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23rd Jan 2019

Triple H’s master plan: Behind the scenes at WWE NXT UK

Wil Jones

“It’s watching the band that grew up near you, watching them in a club across from your house, when they were kids,” says Triple H. “And now they are playing stadiums.

“It doesn’t make it any less amazing, how good they are. It just makes me more passionately ingrained in who they are because I feel like I am part of their success.”

World Wrestling Entertainment has had designs on the UK for a while now, but the second weekend of 2019 saw them take a massive step forward with their British expansion. Scheduled for the Saturday night was the first ever NXT UK Takeover special; a live supercard broadcast across the globe on the WWE Network from the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, showcasing the best wrestlers in the country.

On the Friday before, however, came an unexpected announcement: WWE were opening the UK Performance Centre, a 17,000ft state of the art training facility, designed to mould the WWE superstars of tomorrow from the ground up.

At 9am, press from as far as Japan, Australia and the Middle East assembled at a Marriot Hotel in Essex and were bundled onto a coach and taken there.

Although the exact location of the UK Performance Centre is a secret – most likely due to an incident with a stalker being shot by police outside their Orlando training centre in 2016 –  we can confirm it is on the outskirts of London, in a grey monotony of an industrial estate, surrounded by plumbing supply warehouses and bathroom tile outlets.

Corrugated iron structures, as far as the eye can see, it is about as far from the glamour of Wrestlemania as you can imagine.

Inside though, it is a different story. Decked out in pristine white, it feels like a small aircraft hanger. It is home to two full-size rings, as well as high-end exercise machines and weights facilities. There is a dedicated area for trainees to work on their camera and interview skills, and a separate boardroom where they can watch back and analyse their matches.

It is the first WWE centre of its kind outside of the US. In 2013, the original Performance Centre opened in Orlando, Florida, and became the home of WWE’s cult-favourite developmental brand NXT. In only a few short years, it has already become part of wrestling lore and opening a similar centre in the UK shows how serious the company is about UK expansion.

This is not what British wrestling schools are supposed to look like. It is a world away from the notorious Wigan Snake Pit of the 1970s, where Dynamite Kid of the British Bulldogs trained. To put it in perspective, Knucklelocks Gym, where many of current crop of British indie stars learnt their trade, is just a single creaky ring jammed railway arch in Brixton, surrounded by garages.

Those places were for the Rocky Balboas of the world. The Performance Centre is where Ivan Drago trains.

WWE has pulled out all of the stops to make this a momentous event. We are privy to an open training session, and as we are led in the NXT UK roster go through drills in the ring, and lift weights. NXT head trainer Matt Bloom – who wrestled under the name Albert in the late 1990s and was managed by Trish Stratus – strolls around in a tracksuit like the meatiest PE teacher you have ever seen.

Grizzly British veterans Robbie Brookside and Johnny Saint – looking the very definition of ‘men whose pints you do not want to spill’ – call the shots in the ring. Current superstars Finn Balor and Charlotte Flair have also been flown in for added star power. Ahead of the full announcement, Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels pokes his head out the door in full view, only to duck when he realises he wasn’t meant to be seen yet.

Finally Triple H steps out, to his iconic Motorhead entrance theme, of course, to give a press conference that’s broadcast live on social media.

Being in the same room as Triple H is weird. He may be slightly shorter than you would expect, but he genuinely looks like an action figure – one of those expensive, collectors-only action figures they have in the display cases at Forbidden Planet, with immaculate, detailed sculpting. He was probably chiselled and bronzed into existence and even his beard resembles granite more than hair.

He speaks in considered, crafted soundbites, but never seems robotic. He is charismatic. Wrestling is a work, a con, a creation and he is always two moves ahead of your questions – yet if you crack a joke he laughs and seems to genuinely appreciate it. You can’t help but feel he’d be a fascinating person to have a few beers with.

There’s one thing very disconcerting as a wrestling fan, though, and that’s that everyone calls him “Paul” – like the citizens of Metropolis calling Superman ‘Clark’.

But, of course, his real name is not Triple H, or even Hunter Hurst Helmsley. It is Paul Levesque, and now semi-retired he is WWE’s Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events & Creative.

Since marrying Vince McMahon’s daughter Stephanie in 2003, he has become part of the dynasty and is set to inherit the family business. He is now the face of a publicly traded company, more frequently seen in expensive suits than with a sledgehammer.

“Paul” addresses the crowd, telling us that the UK facility is “the first of many performance centres outside the US”. The first W in WWE has always stood for “World”, but the company has been almost completely North American based for most of its 67-year history. But that is changing.

He calls it their “global localisation strategy”. NXT UK is intended to be just the first of many national sub-brands. In recent years, try-outs have been held in China, Germany, Dubai, Germany, Chile, and the Middle East, and they will be expanded to India for the first time later this year.

There is an arms race taking place in British wrestling at the moment. After ITV stopped showing homegrown grappling in the late-1980s, wrestling in the UK hit the doldrums, and for most people was just something that they saw on American TV. A dedicated few still performed in front of handfuls of people in tiny venues, but the scene mostly consisted of burly impersonators donning Halloween costumes and billing themselves as “The UK Undertaker” at children’s holiday camps.

