Monday night, on WWE’s flagship show “Monday Night Raw”, we saw a four way match that would determine the holder of the company’s new Universal Championship. The match was between former champions Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, former NXT (if you’re not familiar, this is WWE’s minor leagues, essentially) champion Kevin Owens, and really tall guy Big Cass. After a grueling half hour of competition which whittled the match down to Rollins, Reigns, and Owens, we saw the shocking return of the company’s COO HHH who promptly delivered his signature maneuver, the pedigree, to both Reigns and Rollins. This essentially handed the championship to Kevin Owens.
For those of you wondering “why was a man not involved in the match allowed to determine the outcome” or “shouldn’t the rules prevent this” or “doesn’t this diminish the integrity of the championship”, I’d offer you the question… you know it’s not real, right?
The return of HHH and his attack on Seth Rollins is another chapter in what I believe is one of the greatest stories ever told. See, since professional wrestling is in fact, not a legitimate sport, the vehicle allows for the telling of long term, interesting, character driven stories like any other fiction available. Like Game of Thrones, you have men vying for a title cast in metal. Like Breaking Bad, you have illustrations of how the chase of power can corrupt even the most boring of men. Characters with motivation, death defying stunts, shocking marriages… it’s all there. Since the stories unravel over years, stories have a long time to get told. And, in the case of my favorite professional wrestler HHH, you have a story that’s been told for over twenty years. And that’s largely in part why I think the character of Hunter Hearst Helmsley is not only the greatest pro wrestling story of all time, but is actually the greatest story ever told in the history of fiction itself.
Now, I’d bet you’re scoffing at me. I’m sure to hear something like “You’d have to be insane to believe a fake athlete could be compared to Harry Potter or Walter White or Frodo Baggins”. If you have 20 minutes, you should give this video a watch to understand where I’m coming from. If you’re already familiar with HHH, feel free to Control+F the word “banana” and jump ahead in the article to the analysis of last night’s events.
If you don’t I’ll give you the cliff notes version. HHH entered the WWE in the mid nineties as a pampered, blue blood type alpha male who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was constantly told he was god’s gift to pretty much everything. However, upon his arrival to the big time, he was subsequently crushed in pretty much every serious match he had. It turned out that all of his prestige and money couldn’t buy him the greatness he believed he was owed, so he took a different route. He joined group after group, first pairing with D-Generation X with Shawn Michaels. I’ll pause here to make a quick statement that, unlike HHH, Shawn Michaels really was great. Shawn Michaels won big match after big match and earned the nicknames “the showstopper” “the main event” and “Mr. Wrestlemania”. And this secretly killed HHH. So when Shawn Michaels had to retire, he subsequently formed his own DX with a a bunch of scrubs and then used his numbers advantage to win the championship. If you watched the video, you’ll understand that the WWE Championship is pretty much the most important thing in the world to HHH. It’s the proof that he’s as great as he believed he was his entire life. It’s the object that dissolves his cognitive dissonance about his early failures. It’s basically the only thing in the world that validates his existence, and because of that, it’s the driving motivation behind everything HHH does. His entire career, from dissolving DX and marrying the bosses daughter, to creating another faction of young talent in Evolution, to re-creating DX years later, was in pursuit of this championship. You could write a novel about his chase of this one object and it would be pretty damn good. I might, one day, but right now I want to keep this thing under 10,000 words so I’ll stop there.
Around 2010 when HHH’s career was winding down in the right, he made the only transition he could think of… he became the COO of the company. Now, not only did he control who has the championship, but he could control the entire company. He could fire anyone who opposed him. He could give his friends title shots. He could make his wife the women’s champion if he felt like it. And, like any villain, he needed henchmen to accomplish this. If you want a better explanation, Max Landis does a much better job of summing it up in the video linked above. It’s long, but it really is terrific.
Enter the Shield – a collection of NXT’s top talents who banded together to form a faction as strong as anything the company had seen since HHH’s power groups of the early 2000s. Rollins, Reigns, and current WWE champion and Smackdown Live mainstay Dean Ambrose formed a deadly combination of brains, brawn, and unpredictability and proceeded to run roughshod over the roster. Backed by crooked HHH’s authority, they decided the outcomes of championship matches and won a slew of titles. Ambrose held the United States champions for months and Roman Reigns propped up Rollins to dominate the tag division, winning the tag championships while doing so. Everything went pretty smoothly, until the Sheild, as most henchmen are wont to do, realized that HHH was holding them back and, at Wrestlemania XXX, defeated HHH’s goons. The very same night, HHH wrestled for a chance to compete in the main event of Wrestlemania for a title shot and did so in a match against the smaller, weaker, less experienced Daniel Bryan (who was pinned in 18 seconds at his last singles mania match). This feud was very personal and, in a bizarre turn of events, he refused to use any sort of underhanded tactic. His signature sledgehammer was nowhere to be found. And, as you might have guessed, he was pinned clean as a sheet in the middle of the ring in what is, in WWE lore, one of the biggest upsets in the history of Wrestlemania.
He would not make the same mistake the next night, setting up a match against Bryan which would essentially have no rules. You can do this when you’re the COO. It was at this point that the Shield, firmly sick of this constant bullshit, came out to protect Bryan and disavowed their loyalty to HHH. In pro wrestling, we call this a “face turn”.
This was a problem (and I swear, I’ll get to the point shortly) and HHH made a desperate move to reunite his old group of buddies, Evolution (featuring Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy and master of the RKO meme Randy Orton) to try to stop the Shield. Only… it didn’t work. You see, these guys were all pretty damn old. Though HHH had essentially relegated himself to being a biannual wrestler years earlier, he had still believed he was the end all be all up to this point. But now, fresh off his embarrassing loss to Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania (in what’s probably my favorite match of all time) and losses to the Shield at the following monthly special events, HHH was realizing that the young will indeed devour the old if you let them.
Banana (remember, some people needed to jump ahead here).
This is where the events of last night began. On June 2nd 2014, as Evolution was crumbling around him, HHH made his next great power play: destroying the Shield from within. He understood that dividing was the only way to conquer, and he did so by offering Seth Rollins a deal he couldn’t refuse. It’s no accident he chose Seth Rollins either. For one, he was the brains of the group, the so called “architect of the shield” (if you haven’t noticed, the WWE LOVES nicknames) was the man who formulated plans and called the shots. Without him, Reigns would aimlessly crash around like a bull in a china shop and Ambrose’s insanity would have no focus. Second, Seth was the weakest member of the bunch. He hadn’t won a solo championship like Ambrose and didn’t have a strong singles showing to date.
He was the perfect candidate for HHH because he was the weakest in the group, he was the cerebral one would could understand a deal, and, most importantly, he was the one who would do anything to make it to the top. He understood that the Shield was a means to an end, and HHH understood this because he had done the same thing more times than he could count. In short, Seth Rollins was the closest thing to HHH the company had seen since… HHH.
And the pairing worked swimmingly. In short order, with the help of the authority’s top lackey Kane, Seth Rollins became the holder of the Money in the Bank briefcase which allowed him the chance to challenge the world champion at any time. This didn’t do him a ton of good, since the champion at the time was the hulking colossus and former UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar. And, real sport or not: Brock Lesnar is not losing. No one is going to believably pin this guy. Which, for all HHH’s intents and purposes, is fine. With a part timer holding the title, it would essentially be removed from the picture. If he couldn’t control it, no one could. That’s not the worst thing in the world. Though Seth Rollins would have to wait until he had an opening, this was totally fine for the authority, since they could expand their power elsewhere.
And, holy shit, expand they did. Right around this time, HHH began to get more and more involved with the aforementioned NXT brand, which is the developmental program for the WWE. He had personally signed big independent stars like Hideo Itami, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, and Kevin Owens. Three of those stars would go on to become the NXT champion. Owens would make his debut right around this time by attacking his former friend Zayn shortly after Zayn had won the NXT championship. This is important, because we learned what kind of man Kevin Owens was within five minutes of him showing up on screen. He’s a man who will do whatever it takes to get to the top, which sounds a lot like someone else I’ve been discussing. He didn’t really have much more depth than that yet, but some times in a story a one dimensional character is all you need if they’re sinister enough. And Zayn was so popular that this action rated at about an 11 on the 1-10 sinister scale. Months later, Owens would take that title from Zayn by brutally injuring him to the point where the referee would stop the match.
Hunter had learned his lesson from evolution a few months earlier. He was not going to let the young talent from NXT sneak up on him anymore. If someone was going to come to the main roster, they were going to go through HHH first before they saw anyone else. Like a baby bird seeing it’s mother coming out of its shell, they would have his imprint as the guy who would always be watching their back. Sure, he’d probably eventually turn on them like he did with Shawn Michaels, all of DX, all of evolution, and basically everyone else who he’d teamed up with, but I think we all know that people aren’t really smart enough to see through that. If you’re disagreeing with me, think of all the people you know that who’ve gone back into a bad relationship because they think the other person can change. And those people aren’t even getting title shots!
Aside from that, HHH and Stephanie went absolutely crazy. They took basically every voice in the company who spoke out against them (lead by perennial good guy John Cena) and put them into a match where they would be teamed up together to fight a group of HHH’s hand picked goons (lead by Seth Rollins of course) and would be fired from the company if they lost. There was an added rider that if HHH’s team lost, but that didn’t really matter to the Helmsley family. What could go wrong? They had a powerful team and they had ended up having a mole on Cena’s team. They whittled Cena’s team to a three on one advantage, only it to see it slip away to a one on one match.
And then the shit hit the fan.
Out of nowhere, the man called Sting appeared. If you don’t feel like using google to see him and don’t know what he looks like, picture the guy from The Crow with a baseball bat and you’ve pretty much got the right idea. The reason this was so surprising, is that Sting had never before been seen in the WWE. No, Sting was a relic from a bygone era when the WWE competed head on with World Championship Wrestling. He was the icon that kept the company afloat for years before it’s untimely demise. Most importantly, he was the man to defeat Hulk Hogan to begin the slow destruction of the most villianous group of thugs in pro wrestling history, the New World Organiz… errr Order. Basically, he made a career out of protecting the company from a tyrannical group of madmen, which, for those of you keeping score at home, now fit HHH to a T. Sting helped Cena’s team win and ousted HHH from power. This ignited a feud between them that would burn for months until the match finally occurred at Wrestlemania 31.
It would be the spectacle to end all spectacles. The dream match of the torchbearer of the WWE and WCW squaring off to determine who was the better man was finally set. Sting entered the ring with some sort of creepy Japanese band, HHH blatantly plugged the new terminator movie and came out in a robot suit… the table was set for a memorable bout between two of wrestlings all time greats. Only, this year, HHH would learn his lesson from Wrestlemania XXX. This time, he would cheat. And, boy, cheat he did. His goons from years earlier, D-Generation X, attacked Sting. His old buddy, Shawn Michaels, kicked Sting square in the face with his signature Sweet Chin Music. And his trusty sledgehammer drilled Sting right between the eyes before HHH crawled on top of Sting for the pin. He had won the match, but he hadn’t beaten him. As usual, HHH wasn’t quite good enough on his own to get the job done like a man. Later that night, his pride was given further bruise after Rhonda Rousey hip tossed him in the middle of the ring and sent him off like a coward. A night, which by all means should’ve been one of the triumphs of his career, ended in him being the butt of the joke in Sportscenter clips.
That night would tell a much different story for Seth Rollins. Remember that briefcase he’d been carrying for months? The one that allows him to challenge the champion at any time? The words “at any time” are as literal as they sound. Rollins proved that verbiage true when, in the middle of the main event between his former compatriot Reigns and the beast Brock Lesnar, he sprinted to the ring to insert himself into the match. Remember how I also said no one was pinning Lesnar earlier? Yeah, it turns out that’s also super important. Rollins would deliver his signature curb stomp to Reigns and pin him to win what had turned into a triple threat match. Suddenly, the night was all about Seth Rollins. The night that should’ve been HHH’s, now belonged to the man he hand picked to be champion.
