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Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque opens up about how he put the Mae Young Classic together

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Before the first four of episodes for the Mae Young Classic drop on-demand on the WWE Network Monday, August 28th, Paul “Triple H” Levesque chatted with me about the process of putting together the tournament, some of the performers who really stood out to him and why he decided to drop batches of the episodes in a way that’s similar to Netflix.

Me: “Compare and contrast the process of putting the Mae Young Classic together as opposed to the Cruiserweight Classic.”

Triple H: “I think the Cruiserweight Classic was easier from a sense of being able to find video and opinions on talent. There are cruiserweights working all over. The opportunities for guys at that level in our business is numerous. While not lucrative necessarily, there’s guys doing it all over the place and all you need is a phone right now to post your stuff up, so you can find footage of people everywhere. It made it easy.

The women is a lot different. The women don’t get booked on the independents nearly as much. That opportunity is very small and that was kind of the key about creating the Mae Young Classic. The thought about it in the very beginning was to create that opportunity. There’s a respect level that I have for these women and it speaks to the difference you’re talking about.

The cruiserweights were the guys that while they might have said ‘Oh I’m smaller, I don’t know if I would make it in WWE,’ you had some examples of smaller guys having success like Rey Mysterio, but there were still other opportunities. You could travel around and get booked all of the time. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow no matter how you were doing it. The ability to stay active was there.

For the women, they got into the business for the same reason all of us did. They love it. They watched it one day and thought it was the greatest thing they ever saw and thought I have to do this. Except there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There was the opportunity for maybe a woman here or there and those were even limited. Even the bookings, if you go to any show in any little armory around the world there’s probably one women’s match on there, if you’re lucky. If one woman is on the show she’s usually someone’s valet.

The opportunities are few and far between and when you’re trying to find these talents and see footage of them to make sure you think they’re going to be what you think they’re going to be and then be able to determine if they’re good enough to be in the product. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to be able to go do that. But, when we started to do it, I think that’s when we became pleasantly surprised.

When we first started this process, and I was the one who drove it for years until it finally got the green light, we thought this would be a 16 woman tournament because I thought it would be tough to keep the quality high enough to give the opportunity to women from all around the globe this opportunity.

But when we started to dig, we started to find all of these diamonds in the rough. It quickly became where we could do a 32-woman tournament and quite honestly I could have done it a little bit bigger than that.

I’m excited about that. It made the quality [of the tournament] really good and it speaks well to the future because the opportunity is there now and it will just continue to grow.”

“Who are some of the performers that really stood out when you saw them in person as opposed to watching videos of them?”

“Jazzy Gabert from Germany was a real standout performer. I’d  seen tape of her and was obviously aware of her, but when I saw her go in person, it’s one of those things where sometimes when people see talent in other places they’d say ‘Oh yeah we knew she was great too,’ but when you bring them up for a big opportunity it’s like the prizefighter that’s really good, but when he gets in the pressure of a world title match, he’s just not what he should be. That level of pressure is different.

(Jazzy Gabbert)

Some of these girls did better, some didn’t do as well, but certain ones thrived and Jazzy Gabert was one that really thrived. Bianca Belair, who hasn’t been doing this for very long, has a level of poise that just blew me away. Shayna Baszler is somebody that I’ve seen begin to make the transition from MMA into what we do and sometimes that can be a rough transition.

(Shayna Baszler)

Xia Li is someone that a year ago didn’t even know what WWE was, but when I saw her perform I was blown away. When she came back [through the curtain] she was balling because I think she amazed herself.

(Xia Li)

So there were a lot of those stories. People who came in that you knew had the ability, but when you saw them in person, they just came into their own. Some have been doing it for a long time. Mercedes Martinez is another one who I knew was good, but when I watched her go I was thoroughly impressed.”

(Mercedes Martinez)

What was the thought process for putting the majority of the Mae Young Classic on the WWE Network as on-demand content as opposed to airing it in a weekly time slot?

“Well I think for us it’s an experiment in that our fanbase skews fairly young. Our fans sort of over index in their digital use. We wanted to see where our fans would net out in what they really like. There’s something in the world right now, like you take Netflix for example, they take a season of a new show and put it up at one time because people like to binge watch.

House of Cards or whatever comes out … I don’t watch any TV so I’m going to get into uncomfortable realm right now (laughs) … those shows come out at once and you get people that just sit home on a weekend and watch the whole season.

We found that while people were uber-interested in the Cruiserweight Classic, that as it started to get into the later episodes, even though the matches were getting more important and the stars were getting bigger and you were learning more and more about them, the component of when it aired got less and less important and as opposed to appointment watching, they were just watching it whenever they wanted. They transitioned from the air dates to the VOD.

This is an attempt by us to see what they prefer. We’re going to do the brackatology show, put it out and then we’re going to drop those first four episodes, which is the first round and you can binge watch that first round and then that next week you’re going to get the next batch of episodes and then that takes you to the finals the following week.

Everybody is busy and things creep into your life and you might be like ‘I can’t watch this episode today’, but now you can sit home on a Saturday, give yourself four hours and you can watch the first round. Or you can watch two hours here and two hours there, whenever you want to. We think that’s important because that’s how people are watching television now. The world is shifting.

Appointment television, unless something is live and you feel like you can’t miss it because everybody is going to be talking about it, doesn’t really exist anymore. People want to watch when they want to watch it. I don’t know if you have kids (I don’t), my kids almost anything other than something live that they know is happening at that time, can’t understand why they have to watch something at a certain time. Trying to explain actual television to them is a difficult task.”

Here’s the streaming schedule for the Mae Young Classic, all episodes besides the final match will be on-demand on the WWE Network:

The first four episodes of the Mae Young Classic will be available starting Monday, August 28.

Episodes five through eight will be available on-demand on Monday, September 4.

The final match will stream live from Las Vegas on Tuesday, September 12 at 10 p.m. ET.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque opens up about WarGames and returning to the ring at Survivor Series

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This weekend is going to be a busy one for Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque.

On Saturday night he will be behind the scenes producing a match that hasn’t been seen in 19 years at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, which will stream live around the world on WWE Network at 8 p.m. ET.

And then on Sunday he’ll make his televised return at Survivor Series as a member of Team Raw in the five-on-five elimination match against Team SmackDown. (You can stream his return live around the world on the WWE Network starting at 7 p.m. ET.)

I had the chance to chat with HHH about how the return of WarGames came about, what makes the Undisputed Era special, and how long it took him to get comfortable in the ring again during his recent stretch of matches overseas.

Me: There have been rumors of a ‘WarGames’ match under the WWE umbrella for a long time now and after almost two decades we’re now just three days away from witnessing one. Walk me through the process of how we got here.

HHH: “For me ‘WarGames’ has always been a very viable concept. It wasn’t just a name, it was a branding of a match that was meaningful in WCW. It’s something I’ve always had interest in. I’ve always liked the concept as a fan.

As we move forward with NXT, it’s really started to become its own brand. We’ve had opportunities to do different things, whether that is ladder matches, or cage matches. But there was an opportunity that came along, given the weekend with Survivor Series and given the position [NXT] is in to brand something out and create something that NXT could own.

It seemed like the perfect time to bring it out, so I dusted it off. Throughout the years, I was aware of Vince’s feelings about it. There were some things about that match that he liked and there were some things about the concept that he didn’t necessarily think worked, especially in today’s world.

So I brought it back up to him and we walked through the process and I said here’s the way I think we can make this match work for us and he liked it, agreed with it, thought it worked great for NXT and was real happy to do it. So here we are.

When you do this, the goal is not to go backwards. My goal isn’t to make people go, ‘oh is this as good as it was back then?’ I want to put a slightly different spin on it, so that it begins again and takes a life of its own because it can’t be what it was.

I grew up watching it in the Dusty [Rhodes], [Ric] Flair, Four Horseman vs. the world sort of iteration of it and this cannot be that. It has to be today’s version of it. Hopefully it’ll be something that our fan base really enjoys.

I think the NXT fans are going to love it. I know the talent is very excited about it. When we announced the match and word began to spread on the Internet, a bunch of main roster talent came to me and said, ‘oh my God, you’re doing WarGames? Anyway I can do something in that?’

For me, it’s also a cool nod to Dream [‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes]. It’s cool that his vision is able to continue.”

How long did it take you nail down the format of this iteration of ‘WarGames’?

“In terms of creative or …”

More the structure. It’s one of the more complicated matches in the industry in terms of laying it out, so how did you get to a point where you felt comfortable with how the match will work?

“There is some complexity to it, even though there are some people saying, ‘But it’s three teams, it isn’t the same as it originally was.’ The thing is we don’t have the Four Horseman, with a manger, to make a five-man team. It convoluted the concept to me if you hogedpodge things together.

When the stories logically go to the next place and they just kind of connect together, that’s when they’re the best and I feel like that’s how this happened. Once we knew we were going to do it, it organically started to come together. You have Authors of Pain, you have Sanity, you have the Undisputed Era. There’s a three-way thing that is combustible and needs to be solved inside a double cage … what other way would you solve it? (Laughs)

So you organically get there and then there were some logistical ways to figure out the issues that were created by the concept. For example, someone could say, ‘well, why doesn’t the rest of the team just run out and try to get into the cage?’ Well they can’t because they’re in this other cage.

Hopefully this becomes a yearly event. Is this exact iteration of what we’ll see in the future? I don’t know. I hope so, but if there’s something in this that doesn’t work, then we’ll tweak it a little and try to perfect it.

Everything goes through its little changes in the beginning and then where it ends up you just kind of naturally end up and you forget about those little changes that happen over time. When you go back and look at them 10 years later you might go, ‘oh my God, I forgot that they started it that way.’

I’m really excited. I know the NXT locker room is really excited about doing this. There’s something really cool about being a part of something that’s historic, but making it new and making it the future. I think it’s a good opportunity. I think everyone is feeling the weight of that.

The TakeOver events are always kind of special for the NXT talent because they’re not often and they really encompass the storylines together, but this one seems to have more weight than normal, even for the people who aren’t in the ‘WarGames’ match itself.”

And that’s going to make them want to step up their game.

“Absolutely. Fan excitement combined with their excitement all leads to making magic. There’s been a lot of greatness surrounding this match in the past and they want to make sure that they not only live up to that, but also make it their own.”

What have been some of the production challenges that you’ve faced with the unique setup of a show with a ‘WarGames’ match on it due to the presence of the second ring?

“There’s a difficulty to everything because it doesn’t line up the same way. You set up your lighting rig, you set up your ring and it’s all based on centers and everything is structured a certain way and now you add in a second ring to that and you add in a cage that is going to hang and lower around two rings.

We had to build a whole new cage setup. We have to light differently. We had to arrange our ticketing differently. All of it is slightly different that require some logistic challenges.

The great thing about WWE and our team … I’ll go out on a limb here and say … that we have the best live event team anywhere. They see something like this as a challenge and they just go for it.”

The Undisputed Era has been the focal point of NXT since the ‘TakeOver: Brooklyn III’ show. What gave you the confidence in Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly to ‘give them the ball and see where it goes?’

“I think they’re talented guys. You’re never 100 percent sure with anybody who walks in the door, but there are certain talent that you see come in who have an innate ability right away.

Are there things we have to work on with them? Absolutely, they’re learning every day.

The one thing I liked about those guys and why I was confident in ‘giving them the ball right off of the bat’ is because when we spoke and talked about things, they absorbed it. They’re sponges. They’re students of this. They want to learn.

They’re not walking in the door going, ‘I know, I know how to do this.’ They’re walking in the door going ‘Wow, I have this opportunity to work with Shawn Michaels at the Performance Center, or with Terry Taylor, or this person, or that person.’ They can learn TV production from all of these different people. They are wide open to it.

To me, that’s what makes you successful. It’s the guys that walk in going ‘ah, I got this’ that make it difficult. When you have someone who just wants to be a student, wants to learn and wants to, no matter how good they are, just take their ability to a whole other level.

In this business, you constantly have to be willing to morph, grow, and think differently because it’s the nature of the beast. There are guys who have that hunger and desire to constantly evolve and you can see it from the first time you speak to them.”

Shifting gears a bit; you’re back in the ring and have worked quite a bit over the last month. It made me think about the adjustment period athletes, who have been away from their sport for a while, deal with when the bright lights are shining on them again.

How was your adjustment period while working on the overseas tour? Did it hit you as you walked through the curtain after hearing the first few beats of your music, or was it after the bell rang and all of the eyes were on you again?

“When I went to Santiago, Chile to do the first show, I hadn’t stepped in the ring to do anything since WrestleMania. That’s a long time. You think that you remember how to do everything and in your mind, you’re the same as you were the last time you were there.

Just taking that first bump in ring is jarring. It’s like riding a bike, you don’t really forget how to do it and if anything in your mind you go, ‘oh yeah, I still remember how to do this’ and then you get back into your groove. That’s not to say there isn’t rust, but the positive thing for me as opposed to some of the years when I haven’t done this for six, eight, 10 months and is that my first match back wasn’t at WrestleMania in front of the biggest audience that we’re going to have. That’s a whole different world of pressure.

I’m not saying Santiago, Chile isn’t important, but it wasn’t a televised event. There’s a lot less pressure, so you can relax a bit and be yourself a little bit more. If the opportunity arises you can twerk, you can do whatever.”

Or you can work with The Shield and give the fans a once in a lifetime experience.

