Paul Levesque spoke at length with BT Sport on his ascension within WWE, the changes at NXT 2.0, and adjustments to the main roster presentation.
Ariel Helwani of BT Sport sat down with Levesque to promote Clash at the Castle and discussed the transition following Vince McMahon’s resignation and removal from the creative oversight of the company.
Levesque noted there had been discussions for years with succession plans and “what if?” scenarios but it was a different mindset once it was actually put into place and he took the role.
He noted how it was a “tough situation” for McMahon to no longer be in the position he’s held for so much of his life and that McMahon isn’t in the equation “in any way, shape, or form” but later acknowledged that as his father-in-law if Levesque needed advice on an issue he could always go to McMahon.
Levesque was very mindful of respecting all of McMahon’s past decision-making and elements he implemented including ones Levesque has changed such as bringing back first names, the emphasis on secondary championships, and using “wrestling” more broadly to describe their product. Levesque said he prefers “WWE superstar” because anyone can be a pro wrestler and it designates those that perform at the elite level within the industry.
Regarding NXT 2.0, he said he didn’t agree with all of the creative direction over the past year but there were ideas he did like including some wouldn’t assume. He said NXT had to change after it got away from its original goals and was a result of its own success when the brand grew, and the pandemic played a factor.
Levesque said during the pandemic they couldn’t train new talent and the Performance Center was turned into a television studio and there were restrictions regarding talent training in the gym. The truth is, Raw and SmackDown operated out of the PC until August 2020 when the ThunderDome was created and the shows moved to various arenas and stadiums throughout Florida over the next year while NXT moved from Full Sail University to the Performance Center. Talent was back training full-time at the PC by early 2021 – however, it’s hard to state that a lack of training was part of NXT’s demise running head-to-head with AEW, who had the same limitations and NXT had a strong roster of talent throughout the pandemic at their disposal weekly.
Helwani brought up AEW winning on Wednesday nights and whether NXT was punished. Levesque denied that belief and downplayed the competition between the two that AEW beat their developmental promotion, which he had just contradicted about the brand getting away from its original goal of developing new talent and thus, was using more experienced talent and bigger names to compete including Finn Balor being moved from the main roster to NXT.
Levesque focused on the renewed plans to expand the NXT brand beginning with NXT Europe, which he noted was always the plan prior to the pandemic. They continued with NXT UK because BT Sport was airing the product but they hope to expand NXT into various versions around the world and possibly do a World Cup style of promotion eventually.
He went through all the details of his heart issues that took him completely out of the business where he didn’t take calls or follow the shows. It was very grim, and he has no problem with his in-ring career being over with the understanding he went as long as he could and had a great career. He noted there were plans for him to do something involving Gable Steveson at WrestleMania prior to the heart issues.
Levesque said the loss of Scott Hall was a tough one and believes of all the people, he learned the most from Hall.
Helwani closed out the interviewing asking about the potential returns of Sasha Banks, Braun Strowman, and Bray Wyatt. Levesque wouldn’t confirm any of them but had positive comments about each one. For Banks, he said it comes down to what she wants and has passions beyond just pro wrestling. He said Strowman has a huge personality and is very fast for a man that size and was sold on him the first time they met. On Bray, he said he thinks about creative ideas non-stop and just needs someone to channel it in the right direction and explained he likes working with people with quirks and differences and that’s part of the fun of the job.
Levesque is very savvy when he is in these settings and it puts a positive face on WWE whereas Vince McMahon stopped doing media years ago. It seems like Levesque will have a significantly larger public profile which was evident in NXT with his regular calls with the media.
The area that will receive the most scrutiny is the downplaying of why NXT changed and the impact AEW played, which is expected from someone in Levesque’s spot. WWE is riding the momentum now but there were plenty of metrics where AEW was competitive over the past year with Raw and SmackDown rather than just AEW. Both sides had to contend with the pandemic and lack of fans, no live events (not a factor for AEW), and AEW adapted better than NXT did during the early months of the pandemic. WWE adopted the ThunderDome for Raw and SmackDown and that stopped the erosion of television viewership, but it was still a tough go for both shows with the differences in the creative direction strongly on AEW’s side. Fans returned to buildings last summer and led to AEW having its strongest month ever last September with the arrivals of CM Punk and Bryan Danielson and peaked with the Grand Slam event at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Now, it’s AEW and Tony Khan that are in the role of reacting to the competition after WWE gained sizable buzz, especially for Raw on Mondays as the buzz has not translated to a bump in SmackDown viewership.