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June 23, 2015

Meet the man guiding WWE's 'NXT' generation

Wearing a power suit and a villainous grin, Paul Levesque is often seen on WWE programming espousing the virtues of "what's best for business."

But off screen and out of the pro-wrestling ring, the man also known as "Triple H" is building the foundation for the future of that very same business.

Levesque, 45, has been the guiding force behind the WWE's developmental brand NXT, finding wrestlers from all over the world to come to Orlando, train at the WWE Performance Center and entertain audiences live and on WWE NXT, which airs Wednesdays on the WWE Network subscription streaming service. (Previous episodes are archived for new fans wanting to catch up.)

Yet what many consider a minor league offers some pretty major players. Most of the up-and-coming NXT performers "have plied their craft in other places at a smaller level, and now they've finally made it to the big time. We're giving them the opportunity to learn more and now do it in front of the largest fan base in the world," says Levesque, the WWE's executive vice president for talent, live events and creative.

Many of the NXT alumni are part of the main roster on WWE's main TV shows, USA's Monday Night Raw and Syfy's Smackdown. The WWE champion and top villain Seth Rollins got his start in NXT, as did powerhouse Roman Reigns, fan favorite Dean Ambrose, British female grappler Paige and other top contenders.

The current NXT champion, the cocky and talented Kevin Owens, has been a regular on WWE programming lately in a feud with all-around good guy John Cena. NXT also recently signed popular indie wrestler Samoa Joe, and a women's division — including champ Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Charlotte, the daughter of legendary wrestler Ric Flair — often puts together matches that are just as good if not better than their male counterparts.

Hulk Hogan, a WWE legend and judge on the new season of Tough Enough (premiering live on USA Tuesday), often will visit Monday Night Raw and hear the entire crowd chanting "NXT! NXT!"

"There's a rumble there. Paul is doing a lot of stuff right," Hogan says, adding that there was "a glitch in the system" and no NXT-like program in place during his heyday in the 1980s. "That next generation wasn't there, so Hulk Hogan, 'Macho Man' Randy Savage and Ultimate Warror continued being stars into the '90s where they should have been the next Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior or Macho Man.

"Kudos to Paul," Hogan adds, "because he's the guy who's grabbed the bull by the horns and made this possible for the legacy to keep on going."

Levesque and his wife Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE chief Vince McMahon, run the ruthless Authority and still put the heroes through hell on Raw, but Levesque started setting the stage for his post-ring career when he first started in the WWE in the mid-1990s.

The wrestler hadn't been in the business that long before he started to develop a relationship with Vince McMahon, long before he met his wife. "Sad to say, she was in college, which makes me sound old," Levesque says, laughing.

He became fascinated by the way WWE created and fostered intriguing in-ring characters such as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and the more he talked with McMahon, the more the boss encouraged Levesque to get in involved.

"I'd get up extra early and I'd go to the production meeting three hours before I actually needed to be in the building as a performer — not because I was being paid to, but I liked the process," Levesque says.

"It was a natural transition for me when I started to get out of in ring to continue down the path that I was on."

Levesque saw that WWE was doing well as a business, but didn't see an investment in the future. "It was the thing that was lacking to me," he says, "and I said to Vince, 'Twenty years from now, where are we going to get all these guys from?' And he said 'What do we do about it?'

"I started putting together this plan in my head and he and I worked on it, and he said, 'I think this is a great thing. Go do it.' And that's what we've done there."

Levesque concedes that watching NXT wrestlers such as Bray Wyatt, Sami Zayn or Adrian Neville make their first appearance on Raw is a different kind of thrill than performing in front of 80,000 screaming fans. His wife laughs at him, but he's often as nervous as a proud dad behind the curtain as the crowd is introduced to one of his charges.

"To see them go out there and knock it out of the park and see how happy they are, it's awesome, man," Levesque says. "In some ways it's like watching my kids."

source: usatoday.com

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