“Yeah … and I can tell you the one thing that has happened to me this time is that I’m having a different level of fun.

Sometimes when you’re in the throes of getting ready for WrestleMania, it’s fun, but it’s so much pressure. You’ve got the world leaning on you and you’re leaning on yourself. You’re putting the pressure of, ‘man, I hope I can still do this.’

People forget at the end of the day that we’re just people. We’re human beings. No matter what persona you put on, when you go to that ring, you have doubts and fears just like everyone else. Anyone who says they don’t have those things is lying to themselves.

When you can go do it in this environment, it makes you go like, ‘yeah man, this is the coolest gig in the world.’ Yeah, you get beat up and it sucks to knock the rust off, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The five-on-five Raw vs. SmackDown match at Survivor Series has a throwback feel in the sense that there are a lot of fantasy matchups that can be teased. 

What does it feel like knowing you’re going to step in the ring again with Shane McMahon, Kurt Angle and John Cena, and alao have the opportunity to work with Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura for the first time?

“There’s this crazy part of me that goes through the past few years and thinks about stepping into the ring with Roman Reigns at WrestleMania, someone who came through the [development] system when I was beginning to take it over. And then I think about Seth [Rollins] and now doing this at Survivor Series.

I haven’t been in the ring with Kurt Angle in a long time. Same goes for Shane and even Cena.

I think about the phone conversations with [Finn] Balor about coming in. It’s a crazy thing to think about and it’s something I’m very excited about. You go back to the whole having fun part of the job and this is just cool.

Whenever I’m looking at talent, even when I’m developing NXT guys, I can’t help but look at it from a performer’s point of view. I did an interview a few years ago when Nakamura was first coming in and they asked me if there were guys I would like to wrestle and I was like yeah, I’d like to wrestle him. Am I planning to do it? No, but it would be awesome if I could just fantasy book it in my head. Now I’m going to be able to actually get in the ring with him.

I’m going to get to step into the ring with Bobby [Roode], which I think for a lot of fans there could be some cool moments there, but I think there are also some cool moments for us.

I have a bond with any of the guys and girls who came through our system and to be able to step into what we actually do with them is like a whole other level of cool.”

So, I would say one of the more anticipated matches in a long time is taking place this Sunday when AJ Styles and Brock Lesnar square off. 

The build for the match has taken me back to the root of my fandom as I feel like a little kid again who is excited to see these two meet for the first time. I was wondering if there was a match, and it could be this one, that gets you excited to just sit back and watch it as a fan and not as the vice president of WWE.

“Sometimes people ask me about when we’re booking and writing NXT and in a lot of ways I just book stuff that I want to see [as a fan]. 

Like I go, ‘man that match really intrigues me, how am I going to get there and how am I going to make it even more interesting. Like how cool would that be. Ooh those two will really go at it and stylistically they’ll tear it up.’ This is one of those matches to me.

Brock Lesnar is a once in a lifetime athlete and it’s hard to not say the same about AJ Styles in some ways. With AJ, you go back five years ago and some people never thought he would even be here.

When you ask me about going back to being a fan, I think about a lot of this card that way. I’m excited to watch Cesaro and Sheamus vs. The Usos. I know it’s not the first time ever, but man they always awe me with something new and different.

You go back to the WarGames show, I’m looking forward to Drew McIntyre vs. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas for the NXT championship. I can’t wait to see that match! I know the level both guys are going to take it to.

I look at the Kairi Sane vs. Peyton Royce vs. Ember Moon vs. Nikki Cross four-way match for the NXT women’s title and even though I’m writing it, as a fan I’m like ‘I can’t call that one.’

In some ways you get into that fantasy booking thing in your head and you just put it on paper and try to make it the best you can make it. To me, it all comes from being a fan.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE Will Celebrate Raw’s 25th Anniversary on January 22nd

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Monday Night Raw is turning 25 next year and on January 22nd, WWE is going to have one hell (yeah!) of a celebration.

Raw will air live on the USA Network from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and also from the Manhattan Center, the venue where Raw debuted way back on January 11th, 1993.

Superstars from Raw and SmackDown will appear at both sites, with Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and other WWE legends scheduled to appear at the Manhattan Center. It should be noted here that the Undertaker and HBK appeared on the very first episode of Raw.

“We look forward to celebrating this unmatched milestone with our fans around the world, but 25 years only marks the beginning of WWE surprising, delighting and entertaining generations to come,” said WWE Chairman & CEO Vince McMahon.

Raw is the longest-running, weekly episodic program in U.S. primetime TV history.

Tickets for both venues will go on sale starting this Friday through all Ticketmaster outlets.