The Post’s Joseph Staszewski brings you around the world of professional wrestling every Tuesday in his weekly column, the Post Match Angle.
Paul “Triple H” Levesque’s return to power in WWE could change the game of pro wrestling free agency.
Levesque, who had already returned to his job as head of talent relations last week, was officially put in charge of all WWE creative on Monday. That gives him an enormous amount of power over the talent the company brings in and what they do on television. It’s also safe to say he has the boss’ ear with his wife Stephanie McMahon now co-CEO with Nick Khan.
Remember it was Levesque who helped grow many of the industry’s younger stars nationally during their time in NXT. It is a list that includes Keith Lee, Adam Cole, FTR, Malaki Black, Johnny Gargano, Swerve Strickland, Killer Kross, Ruby Soho and Athena. Many of whom are currently working for competitor All Elite Wrestling. Even free agent Bray Wyatt spent a short time in NXT during the early days of the promotion.
Many of the NXT stars would call him “Papa H”, signaling a father-figure-like bond – something McMahon often had with his top stars in the 80s and 90s. A very large portion of WWE’s current roster also came through the NXT system that Levesque headed. It means there is likely a different level of trust, loyalty and bond there that wouldn’t be in place with the former head of talent relations John Laurinaitis or even McMahon himself. It may make it even harder for some talent to want to leave when they have the chance. Maybe he can even mend some fences and bring Sasha Banks and Naomi back into the fold.
Also, McMahon’s retirement amid a “hush money” probe by the company’s board of directors, removes at least a few of the potential trepidations of someone returning to WWE or a star who has never worked there jumping over. The company is no longer playing for an audience of one in McMahon. He so often needed to put his own stamp on a performer and it was believed that if he didn’t get you or see a star, he would keep someone in the mid-card or worse, catering. If you’re too small or can talk really well, you may be viewed as just a manager or mouthpiece.
It was Levesque who had Cole, Gargano, Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura as NXT champions. No larger-than-life stars, just great pro wrestlers. It felt like Levesque didn’t try to change something for the sake of change if it worked. While other performers found or enhanced personas that are still making them money in WWE or elsewhere today.
Also remember it was Levesque who brought Samoa Joe back to NXT after he was released from WWE and worked side by side with William Regal for so long building a fantastic roster. So there is a lot of goodwill around him.
So while All Elite Wrestling president Tony Khan chose to throw shade on Twitter at WWE after McMahon’s retirement – by calling himself the “longest-tenured CEO in pro wrestling” – he is up against a different opponent when it comes to acquiring and keeping marque talent when their contracts are up. A large portion of the buzz around AEW has been its free-agent acquisitions. That’s not going to stop, but it feels like there is an even greater chance now for it to work both ways over time or for less talent to be looking to jump.
There was always the fear that if MJF left AEW in 2024, he would be watered down or misunderstood by McMahon. There should probably be less of a worry of that happening now, which would only be enhanced if WWE eventually goes TV-14. Bruce Prichard, who MJF worked with in MLW for a short time, is still with the company and he would be a huge coup for Levesque if the opportunity arises.
Maybe Levesque’s relationships will help him convince a few of the wrestlers in AEW and other companies, who didn’t reach the mountaintop in WWE that things are different this time and they should give it another go with him in charge. Let’s face it, WWE remains the place the majority of wrestlers dreamed of being a star in and having their WrestleMania moment with. The company is a global brand that still has the greater ability to make a wrestler a household or mainstream name.
There is always a chance things don’t go very differently, but there is at least reason to believe Levesque’s return to power changes the playing field in wrestling free agency.
Let the games begin.
Signs of change
“Monday Night Raw” from Madison Square Garden, fittingly Levesque’s first show in charge, certainly gave fans reason to hope change is on the way. It uncharacteristically opened with Miz and Logan Paul already brawling in the ring and closed with Montez Ford getting bloodied during a six-man tag match — something that had been discouraged in WWE recently under Vince McMahon. Roman Reigns telling Theory “your daddy’s not here anymore” was the only true reference to McMahon on the show, which ended up being the highest-grossing Raw since WWE’s return to touring more than a year ago.
There was greater crossover of SmackDown and Raw stars and a better pacing with shorter promos. There was still a DQ finish, three chaotic brawls or pull-aparts to build to SummerSlam matches and another post-match Judgment Day attack after a loss to get their heat back. All in all, it was a good start and certainly makes you hopeful of what’s to come after SummerSlam.
