In July 2022, an event occurred that shook the wrestling industry. Following several leaked reports of some hush-money agreements that were attempted to be settled privately, Vincent Kennedy McMahon stepped down as the CEO and chairman of WWE, and would later announce his retirement.
So many questions flooded the minds of fans, wrestlers, journalists, and pretty much anyone who took notice. I myself was in the midst of listening to a live podcast (shoutout to Coexisting with Rob and Maggie) when I heard the news, and I was undoubtedly shaken. Everyone was. Time had seemingly stopped. It seemed we were to be doomed to the inept and incompetent control of Vince’s WWE until the day he died. But no. It was real. Yet it still doesn’t feel like it.
In the wake of this, Nick Khan was promoted to CEO and Stephanie McMahon returned as chairwoman and co-CEO alongside Khan. But who was to take over talent relations and creative?
Well, Jimmy had hit us with that Triple H, as Paul Levesque took the reins. It was in the span of a week, with some still Vince-esque episodes of Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown and an unsure yet impending UK event in Clash at the Castle over a month later. Some were wondering if Hunter Hearst Helmsley could even pull off a successful run with the materials he was given.
Thankfully, SummerSlam was around the corner following McMahon’s departure, and we saw for ourselves what Hunter was capable of. Bianca Belair and Becky Lynch ran back their incredible rematch of WrestleMania 38’s match, and saw the returns of Bayley, Io Shirai (now rebranded as IYO SKY), and Dakota Kai. We unfortunately got a taste of just how good Logan Paul is in the ring as he defeated The Miz, Edge returned to assist Rey and Dominik Mysterio against The Judgement Day, The Usos resumed their underrated feud with The Street Profits. In the main event, Brock Lesnar tipped over the WWE ring using a tractor, leaving a memorable, destructive scene.
In the weeks following, Triple H would reap the benefits of his power, bringing back many stars tossed aside, seemingly with the vision that they weren’t supposed to (nor expected to) soar past expectations. More emphasis was given to storytelling, and titles that weren’t the WWE and Universal championships were given their time to shine. With Gunther holding the Intercontinental Championship in dominant fashion, that belt has soared in value. Bobby Lashley, Seth Rollins, and Austin Theory would elevate the United States Championship in their own ways (though Lashley’s run has been my favorite so far in this regime).
For as wondrous as this moment in time was, when fans were showing interest or at the very least speaking more positively about the product, it truly felt the industry was about to enter exciting times for wrestling fans.
However, it wasn’t all sunshines and rainbows, and the ending of the honeymoon phase would cement that further. With Dakota Kai and IYO SKY as Women’s Tag Team Champions, some missteps were taken. On two separate occasions, the pair lost the gold to Raquel Rodriguez & Aaliya and then Asuka & Alexa Bliss after they regained it. The women’s division was hitting their lows in expected times of highs. The criticisms were mounting – after all, Levesque’s handling of NXT in the mid to late 2010s was beloved partly in thanks to the women’s division, off the backs of women like Asuka, Bayley, and Sasha Banks. He had done it before, but why not now? Speaking of Sasha Banks, it’s disheartening to see he hadn’t been able to smooth things over with her and Naomi, but I’m living for Mercedes Moné and I can’t wait to see what Trinity Fatu does next.
Another egregious example of this was the stretch of time before the 2023 Royal Rumble where too little was interesting on the women’s side, if they even got enough screen time. I will say though, after the Rumble, women stars returned and increased the intensity. I’m still shocked and happy that Asuka returned with her old Kana gimmick because Asuka is amazing. Shut up if you disagree!
Another spotty area during the early goings of the regime is the mounting injuries and time-out. Big E had a terrifying big oopsie from a botched spot involving Ridge Holland, in a freak accident that was the fault of no one. Edge periodically would dip out here and there, while Randy Orton’s back injury would shelf him. Cody Rhodes was still recovering from a few months prior, and Becky Lynch herself would be out until Survivor Series for her own injury. The injury bug was strong around this time of the year, but all one has to do is dig through the tunnel to reach the light on the other side.
There were still bright moments on WWE’s programming in this time still, with Gunther providing excellent in-ring performances alongside the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura, Ricochet, and somehow Braun Strowman. But a match that has since garnered a lot of praise has undoubtedly been The Ring General’s brawl with long-time WWE veteran Sheamus during Clash at the Castle, seeing the Irish brute being lauded with cheers and love on social media. That would even be his first five-star match. It was something special. In addition, Gunther’s iron-man run during the 2023 Royal Rumble was impressive on its own, lasting almost 72 minutes to serve as a final boss for a returning Cody Rhodes. To date, Gunther has surpassed Shelton Benjamin’s 244 day reign as IC champ, and could be well on his way to dethroning The Honky Tonk Man’s record. There’s a reason this paragraph is so chunky – Gunther is the MVP of HHH’s WWE.
A few extra matches that would provide in-ring excellence were from the likes of Chad Gable, Bianca Belair, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, the aforementioned Sheamus, and Becky Lynch, while storyline-wise, The Bloodline sat high at the top. As I’ve written frequently on Bodyslam, this story had so many well-moving parts. This is largely in part due to Jey Uso and Sami Zayn’s acting and timing in their segments. Crowds would become completely glued to the transpiring events. The unbelievable had happened – a non buff guy in Sami Zayn became an incredible draw. A man who put on a hell of an entertaining match with Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville helped carry a main event storyline.
The fact that WWE can’t pull the trigger on him is saddening, but is understandable given Saudi Arabia and the unpredictability in fan taste. However, Sami is now a made man and will be fine – I just wish WWE would’ve taken the chance and shocked the world by going against a predetermined plan, but as an ancient wise man once said, sometimes it just be that way. But, let the record show I’m fine with whatever the road is from here as long as Vince isn’t involved – sustained and overruled.
Another high point in the HHH-led era saw LA Knight deliver on a stage that’s been just right with him. Quickly, the mouthy superstar eschewed the Max Dupri character and disassociated him from Maximum Male Models – a byproduct of the Vince-era that had stripped Knight of what made him special, instead giving him a cartoonishly high fashion promoter. That’s like the waiter bringing your platter of a medium-well cooked steak, lifting the lid only to find a massive, steaming pile of shit with maggots crawlilng around it.
Since Knight’s return to his old persona, audiences have received Knight well with an out of this world presentation that he carries all by himself; by wit and by word, Knight lets him talk to us in such entertaining fashion. While the Mountain Dew Pitch Black Match was not very ucey, Knight’s part in it was nothing short of fun as he carried the storyline.
I’d be remiss to omit the name changes and references to outside of wrestling. We’ve seen Theory, Riddle, and Ciampa regain their first names, Austin, Matt, and Tomasso, respectively. Doudrop is once more Piper Niven. Nature is healing. Wrestlers are able to call back to previous moments in their careers outside of WWE and they’re allowed to say the word “wrestler” again. Shocking. I still piss my pants thinking about it. All jokes aside, while none of these things are revolutionary, they are improvements. Sometimes we have to take the bare minimum with the sheer maximum, a phrase I’m just now making up and you can’t stop me.
I still want to see the return to the names of Pete Dunne (which is reportedly in the talks at the time of writing), Walter, Shotzi Blackheart, Io Shirai, and Hanson & Rowe (but understandably not as the War Raiders). And the music changes could be done a lot better. There was nothing wrong with Johnny Gargano’s “Rebel Heart”, Imperium’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor”, or pretty much any of the themes that made everyone feel special and recognizable. I don’t care that you have to pay CFO$ for their music – you’re a multi-billion collar corporation – deal with it, mother effer.
At the commentary desk, Michael Cole has taken the time he’s had sans Vince McMahon to really deliver. When he’s paired with Pat McAfee, Cole is on another level. No disrespect to Wade Barrett, who I also love on commentary, but Cole and McAfee have such unbridled chemistry. The veteran commentator has made more moments and stars in recent months than he has in the past decades of a man screaming in his ear. If you need any further evidence, Cole’s calls during Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns at SummerSlam and the hilarious and utter demonic hatred that Cole has for Dominik Mysterio is proof enough. Additionally, I can’t help but grin ear-to-ear listening to him mark out about New Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Bullet Club, and the wrestlers never before seen on WWE. Michael Cole has really shown he’s a fan at heart. Again, nothing groundbreaking…just nice to see is all.
Another thing that’s common practice in the wrestling industry, yet new for the WWE is seeing contracted talent wrestle on shows hosted by other promotions, such as Shinsuke Nakamura defeating The Great Muta at Pro Wrestling NOAH’s The New Year, or “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson dropping the NEVER Openweight Championship to Tama Tonga at the monumental Wrestle Kingdom 17 Night 1.
In WWE, there’s a lot of freedom. Morale has been boosted for most everyone in the company, and there’s a sense of freedom and creativity. Promos bleed from the heart and ooze charisma in other places. Match spots that weren’t seen before seeped through. There are blink and you’ll miss it moments going on in the background – requiring you to pay attention. WWE in Vince’s absence was rewarding us for staying invested, rather than spelling everything out and oversaturating everything with production.
In January of 2023, however, Vincent McMahon made returns to power in a bid to sell the company, leading to Stephanie McMahon to leave the company and members of the board to be ousted. It’s been an uncomfortable time, rife with speculation and unease. Some are under the impression he may have fully submerged his hands in HHH’s proverbial bowl of porridge (gross, also I don’t even know what porridge is because I’m American). I’m not going to get into any of that because I’m not a journalist. Y’all be easy, though.
In summary, Hunter’s time running WWE on the main roster hasn’t been bad by any means, but it hasn’t been great either. It’s just…competent. Sure, it’s provided must-watch television, and I myself have been entertained, but it’s not going to make the most vehement haters change their minds. WWE is set on being WWE. And that’s fine. Some of us will watch everything, or almost everything, and others will want to stick to their own thing. It’s fine.
As it stands, the product now isn’t as murky and poopy as Vince’s was, nor as clear as any other promotion at its high point. It’s about as clear as crystal. Crystal Pepsi, that is – it’s fizzy and clear-ish enough, but not enough to see for its certainty. Like, yeah, it tastes nice, but you could also go for a Sprite, or any other better tasting drink – and if you play your cards right, it may be sugar free and low in calories. I don’t know where I was going with this analogy.
What I also don’t know, is what the future holds exactly, with Vince and his overwhelming incompetency on the horizon Despite that, I’m going to appreciate Paul Levesque’s vision for what it is while we have it, because it’s been what’s best for business, and it’s provided more smiles this go-around. Who knows, maybe if he retains hold of this ship, things could go to heights or depths we’ve not seen before of the company.
After all, that’s a part of the game and how you play it.