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“The Game” still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
As WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events & Creative, Paul “Triple H” Levesque has made just as much of an impact on WWE as he did when he was a superstar facing off against John Cena and “The Rock”. He was responsible for overhauling WWE’s developmental division, leading to the rise of the much-acclaimed NXT brand. Last year, he spearheaded the Cruiserweight Classic tournament, leading to a brand new show, 205 Live.
His latest project? The Mae Young Classic. This 32-competitor, women-only tournament brings together a host of sports entertainers from across the globe to compete in a singles-only elimination format. The roster is diverse, ranging from relative unknowns to former UFC fighter Shayna Bazler and Japanese fan-favorite Kairi Sane.
Muscle & Fitness had a chance to talk to Levesque about the origins of the tournament, why it’s named after WWE Hall of Famer Mae Young, and his thoughts on the future of the tournament.
To start, what was the genesis of the Mae Young Classic?
Paul “Triple H” Levesque: So for Mae Young, much like for the Cruiserweights, I try to look at the industry and then see what I think, where there’s opportunities to create something special, and maybe where there’s not as big of a platform as I would like to see, and be able to flesh that out and make it something more and something bigger. The Mae Young Classic kinda stemmed from that same deal.
When I first took over developmental, I saw the way we were using our female athletes and the way they were trained, and all of it was just not what it should be. I wanted to change that, and we did. We started to train them differently. We started to give them different opportunities in developmental and NXT, and that blew up and became the catalyst for kinda the Women’s Revolution. Our fans really pushed for that. I’m sure you know the backstory and the trending hashtag #GiveDivasAChance.
You know that division became the Women’s Division, and morphed into what it is now with the women [having] a different level of athleticism and intensity. It really set the stage for something more to be done.
It’s something I had been asking about for a few years, much like Cruiserweights. And the timing was right so, you know, we decided to do this tournament.
When we first started, to be honest, I was concerned with doing a 32-woman tournament. I thought it might need to be 16 to keep the skill level at its peak, but the more I started to dig the more I started to uncover gold and seeing these diamonds that were just kinda sitting out there. And I started this because women that are in this tournament, the respect level I have for them of doing what they do, they do it for the same reasons we all got into the business, [which] is for the love of it, right? You see something, or you go to an event, or whatever and you fall in love with it. You think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever seen and you determine that’s what you’re going to do with your life.
But the difference for the guys is [that] no matter what level you’re at—even for the Cruiserweight guys—there’s always this chance that there’s this pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, right? And that’s why you get on the rainbow in the first place. For these women, they got on that rainbow and they started to do it. They did the same grind, they tried to do the same, you know, make the same name for themselves and do all those things, except there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For many, one or two or a small handful there was maybe WWE. Really outside of that, there wasn’t much opportunity for them, but yet they still continued to grind and they made it their life and their life’s work, you know?
That, to me, is an even bigger respect level than what the guys go through. So now I’m happy that they can jump on that rainbow, and now they’re seeing that that pot of gold is there. That that rainbow has an end to it, and then there’s something there for them. And now I feel like the Mae Young Classic, while the attention has been there on the main roster of the Women’s Division and NXT, but now the main roster is going to be set by things like the Mae Young Classic. That’s the pot of gold for these guys to transition into something more.
So in regards to the selection process, it sounds like your goal was to find ‘diamonds in the rough’? Is that why the roster is only NXT and independent superstars? I know there are plenty of female superstars in RAW and Smackdown—Charlotte, Natalya, Becky Lynch, and so on. Did you decide that you wanted to focus specifically on lesser-known superstars to really give them that spotlight?
To me, the Mae Young Classic was about opportunity and breaking through a glass ceiling. And for a lot of those girls that you just mentioned, they had already broken through in some way. They’re already playing in a platform that is an opportunity for them.
