Raw Magazine (7/00)
Name of the Game
By Mike Fazioli

He was in the right place at the right time. But luck had nothing to do with it. Triple H also happened to be the right guy for the job.

When injuries forced Stone Cold Steve Austin and Undertaker into extended exile in 1999, a vacuum was created. To the surprise of some and the disbelief of others, in stepped Triple H. His rise to elite status- he's indisputably the best heel in the business today- has been a hot topic in the sports-entertainment world for the better part of a year.

Triple H has elevated his game on every level imaginable. Aside from his ring work, headlining television and pay-per-view cards while creating one of the most hated personas in recent memory, Hunter has made the transformation behind the curtain from a smart-mouthed youngster with a disruptive reputation to a well-respected veteran and leader. Behind the anarchist character lies a serious student of the business whose whose work has finally earned him some long-overdue acclaim.

Certainly there have been bumps along the way- many admittedly by his own hand- but his progression is striking. He is rapidly cementing his states as a heel performer for the ages, and has even been compared by Vince McMahon to the legendary "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.

He is- as "the Game" is quick to remind packed houses of fans who revel in jeering and cursing him- that damn good.

One of two children in a close-knit family in Nashua, New Hampshire, Paul Levesque's path to superstardom began early in his teens when he chose bodybuilding over team sports in high school. Rather than hanging out with kids his age, he spent most of the time at gyms and bodybuilding shows, and working out with a group of men seven and eight years his senior.

"I think they respected how much I was into [bodybuilding], and how hard I worked at it," Hunter says. "It didn't matter if I couldn't walk the next day. I did everything they did. That's why they didn't look at me as a pain in the ass or as a little goof who hung out with them. I trained like they did."

Throughout his teen years, the gym was Hunter's home. It was in the gym that he made his first connection to the sports-entertainment business when he met ex-Federation Superstar Ted Arcidi.

At first Arcidi, a powerhouse known as the "World's Strongest Man" during his Federation tenure, discouraged his young friend's interest in wrestling. Eventually, Hunter's serious approach impressed Arcidi, who gave him some phone numbers to get him on his way. Among those contacts was the legendary Walter "Killer" Kowalski, who ran a wrestling school in Malden, Massachusetts.

Barely in his 20s, Hunter made an immediate impact on Kowalski when he walked into the school for the first time. "Walter had quite a troupe of 190-lb little guys and 230-lb fat guys," Hunter says. "I walked in there and here's this kid who was almost 6-foot-5 and into powerlifting, and I was probably 285 pounds."

Hunter made the drive down to Malden from New Hampshire twice a week, when his work schedule permitted. He immediately immersed himself in wrestling, most days being the first student to enter the ring and the last to leave. Kowalski, who Hunter says usually maintained a distant relationship with his students, took a special interest in him, spending long hours with him and giving him individual instruction.

Within five months, Hunter was on the pro circuit. He wrestled his first pro match in Burlington, Vermont: "I remember getting [screwed] on the payoff," he says. Kowalski dubbed his young student "Terra Ryzing," put the belt of his small New England federation on him and pushed him as a monster heel.

"Because I was so much bigger than Walter's guys... he wanted me to be [like] the Road Warriors of old," Hunter says. "I was just killing guys. I can remember Walter having me clothesline 160-pound kids as hard as I possibly could and thinking it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen."

As Terra Ryzing, Hunter quickly made a name for himself as an up-and-comer in the business and began to draw attention from the World Wrestling Federation. Pat Patterson, says Hunter, came to a Kowalski show and scouted for the Federation.

Growing up in Nashua, Hunter was an avid fan of the Federation, going with his father to shows at the Boston Garden and other arenas throughout New England. Just one year into his professional career, however, his goal was landing a job at World Championship Wrestling (WCW).

"I didn't want to go to the World Wrestling Federation at all. If they had offered it, I would have gone, but I felt that would eat me alive. I wasn't ready," he says. "But I felt like WCW, I could go there. Their product was so cheesy and so lame anyway, I wouldn't be sticking out in that crowd. And at the same time, I could learn about TV, because I had no TV experience. I didn't know how to talk, I didn't know how to [perform before] the cameras, nothing."

