Paul Levesque’s WrestleMania journey began at the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut in 1995. There, as a wide-eyed, newly signed WWE wrestler, Levesque watched as countless stars took to the ring and performed on the grandest stage of them all.
More than two decades later, WrestleMania has become not just the premiere event for WWE, but the entire industry as a whole. What was once a one-night affair has evolved into a week-long extravaganza, the likes of which has Levesque’s fingerprints all over it.
“I can remember being there at WrestleMania XI,” Levesque told Yahoo Sports. “For me, I hadn’t even started in the company yet, I had just gotten signed. I remember being blown away. To see start at that level, go all the way through, to see the women main eventing, to do a business partner summit that Saturday, to realize the scope and see how big the company has gotten. It’s an epic week of proud that goes by in the blink of and I’m excited for every bit of it.”
As WrestleMania changed, so did Levesque. After initially starting his career in WWE as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Levesque would quickly become a huge star, teaming with Shawn Michaels and Chyna to create the barrier-breaking stable of D-Generation X. In the years that followed, DX would define not just Levesque’s career, but the wrestling industry as a whole.
At WrestleMania XIV, Michaels — with Levesque in his corner — would compete for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship against Stone Cold Steve Austin. By that time, DX had become such a force in mainstream entertainment and pop culture that Mike Tyson was the special guest referee for that match and played a significant role in the storyline.
Michaels’ WrestleMania loss and real-life injuries would lay the foundation for the next iteration of DX, adding X-Pac and the New Age Outlaws. At WrestleMania weekend, this year, DX — in its entirety — will be enshrined in the WWE Hall of Fame.
“When you have the opportunity to do things with your friends and you make such an impact on the business and industry, it’s awesome,” Levesque said. “You didn’t have to be a WWE fan to know what D-Generation X was, it transcended. To sit back and see Chyna, obviously posthumously, get recognition and I’m sure there’s much more to come later, but she’s a trailblazer. In the weekend that the women headline WrestleMania as the main event she takes a spot in the Hall of Fame, it’s awesome.”
The Hall of Fame is just one part of the weekend for Levesque though. Inclusion in the WWE’s Hall of Fame does not mean your in-ring career is over. Levesque, a 14-time world champion, is well on his way to being a two-time inductee, but he will also be featured on Sunday at WrestleMania 35 in one of the most emotionally driven stories on the card.
How the match was made between Triple H and Batista
Levesque’s in-ring persona, Triple H, will be facing Batista in a no holds barred match. Batista, who parlayed his success in WWE into a career in Hollywood, broke into the industry in the early 2000s before joining Levesque’s “Evolution” stable alongside Ric Flair and Randy Orton.
Last fall, during the celebration for the 1000th episode of “Smackdown,” WWE tested the waters for a match between the two stars.
“It’s something that Dave [Bautista] has brought up for the past few years,” Levesque said. “For some reason over the past couple of years, he had scheduling conflicts, I was already booked with something else, it just didn’t pan out. This year, shortly before SmackDown 1000, we had had a conversation where he said, ‘Man, I feel like my window is about closed and if I don’t do it this year, I feel like it’s not going to happen. Schedule-wise, I have a window around that time, what do you think?’
“So we went and talked to [WWE Chairman] Vince [McMahon] about it and he was all into it. So we were doing the [SmackDown] 1000 thing and we figured let’s throw this little seed out there and see what kind of reaction it gets. We did it and it got a big reaction so we said let’s give this a shot.”
Following that moment, the wrestling world was buzzing about the possibility of the two facing off at WrestleMania. Those hopes were nearly dashed however as Levesque suffered a torn pectoral muscle during a match in Saudi Arabia, requiring surgery and months of rehab.
“Dave was so passionate about it I really said I wanted to do it for him,” Levesque said. “When I got injured, I kind of put it off of my radar because I didn’t think it was going to happen. I’m going to be 50 years old this year, I didn’t think I could come back quickly from a repair standpoint, but I’m not a sit-around guy. I started rehabbing and I’ve always trained and done the stuff. I started rehabbing the morning after my surgery.
“[As I recovered] We called Dave, he was still into it, Vince still really wanted to do the match and felt like it was a good thing so that increased my desire to rehab more. It just worked out time-wise.”
