Q&A: WWE’s Paul Levesque talks NXT’s ‘Great American Bash,’ response to COVID-19 and #SpeakingOut movement

Photo by: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx 2018 3/16/18 Paul 'Triple H' Levesque at a News conference to officially announce that WWE’s pop culture extravaganza, WrestleMania, will be returning to MetLife Stadium in April of 2019.
Yahoo Sports spoke with Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE's executive vice president, global talent strategy & development. (Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX)

After eight years, WWE decided to resurrect its “Great American Bash” event, featuring the NXT brand across two Wednesday nights. The event, which was first introduced in 1985, has a rich history and, in many ways, is a call back to the ratings battles that were waged between WWE and WCW in the late 1990s.

In between the two-night affair, Yahoo Sports spoke with Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE's executive vice president, global talent strategy & development, about the branding decision, how it factors into the ongoing “Wednesday Night Wars” with Tony Khan’s All Elite Wrestling, how WWE has adapted to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its response to the #SpeakingOut movement that has shaken the wrestling industry in recent weeks.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Yahoo Sports: Regarding the coronavirus, how has the procedures and safety measures in place changed since the recent wave of positive tests? Is there any added concern considering that Florida is one of the hotspots in the country currently? Any plans to create maybe more of a 'bubble'?

Paul “Triple H” Levesque: Look, this is a difficult experience and a learning experience for everybody, especially for us. Everything that we are doing, health and safety-wise has evolved at the Performance Center. As we learn more about it and as this changes, we’re going to continue to evolve. I feel like every day you’re getting different information.

Right now, we’re testing all talent, production crew, employees, everybody in advance of the television production and will continue that for the foreseeable future. We have a mandatory mask policy now for all performers and staff when not on camera. All of this has changed. The testing procedures, as they became more available at an accurate level — there were a lot of people saying they were testing at the beginning and doing rapid testing with some questionable accuracy. We were doing what the guidelines, what the CDC, what our medical staff were telling us were the most beneficial procedures for the health and well-being of our talent, staff and crew at that time. As the technology has advanced and the ability to test people has improved, we have stayed on top of that as well.

As far as a bubble strategy, everybody has a different take on this. My feeling is, yes, it’s increasing everywhere, but our testing is increasing as well. I think we have been very successful in that, prior to this recent wave, what we were doing was working, we didn’t have a massive outbreak. As things increased, what we have been able to do, in my opinion, has been to protect the people that come in and participate with us in the performances.

When you see there are positives, that is the system working. That’s people coming from where they live, where they’re from, whatever exposure they have had, that’s us stopping it before it gets into — I don’t want to say bubble because I don’t believe you can do that to people and have them only around each other — our building. Everybody is going to be around others, their families, things they do in their personal lives. If they have had contact, are at risk or are putting others at risk, we are preventing them from coming in. Everytime that we go to the Performance Center and leave, it is pandemic-level cleaned. We’re doing everything we possibly can.

YS: A lot of current superstars have either expressed support for those speaking out or shared their own stories, what kind of support have you seen internally, have any come to you considering the relationship you have, particularly with the NXT talent?

Levesque: I have a relationship with all talent, not just NXT talent. People put a divider between the groups of talent, like there’s this glass wall between the groups or something, but the reality is 90 percent of the people who are on Raw or SmackDown at this point have come through the Performance Center or NXT.

As we have said in the beginning, this is terrible. You don’t ever want to see somebody be in situations that you have heard about in the #SpeakingOut movement. You have to listen to people. We have always been open to listening to everybody’s point of view, everyone’s side of the story.

We’ve stated that as far as this movement goes, individuals are responsible for their own actions, but we also have a zero-tolerance policy for domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual assault. If someone is arrested for that, they are immediately suspended. If they are convicted, they are immediately terminated. There’s no leeway or wiggle room. That is what it is. We also have the ability to fine, suspend or terminate for anything that has evidence of illegal misconduct or what we deem to be enough evidence to have the right to terminate.

We’re there for our talent, we have an open door, certainly I do, for all talent to be able to come and tell us what is working for them, what is not working for them, if something is wrong and we help to make it right. That’s really what I think in this situation is all you can do, hear people out and then make the appropriate decision from there.

YS: What was the reasoning behind having “Great American Bash” be two nights on USA instead of maybe a “TakeOver” or just a single night event on cable?

Levesque: This kind of morphed over time. People will talk about the competition of Wednesday night and obviously there is something to that as well, but the truth is that the booking decisions that were made have been in place for a long period of time. Because there was a long gap between the “In Your House TakeOver” and “SummerSlam” — I wasn’t even sure there was going to be an “In Your House TakeOver” — we had things blocked out in chunks where we wanted to get for SummerSlam. When you started to look at it, there were a lot of big, epic moments that were going to happen and a lot of things that could be made an even bigger deal out of. Our partners at USA suggested that we brand it out to help them to be able to do business with it, which they did by bringing in some great partners for it. For us — and I know it’s hard for people to deal with or swallow — it comes down to doing what’s best for our business, not anybody else’s.

