the things that kept coming up. It’s why I was put on the card.

I haven’t been there in a long time. I was excited and really happy to hear the reaction. It’s sort of what we expected. We know what resonates in markets and we can see it in our numbers and see it in the research that are partners have done as well as on social media.”

I think a lot of people were just assuming and this is a short-sighted thought that Jinder was going to get the biggest reaction. The fact that you’ve been on television for so long, combined with the attraction of seeing you for the first time created the reaction. Those fans have a longer emotional investment with you.

“I often think it’s funny to me that people in America, who have never been to India, put their thoughts and their beliefs onto other people, ‘like clearly that’s the truth.’ (Laughs). It’s totally different there!

The way they see things and react to things is very different. There are certain guys that once they reach a level there, it’s a whole different ballgame; Undertaker, [John] Cena. It’s just a different level of stardom.

When we were over there a few months ago having business meetings, to hear the people who are running television studios or Internet companies say to me ‘I watched you when I was a teenager. You were like the biggest guy in the world.’

I met a massive Bollywood star the other day who told me that I was his entire childhood. He got suspended from school for telling someone to ‘suck it.’ At a time in ’96 when there were like three channels there, we were on one of them all of the time.

It’s not to say Jinder wasn’t ‘over’ there. He was! You have to understand the market. It’s not like everyone just went, ‘Oh my God he’s Indian! He looks like us so we love him.’ They are a savvy market. They understand that he’s [playing] a bad guy [on television].

Even though he got a massive reaction, he still needs to earn their respect. He’s still growing and still new. You know what I mean?”

Well back to the storytelling point from earlier, that’s the emotional attachment right?

“Yeah.”

Jinder still new in many ways, especially in this role. The audience has to grow with him in order for him to reach that level of stardom you mentioned.

“Absolutely. Just even being on this tour will help him. The reaction he got at the beginning of the night was much different than the reaction he got at the end of the night. It just grew. Their appreciation of him grew. It was all handled in the right way and done in the right manner.

Over time he’s going to grow and become a cultural icon for them.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Dolph Ziggler Isn’t Going to Stop Pushing Himself

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Before WWE’s most patriotic show of the year, Tribute to the Troops, airs on Thursday, December 14th on USA at 8 p.m. ET, Dolph Ziggler chatted with me about the state of his career, if there’s anything about it he would change and why he thinks Naomi has the best “comeback” in the business.  

Give me one word to describe your career this year?

“Wow one word? OK you tell me how your career has been this year in one word.”

Ummm …. That’s a good question (laughs)

“See it’s not that easy.”

I would say winding. Where I’m at now as opposed to where I was in January is drastically different.

“OK that’s fair. I would say solid. I’m pretty reliable no matter what situation I’m in at work and also solid in that I’ve been pretty busy doing things beyond wrestling.”

On Edge and Christian’s podcast you opened up about your unhappiness with the placement of your character right now ….

“That was a sentence in an hour and a half discussion. I know it makes for a great click-bait article where I’m like ‘yeah it sucks!’ But they left out the part where I talk about how I want to be better and here’s why everyone should be working to be better. That’s the part people leave out, which is fine.

If you’re … you’re at NBC Sports right?

Yeah.

“OK if you’re doing great work for the last 10 years and you want to be in the top position at your job and you’re scratching and clawing, wouldn’t you be unhappy if there was no movement? You would go ‘Sure, yeah I want to be on top!’ But not everyone gets to be on top at once. Of course I hate not being the champion and not having the show revolve around me, but I love it. That chip on my shoulder drives me to keep going and keep proving how good I am, until somebody somehow shows me some instance where I wasn’t great at my job.”

What I was going to ask was, is there a certain point in time that you can point to where you say “this is where the downward turn started” or was it a gradual process?

“It was very gradual. It went from ‘Wow, we have something special here with Dolph. The crowd is feeding off of him whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.’ But after a while, a really good match here and there or a special moment here and there is not enough to create a star. So after a big match and then just going back to being Dolph, it’s hard to not be Dolph.

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to make the most out of those situations. Anytime people see me or the character, you can kind of see how they mesh together and I’m pretty sure there’s nobody who blends that gray area with the character better than me. And that’s a fact.”

I was going to ask this a bit later on, but it fits perfectly here. A few months ago when your entrance gimmick started I thought it was a bit odd, but then I started to realize that a meta-type character who understands his placement on the card and understands what the crowd pops for is perfect for this era. What are some things you’re looking to explore with this character in the coming weeks?

“We’ve opened the fourth wall a lot with this business and we’ve let reality become a huge part of it, which is awesome. Being able to interact with fans every single day gives them the ability to know what’s going on behind the scenes a little bit and you can actually use that as part of your character.

It would be stupid to let them in on all of these different aspects of the show and then pretend that I win every night because then we’re basically calling them stupid for believing that. But if I go ‘Hey I don’t win all of the time, but I’m really good and you know this and I know this’ and one of the nights could be the time that we go with it and that’s very realistic in this world.

It’s one thing to joke around with fans, but to disregard huge aspects of a career would be a mistake.”

Is there something that you would change about your character right now?

“Yeah I’d be about three inches taller, so I could be a 10-time world champion (laughs).

I’m a big 80s hair metal guy, like a David Lee Roth or someone like Nikki Sixx or Vince Neil to where I could put on a big show and be awesome at wrestling, but in this character right now where I focus on throwing that all away because I see the transparency in characters and my character hates on them.

It’s a special place that I get to go and I walk to the ring with disdain for the fans knowing that they sit there and bury everything that we do, but then they cheer for who their supposed to because their such hypocrites it’s so great.”

If I could give you a time machine to go back and change any part of your career, what moment would you go back to?

“Ummm … you have anything in particular off of the top of your head?”

Well I was thinking about the period of time after you cashed in Money in the Bank the night after WrestleMania 29 against [Alberto] Del Rio and it felt like you had so much potential, then the double turn happened at Payback. It felt like the right move in the moment, but in hindsight I wonder if that decision was a mistake.

“Hmm.”

And you’ve talked about this before. The curse of the start-stop push. Every time it looked like you finally had momentum, it was killed. I just think that moment specifically began the downward spiral that I asked about earlier.

“I could see how you would think that, but what was I going to do? It’s pretty clear that there wasn’t long-term plans with me as champion.

I’m so proud of that match with Del Rio because it was … if I was an artist, that was a masterpiece I painted. I always enjoyed being in the ring with him because he brought it every time and we beat the hell out of each other and we got to do something special that night by switching things around.

When everyone says how much better the attitude era was just because more teenagers watched it then and I say well we did something special here, when I was someone who wasn’t in the championship picture until basically a couple weeks before that. I was always in the middle of the card … losing and all of a sudden it changed in one night.

It’s hard because you either go with it or you don’t and sometimes you deal with the cards your dealt and you go ‘OK, well if they’re not going with me as the champion, this top guy, how do I make another opportunity down the line?’

You can switch around any one day and it really doesn’t change 12 years.”

What do you “pop” for now that you’ve been in the industry for this long?

“Let’s see … I like watching Naomi work. She’s one of my favorites to watch.

Ahh … there’s a million things … what do you like?

Oh man …. This is going to sound generic, but watching AJ Styles work is one of the reasons why I still look forward to tuning into WWE programming every week.

“That’s great!”

It’s just the little intricacies of how he sells and his offense, which always stands out. I’m curious as to why you said Naomi.

“I remember a couple years ago, she was just a smiling athletic performer and she became a member of [Team] B.A.D and I was like there’s no way in hell she’s going to pull this off.

And then I saw her first day and I was like I don’t know how she’s doing this. Her offense is amazing and she has the best comeback in the business. I’d even rival hers to your boy AJ.”

I would agree with that.

“She has such a cool, fun, unique, explosive comeback that no one else can do.”

She also has one of the best hot tags in the business.

“Oh yeah.”

Going back to the Del Rio discussion for a minute, who are some people that you felt amazing in-ring chemistry with?

“I used to give this other answer all of the time, but it’s been years. Kofi and I for about four years wrestled every SmackDown, every Raw, and every live event. We had a best-of-500 series that I love 497-to-3.

We were wrestling so much that we were trying to think of counters to counters of counters to make it interesting and different every time. We had so much fun.

My favorite part is, the Dudleys came in and were like ‘we know you and Kofi do all of the high-flying stuff’ and I was like no! Kofi does the high-flying stuff.

I love when people throw a little amateur wrestling background into their stuff. Just modifying the most basic of all moves is really fun for me to see. Gable and Jordan will throw in a little stutter step or fake that no one else is doing and I’m like oh that’s nice.

Have you worked with Gable yet?

“A little bit during a live event in a triple threat, but we haven’t gotten in there to do anything big yet.”

Let’s talk a bit about visiting the troops in San Diego, I imagine that has to be one of your favorite events of the year.

“Yeah it’s great. We love doing it. It’s a long day for us, but we love it. We get to give this tiny percent back to these brave men and women are doing for us every single day. Anything we can do, we’ll bring in singers, comedians, we’ll shake hands, we’ll talk about wrestling, we’ll talk about high school football, we’ll talk about anything they want just to take a few minutes to thank them.

It is so rewarding to us and it means the world to us to put on our most patriotic show of the year. When we get to perform for them in person, nothing is better than that.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis