Triple H announcing his retirement on Friday with Stephen A. Smith was more of a confirmation than a surprise. The dude nearly died due to heart failure, after all, and he hadn’t been in the ring in three years. He’s in his 50s too, though that hasn’t stopped a host of others. And there was still a part of us that, either out of joy or frustration, couldn’t imagine there would never be another Triple H entrance at WrestleMania. It felt like he couldn’t live without them more than we couldn’t, even though deep down most everyone will tell you they loved them.
Still, with HHH making it official that he can’t wrestle anymore, and his backstage role more unclear than it’s ever been, it did feel like something of an end when he made his announcement on ESPN. Because he’s been so important in so many ways, and now we don’t even know if he’s involved at all.
Given how long he was at the top of the card for so long when he was wrestling, it feels strange and misguided to say that his greatest contribution came while he was in a suit. But you can easily make that argument. Because as we’ve said before, there’s a through-line from the height of the Black N’ Gold NXT to the creation of AEW. And, well, HHH created NXT.
What made NXT great, its own little indie that somehow created a nest on the WWE Network that somehow the the execs didn’t notice, was that it combined so much that was very un-WWE-like. You got the sense that HHH was not only aware of the wrestling world outside of New York, the largest criticism of Vince McMahon’s “creative” process, but was actively interested in it.
Indie stars came into the NXT world. Japanese stars did as well. So did luchas or those who incorporated the lucha style. They came in all sizes, with all kinds of approaches to wrestling and stories. And HHH let them do their own thing with just a spice of WWE thrown on top. Ricochet was allowed to be Ricochet. Shinsuke Nakamura was still Shinsuke, for the most part. Samoa Joe was definitely all of Samoa Joe. The list goes on and on. It looked so different than anything someone only aware of WWE would have ever seen.
And stories were allowed to breathe. Everything made sense. Almost nothing was thrown together from one week to the next. Sure, it was born out of HHH’s pathos-heavy style of his own career, but what we wouldn’t give for some more comprehensive storytelling on the main roster now. We’ll take too much over none at all every time.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that HHH could sense that something else was rising in the industry, and he’s such a company man for WWE that he probably would have done more to squash it if he had. But he did know that there were other things out there and that fans liked it. And that WWE could tap into those fans, the indie and tape-trading crowd, if they could import just a little of it. It could have all been business driven, but it’s hard to believe that HHH wasn’t a fan too that just had the power to bring a slice of it into the mainstream world.
It was actually there in his wrestling career, too, though rarely glimpsed. We may have only seen it once, and that’s in his gatekeeper role against Daniel Bryan’s YES! Movement. It culminated with the opening match at Wrestlemania 30 when they faced each other. And sure, HHH vs. Bryan still contained the slower paced, HHH pathos that he so adored. But it contained just about everything else too, some things we’d rarely if ever seen HHH do. And as he said, it was always in the holster. It was just as much his fault that he didn’t use it more often, but in that setting, where would he?
Perhaps HHH’s greatest legacy is that the whole women’s division in WWE is his doing. It was under his watch that a fully fleshed women’s division came to be in NXT, and it became so popular and so good that it couldn’t be kept off the main roster. Sure, maybe Sasha Banks, Paige, Bayley, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and others were just so talented that they would have never been kept off Raw and Smackdown. But HHH gave them a platform, and he was the first in the WWE tree to treat their division as seriously as any other. Sasha, Becky, Bianca, Charlotte headlining WrestleMania would have been a joke even five years ago. He was there at the start. And yes, he didn’t have much of a problem taking credit for it, naming the still only all-women’s PPV after his last faction. But when he broke down announcing it, you couldn’t help but feel it.
Maybe he just had his finger in the wind back then, sensing that women were becoming a bigger and bigger part of the indies and places like ROH. But it’s unlikely that any of the women who came through NXT would tell you he wasn’t completely invested and supportive. Either way, HHH knew something different was happening outside of Titan offices, and he brought it inside.
Again, it’s silly in a eulogy of HHH’s career to not really talk about his in-ring work, as he sat in the main event scene for a decade and a half. DX crossed over into the mainstream in a way WWE has been trying to replicate ever since. His constant rivalry with The Rock or Mick Foley or Stone Cold or Undertaker, his rocky love story with Shawn Michaels (which is what it was, let’s face it) are stories that WWE has never been able to get back to.
Was HHH up his own ass? Oh god yeah. DId he politic to keep himself at the top of the roster? Sure. That’s how things worked. Still, it’s hilarious that Cody, soon to return to WWE perhaps as soon as tomorrow night, can do all his throne-smashing protests and yet all he wants to be is HHH, with his pathos-laden, blood-soaked slow matches and throwing a hissy fit and exit when he wasn’t at the top of AEW anymore.
Still, I know the lasting memory of my first Mania in person, the first one in Dallas, was his entrance. It was insanely over the top and overproduced. But that’s the point! It’s fucking Wrestlemania! It’s a synonym for “bombast.” HHH got that pageantry and ridiculousness and the theater was the point. Sometimes too much.
There was a fantasy among tons of WWE fans that HHH would take over for Vince one day, and he could just bring his NXT to cable TV every week. That was always going to be an impossibility, given all the things WWE has to consider such as shareholders and toy companies and network contracts and whatever else. We saw that HHH’s NXT didn’t really work when it was bumped up to USA Network to compete with AEW and the higher-ups around Vince started to tinker. Then they took it away from him completely. And now we know that WWE will never be out of the control of anyone even slightly aware of a wrestling world outside New York. Which will only exacerbate its problems they won’t notice.
Even though HHH was of the WWE world, he sees the bigger picture. Shame he’ll never get to connect the two again.