I was really happy, I thought the first night was really spectacular. Sasha Banks and Io Shirai was a dream match for many people and I think that showed in the numbers. Dexter Lumis and Roderick Strong was a story that had been building for a very long time. Rhea and Aliyah was just a lot of fun, Timothy Thatcher against Oney Lorcan was just a wrestler’s dream from a technical standpoint. Tegan Nox picking up a win to eventually face Io Shirai. It was a great first night and I expect the second to be even bigger.

YS: And one of the advantages of the two nights getting to feature more talent and storylines than a normal TakeOver or NXT episode.

Levesque: It’s funny. I think if we had just put out two or three big matches, people just say “Oh, the show is pretty big this week,” but if you brand it, it immediately becomes a bigger, more special event. That’s what we did here. While the plans were already in place to do what we were doing, branding it made it must-see television. I think it worked, I think that if you look back at the majority of these stories, these were long-term storylines that had been coming along the way. When you get to the Io Shirai and Sasha Banks one, you cannot promote that or advertise that because there are three brands to consider and other matches that have to take place. You can’t give away those finishes, you have to wait on those, unfortunately. I wish we had more time, but it is what it is.

There was actually a proposal on the table recently in the midst of coronavirus that didn’t happen because of everything going on. There was a lot of excitement around the use of the name so we picked up on it and used it because it was there.

Sasha Banks and Io Shirai were featured in the main event of the first night of NXT's "The Great American Bash." (Photo courtest of WWE)
Sasha Banks and Io Shirai were featured in the main event of the first night of NXT's "The Great American Bash." (Photo courtest of WWE)

YS: Last week's main event saw three NXT legends come back into the fold. How does bringing those three back help elevate that first night as well as someone like Io Shirai, who if you've seen her you know she's impressive in her own right, but for fans who haven't?

Levesque: One of the things that I love about NXT is that there’s a bond and a family feel about it. It’s something special when people are a part of it. It always reminds me of the pride people have in their college. When you graduate from college you have spent four years of your life there, that’s always your school, you’re proud of it, you wear the sweatshirts, you support the teams, still go to games. I think NXT is like that for a lot of talent. Sasha and Bayley call all of the time asking if they can come down [to Florida] and work. They’re on different brands, so I have to work within the creative components of what they already have, but I see it all the time.

When all of this went down, a lot of the stuff that was happening was Charlotte’s idea, her being a part of the brand, being there on a regular basis. Kevin Owens competing for NXT last year in “WarGames” was something he had been on me about forever, about wanting to come down and do something. Almost everyone who comes through the door and then leaves is asking if they can come back and be a part of it again. You can see it and feel it in the afternoon when they walk in. It’s like going back in time for them, the excitement level is high even though at its best it’s a smaller building and crowd then they are used to. It’s really cool to see.

YS: We're going to see the first-ever dual champion after the Adam Cole-Keith Lee match. What are the pros and cons of having a dual champion who works on the same brand?

Levesque: I think that there is a moment where the timing is right to do this and elevate somebody to another level. I think you saw that years ago with the match between Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior. You’re talking about that kind of moment with Adam Cole and Keith Lee.

Lee has arguably the most momentum of anybody in NXT as North American champion, has gone through a who’s who of defenses, he had an incredible end of 2019 with Survivor Series. That carried into the Royal Rumble and had these moments that I think will live for a very long time in the digital world, give us some memes and whatnot.

Adam Cole has been probably the most consistent performer on any brand. He has been doling out performance after performance after performance and doing it at the highest level. It’s these two guys at the peak of their careers sharing this moment. When that is done right, it’s incredible. I think it’s a moment that can launch either guy to the next level.

The flip side of it is that you now have somebody with two championships and how do you deal with that, but that’s where you watch the story and see what happens.

YS: “The Great American Bash” follows last month's “In Your House TakeOver,” should we expect some more of these throwback themes as the year goes on?

Levesque: It’s funny because “Great American Bash” had so many more years and exposure as something in WWE and the end years of WCW, but when you put it out there, because of the way NXT is seen as a brand, it feels more like a throwback.

“In Your House” definitely was a throwback, but when we got the ability to do that “TakeOver,” it was just screaming at us: “In Your House, well, everybody is stuck in their house.” You had no choice but to book that one. It’s funny because if you flip the clock back six months ago and look at how people viewed the business and how they view it today, there are a lot of things going on today that are just a lot of fun.

I think it’s a little bit of what people need right now. You have to be a little careful with how heavy you get with the storylines because there’s so much heavy stuff going on in the world right now, I think people want to tune it out, tune into WWE and just have some fun for a little bit. It’s easy to lose that perspective, but what we do, what WWE is, above and beyond anything else is supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be escapism. You saw superhero movies shift and morph over the years, look at the last Thor, it seemed to have a bit more fun to it compared to years ago. You follow the trends, keep your finger on the pulse of it and do what you can do. Whether or not we can continue that down the road, do more throwback stuff, continue to reinvent ourselves, we’ll see. It’s all in what we think will be best for the fans.

The second night of WWE’s ‘The Great American Bash’ can be seen on USA Network on July 8 at 8 p.m. ET.

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