Rather than wait for WCW to come knocking, Hunter made his own break. Light on experience, Hunter came up with a creatively enhanced resume- claiming experience far beyond his own- and some photos, and sent them to WCW offices in Atlanta in 1994.

Soon he was flying- at his own expense- to Atlanta for a tryout. He worked two matches in an empty building, which were taped ostensibly for WCW executives to evaluate. Hunter was offered a two-year contract at a beginner's salary. He instead asked for and received a one-year deal, and went home to New Hampshire.

"I was in the kitchen getting something to drink, and my girlfriend goes, 'Holy $&*@, you're on TV!' I ran out and there I am, Terra Ryzing in WCW, wrestling that job guy my first day there. I knew the cameras were rolling because they were filming it to take a look at it, but they told me they weren't going to use it on TV."

His Terra Ryzing gimmick was short-lived, as his name was changed to Jean-Paul Levesque and he eventually tag-teamed in a "Blue-bloods" gimmick with Lord Steven Regal- foreshadowing the "Greenwich snob" Hunter Hearst-Helmsley character he would adopt in the World Wrestling Federation a year later. He kicked around from program to program, receiving only a tepid push.

Feeling confident in his abilities after the year was up and eager to escape WCW, Hunter called Vince McMahon and set up a meeting. After meeting McMahon, Hunter interpreted the Federation Chairman's reaction as being lukewarm. He returned to work his one and only WCW pay-per-view match at the 1994 Starrcade, putting over Alex Wright.

The next day, in his Chicago hotel room, Hunter received a frantic phone call from his mother in New Hampshire. Then-Federation official J.J. Dillon was urgently trying to reach him. Dillon put him in touch with Vince McMahon, who immediately offered him a job.

"Vince got on the phone and said, 'It's not a matter of would you come here, I want you to come here. I really do. I'm offering you a slot, a good slot in our company,' I replied, 'Well, you just hired a new guy then, because I want to get the [bleep] out of here anyway."

After arriving in the Federation in 1995, Hunter found himself under the wing of Shawn Michaels, one of the Federation's hottest stars. They formed a close friendship which still endures today, and Michaels was instrumental in helping Hunter continue his rapid progress as a Superstar. However, Michaels and his core group of friends, known as the "Kliq", also had a reputation for disruptive behavior.

Hunter was no exception. Only 25 at the time, he embraced the bad-boy lifestyle and attitude and at times it cost him dearly. He freely admits his mouth as well as the company he kept landed him in trouble, and hurt him when it came to receiving pushes.

"Sometimes I've made bad decisions business-wise, and I've run my mouth," he says, "and a lot of times it was because of the people I was around. A lot of my heat came from that and all those things... a lot of times I [screwed] up. I was a young and [impressionable] kid who was just starting out in a crazy business.

"I don't drink and I don't do drugs, but I did a lot of other stuff. And until you mature out of it, it's there. There was a point in time a few years ago when I got tired of all that and I started really focusing on business."

His rededication to the business paid off. He first tasted Federation gold with an Intercontinental title reign from October 1996 to February 1997 and won the 1997 King of the Ring title.

It was in September of that same year when the transformation of Hunter Hearst-Helmsley, promising mid-card talent, to Triple H, "the Game" and Federation Champion began. And its genesis came from the very things that held him back not long before- his friendship with Michaels and their irreverent, rebellious attitude.

At the One Night Only pay-per-view, Hunter, Michaels, and Chyna introduced themselves as "D-Generation X", smart-mouthed, wise-cracking heels who pushed the boundaries of good taste at every opportunity. The reaction was instantaneous- DX was a huge success with fans and rose to a dominant position in the Federation.

But the dividends didn't pay off immediately for Hunter. His role within DX was seen by many as "Shawn's boy" or "Shawn's caddy". Yet he was happier and more confident than ever.

"Forming DX was like my emergence from being in [oblivion] and getting a second chance," he says. "And yeah, I had to be a sidekick to Shawn Michaels. Shawn was the world champ."

Perceptions notwithstanding, Hunter's stature in the Federation grew during his time with the original DX. He held the European Championship twice in 1998, and his mic work within the DX segments showed the sarcastic, humorous side of his character. Then, suddenly, he was thrust into the main spotlight.

