There exists a period of time known to many fans of the WWE as the “Reign of Terror”. During this time, spanning 2002 to 2005, Hunter Hearst Helmsley held an iron grip on the World Heavyweight Championship scene, winning it five times for a combined 616 days.
This era is not looked upon fondly by many modern wrestling enthusiasts as it, to them, represents Triple H’s prudent politicking, ties to the McMahon family, and unwillingness to put over rival talent. Moreover, Hunter was the large, strapping blonde known oh-so-well to wrestling fans as the archetype shoved down their throats since the early days of the WWF. It was more of the same. More of Vince McMahon’s Adonis.
Alas, the “Reign of Terror” would end, but the pedestal of the Adonis would find a new champion. He was tall, he was muscle-bound, he had the million-dollar smile. And his name was John Cena. The ensuing decade would feature even taller, even more muscular, and even better-looking “sports entertainers” to populate the WWE’s ever-growing platform. Triple H saw even more action during this era, adding several additional world championships to his mantle and renewing the D-Generation X stable a few more times than many fans cared to see. Sure, Trips went over more often than not, but he also put on some of the best matches of his career. Limiting his in-competition role over time, he eventually settled in to an on-screen/off-screen role as COO of the WWE in 2011.
While plying his heelish trade throughout the early 2010s as a figurehead of The Authority, Hunter stuck his hand in the stale honeypot that was NXT. See, for the fans who don’t remember, NXT was (up to that time) a sort of advanced Tough Enough where developmental talent “competed” every week for a contract and title shot. The show, while a general failure over its five seasons, did help launch the careers of Daniel Bryan, Bray Wyatt, Heath Slater, Darren Young, Wade Barrett, Ryback, Titus O’Neil, and Fandango (the former six from the first season alone). And you guessed it: Daniel Bryan was eliminated very early on in his season. But, as Season 5 expired, the WWE (spear-headed by one Paul Levesque) transformed the FCW developmental organization into a revitalized NXT, a promotional brand unto its own. The early days of NXT featured independent favorites like Tyler Black, Jon Moxley, and Chris Hero, then renamed Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Kassius Ohno, respectively. Though Ohno was lost to creative disagreements, all three represented a massive shift in mindset at the WWE. Gone was the beefed up blonde with movie-star looks, as the grizzled, athletically-built professional wrestler stood to take his place. Performers like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan led the charge on the forefront, changing, with each passing Monday night, the perception of the “sports entertainer” which had been constructed since the ‘80s.
Triple H’s machinations were felt behind the scenes as he carefully curated a roster of developmental talent which included established independent stars, amateur wrestlers, and ex-football players alike. Wrestling talent became the hallmark of NXT, and international sensations Kevin Steen, El Generico, and Prince Devitt all found themselves under WWE contract.
Let me take a brief aside from my recount of the history of NXT to make mention of the most significant element of Triple H’s “Reign of Splendor”: the signing photograph. As the wheels of NXT sputtered and spat whence they began to move forwards and new “hot” talent was signed, a picture would appear on the WWE website of a famed independent superstar shaking the hand of a smiling Triple H. There are few events in the history of the WWE so inconspicuous, yet so groundbreaking. Here was an extension of WWE Corporate grasping the hand of a man who had made his name outside the confines of a WWE ring, and smiling. This was the very same company, who, only years before, was so insecure as to balk at the mention of any rival promotion. The specific photograph shared with Kevin Steen was so revolutionary to me, that it will forever remain seared into my consciousness.
In 2014, NXT began to hold broadcasted event shows hosted on the WWE Network as the WWE became increasingly confident in showcasing their developmental brand to a wider audience. The shows were successful, but none as earth-shattering as NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, the antithesis of the PG Era of sports entertainment.
The main card featured an unsigned international icon facing off against a true-blue gimmick wrestler, a Women’s match between two non-models, and a main event consisting of a “small” indie wrestler and a “fat” indie wrestler. And it was glorious; the Women’s title match, especially, being heralded as a Match of the Year candidate.
But the excitement of NXT was not to be outshone by the revolution on the main roster, personified by the SHIELD. From 2012 until 2014, Rollins, Ambrose, and Roman Reigns formed the most engaging faction quite possibly since the days of DX and the NWO. Racking up title reigns (no pun intended) left and right, the team looked like it was destined to run on forever until their inevitable breakup occurred at the hands of the Authority. Fortunately, there would be no Marty Jannetty of the three as each found themselves with solid singles runs from 2014 through 2016. A SHIELD member would win the WWE Championship in the main event of consecutive Wrestlemanias, a rather astounding fact to confront. A bit less surprising is the identity of one man who was a part of both events (in some capacity), backing Seth Rollins in his Money in the Bank cash-in and facing Roman Reigns for the WWE Championship: Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
Paul Levesque carried on his wrestling career with the sole goal of being the absolute best. He worked intensely hard on the independent scene before earning a spot in the WCW. He pushed himself even more to gain a contract with the WWF. He hobnobbed and politicked to earn the favors of those who would put him in position to win title belt after title belt. Then, after the King of Kings sat upon his final throne, he gave it all back. If, in 2009, you had asked me if I thought Jon Moxley would ever be the WWE Champion, I’d have asked you where you got that bottle of tequila. Triple H has made it his goal to find the men and women who work harder than anyone else to achieve their dreams in the squared circle and give them the chance to do so despite their body types and natural looks.
And, thus, we have arrived in August of 2016 where we look to see a Summerslam headlined by Jon Moxley, Nicky from the Spirit Squad, Prince Devitt, and Tyler Black. Sure, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and John Cena will be there, but so will Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, AJ Styles, Luke Gallows, and Karl Anderson. In the past calendar year, the WWE has seen more international superstars, more 4+ Star matches, and more overall fan engagement than it has in over a decade.
I’ll close with a callback to the short aside I made part-way through this very article. Remember those signing pictures that popped up on WWE.com featuring the latest signee and a smiling Triple H, shaking hands? Posted shortly after the announcement of Japanese superstar Shinsuke Nakamura’s arrival to the land of McMahon, a certain Vincent K. snapped a picture with the King of Strong Style in Titan Tower’s nicest office; arm in arm, smiling for the cameras.
The callous Chairman, the skinny Japanese professional wrestler, and the mold of the archetypical sports entertainer lying shattered on the floor. This is the New Era, brought about by a member of the Old Guard, from the ashes of the “Reign of Terror”.