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?”
“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?
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.”