Jumping the “Shark”
Maybe we should have known that a match booked to promote “Shark Week” with a shark cage above the ring was going to remind us more of something from Vince Russo’s WCW than Paul Heyman’s ECW. But AEW has been so good at these bloody death-match-style main events that it was pretty surprising how overbooked Chris Jericho and Eddie Kingston’s barbed-wire everywhere match was. All the pointless shenanigans and Eddie Kingston losing and not getting his moment yet again has sucked whatever life was still reminding in a feud that’s already had two blow-off type matches.
In a match that should have been just Jericho and Kingston finally, finally ending their program in a violent one-on-one match, you had Tay Conti and a now-heel Anna Jay attacking Ruby Soho at ringside in order to free the Jericho Appreciation Society from the cage. They couldn’t even get the door open and slipped through the bars. As they attacked Kingston, it brought Ortiz, Claudio Castagnoli and Wheeler Yuta from the back. Just when you thought AEW might let Kingston and Jericho still settle things on their own at the end, Sammy Guevara interferes to get his boss the win in a finish that was comically botched. Unless it was all simply a way to appease Warner Bros. Discovery to promote Shark Week, AEW really needs to look in the mirror after that match as it’s everything the promotion was supposed to be better than.
The 10 Count
Ring of Honor Death Before Dishonor was an excellent wrestling show and FTR and The Briscoes put on an all-time classic in a two-out-of-three falls main event. Dax Harwood’s exhausted pin after an avalanche piledriver to win it was the chef’s kiss.
Cora Jade feels even more memorable as a heel than a babyface, but dropping the NXT women’s tag team championships in the trash felt cliché and unnecessary considering the vacant status of WWE’s main roster version of the belts. That is unless they are going to bring them back in their intended form to be defended on all brands.
There had better be another moment or swerve (not Strickland) involved in this Jungle Boys-Christian Cage-Luchasharus storyline. While having Jungle Boy return after Luchasarus put Cage on his shoulders was brilliant, having the dinosaur turn so quickly back to his friend’s side feels like it just tossed away weeks of good TV building Luchasarus as a heel monster and removes a compelling layer from the story .
Have to say, I didn’t see a Zoey Stark return from injury to face Mandy Rose for the NXT women’s championship coming. But considering her injury – at least on screen – was attributed to Toxic Attraction, it really works well from a story perspective and I’m excited to see if Stark rises to the occasion.
Hook is going to win the FTW title from Ricky Starks isn’t he?
Logan Paul is a heel, no matter how much he wants to be a babyface. The crowd is reacting to him like a heel and his verbal attacks on The Miz are heel-like. But Miz having Ciampa attack Paul is a bigger heel move. It felt like their interactions on Raw left the crowd still hating Paul or just confused who they should root for. Paul has all the tools, but they need to be used the right way.
Eddie Kingston may now have his best path to becoming a world champion with Claudio Castagnoli now holding the ROH title.
There feels like way too many people to possibly thwart a potential Theory cash-in now between Sami Zayn, Dolph Ziggler and the Usos for it to work. But WWE stacking the odds against him and making him appear overmatched at least leaves the feeling it could make him find a way just like at Money in the Bank.
If this year’s SummerSlam feels like it lacks something it would be because we have seen three of its biggest matches over and over again. The Street Profits and The Usos have squared off in a straight tag, six times over the past year. Becky Lynch and Bianca Belair have technically had four singles matches during that time and Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns will meet for the third time since last year’s SummerSlam.
The card for Ric Flair’s final match is stacked with talent, but if there are two other matches I’m looking forward to is The Wolves vs. The Motor City Machine Guns and Jacob Fatu vs. Eddie Edwards.
Wrestler of the Week
Claudio Castagnoli, Ring of Honor
Castagnoli, formerly Cesero in WWE, won the first major world championship of his career by defeating Jonathan Gresham for the Ring of Honor title at Death Before Dishonor on Saturday. While something about the match’s outcome felt matter of fact, it’s an opportunity Castagnoli’s body of work has rightfully earned him and is a position that will be vitally important with Tony Khan trying to get ROH weekly TV.
Match to Watch
Ric Flair and Andrade vs. Jeff Jarrett and Jay Lethal in Ric Flair’s Last Match (Sunday, 8 pm, FITE)
Yes, SummerSlam is this weekend. But there will be other SummerSlams and more matches for all those involved. This is supposed to finally be it for the 73-year-old “Nature Boy”. The match has had plenty of hype and an old-school wrestling feel and the full card is stacked with performers from nearly every major company. The attention to detail and comment to the story has been fun. It feels like a must watch to see Flair walk that aisle one more time and see just how well or poorly his final chapter plays out.