Long-time in-ring legend and WWE executive Paul "Triple H" Levesque joined Ariel Helwani on Wednesday to discuss the difficulties of coordinating WrestleMania 36 production in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. He explained the importance of the WWE Performance Center in that effort, what he has to say to critics who feel there shouldn't be shows and opportunities that producing a WrestleMania outside of a stadium atmosphere presents.
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for context and clarity
How close were you to not doing WrestleMania?
I think it's really hard to answer that. I think, like everybody, we were sort of kind of going through the minute by minute of what was happening. It's amazing how quickly all of this happened. On Wednesday, March 11, we were actually doing an event out of the Performance Center in Orlando that actually had fans at it and everything, and I had mentioned to Vince [McMahon] the day before that maybe we should leave some of this stuff up, just in case. It just seems like things are going in a weird direction very quickly. And within a 24-hour period after that, everything was shutting down.
The content that we put out, we are very fan forward and fan participation is a big, huge aspect of what we do, but we can also do this in a way from an entertainment standpoint, from a Hollywood standpoint and a fictional standpoint, so to speak, that we can kind of control the environment and do this in a way that really nobody else can.
And that's what we've been able to do with WrestleMania. We've been able to continue the product, continue to put the event on, do it in the safest way possible with minimal staff, no fans. We feel like it's necessary. Cancellation or postponement was obviously considered, but we feel like it's an obligation for us. Our fans have been there for us for years and years and years, and we want to be for them. And in this time, where everybody is just doing their best to get through this and kind of stuck home, the world needs entertainment right now.
Whether it's exactly what we would like it to be or what they would like it to be, it probably won't be. But it'll be a version of that. We will make it the spectacle it needs to be, and that we can, to the best of our ability, but we'll give people something to be entertained by.
For me, this comes down to ... sometimes people get very caught up in what we do, and the arguments of what's happening and why, and should've done this, and should've done that, but at the end of the day, if you don't take it too seriously, and you enjoy WWE for what it is -- an entertainment source -- hopefully we can do what our intent is and put a smile on your face. If you can put everything aside and just sit in front of your set or your mobile device or whatever it is, and just be entertained by what we do, then we've succeeded.
Is it possible that if you didn't have the Performance Center you'd be in a much different situation where you possibly could not put on WrestleMania 36?
Yeah, I think we'd absolutely be in a difficult situation right now, as is everybody. But the Performance Center ended up being worth its weight in gold. That was sort of the intent from the beginning, to not only be able to train there but be able to create content there on a 24/7 basis.
We've used the Performance Center for events in the past. We used it last year when we did a Super Bowl halftime show that people really enjoyed. It's been used for that purpose, but in this situation, it really turned out to be the saving grace of us being able to continue to entertain our fans.
What would you say to the critics who say this shouldn't go on?
Look, there's going to be critics of everything. I think we're doing this to provide what we believe is an essential service in entertaining our fans, entertaining people around the world. And I think you see that with ESPN picking up past WrestleManias, and Fox, NBC and that partnership, we can put out content. ... Even our historic content is evergreen in nature because of the storytelling aspect of what we do. And I say this a lot, we're more akin to the "Rocky" movie than we are actual boxing. Once the event takes place live in boxing you're kind of done with it.
With us, you'll watch it over and over again, because it's the story, and the characters, and the emotion that you feel. You'll go back and relive those epic moments Hogan slamming Andre the Giant at WrestleMania 3, or whatever connects with you from the past.
We're working with the government officials very closely locally. We're taking all of the precautions, we're screening our talent. Anybody that's uncomfortable doing this doesn't have to. The crew and the staff is very, very limited. We're working the talent waves, where we bring them in for their particular stuff and then they can leave, and keeping people as separated as possible -- trying to do this in as safe a way as possible, while still being able to perform a vital service.
We're following CDC recommendations, as well as Dr. Joseph Maroon, Dr. Jeffrey Dugas and their medical advice on how we deal with all of this as well.
Roman Reigns says he won't be part of WrestleMania, but you guys still have to continue with him in your storylines. Why?
Roman Reigns addresses why he pulled out of WrestleMania 36
Roman Reigns shares some of the backlash he's received since pulling out of WrestleMania 36 and challenges everyone to better themselves.
Well it's a funny thing. I think you can watch our business in multiple different ways, and one of them is the storyline aspect of it. Another way is the online component of it, and the reality of it behind the scenes. Roman has his situation and his reasons for doing the things that he's doing, but I will say from our standpoint and the storyline standpoint, it's going to play out in a unique manner, and we want it to play out that way. It's not necessarily putting me in an awkward position, it's just for me saying, "I don't want to give away the ending of the movie before the movie takes place."
I think everybody just has to watch and see how this unfolds.
That Friday night SmackDown on March 11, you were the star of the show. What was that experience was like for you?
One of the beautiful things, I think, about what we do is fan interaction. We encourage people to bring signs, and boo and cheer and yell, and don't ask them to be quiet during the performance.
Not having a crowd there, knowing that we needed to reset and set the template for what we were going to try to do that night ... that's what I had in mind when I opened the show. Jumping on commentary, knowing I'm not very good at commentary, so I was just doing the best I could and trying to be entertaining. And sort of also understanding that, like you said, everybody is in the same boat. They're nervous, they're concerned, they're not sure what's going on. You don't want to hit the audience with stuff that's too heavy or serious, you just want to be fun and entertaining.
I'm trying to produce a show with limited staff, and talent that are trying to do their best and being asked to go out there and perform in front of nobody. And that's a very unique situation, and tough to do.
By the time we got done with that first segment, I'm out there, my phone is in front of me and my phone is blowing up. ... It was like, "Oh my god, you've got to keep doing this. It's very entertaining." And so I left commentary and went to go do something else, and everybody came to me and was like, "You've gotta go back out there."
It's just going to be dry, it's going to be tough for Michael Cole, he's by himself on commentary. To get through this, we weren't sure how this was going to go, so I just immediately went back out there. I'll give all the props in the world to Michael Cole, who takes a lot of flack for his job, as does every color commentator and analyst in the sporting world.
He's unbelievably good at his job, and was able to not only do his job and control the show from his standpoint, but also just roll with me and my childish banter, trying to make it entertaining and letting himself be the butt of the jokes. We had a blast. It was really fun, and I often feel like if you're out there in what we do, if you're having fun, chances are that it comes through on camera and everybody else is having fun as well.
WrestleMania is two nights. Could you give us anything? Even a little morsel of something that we don't expect?
Rob Gronkowski is hosting, which, you know, people have asked, "What are your plans for Gronk?" We don't have plans for Gronk -- Gronk has plans for us. I think we're all just living in Gronk's world sometimes when I'm around him. I think he's going to do some really cool stuff that I think people will be shocked that he actually does.
I think the event itself will be spectacular. While obviously not in a stadium with 70, 80,000 people, it looks spectacular, the look and the feel will be phenomenal. I think that talent really stepped up to bring the energy and the excitement, knowing how important this was.
And then there's a lot of things that will take place from alternative locations. I've heard this said a lot, that out of chaos comes genius, and sometimes I think these moments in time allow you to think outside the box and do things you wouldn't necessarily have the ability to do. If WrestleMania was just WrestleMania in a stadium, we would be approaching it like we always do.
We're approaching this differently. From day one when we thought we were going to do it this way, we thought, "How can we make it different and unique?" How can we capitalize on the situation that we're in? And I think we've done that. I think there will be some things on the show that will maybe change things.
I don't want to blow it out of proportion, but I think there's some things that might change the way we do business going forward.