Michaels had been battling a severe back injury for much of his title reign, and after he dropped the belt to Austin at Wrestlemania XIV in March 1998, he disappeared from TV and abandoned his role as active Superstar. DX was Hunter's ball to pick up and run with, and he eagerly attacked the role.

Now comprised of Hunter, Chyna, X-Pac and the New Age Outlaws, DX went on a long and successful run as babyfaces. The irreverent humor was still their trademark, and where he usedto work as a straight man to Michaels' jokes, Hunter was now the one leading the way on the mic and in the ring.

Then came the next step in his transformation- at Wrestlemania XV the following year, Hunter turned heel and abandoned DX. He was now preeminent as the top heel in the company- a role he has maintained ever since.

Despite subjecting himself to the jeers and taunts of fans, and costing himself in the merchandising department by abandoning the successful and lucrative DX babyface role, his role as top heel is the one he relishes most, it best at, and fiercely protects.

"The hardest thing in our business right now... is to be a heel and not get cheered," he says. "It actually bothers me right now as a heel when I see signs in the crowd that say 'Triple H is God' or 'Triple H Rules'. I go, 'Damn! I hate that!' I'm very conscious of what I do and how people react to things.

"I can do the funny [stuff], I can come up with catch phrases, I can cut great promos and all that. I don't, and there's a very good reason, because that makes you a babyface. When I cut a promo I listen for the smallest reactions, like, 'People thought that was funny, I've got to be careful.'"

He cultivated his role and soon had created one of the most loathed and despised characters in many years. Unlike the many "cool heels" in sports-entertainment who earn the cheers of the fans with their antics, Triple H was just plain hated- and he loved every second of it.

Midway through 1999, it was clear that there would have to be changes atop the Federation's talent structure. Due to chronic injuries which sidelined both Austin and Undertaker, The Rock had to be catapulted into the slot of top fan favorite. Mick Foley was not far behind. For the role of The Rock's and Foley's foil and archenemy, there was only one choice: Triple H.

He main-evented at Summerslam in a three-way title match in which Austin dropped the belt to Foley. The next night on Raw Is War, Hunter beat Foley to win his first Federation title.

The skeptics went ape. They howled with derision at the sight of Hunter wearing the greatest prize in the entire industry. Although he was the Federation Champion, they said he couldn't carry the ball. Yet Hunter had already seen this; it happened when Michaels won his first championship. And those same critics turned just as quickly on Michaels when he became World Champion. Hunter saw this before and had learned to ignore the critics.

"I'd won them over pretty good in DX," he says. "I turned heel and they were like, 'He sucks, without DX he's nothing.' When the decision was made and they were going to put the belt on me, nobody thought I could handle it. 'Oh, he's not a champion. He's not ready for that. He can't carry it. He doesn't have the personality.' And now here it is, many months later."

While the critics wailed, there was no such skepticism behind the curtain. Hunter's work ethic was paying off. He emerged as one of the premier leaders in the locker room, and his relationship with management changed from leery concern to solid respect and admiration.

Now Hunter was the first to enter the building and the last to leave; he was the guy giving advice and helping fellow workers with their promos. As the Federation's roster got younger and younger, Hunter gained in status.

"You can't just be a leader," he says. "People have to put you in position to be a leader. Guys have to look up to you, guys have to... look to you for things and look to you as a role model. I think that I eventually matured into that spot, and as it was offered to me, I was ready to take it."

"Triple H's rise to the next level is obviously there for all to see," says Jim Ross, Federation Senior Vice President for Talent Relations. "However, the leadership he provides behind the scenes in our locker room may be his greatest contribution to the Federation over the long haul. He is a tremendous role model for all young talents who want to be players in our business."

Even the skeptics began to turn his way, and the buzz about him being the best heel in the business gained steam. To him that mattered little- he didn't pay attention when they were burying him, and he wasn't about to now that they were saluting him.

"I'm more flattered when a guy I've never worked with before comes up to me and says, 'You're the best guy I've ever been in the ring,'" he says. "Or when a guy like a J.R. [Jim Ross], who's seen a million of them, tells me, 'Brother, when it comes to being a heel, you are the game.' Those are the people who are inside the business, not fans watching from outside. Those are the people- it's having the respect of my peers.

"I'm glad the fans enjoy what I do and that they love hating me. The heat I generate is the ultimate compliment. That's the stuff that makes me go, 'Great!'"

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