The eyes of the world will be on Orlando, Florida, for WrestleMania 33 on April 2, which will take place just a few miles down the road from the WWE Performance Center and the home of NXT — where many of WWE's biggest stars of today were born.
With just a few days left until the biggest events of the year in WWE, Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul Levesque — better known as Triple H — spoke with FOX Sports about what WWE stars learn at the Performance Center, how WWE makes the call to bring a star to the main roster and developing a network of talent all around the globe.
You can watch NXT TakeOver: Orlando on Saturday, April 1 at 8 p.m. ET on the WWE Network.
FOX Sports: Do you think WWE could ever get to the point where the entire WrestleMania card is composed of former NXT talent, and is that long-term goal of yours?
Triple H: “I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘long-term’ goal. I mean, talent is talent.
What WWE does as a product is so far ahead. I’ll take that bashing off the internet now, but they don’t understand the television production component of what we do.
I have talent telling me all the time who have come from different organizations, who have come from other promotions that you would consider to be big — and they get here and see what we do and they’re like, ‘Oh my god I had no idea.’
That period of time, whether long or short, is a crash course in what we do and how we create our television product. And without it, yeah you might be decent in the ring, yes you might be good on the microphone. Without [understanding] the production side of it — where the cameras are, how to face them, how to utilize those things. Every aspect of it, whether that’s social media or media, camera placement. Whatever production technique it is, without going through the PC and developmental and NXT and learning that system, you’re at a disadvantage when you walk through the door.
So do I think we’ll get to a point? Absolutely, we’re almost there now. Eighty percent of the roster that was moved in the draft came out of the Performance Center and NXT. There’s only three matches at WrestleMania this year — the Goldberg-Lesnar match, Cena-Miz match and Shane-AJ match — that don’t have talent that came directly out of the Performance Center and NXT. It’s just around the corner. It’s a short matter of time, but I think at the end of the day, they’ll be better performers all-around within the WWE for that.”
FS: You’ve said before, in reference to Shinsuke Nakamura, that he had to learn how to perform for television. What is that process like?
Triple H: “I’ll give you an example. Finn Balor had come from Japan, he was a big star in Japan with a massive following, had wrestled all over the globe. A lot of television coverage in Japan and everywhere else. There was a day when he came in, we were at the PC and then we had gone over to Full Sail, and we were putting together his entrance. He hadn’t yet debuted on TV and we were putting his entrance together.
Later that day we were outside Full Sail, and he was leaning against the wall, he looked like he had been shot out of a cannon. He was just kind of frazzled.
I said, ‘Are you alright?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, this is just overwhelming … I have never once thought in my career about where a camera is, and now I realize that’s why they sometimes miss the cool stuff I would do. And now I’m realizing that if the camera doesn’t see it, people don’t see it. I’ve got to work the camera and I’ve got to manipulate this, but it’s overwhelming to me.’
And he picked it up really fast, but that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about. No place else teaches that. No place else in our environment, the sports entertainment world. There’s nobody else working with it that way. For most other places, they just put camera there and cover it like a sporting event.
We’re not covering a sporting event, we’re making a television show. We want the emotion, we want the carryover, we want all of it. Same with interviews, same with backstage, all of it. You want storytelling to be done a particular way, you want them to be seen in a particular way. There are certain facial reactions that you want to make sure are done in a particular manner in a certain direction so they can be picked up by the camera. That’s the difference for me, the details in the art form."
FS: How do you weigh bringing someone up to the main roster versus keeping them in NXT for the health of that brand?
Triple H: “I would be very hesitant to say for anybody, ‘I don’t want them to go to the main roster because it’s better for NXT if he or she is here.’ That wouldn’t be the right thing to do for anyone.
People stay in NXT because it’s not the right time or the right fit to bring them in. People being impatient that there’s somebody they want to see, ‘Oh this guy would be great on Raw or this girl would be great here, I want to see them there.’
I understand that feeling, but if we have a plan that six months from now we have an idea to do this that’s going to debut this person in a bigger way … that six months might seem like forever to a fan who doesn’t know what the plan is. To us, it’s just around the corner.
Some of these guys come in the door and it’s not a question of ‘I’m just waiting to get to the main roster, I just want to move up.’ When [Samoa] Joe came in, Joe came in because he wanted to be a part of NXT, and that was the conversation we had. Is there an opportunity on the main roster maybe down the line? Yeah, but that wasn’t his intent walking in the door.
It’s all kind of a work in progress of where it can go and what it can be. I think everybody in their mind at the end of the day wants to compete at WrestleMania and be on Raw or SmackDown, but there’s a lot of people right now clamoring to get in the door and just be on NXT. If you want to look at it as something different from Raw and SmackDown, it’s the second-hottest promotion there is. A lot of people want to just get there. And the money you can make and the living you can make here on NXT doing well is very, very, very good.”
FS: When stars do eventually make the jump, not everyone who comes up is going to get an Enzo and Cass-type reaction. How do you gauge when the time is right, or when it’s too soon? Is it a leap of faith?
Triple H: “Sure, and there are some guys and girls that I can tell you in NXT that I look at this person and say, ‘This is a perfect style and gimmick for NXT, not sure about the main roster.’ Or ‘this gimmick and this style is better suited for the main roster, less suited for NXT. Because there’s a difference in the style of the programming and in the product.
So I’m trying to give them the exposure and the reps to be experienced enough — no matter what level of experience they’re at — so they have an understanding to be able to swim when they get into the ocean of the main rosters.
There are some guys and girls you know you’re going to bring in and they’re going to do well. How well? We’ll see.
There’s others that you know: ’This one is going right to the top. This one is special is going right to the top. There’s magic here.’ But that’s not going to be everybody.
And there are some that you think, ‘This one will go in the middle somewhere, it’ll be good,’ and then all of a sudden, the next thing you know they’re huge and it’s better than you ever thought.
So it really depends. It depends on how much effort they put into it and what they want to get out of it. The ones that really take advantage of everything at the PC and NXT and really use that time to hone their skills for television, they do much better. To me, that whole thing is just 101 for WWE. The time you spend there, the more you study, the better you get at it, the better your chances of making it.”
FS: What’s the recruiting process like when you’re looking to bring athletes into the Performance Center?
Triple H: “We scout the globe. ... Even if you’re in the NFL now, or you’re coming out of college football or you play rugby in another country and for whatever reason you’re either thinking about leaving what you do, your career’s coming to an end, you know you’re not going to get picked up for another season — whatever that is — and you’ve been a huge fan. Maybe somewhere in your mind you’ve always said, ‘I’d love to do that’ or ‘I’ve seen that and it’s really cool.’
But how do you go about becoming a WWE Superstar? That’s the trick. So us going to all these places and reaching out and going to career days for the NFL or going to all these different locations where we can see talent. They begin to ask us questions, we see who’s interested, we begin to put out feelers on that, we start to talk with them, we cultivate who is really interested and what kind of athletes they are, the kind of person they are, and it just sort of goes from there.
And then other times somebody just makes a recommendation of somebody they think is a great athlete with a big personality that maybe knows nothing about what we do — but when they see it and they start to look into it, they start to fall in love with it. And then it’s a matter of if they have zero experience, getting them into one of our tryout camps."
What Triple H looks for in a potential WWE star:
"The biggest thing for us is, at that point — you’re talking about amazing athletes. Did they come prepared? Are they leaders — when they get exhausted, how do they react to that, are they leaders or are they just falling by the wayside and not putting in the effort?
And then the biggest thing I think that you look for across the board is charisma. Charisma in what we do is king. Building your own brand and being the person that when you walk into a room people stop to take notice of you. Being a person that can attract attention to yourself. Those are things we look for.
… It’s also something that’s a waiting game. We’re right now at capacity of around 100 talent in the Performance Center. In the three short years it’s been open we have quickly outgrown the facility we’re in, and we’re packed. So it becomes a, ‘Look, we’d love to have you, we just need to wait some time while we get some openings here to bring you into the system.’"
FS: The Performance Center has welcomed a number of athletes from China, and you’ve also showcased stars in the U.K. Do you see WWE branching into other territories in the future?
Triple H: “I do. I think there’s an interesting thing happening to me in the world, that the internet and social media and, for us, the WWE Network over-the-top going direct to consumers, creates a smaller planet — but it also creates an opportunity not only for a global product, but localization of that product.
The U.K. Tournament’s a prime example of that, of us going in there. There’s a pocket of really talented guys in the U.K. that are sitting there that are really good. We know they’re there, we can’t use them all on Raw or SmackDown or NXT, but we’d like to do more with them, so we do this tournament, we test the waters, we see how it goes and work with these guys. We help cultivate their talent, and now we’re in the process of working towards turning that into its own weekly show in the U.K. And hopefully we’ll have something on that soon. That’s the opportunity for those guys.
And then what you’re doing in those markets is creating a pathway. Trust me, for all those guys there … I mentioned Finn Balor before, a guy who came out of Ireland, worked all through the U.K., went to Japan. He never thought WWE would be an option for him. And five years ago, eight years ago, he was probably right. He never thought it was an option, it was just a pipe dream to him."
On creating pathways for talent to arrive in WWE:
Triple H: "For all those guys [in the U.K.], now there’s a pathway. That pipe dream is there. We’re not just going there twice a year and if we see a kid that’s talented we go, ‘Oh, hey, look at him!’ Now we’re there. We’re on the ground, and when this show hopefully goes, now we’re on the ground in a bigger way cultivating talent in that market and create a pathway. We’ll work with local promoters and sponsors over there to help cultivate those talent, get them on the U.K. show that leads them to NXT that leads them to bigger and better things. That is a pathway that now, if you’re over there and you’re a 20-year-old kid, you can go, ‘This is what I want to do, and that’s the path of how I get there.’
Same thing in China. It’s creating awareness of what we are there. It’s like Yao Ming with the NBA. Yao created massive awareness of of the NBA in China. Same with us. We’re looking to localize content there. I’m looking at that in other markets as well.
And the success speaks for itself. We did it with cruiserweights. You can look at the cruiserweights, the guys under 205 pounds — there was a ton of them. Most of them all felt that WWE was a pipe dream, that they only have a couple of smaller guys and they don’t do a lot more with them. When we launched the Cruiserweight Classic, it was with the intent to do what we did. We did the tournament, it was very successful, we took those talent and gave them their own platform of 205 Live and it’s doing very well. And it will only get better.
… So the pipeline is there. We can repeat that process. You do what you do with the cruiserweights, you do it in the U.K., you do it in China, you do it with women. You’re creating these massive pipelines, and that just creates an influx of talent.”
FS: When it was decided that WrestleMania was coming to Orlando, did you envision it as a showcase for NXT and the PC?
Triple H: “It’s hard to say a showcase of the developmental division, but when the decision was made to go to Orlando … we as a company are coming into what I consider my backyard now, where I have the biggest footprint. That’s a big deal to me. I want to make sure we have our best foot forward. I want to make sure that my kids in developmental — the NXT brand, the Performance Center itself — I want to make sure those are all represented in the best way possible because the world will be watching.
The magnifying glass will be on us, and I want to make sure that we show them not only what we are right now, but we show them what the future of WWE is going to look like. The level of professionalism that is coming out of the Performance Center. The level of talent that are coming out of there, that’s what WWE is going to be.”