Triple H on Friday was honoured with a special celebration on SmackDown and across social media to mark a quarter of a century as a WWE superstar, champion, executive, Hall of Famer and proud NXT dad.
Naturally, a plethora of The Game’s finest hours have been revisited over the last few days, with his titanic battles against The Rock, Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker and Mick Foley to name but a few highlighted and given the usual nostalgia treatment.
And while we will happily find any excuse to remind ourselves of that streetfight against Cactus Jack at the 2000 Royal Rumble or the Three Stages of Hell with Stone Cold at No Way Out 2001, we thought it best to shine a spotlight on three of the Cerebral Assassin’s efforts that don’t generate as much conversation as they really should.
That’s not to say these bouts have never been appreciated, it’s just, given their obvious quality, it’s disappointing they are not held in a higher regard by more fans, who may even be unaware of their existence in some cases, especially the younger generation, who’s memories of The King of Kings are primarily from the last decade and involve a fair share of WrestleMania matches that are a good 10-15 minutes longer than they had any right to be.
So, how about starting your week off right and locking down with three (relatively) hidden gems from the back catalogue of The Game?
Raw Is War 10/04/2000: WWF Title Match: Triple H (c) vs Taka Michinoku
OK, so once Taka was revealed as being the mystery challenger for Trips’ WWF Title, it was safe to assume this was going to be a successful defence for Greenwich, CT’s finest. Yet the sudden introduction of the APA alongside the Kaientai leader added an element of uncertainty to proceedings, evidenced by the incredulous look on the champ’s face as he observes the Titantron from inside the squared circle.
From hereon, it’s anybody’s game as the diminutive Japanese superstar takes the fight to The Game in a manner nobody was expecting. With the WWF audience at the time pre-conditioned to seeing world champions defending against challengers similar in size and stature, witnessing a reigning champ throwing down on an episode of Monday Night Raw against a former Lightheavyweight Title holder felt about as conventional as an Ultimate Warrior promo.
What follows is a perfect television Title defence, which does much to assert Triple H’s dominance even further while also making Taka look like a million dollars in a losing effort. The APA also continue to establish themselves as worthy thorns in the side of the top heel and his entourage, meaning everyone involved comes away looking stronger than they were before the match. Pro wrestling 101.
Also, 20 years on and I still think Taka is taking the title after that moonsault. Masterful stuff.
Vengeance 2005: World Heavyweight Championship ‘Hell In A Cell’ Match: Batista (c) vs Triple H
McMahon-Helmsley era Trips’ aside, there was no greater incarnation of big Paul Levesque than his 2005 Harley Race porkchop sideburns era. And it’s almost entirely due to his electric feud with Batista.
WrestleMania 21 drawing over a million PPV buys in April, 2005 and setting a ton of company records in the process can pretty much be solely attributed to the work put into the main event between Hunter and big Dave.
With the Randy Orton babyface push shelved after it was taken out back and Old Yellered with a successful Triple H title defence at the Royal Rumble, The Game needed a worthy opponent to pass the baton to. He didn’t have to look far.
Step forward the other ‘future’ in Evolution, Dave Batista and his big fuck off juggernaut of momentum. The former Deacon had won the 2005 Rumble match and seen his eventual turn accelerated when it became apparent he was white hot opposing Triple H, rather than supporting him.
The programme developed beautifully, with the now legendary ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ contract signing forever ingrained on the memories of every wrestling fan around the world. The apprentice had evolved into The Animal and, after two unsuccessful attempts at sending Batista the way of Orton, Triple H had no other option but to try and cage the animal.
For some reason, despite their feud being a hugely deserving phenomenon at the box office, the match that brought it to a close doesn’t receive the attention you would assume.
Heading into the bout, Trips was undefeated inside Hell In A Cell, having seen off Mick Foley, Chris Jericho, Kevin Nash and Shawn Michaels inside the formidable structure. With him twice staring cleanly at the lights for big Dave on consecutive PPVs, all eyes pointed towards Hunter finally getting his win back. Only he wouldn’t achieve that until last year’s WrestleMania, some 14 years and a ripped nose ring later.
Instead, Hunter did what he does best. He went deep into his most cerebral arsenal, bleeding profusely, dishing out sledgehammer thrusts, chainlink nooses and flesh ripping barbed wire chair shots in front of an enraptured crowd in Las Vegas.
To further put Batista over the top, Hunter allowed The Animal to kick out of the pedigree; This was a time when kicking out of finishers actually meant something and wasn’t a spot used on every single PPV main event.
As the ref slapped his hand down for the third time, following a triumphant Batista Bomb, one of the most compelling stories in WWE stories had written it’s final chapter. Batista was now the accomplished megastar Randy Orton would have to wait another couple of years to become, and Trips was off to rediscover himself for three months.
Which would ultimately lead to…
Taboo Tuesday 2005: Intercontinental Title Steel Cage Match: Ric Flair (c) vs Triple H
The King of Kings would return for Raw’s Homecoming to the USA Network in October, 2005, this time as a babyface, helping old friend ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair deal with troublesome upstarts Carlito and Chris Masters. However, moments after seeing off the rookies, back came The Game of old. Best friends immediately became bitter enemies as Hunter annihilated his idol and his newfound ‘mediocrity’, leaving him a bloody mess backstage, following a brutal post-match assault that began in the ring.
Before we even reached Taboo Tuesday (remember those shows? Good lord), we were treated to a Flair promo for the ages, when a bandage clad Nature Boy called out his newfound nemesis to the point of profuse claret spilling, as if his unfiltered rage had induced the blood letting. Heading into the PPV, no one was under the impression this was going to be anything other than a bloodbath.
And what we were treated to was probably the best WWE steel cage match of the last 20 years, at least. A debuting Joey Styles on commentary would remark at the conclusion of the battle that it was an honour to have covered the match and we’re hard pressed to think of any other play-by-play or colour commentator in the industry who would have said otherwise in the same situation.
Helmsley’s viciousness is dialled up to 11 as he indulges all of his territory era cage match fantasies, having undoubtedly studied as many of Naitch’s chainlink enclosed classics throughout the 1980’s. And this losing effort to his hero can proudly sit alongside any of Flair’s best cage matches from that era, as well. A forgotten classic and one I’m sure you’ll be coming back to for years to come.
Until tomorrow, remember: Stay at home, watch wrestling.