Paul “Triple H” Levesque stood center stage overlooking the fruits of his labor that were stretched out before him.
With the lights dimmed and thousands of screaming fans inside the historic Empress Ballroom in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens chanting his name — all of them there to see history made as WWE kicked off its two-night tournament to crown its first United Kingdom champion — he embraced the spotlight and put a microphone to his mouth.
“Every empire has a beginning,” said Levesque. “Tonight you build yours.”
Not far from his side through this whole process — the months of scouting and arranging and talking to talent — has been William Regal, WWE’s head scout. Though the Blackpool native was not on stage to share this monumental moment with Levesque at the start of the two-hour live show on the WWE Network, he wasn’t too far away, watching on a monitor backstage.
At the news conference that took place last month in London to announce this tournament, Levesque quipped to ESPN that Regal knows almost every person in the world who laces up a pair of boots. The bond and the trust between the two men was clear to see when they stepped out in front of the gathered media in a backstage corridor of the Empress Ballroom following the last of Saturday’s eight first-round matches.
“It’s a weird thing,” Regal told ESPN. “Jan. 23 is exactly 24 years since I left to go to America. I debuted on Jan. 25, 1993. Eight months later, he [Levesque] turned up, and we’ve been together ever since, in one form or another. We’ve always been close, but we barely talk to each other, as funny as that sounds. He’ll just look at me and he knows what I want. We’ve known each other so long and we’ve had the same mindset of the way to carry yourself as a professional and the aggression people should have. Everything about it , we saw little things we should tweak.
“It’s not hard work. This is a joy every day. The No. 1 motto in talent development, which Triple H runs, is ‘make it work.’ Whatever the idea is, let’s figure it out as best as we possibly can.”
Levesque and Regal have collaborated to huge success in WWE, working together on projects such as developmental brand NXT, the Cruiserweight Classic and 205 Live — all programming shown on the WWE Network.
“When it comes to the talent industry in general globally, there’s not an opinion I trust more than the one standing next to me now,” Levesque said of Regal. “Whenever these ideas come up, whenever something wacky pops in, he’s the guy I call first, and go, ‘What do you think about this?’ That’s the first place it starts. The collaboration with talent and what we’re thinking immediately starts here.
“We take it from there as the starting place, but then there’s this massive team underneath that goes on from here. It’s funny, one of our executive producers said to me today we’re like a black ops team: Somebody comes up with this crazy concept that’s too difficult and can never be done, and then all of us get in a room and say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do,’ and then we go do it. That’s really cool. We’ve got a really good team, and I wouldn’t begin to name any of them because it would take forever and I would miss somebody that is an important cog in this. But it takes an army of people, and this is the best team in the world to me. That’s why we can churn out such great stuff. From the germ of an idea to full-blown execution like you just saw.”
The star of the first night of this tournament, perhaps inevitably, was Birmingham’s Pete Dunne. The 23-year-old, who is already an 11-year veteran and the current PROGRESS world champion, dispatched Roy Johnson to reach the quarterfinals before taking part in a memorable angle at the close of the show.
Dunne interrupted an intended ceremony to parade the eight quarterfinalists by attacking his quarterfinal opponent, Blackpool’s Sam Gradwell — who defeated Saxon Huxley.
Dunne’s “British Strong Style” teammates Trent Seven and Tyler Bate also made it through to the last eight, defeating H.C. Dyer and Northern Ireland’s Tucker, respectively. They were the darlings of the Blackpool crowd, the jewels of the British independent wrestling scene.
Seven will next face Glaswegian Wolfgang, the ICW heavyweight champion, on Sunday, while Bate will face off against Jordan Devlin — who is trained by inaugural WWE Universal champion, Finn Balor — with the Irishman beating English veteran Danny Burch.
Sunday’s other last-eight bout sees Joseph Connors — a winner over Blackpool’s James Drake — take on Mark Andrews, the former Total Nonstop Action star who could challenge Dunne in terms of favorite for this tournament.
Andrews, the 24-year-old Welshman who acts as bassist and vocalist in Cardiff-based pop-punk band Junior and walked out to one of its infectious songs, put on an impressive showing against Birmingham’s Dan Moloney.
Andrews remains on course for a semifinal showdown against Dunne, his best friend whom he wrestled his second ever match against aged 14 and with whom he traveled to the United States with for 10 weeks in 2013 to gain the kind of experience that simply wasn’t available on the British independent scene at the time.
Dunne and Andrews, in particular, must have taken heart when they looked around the Empress Ballroom: This surely would have been a pipe dream when they were first starting out.
Now they both have the chance to make history, along with six other British standouts. While there will ultimately be seven men who lose out on Sunday, the British independent scene can only keep gaining from this monumental movement.
written at ESPN.