Pulse Wrestling’s Top 100 Wrestlers of the Modern Era: #14 – Triple H

It ain’t always easy being the king.

14. TRIPLE H

Real NamePaul Levesque
AliasesJean-Paul Levesque; Terra Ryzing; Hunter Hearst Helmsley
HometownGreenwich, Connecticut
DebutedMarch, 1992
Titles HeldIWF Heavyweight; WWF/WWE Championship (7x); WWF European (2x); WWF/WWE Intercontinental (5x); WWF Tag Team (with Stone Cold Steve Austin); WWE World Heavyweight (5x)
Other AccomplishmentsFirst WWE World Heavyweight champion; 1997 WWF King of the Ring; Winner of 2002 Royal Rumble; Seventh WWF Triple Crown champion; Second WWF Grand Slam champion; Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter award for Feud of the Year in 2000 (against Mick Foley), 2004 (vs. Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit), and 2005 (vs. Batista); Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Wrestler of the Year award in 2000; Ranked #1 on the PWI Top 500 list in 2000; Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Most Overrated award for 2002, 2003, and 2004, Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Readers’ Least Favorite Wrestler award for 2002, 2003, and 2004; Winner of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Worst Feud of the Year award in 2002 (vs. Kane) and 2006 (with Shawn Michaels vs. Vince and Shane McMahon); Winner of Wrestling Observer’s Worst Match of the Year award in 2003 (vs. Scott Steiner); Winner of PWI Most Hated Wrestler of the Year award in 2003, 2004, and 2005; Winner of PWI Feud of the Year award in 2004 (vs. Chris Benoit); Winner of PWI Match of the Year award in 2004 (vs. Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit); Inducted to Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 2005

For Paul Levesque it has been a long, storied road on his way to wrestling royalty. He started out as humble journeyman like so many in the wrestling business do. He found training under the very capable hands of Killer Kowalski at a school that has ended breeding more than a handful of legitimate wrestling stars. Right from the beginning he had all the cosmetic characteristics that could theoretically make him a star in the industry: he was tall, athletically build and had a full head of blond hair.

WCW
It wasn’t long before he made his way to World Championship Wrestling and got his first taste of national television exposure. He debuted under the awful guise of Terra Ryzing, but went nowhere fast.

Not surprisingly that gimmick didn’t last long, and he soon transitioned into a preening Frenchman named Jean-Paul Levesque, an obvious play off of his real name. He was one of the few young stars making a name for himself in WCW in 1994, especially as Hulk Hogan and his influx of former WWF talent arrived on the scene. His most notable outing was a 20 minute opening match affair against fellow new sensation Alex Wright at Starrcade ‘94.

The plan was then to pair up Levesque with Lord Steven Regal in an aristocratic tag team, and the pair did a few on-air gigs together in early ‘95, but Levesque knew he wanted more than to be mired in a mid-card tag team and left WCW, with Regal blessing nonetheless.

The American Blueblood
It wasn’t too far into 1995 when vignettes for “The American Blueblood” Hunter Hearst-Helmsley began appearing on WWF television. It was essentially a take off on the same Jean-Paul Levesque character he was portraying in WCW. At the time the one-note high society gimmick seemed like it would easily get lost in the shuffle of the gimmick-heavy WWF landscape that featured evil grunge rockers, evil fitness gurus and friendly garbage men, but fortunately for HHH he was given the token newcomer undefeated streak that lasted for many months. While working his way through the company he had made backstage friends with veterans like Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall as part of the now-infamous backstage Kliq. Politically it was a good move until the four men broke kayfabe and embraced in the middle of the ring in Madison Square Garden on Hall and Nash’s last night with the company. With Hall and Nash leaving and Michaels as WWF Champion, it was Helmsley who took the brunt of the punishment. He lost in the first round of King of the Ring ’96 after apparently being penciled in to win the whole tournament. In hindsight KOTR ’96 brought us Austin 3:16 so maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. He jobbed to anything under the sun until October ’96 when he beat Marc Mero for the Intercontinental Championship. His reign was decent, but not spectacular and he dropped the belt in February ’97 to a very young rookie named Rocky Maivia in what ended up being the first in their myriad of meetings. I don’t think anyone could have imagined how intrinsically those two men would become linked over the following years.

By this point he was safely nestled in the mid-card and ended up feuding with Goldust in an angle that introduced the world to Chyna. He then won the King of the Ring in ’97 and embroiled in a summer-long rivalry with Mankind that would set the stage to their more epic matches years later. It was this feud with Mankind that led to a seemingly random RAW main event tag where Hunter teamed with Shawn Michaels to take on Undertaker and Mankind.

DeGeneration X
That random pairing soon morphed into the makings of one of the most influential stables of all time – DeGeneration X. By this point Hunter began dropping a lot of his blueblood mannerisms and started to let his joking, wise guy persona shine through. Michaels began calling him “Triple H” on screen, which quickly morphed into his full-time ring name as a way to get away from his full-length cumbersome moniker. He worked as Michaels’ lackey until the day after WrestleMania XIV at which point he declared himself the leader of the new DX army, bringing in X-Pac, Chyna and The New Age Outlaws to pad out the roster.

Quickly they become the second or third hottest act in the WWF and they spent 1998 waging war and trading Championships with The Nation, which was now led by a re-invented Rocky “The Rock” Maivia. Their goofy gimmicks and wild behavior was revolutionary for its time. Along with Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Triple H-led DX was the major catalyst and driving force behind the wildly successful “Attitude” era, as their skits, pranks and in-ring antics pushed the envelope for what was allowable on WWF television.

By 1999 they had turned their attentions to Mr. McMahon’s Corporation, which also included Triple H’s number one nemesis The Rock. At WrestleMania XV, HHH abandoned DX and joined The Corporation, putting him and Rock as allies for the first and probably only time in their careers. By this point, Helmsley had started to bulk up and started to look like a superstar that the WWF loves to push. He had one more match with Rock for old time’s sake at Fully Loaded in July before transitioning into the main event. He met Steve Austin and Mankind in a main event triple threat WWF Championship match at SummerSlam ’99, which was followed by the next night on RAW where Triple H pinned Mankind to win his first WWF Championship.

The Game
Keep in mind that at this point, Triple H was still a star on the rise and his winning of the WWF Championship introduced a new star into the main event scene. Fans backlashed and claimed that he wasn’t ready and that he was being over-pushed, but in my opinion he looked like he belonged. He gained momentum through the fall of ’99 and finally became the mega-heel he was destined to be when he interrupted the wedding of Test and Stephanie McMahon in December ’99. He announced he had already married a drugged up Stephanie at a drive-through Vegas wedding chapel was now heir apparent to the McMahon dynasty. He battled Vince McMahon in the main event of Armageddon later that month, pulling out the victory thanks to interference from Stephanie. She showed that she was in on the ruse the whole time, and the McMahon-Helmsley Era was born. Triple H and Stephanie ruled the WWF through the first part of 2000 while he was finally coming into his own as an in-ring performer. He had two star making performances with Mick “Mankind” Foley in early 2000 that “retired” Foley and made Triple H legitimate in a lot of fans’ eyes. He followed that up by being the only heel to walk out of WrestleMania as WWF Champion, and continued to run roughshod over the roster with his “Fac-gime.”

He was a solidified main player of the main company at the time and headlined cards against men like The Rock, Undertaker, Steve Austin, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle and others. In the spring of 2001 he paired up with Steve Austin to form the Two-Man Power Trip, picking up a Tag Championship and pair of Intercontinental Titles. Unfortunately during an absolutely fantastic May 2001 match with Austin against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit, HHH tore his quad clean off the bone and would be required to be out of action for a long period of time.

By this point his on-air relationship with Stephanie McMahon had run its course, but behind the scenes the pair had also become a couple, which obviously brought an end the real life and on-screen partnership with Chyna. In the year and a half since HHH had been on top he had become overexposed and it was nice to have him off our television screens for a little while. Plus on the bright side for Triple H, he got to miss out on the abysmal “InVasion” storyline.