As the challengers came for his title, he did his best impersonation of his mentor by recruiting a group of thugs and crooked referees to protect him. His success began to make him delusionally confident, and the authority that protected him now began to resent him. His security team quit, and his hired goon Kane, who a year earlier had all but given him his championship winning briefcase, was angling for his title. At Summerslam 2015, Rollins biggest challenge came in the former of Cena and HHH almost seemed to taunt him by telling him he’d build a statue in Seth’s honor if he beat John Cena.
Yeah, remember, this isn’t real. Nobody in any legitimate sport gets a statue for winning a match. In fact, the fact that Seth seemed to think this was a real possibility just goes to show you how up his own ass he’d gotten with his success.
Anyways, Rollins beats Cena with the help of TV’s Jon Stewart (seriously, the guy from the daily show) and it is at that exact moment in time when the relationship between HHH and Seth Rollins begins to totally and utterly disintegrate. Though it was hard to tell by watching Raw the next night, when HHH did in fact roll out the statue to present to Rollins.
However, as you might have guessed, there was no statue at all. When the curtain was lifted to show the new monument, something else was standing there instead. This should absolutely come as a surprise to no-one, first because this sort of thing actually happens more often than you’d think, and second, because THAT WOULD BE INSANE IF THEY ACTUALLY MADE A STATUE JUST FOR A STORY. What was truly surprising, is what was standing in place of the statue.
The man called Sting. He was back. And he was here for the WWE championship he believed Seth had never earned.
And, boy, was HHH piss your pants excited for this to have happened. How did Sting even replace the statue to begin with? Are we supposed to believe he has some sort of magic power to make a several hundred pound gold statue disappear? Can he teleport at will? I don’t know, but Occam’s razor would lead me to believe that the guy in charge of the trophy, HHH, probably let him in there. That’s just me. You can believe the magic powers shit, even though the most magical thing he ever did was use a cord to move up and down between some steel beams in the ceiling.
So now Rollins is being challenged by the man who had driven true terror into HHH’s life for months. The man who out shined him at Wrestlemania months earlier. The man who turned a great night into one he’d rather forget. And if he would beat Seth Rollins for the championship, well, guess who would probably have a pretty good claim for a championship match? The guy who beat him at Wrestlemania? Yeah, that actually does make sense, unlike the whole disappearing trophy thing.
This was HHH’s opportunity to, perhaps for the last time, get his hands on the WWE championship. To possess the one thing in the entire world that actually makes him feel like the man he’s always thought he is. He has the chance to be the warrior ass-kicker one last time, at least in his own mind. And he’s practically frothing at the mouth for this match to happen. And, just as a bonus, Rollins ego would get put back into place.
Only, a funny thing happened. Rollins won. And, what’s better, he used HHH’s famous maneuver, the Pedigree, to do it. He’d done what his boss couldn’t do months earlier, and was now becoming, little by little, a man as great as he thought he was. And this was totally unacceptable. Kane came calling for Rollins’ title, and HHH did little to stop it. The disintegration of the relationship between the authority and their poster boy was accelerating and, once Rollins beat Kane, it was all but complete.
That changed when Rollins ACL exploded while trying a move on the WWE’s European tour in November. In what was a stroke of luck for HHH, the arrogant Rollins was out of the picture and he would be able to choose his new successor, and he did it in short order, by targeting Rollins’ former Shield member in Roman Reigns. He offered him the same deal as Rollins, only to have Reigns spit in his face to decline. Reigns decided that he would rather win it his own way. And he did, later that month at Survivor Series.
As we alluded to earlier, Reigns is powerhouse of a wrestler. He’s big and strong and he has the biggest pecs, but unfortunately, he fits the stereotype of the jock muscle head; he didn’t learn the lesson he should have learned months earlier: that HHH always has a plan B. His inability to plan ahead was precisely why he’d had so much trouble getting to the top of the mountain until this point, and his stubborness against joining HHH proved to be his undoing when the new handpicked golden boy of the authority, Sheamus, came out of the shadows to kick him in the head to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase.
For those of you scoring at home, that’s twice in a year where Reigns was pinned by the holder of that briefcase to lose a title match. I told you, he’s an idiot. The Shield breaking up was much more detrimental to him and Ambrose, who was also miring in the middle of the card due to a lack of control on his sanity. If we’d learned anything from the fallout of the group’s disintegration, it was that crime always pays and brains are way more important than brawn.
So now Sheamus has the title, but, as any pretty much every fan on the internet will tell you, Sheamus sucks. With his back to the wall, HHH had no choice but to choose a substandard option as his new champion, and it backfired on him. These things happen. Brains might be more important than brawn, but brawn is pretty damn important when there’s no planning involved. When Reigns got his rematch in a traditional match, he outclassed Sheamus pretty easily to become a two time champion. Rollins sat at home, watching and seething, as this big Samoan idiot was holding the title that should have been his. HHH was seething too, and he managed to get his father in law and owner of the WWE, Vince McMahon to make life a little harder for Reigns. These are the types of things you can do when you MARRY THE BOSSES DAUGHTER. Again, it’s important to remember that HHH’s nickname “the cerebral assassin” is not just for show. The Royal Rumble in 2016, for the first time in history, would not determine who would wrestle for the championship at Wrestlemania, it would determine who was the WWE champion.
If you want to guess what happens next, go ahead and do it. I’ll give you a few minutes. If you’re still reading, I doubt the clock ticking from 45 to 48 minutes is going to kill you.
If you guessed: HHH inserts himself into the match at the best possible position and flukes his way into becoming the champion one more time, you’d be 100 percent right. See, this was always his plan in one way or another. Whether it was Sting, or Rollins, or anyone else who held the title, the goal of the Game (another nickname, try to keep up) was always to get back the thing in the world that was most important to him. He’d had to set up a first, second, and third plan, but by God, one of them was going to work. And it did, until Wrestlemania when he refused to cheat again and, as usual, got dominated by a superior wrestler in the grandest stage of them all. You’d think his plan would include something like: get sledgehammer, use sledgehammer, run away if necessary… but, hey, he’s the Game and I’m not so what do I know.
And, for the next few months, he bided his time. HHH stayed off of RAW and Smackdown and only appeared for the cameras on NXT programming. His focus was clear, he’d do the only thing he knew how to do, he’d take back the power of the company. When the WWE split it’s brands onto separate shows and named general managers and commissioners for each shows, he was left out of the mix. But that didn’t really matter, those were only titles and as HHH had learned from his struggle with Sting, the real power is in the gold. The newly minted Universal Championship, the crowned jewel of RAW, would be his goal.
And that’s where, on August 29th, it all came together. In the middle of that triple threat match between Owens, Reigns, and Rollins, HHH appeared for the first time in months and made his move. And all of the dominoes that were set up for over two years started to fall.
He first took revenge on Reigns, the man who pinned him at Wrestlemania. Then, moments later, he took the revenge that was rightfully his before the cruel hand of fate tore Seth’s ACL and took it away from him.
And now the only man left standing was Kevin Owens. The man HHH had personally recruited. The man who’d do anything to get to the top. The man Hunter knew would never say no. He covered Rollins and became both the next great HHH mentee and, more importantly, the top wrestler in the entire company.
The Shield was destroyed. Rollins was beaten. Reigns was beaten. And, one more time, he was in charge. The entire WWE universe learned the lesson one more time: there’s always a plan B. Even if you get ousted from authority, even if the belt is taken from you, even if you’re outnumbered, even if you have absolutely no claim to any sort of power… there’s always a plan B. You just have to get there before your enemies do.
That’s a story you can’t tell in 150 pages. That’s a story you can’t tell in 120 minutes on the silver screen. That’s nuanced storytelling that occurs over hundreds of hours of live programming, one domino setting up the next months in advance, until they all come crashing down in a din of cheers from a live television audience.
Max Landis (from the video you really should’ve watched), said it best: when wrestling is bad, it’s shit, but when wrestling is good, it’s fucking amazing. Moments like this, stories like this, they prove that. I’m excited to see the next chapters of this unfold over the next few months and, if you’re not already watching, I sincerely hope you’ll join.