But that all changed a few years ago.

Streaming video meant that young performers could watch and learn from the best wrestling from around the globe. Upstart new promotions like PROGRESS in London and Insane Championship Wrestling in Glasgow started focusing on booking young domestic talent rather than shipping in past-it US imports. They were run by fans with an independent-minded punk rock spirit, who wanted to see top-class wrestling in the UK.

The fast, exciting, dynamic matches were a universe away from the hotdogging and theatrics of mainstream American wrestling. A new golden generation of talent, including jaw-dropping high flyer Will Ospreay, submission expert Zack Sabre Jr, and ferocious Brummie ‘Bruiserweight’ Pete Dunne, began getting attention around the world. British wrestling fostered a community of hardcore devotees and started to build up mainstream attention. It was having a moment.

And where there’s a moment, there is money. ICW sold out the 6,000 SSE Hydro in Glasgow and PROGRESS drew 4,750 fans to Wembley Arena. People took notice. Television companies took notice. ITV resurrected World of Sport, and broadcast the first primetime home-grown wrestling show in 28 years on New Year’s Eve 2016, followed by a full series in 2018.

WWE responded by announcing a WWE UK Championship title, to be awarded to the winner of a two-night tournament broadcast live on the WWE Network in January 2017. That was followed by more live events. And then last year they launched a regular, weekly NXT UK sub-brand show, broadcast on the WWE Network.

Eventually, the WWE began signing talent to contracts that let them remain independent but reportedly stopped them working for certain independent promotions. In turn, New Japan Pro Wrestling and American super-indie Ring of Honor started locking down their British stars to exclusive deals. It created a schism in the UK scene between those who signed with WWE and their affiliated promotions such as ICW and PROGRESS; and those who hadn’t, headed up by Rev Pro, New Japan and ROH’s main affiliate in the UK.

In the eyes of Triple H at least, NXT UK and the Performance Centre isn’t meant to replace the British indie scene. When I ask him what kids should do if they want to be in the WWE, he says start training at a local school, and work their way up to promotions like PROGRESS, ICW, and WxW in Germany.

“[Find] the local stuff that’s here, train with them. Enquire, and begin that process. And then we are going to find you in those places, and bring you here.”

Still, some British wrestling purists have taken the view that the WWE is coming in to kill the vibrant independent scene. But it is a lot more complicated than that.

If you want a sign of wrestling’s renewed cultural currency in Britain, the reveal of the Performance Centre was actually made on the UK’s second-highest rated breakfast show, Good Morning Britain.

Superstars like John Cena and Roman Reigns are a regular fixture on the show when the main WWE roster tours the UK, but on Friday morning three British wrestlers, presumably unknown to the average GMB viewer, joined Ben Shepherd and Kate Garraway.

Making the announcement was Pete Dunne, the Birmingham-born 25-year-old who has held the WWE UK Championship belt for over 600 days, deemed by many to be the best wrestler in the world. Backing him up were Tyler Bate and Trent Seven, who as a trio are known collectively as British Strong Style.

All hailing from the West Midlands, the stable takes influence from the BBC period crime drama Peaky Blinders, sporting immaculate tweed jackets and waistcoats. The gimmick is smart, knowing, and pop-culturally aware – not something you would normally expect from brash American mainstream wrestling, where nu-metal is still considered cool.

I meet up with Bate and Seven the next day at a gym in Blackpool ahead of the evening’s NXT UK Takeover show. As a tag team, they are known as Moustache Mountain, due to their perfectly coffered facial hair. Those moustaches, along with their natural charisma and in-ring skills, have made them firm favourites with British crowds and they have been pushed as the face of NXT UK.

Signing with WWE has, as you might expect, been a bit of a culture shock. “We must have done about 150-ish flights last year. The year before, another 100-odd,” says Seven. “We’re doing live tours, on the bus with Randy Orton. We don’t really have time to let it sink in, you just have to let it ride.

“It’s not a negative or anything, but the peaks and troughs are a little bit drastic. You go from Wrestlemania, or a Takeover wrestling in front of 15,000 people, then you come home and you’ve still got to take the dogs for a walk. That’s a very important learning curve, psychologically.”

Notably, along with Dunne and Womens UK Champ Rhea Ripley, they were the only wrestlers allowed to wear their own clothes at the Performance Centre unveiling. Instead of a standard issue black WWE shirt, Bate strutted about in leather trousers and a floral shirt unbuttoned down to his navel. It was a look.

Bate and Seven are in many ways an odd duo. There is a 16 year age difference between them – Seven in 37, Bate is just 21. Seven is nearly six foot and is best described as ‘having a bit of a gut’; Bate is only 5’ 7, but ripped and ridiculously strong. Fans have given Bate the nickname “Big Strong Boi” and during Saturday night’s show he’ll hoist two larger opponents on his shoulders and spin them around like a helicopter.