The Mae Young Classic was about the opportunity, and that the opportunity for a lot of these women they had never had before. When you look at who’s in the Mae Young Classic, yes, some of those girls are signed to WWE Developmental, but there are more girls that either come just from zero starting with us and had just gotten to a point where they’re ready for something like this, or there are girls that we just kinda signed and this is their first real opportunity to prove themselves.
That to me is what this was. Taking people that the average fan or maybe even beyond that, unless you’re a super hardcore, a lot of these women you’ve never heard of, you know? To take them and give them that opportunity. Some of them had been doing it for a really long period of time. You know, they’ve been out there grinding with no end in sight, and just no opportunity, really. That’s what this is for. That is what the Mae Young Classic is for, about that opportunity to become something more.
I was wondering why WWE ultimately made the decision to name the tournament the Mae Young Classic. How did you come to the decision to honor Mae Young with this tournament?
So there [were] a lot of decisions and a lot of names thrown around, and there was a team that went through all that stuff. At the end of the day, we were looking for something that kinda symbolized the transition.
And while I think a lot of people would say, like, you know, “Why didn’t you name it The [Fabulous] Moolah Classic?”, or “Why didn’t you name it after some other female?” To me, Mae was the one person that, when you look at it, Mae Young started at the very beginning of her life. Got into a men’s-only business and against all conceivable odds stayed in that business and competed much like Moolah did or all these other people. But Mae was one of the only ones that was able to really transition into the modern day.
Mae was able to transition into the entertainment component of the Attitude Era in a way that if you look at the Attitude Era and you look at Mae Young, you can look at Moolah standing next to her. But Moolah was just kinda there in the straight man or straight woman in the equation. Mae was the one that was like, “I don’t care. I’ll do it.” You know, she was half the time suggesting stuff that we’re like, “Oh God. Mae, we can’t do that.” You know?
Yeah, I’ve heard stories.
Yes, she really, to me, was this one that, like, you know when the business switched, and…Look, you can say whatever you want about all those eras. It morphed, and while people were saying that DX and all those things were [hurting] the business from a traditional sense, or whatever, Mae was the one to go, “I love it. I’ll do it.” To me, she bridged the gap.
There was ladies wrestling business and then there was kinda the Glow Era, and then women’s wrestling changed and you have the Trish Stratuses and the Litas. Mae was in it from the beginning. And Mae not only was in it from the beginning, but was able to transition through every single one of those eras, from in-ring as this hard-as-nails competitor to pinup girl in that timeframe, and hard-as-nails competitor to that modern Attitude Era just straight-out entertainer, you know? And I don’t know that anybody else has been able to do that, and that’s why…[in] the business now, you have to be able to do all those things. Mae could do all of them.
Do you see the possibility that Classic becoming a recurring event or leading to something bigger, much like how the Cruiserweight Classic led to 205 Live?
I do. Not 100% sure what that is.
In some ways, I think the Cruiserweights is a different platform that can have its own distinct individual show. I don’t know if the women need that right now.
The Cruiserweights, they have a match here or there on RAW, and then they have their own division and their own show on 205. With the women, you have opportunities on RAW, you have opportunities on SmackDown, you have opportunities at NXT. Hopefully, over time you’ll have opportunities in the U.K. You’ll have opportunities in different localized markets. Those are the things, for me, that it begins to spread around.
I would love for the Mae Young to be this reccurring yearly, or whatever it is, this reccurring thing that is the opportunity for the girls that are out there grinding, for the girls that are out there working at the little armories and the little places and dreaming about that pot of gold to be able to jump on the rainbow and start to take the ride. And for us to scan around the world every year and say, “Who do we want to look at this year, and give them that opportunity? Who’s really improved since last year to take this opportunity? Who’s that next level? Who’s that next generation of stars?”
To me, that’s where something like the Mae Young Classic becomes a huge opportunity. And if it’s my decision, yeah it will be exactly that. An opportunity that keeps coming back over and over.
The Mae Young Classic will air exclusively on the WWE Network.