The Cerebral Assassian
When he returned in time for the 2002 Royal Rumble, he received a homecoming fit for, well, uh king. He got a return video set to U2’s “Beautiful Day” and his return on the January 7, 2002 was hyped as “can’t miss television.” Unfortunately when he came back he was the bulkiest he had ever been, obviously using the time off nursing his leg injury to work on the top half of his body with what I’m sure was a combination of the best workout equipment known to man and a dose of “modern medicine.” He won the Royal Rumble match to no one’s surprise but his extra bulk and the lack of mobility from his ring rusted-leg caused him to be a step down from the worker he was during his glory days of 2000. That, combined with the knowledge of his now well-known relationship with the boss’ daughter, caused the start of a serious backlash from the fans against Triple H. His complete burial of Chris Jericho en route to their Undisputed Championship match at WrestleMania X8 didn’t help any matters either.

He toiled (well, as much as you can toil while still being at the top of the card) through the first few months of the brand expansion until it was decided that the RAW brand would now be the “Triple H show.” He brought Shawn Michaels out of a four-year retirement and the pair put on a war at SummerSlam ’02. Then when Brock Lesnar left for SmackDown! as Undisputed Champion, it was decided that the belts would be un-unified and Triple H would carry the mantle for RAW as World Heavyweight Champion. This is where the Triple HHHate gets strong. He tore through Kane, Rob Van Dam, Scott Steiner and Booker T through the end of 2002 and into 2003, stopping only to trade the World Championship with his buddy Shawn Michaels and bury the Intercontinental Championship.

Evolution
In the summer of 2003 he, alongside his manager and mentor Ric Flair, formed a super group to be proud of called Evolution. He (the present), Flair (the past) and Dave Batista & Randy Orton (the future) formed a heel group unlike one seen since the glory days of the Four Horsemen (as was Triple H’s design.) As 2003 closed Triple H was World Champion, Orton was Intercontinental Champion and Flair & Batista were Tag Champs which provided a beautiful visual that symbolized their excellence.

As 2004 dawned he re-ignited his feud with Michaels after a stellar World Championship match they had on the last RAW of 2003, live from Michaels’ hometown in San Antonio. Along the way Chris Benoit was added to the mix and the trio absolutely tore the house down in the main event of WrestleMania XX in what has been called one the greatest matches not only in WrestleMania history, but in wrestling history in general. (Of course that point is now fiercely contested thanks to the actions of one Mr. Benoit.) Triple H stayed in the background for a few months until Randy Orton won the World Championship from Benoit, at which point it was time to regain his throne. He kicked Orton out of Evolution and kicked off a feud that was supposed to culminate at WrestleMania 21 and make Randy Orton the company’s next great hero. Unfortunately the turn and subsequent follow-up were botched, as Orton didn’t play a convincing face and Triple H looked dominant at every turn. The pair blew off the feud at Royal Rumble 2005 to make room for Batista, who was doing the slow burn face turn the right away. At WrestleMania 21, Triple H put Batista over clean as a whistle in the main event of the show, and then subsequently lost two rematches to him and faded off of television through the summer and early fall.

It was a refreshing change to have Hunter off of television for a few months, and when he returned he turned on his old mentor Ric Flair. They engaged in an old-school blood feud culminating in a Last Man Standing match at Survivor Series 2005. He kept himself out of the title picture for a few months and by the time WrestleMania XXII rolled around it seemed inevitable that Triple H would take out the new “it” guy John Cena to regain his throne. To the surprise of most HHH put Cena over clean as well (making that three WrestleMania main event jobs in a row) and faded away from the main event.

DeGeneration X v2.0
He paired up with Michaels to reform DeGeneration X, and they now played it over the top, like a comedy act, as opposed to the ground-breaking edginess they displayed eight years earlier. They spent the summer and fall feuding with The McMahons and The Spirit Squad, burying both groups at every turn. They finally found equal opposition in late 2006 when Edge and Randy Orton paired up to form the poorly named “Rated RKO.” The two duos battled through the end of the year until New Year’s Revolution ‘07 when Triple H tore his quad (the other one this time) during a tag team match between the four men.

The King of Kings
It was same song, different verse as he was forced to sit out months of in-ring action (including an anticipated rematch against John Cena at WrestleMania 23). He made his grandiose return at SummerSlam 2007, squashing King Booker in short order to prove who the true “King of Kings” was. He learned his lesson this time as he came back lighter and leaner, and looked in the best natural shape he had in years.