They are also both vegans. Bate says “there’s quite a lot of vegans on the roster”, so there are always options for them on the WWE catering, and the newfound popularity of veganism means it is never hard finding food on the road.

It shows how the new generation of wrestlers have moved on from the hard-partying days of Ric Flair and Andre The Giant. Seven says that it started out as a health choice, but the more he learnt about it, the more he realised it was “a more compassionate way of thinking about your life, and how you consume”.

“Eating a healthy plant-based diet, the right way – let’s get that across, because Oreos are vegan – as opposed to eating a healthy mixed or carnivorous diet, is worlds apart health-wise,” he adds.

When I ask him about the culture war over veganism that is currently been manufactured by the likes of Piers Morgan, Seven describes it as “clickbait”.

“People have such easy access to expression,” he says of social media. “But they just go in at the deep end straight away, rather than actually using Twitter for what it is for, which is having topical discussions. If someone comes at me with an opinion, I’m not going to shoot it down, I’m going to go ‘Ok cool, well that’s an interesting opinion, I don’t really agree, why do you think that?'”

Scroll through any indie wrestling-related social media page, and there will be the doom-mongers, saying that WWE is steamrolling and homogenising the vibrant British scene. In their view, the American giant has seen something unique and profitable that they don’t control, and decided to throw their weight around to take it over.

In their eyes it is a global rerun of the 1980s, when Vince McMahon aggressively bought up as much talent as possible from regional territories in North America, giving the company a virtual monopoly on US wrestling.

It’s like when major labels swoop in and sign up all the bands from a cool scene – record companies throwing deals like confetti in Seattle in the early 1990s, or the height of Britpop, or Camden in 2005. And of course, there are always going to be those who were there when they were playing fleapits to 40 people who are now calling them sellouts.

Seven has the look of resentment when this is brought up. “It’s codswallop. Absolute codswallop,” he says. “It’s the most pathetic thing in the world. You don’t want to sound too egotistical, but in all fairness [after] what we’ve done in the last two years for the independent scene, for certain fans to turn around and say that now it is ruined, is probably the stupidest thing I’ve heard anyone say.

“It is quite clear [British wrestling] is at the absolute peak of where it has ever been.” And if we’re going by pure match quality shown at NXT UK Takeover Blackpool, it is hard to disagree with him.

The late-Victorian, Grade II listed Empress Ballroom makes a wonderful venue to watch fake fighting in. It is grand and historic. The 3,000-strong crowd are electric and there is a sense that it is a watermark moment for British wrestling.

Moustache Mountain steal the show in the opening match, losing out on the UK tag team titles but very much capturing the hearts of all in attendance. Main roster superstar Finn Balor makes a surprise appearance, and Pete Dunne and Joe Coffey wrestle a 30+ minute epic in the main event. As the show comes to the end, the crowd sing “Are you watching Vince McMahon?”

After the cameras stop rolling Triple H comes out to salute the crowd. For the majority of his in-ring career, he played the bad guy, but here he is adored. As he takes a victory lap to the familiar strains of Motorhead, the 14-time WWE Champion gets an ovation as big as any of the talent who performed on the night.

But beyond the glamour of a global audience, there’s another reason that the talent has welcomed the WWE invasion.

All of the newly-signed up wrestlers across the weekend have embraced the Triple H’s take-over of the UK scene, but New Zealand-born Travis Banks stands out.

A vicious, unassumingly small competitor who fights under the alias of ‘The Kiwi Buzzsaw’, Banks has made a name for himself in the UK for the last couple of years. In 2018 he suffered a shoulder injury that stopped him working for three months – but since signing a WWE contract, he was able to rehab at the new Performance Centre.

“The doctors are with you every day,” Banks says. “Even when we weren’t [at the PC], they were calling me every day. I’ve been an independent wrestler so I’ve never had anything like this before. I was really blown away, those people actually cared.”

He looks like the happiest man alive. His hair and ginger beard are perfectly trimmed, giving him the air of a kid turning up for school photo day. He is wearing a flash new three-piece suit, which he says is the first he’s ever owned.

“Being an independent wrestler, I know how hard it is. If you can’t work, you don’t make money. It can be scary. Having that security there, that you know you’ll be looked after, makes you feel a lot better,” he adds.

In an economy where job security and sick pay are becoming ever rarer, a whole scene of independent artists have just been given the financial support to continue. Previously, many of these guys and girls have had to have day jobs in offices or on building sites. Some, like Banks, have had periods of financial struggle while recovering from injuries. Now they are WWE Superstars.

It is, in truth, the perfect rebuttal to those pessimistically heralding the death of the British scene. Sure, they won’t still have the complete freedom they had as freelancers. But noticeably, none of the actual wrestlers I speak to seem particularly concerned about that. Yes, they are going to tow the company line, but the sense of optimism from everyone across the whole weekend is overpowering.

That this could happen to British wrestling was completely unthinkable even just five years ago. And as fans checked their phones as they left the Empress Ballroom on Saturday night, they got their answer: Vince McMahon tweeted confirming that, yes, he was watching the show.

After that, anything is possible.