With the match on, WWE began its push toward WrestleMania in earnest last month. At a planned television celebration for Flair’s 70th birthday, Batista made his shocking return and sparked the feud that would lead us to this point.
“People know the history, it’s there,” Levesque said. “The toughest part is trying not to overthink it and do too much with it. Give fans enough that it still gets promoted and feels big. For us, emotionally, this is me getting to go out there with a buddy, a guy I respect and have a long history with.
“To be able to do that with your friend, and have Ric be a part of that at 70 years old and a year ago not knowing if he was going to be here anymore, he gets to be a cog in the wheel of this storyline. When we told him he was going to do this, he was so excited to be a part of that, he actually cried, it’s what he does.”
While the match stipulates that should Triple H lose, his WWE career will be over, there’s the very real fact that Levesque is at the tail-end of his in-ring career.
“To be honest, my life would be exponentially less hectic if I wasn’t working at WrestleMania, but it’s a blast, it’s tough to say no to that adrenaline rush, those crowds and everything that comes along with it.” Levesque said. “Getting to have a blast one more time and who knows, every time I go out there now, it’s very well conceivably the last time I step in the ring.”
NXT’s impact on WrestleMania
Although we’re seeing less and less of Triple H, that doesn’t mean Levesque is working any less hard. The 49-year-old is the WWE’s executive vice president for talent, live events and creative, meaning he plays a major role behind the scenes at the company. Even with a Hall of Fame resume as a wrestler, Levesque’s biggest impact may be in his ushering and fostering of the NXT brand, which is seen every time WWE puts on a show.
“Eighty percent of the main roster comes out of NXT,” Levesque said. “With the exception of my match, Shane [McMahon] and Miz, and A.J. [Styles] versus [Randy] Orton, every match on that card, part of it came out of NXT. It’s across the board. To see that success level is awesome.”
Levesque’s impact is even felt in the historic women’s main event at WrestleMania this year. Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch both starred in NXT before their arrival on the main roster and Ronda’s first match in WWE was against Triple H and his wife Stephanie McMahon.
“Across the board [the women of NXT] were so hungry and so passionate, so eager to get the opportunity. Every little thing you would put in front of them, they’d just knock it out of the park. They were so passionate about it, it was hard not to have them inspire me to want to get them to a different place and be able to do more,” Levesque said. “Storyline and everything else aside, they worked so hard, all three of them, everyone around them and who came before them to get to this level, across the board it’s a win for every single one of those women. I’m so proud of all of them and they have all done it together.
“They put out what they need to put out on TV and social to hype what they need to get to, but the truth is, in some way, every single one of them has each other’s backs and they are lifting each other up not tearing each other down.”
Even with so much talent at WWE’s highest level, NXT is still thriving. Once considered a developmental system, NXT has turned into a fully-fledged, global brand itself. Before every major WWE pay-per-view event, NXT holds its own TakeOver special. This year, TakeOver will be returning to Brooklyn, where it made one of its biggest impacts on the industry.
“When NXT was in its formative phase of becoming its own brand, we made our big mark, had our coming of age, our ‘Holy Cow’ moment, that was in Brooklyn, at Barclays Center,” Levesque said. “We gave it a shot and then bang, it was gone, it went clean and the reaction was so epic, so big, that it became in some way — as much as Orlando is the home — that became our home. It’s going into New York City and for a lot of people, New York City, it’s always going to be the biggest place in the world. There are bigger arenas, stadiums and places, but it’s the song, ‘If you can make it there you can make it anywhere.’”
As the weekend inevitably comes to a close, after WrestleMania Axxess, after TakeOver, after the Hall of Fame, after Triple H’s match, after giving so many other people their WrestleMania moment, Levesque will finally get his.
“It all comes from this passion to do what we do. One of the proudest things for me will be sitting next to Vince at some point on WrestleMania day … and see the look on his face as he puts on the 35th WrestleMania, knowing that he took a small regional territory and turned it into a juggernaut known in every corner of the globe.”
WrestleMania takes place on Sunday April 7 at MetLife Stadium and will be streamed globally on the WWE Network.
More from Yahoo Sports: