The subtle brilliance of “COO Triple H” and the WWE’s inadvertent long-term planning

About 10 years ago, Triple H was in the midst of one of the longest reigns in modern WWE/F history. After beating Shawn Michaels in December 2002, Hunter would hold the World Heavyweight Championship for the next 280 days. It’s still tied for the fifth longest reign of the past twenty years, only surpassed by CM Punk, John Cena (twice) and Batista (by two days).
 
What makes this reign even more remarkable is that before Michaels’s short 28 day reign at the top, Triple H had another 76 day stop as the champion. Thus, with only a four week break, Hunter Hearst Helmsley had been champion for 356 days. Meaning of course, the same hulking ex-member of D-Generation X was soaking up nearly a quarter of a two hour television show each and every week for almost a year. It was impressive. It was unstoppable.
 
It was absolutely interminable.
 
Though he had been back in action for almost a year and a half following a completely torn quadriceps muscle, it seemed obvious to everyone that was watching that Triple H wasn’t the same wrestler he was before the injury. His mobility, athleticism and quickness were noticeably affected, which was only compounded by an even more noticeable 20 to 30 pounds of muscle Hunter had put on while rehabbing his injury. Looking like the Ultimate Warrior but moving like Paul Heyman wasn’t helping his ring work, as his matches had fallen far from his 2000-2001 peak when it seemed like there wasn’t a wrestler out there that Triple H couldn’t drag to a five star opus. They were slow, plodding affairs that were nearly as excruciating and formulaic as the last slow-motion feud he was in. The equation seemed the same every month: big, strong wrestler X would challenge Hunter, verbally spar for weeks and ultimately get crushed in a match akin to two monster trucks running into one another for 25 minutes. It’s perversely entertaining at first, but after five minutes, you’ll need a cotton candy. Or a valium. Or both.

However, that in itself wasn’t so offensive–it’s not like Triple H was the first guy every to “lift too many weights”, pack on a truckload of body mass and have his matches affected. What made this so terrible was that Hunter was at the top of the card every single month.

For that entire year, the WWE audience sat and watched feuds with Rob Van Dam, Kane, Scott Steiner, Booker T and Kevin Nash, each seemingly worse than the last. As the matches declined in quality every month, the pre-Twitter WWE fan base wondered how could this man stay on top? How could the WWE braintrust keep Hunter on top of the card, killing every single show with bad matches and lifeless feuds when guys like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Jeff Hardy and Chris Jericho were dominating the undercard and getting no love at the top? To make matters worse, it was well known that Triple H had great sway backstage with the WWE writing team, not to mention was dating the boss’s daughter in Stephanie McMahon. Not only was this guy terrible, but he’s manufactured his way to stay champion. This, more than his terrible matches and drawn-out feuds, really set off the hardcore fan community, as they felt that¬†Triple H was pulling strings backstage to keep himself at the top of the pile while younger, more deserving wrestlers were being pushed down for no other reason than Triple H’s ego. It seemed like the evil mastermind had won.

By the time Hunter had finally lost the title to Bill Goldberg, the audience wasn’t just cheering because the good guy had finally vanquished the long reigning bad guy. They were cheering because they genuinely were sick of him almost singlehandedly turning Raw into only the WWE’s second most popular show behind Smackdown. I, for one, couldn’t have been happier to see him gone from the spotlight for a short time

Flash forward ten years to 2013. Triple H, now a 44 year-old father of three, is far removed from the WWE ring, but conversely couldn’t be closer associated with it. Parts of his personal life that the company took great care to downplay now aren’t just part of the storylines–they’re an integral part of daily business operations. Hunter is listed on WWE’s masthead as EVP of Talent and Live Events. That basically means that he’s in charge of the very things he’s always been accused of trying to influence–identifying new talent, elevating personnel to more prominent on-screen roles and of course, orchestrating exactly how, when and where live events are run. On the in-ring side, he’s wrestled in just four matches this year, one more than his three in 2012 and his onscreen presence has been notably dimmed in the interim. Aside from around big pay-per-view events like Summerslam and Wrestlemania, Hunter is off at the WWE offices in Connecticut helping run a multi-billion dollar company or literally running around the backstage area at live events. In the tradition of punk bands like NOFX and Bad Religion morphing from greasy dirtbag musicians sleeping in cars and throwing up onstage to presidents and CEOs of successful independent record labels, it seems that WWE’s one-time rebel wrestler has traded in his trunks for a suit.

And that very suit has been more present than ever on WWE TV with Triple H taking center stage as the new primary villain on all company telecasts. In the current storyline, Hunter has fulfilled the prodigal role that many felt Vince McMahon’s son Shane McMahon would eventually grow into. Triple H is the de facto Mr. McMahon character, manipulating wrestlers and pushing his agendas, all under the notion that like a doting father, he’s merely doing what’s best for business. His strut isn’t the cartoon caricature that Vince has constructed surely out of years of mirror-bound practice, but the entrances are just as dramatic and bombastic, with microphoned promos to boot. Still, the differences lie in the subtleties: Vince always portrayed a megalomaniac owner whose actions were overtly self-serving and ultimately borne out of insecurity. It seemed that at all times McMahon only wanted a Federation he could control. Meanwhile, Triple H is performing the very same act of capitalistic tyranny, but with an air of cool confidence and controlled gravitas that Vince’s character, even as his peak, never really conveyed. It’s an amazing transformation and a brilliant idea that seems like the natural evolution for the WWE. But even more ingenious is how many levels Triple H’s new character works.

Hunter is all over the TV. Last week on RAW, he appeared on five segments of the show. Smackdown the Friday before wasn’t much different. He even participated and played a gigantic role in the outcome of Summerslam three weeks ago, even though he wasn’t wrestling the match. He’s one of the primary voices in all company press conference and public appearances, as well as an omnipresent voice for any company matter. In many ways, he’s more ubiquitous now than he was a decade ago. And the audience hates him.

The current main angle being played up on WWE TV right now revolves between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, the new WWE Champion Randy Orton and former champion Daniel Bryan. As the storyline goes, Bryan, the bearded scrappy underdog former indie darling, was “screwed” out of the title when Trips decided that Randy Orton would be better suited as the “face” of the company moving forward. Bryan, an overwhelming crowd favorite, was told that he of 5’8″ and pale complexion wasn’t fit to represent the WWE, unlike the chiseled, statuesque 6’5″ Orton.

And thus was born the newest iteration of the owner vs. rebellious employee battle that’s consumed the WWF/E for the better part of twenty years. Except this time, has seemingly gone as deep as the reality of the situation itself.

Triple H’s persona–the slick talking, business-minded suit, who seems all-too comfortable with this newfound power–has done the impossible. He’s the worst type of on-screen villain, one that’s convinced that his actions are anything but villainous. Hunter is playing the omnipotent all-father, arrogantly telling the audience that he knows what they want better than they can possibly understand, unrepentant of the actions he’s taken. And the crowd fucking hates it.

At the same time, the character is hitting a chord with the “smart” crowd that’s been not just watching this weekly melodramatic teleplay, but trying to examine the deeper aspects behind the scenes. For people like us, we’re remembering the guy Hunter was ten years ago when every month he’d squash any challenger that would come his way in order to maintain his spot at the top of the card that he perhaps did not justly deserve. And those are the memories that Triple H seems to be purposefully trying to dredge up.

This past Monday, as recently retired main eventer Edge stood in the ring decrying the Hunter’s “reign of terror” over the WWE, the on-screen COO of the company wasn’t afraid to come onstage and run down the critic in the ring. Triple H went onto vocalize the exact type of conversation many assumed he was having off screen ten years ago: telling Edge that he never actually “drew a dime” despite his status as a “living legend”, admitting that he never thought Chris Jericho or John Cena would amount to anything and of course, saying that he feels the same way about Daniel Bryan. However, unlike a typical, by-the-book heel, Hunter went on to admit he’s happy to be proven wrong and that of course his predictions for Jericho and Cena were way off. Triple H has devised such a complex, brilliant heel persona: a boss who unpredictably transitions from being fair to alternately tyrannical, understanding his pitfalls but securely moving forward and assuming that it won’t happen the next time. Those that just watch TV for several hours a week hate that’s he’s their unflappable boss who micromanages his way to success.

And to the “smart” crowd, he’s simply manifesting everything on screen that people have been vilifying him for anyway for a decade. Except now, he’s got real, legitimate power and no one’s quite sure if he’s playing a character or living out all his backstage fantasies on screen. In the real fake world of pro wrestling, the hook is to blur the lines between what’s real and what’s been planned. For those of us that have hated Triple H’s backstage machinations for so long, now that our perception is on screen reality, does that negate the notion that it could be an apparition of actuality?

And on the other side of the equation lies Daniel Bryan–the antithesis of Triple H himself. A 5’8″ projection of the hipster wrestler, an indie-cred phenom that only the truest fans would have known before his big break this past summer in the WWE. He’s every part the hardcore wrestling nerd’s fantasy come to real life. Bryan is an in-ring technician who has honed his craft at high school gyms and bingo halls all around the world. He’s struggled against type his entire career, finally emerging as a superstar because of his unreal work rate and sheer tenacity. He is the closest thing to this generation’s Benoit, Guerrero, Jericho and Mysterio; an undersized grappler who has succeeded in the WWE despite being half the size of the usual titans that inhabit the top of the card. He’s done so after traveling from federation to federation all over the world, almost a damn near impossibility these days considering that with WWE being the only major player in town, most wrestlers with any potential are quickly snapped up by the Goliath of pro wrestling. In Daniel Bryan, Vince McMahon and Triple H have found the perfect foil to the new on-screen power structure. After all, the very same people who so vehemently hated Triple H are the very same ones that have bought Ring of Honor DVDs featuring a wrestler formerly known as Bryan Danielson.

This angle is brilliant on so many levels–creating a truly great villain whose conviction blurs the line between self-righteous egomaniac and a hard-edged caretaker of the industry. It plays up on the smart fan’s long-standing prejudice of Triple H, using that zealousness to create an elaborate angle that has struck fans perhaps deeper than they recognize. WWE created the most long-term end game possible ten years ago when they forced Triple H down our throats ad naseum. What they didn’t know was how it would affect their biggest angle in a decade’s time. It almost made those interminable months of terrible wrestling worth it.

Almost.

 

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