A freak injury to John Cena allowed Triple H to contend for the WWE Championship at No Mercy in October 2007. He held the belt for all of two hours, defeating Randy Orton for the vacant Championship at the beginning of the night and defending against Umaga later on before dropping the belt back to Orton in the main event in a Last Man Standing match. Smarks claimed that Triple H just did three PPV matches in one night as an “F-U” to TNA and Kurt Angle, who just wrestled in three Championship matches in one night at TNA’s September PPV. That two hour reign was the first time Triple H had been WWE Champion since March 2005. I think it’s safe to say he earned some of his smark credibility back for being out of the Title picture for so long. After all he is one of those guys that doesn’t need the belt anymore to be over.

His almost sure-fire Royal Rumble victory was thwarted when John Cena made a surprise return and claimed victory. But after an Elimination Chamber victory in February, Triple H was set to challenge for the Championship at WrestleMania once again. This time everyone and their mailman’s dog was sure he was going to walk out as Champion, but once again lost, this time in a triple threat against Cena and Orton. Finally a month later at Backlash, Triple H beat Orton in a rematch to their Last Man Standing bout and came out with his twelfth WWE/World Championship.

Since then he has done the unthinkable, and moved himself and the WWE Championship to the SmackDown! brand after it became a running punch line for years that “Triple H wouldn’t work Tuesdays.” As I write he this has become a flagship for the Friday night brand as they prepare for their move to MyNetworkTV and try to bring balance back between the RAW and SmackDown! brands.

The man behind the gimmick
Okay, now that all of that is out of the way, let’s talk about Triple H. Here is a guy who has drawn more hatred from both marks and smarts alike than almost anyone else in history. He had the uncanny ability to not only draw heat for being an effective heel in the ring but also for his noted backstage relationships. It is terribly, terribly clichéd to say this, but Triple H really has “evolved” over his tenure on the national spotlight. After starting out as an indistinguishable long-haired heel, he transformed into the tried-and-true aristocrat gimmick that’s an easy heat-getter. The gimmick finally gave way to an actual character as he became the wise-ass guy that everyone loved into hate and finally just loved. From there he became the archetypical brute heel who used power, force and those around him to climb his way to the top. He sidled up with the boss’ daughter and became the bad guy of all bad guys, and then spent three years proving to everyone (including himself) that he deserved to be the top dog. When he finally was comfortable in his position he was able to comfortably back away and share the spotlight.

Even after he spent over two years away from the spotlight and has now taken a move to the supposed “b-show” he still draws a lot of ire from the fans. I myself haven’t been a big Triple H fan since his glory days in 2000. But does he deserve to be this high on the list? Absolutely. Fact is he is at the top of his profession and has been for years. Sure he married himself into the corporation, but I really think the guy would’ve made it to the top of the industry regardless. Besides just think of the spiral a potential divorce could have on his career (not that I wish ill will to a happy couple.) He was a student of the game, constantly improved until he reached the top level and had all the physical and cosmetic tools to be a superstar. He paid his dues and suffered his punishment after the “Curtain Call” and started his rise to the top before he began “sleeping with the enemy.”

Did he have some bad years where he buried everything under the sun? Another absolute. Anyone he came in contact with-Kane, Van Dam, Steiner, Booker, Hurricane, Nash, Goldberg, Orton-you name ‘em and they felt the wrath of Hunter. There has never been a more dominating heel champion in wrestling history. Even when his mentor Flair carried the NWA as a heel, he was always giving the good guys their days in the sun. Ask Booker and Van Dam where their days in the sun went.

However the fact is he is a superstar. Even as a heel he had the coolest entrance, with the best light show, theme music, in-ring poses and taunts and always had the right camera angles that put him in the best light possible. Plus Jim Ross has saddled him with more nicknames than Funaki has won televised matches. How could you not get over with all of that? All casual fans had to do was take one look at his pre-match theatrics and his physical appearance and they could see they were watching a superstar.

Triple H made it to the top of his industry by using every available resource around him. Who can blame for that? I know I would have done the same thing myself.

The entire Top 100 Wrestlers feature can be found here.

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