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By Mike Johnson on 2020-04-01 16:03:00

In an alternative world, WWE NXT: Tampa Bay would have taken place this weekend in Florida, but the entirety of Wrestlemania weekend was changed forever by the current coronavirus epidemic.  NXT has shifted gears and starting tonight, will be presenting matches originally slated for Takeover as part of WWE NXT's weekly series on the USA Network.  This morning, I sat down with WWE's Executive Vice President of Global Talent Strategy & Development Paul "Triple H" Levesque to talk about the changes, the logistics involved, how talents are dealing with the situation, Wrestlemania, what to look forward to on NXT in the weeks to come and this unthinkable situation WWE and NXT find themselves in:

Mike Johnson: We were all supposed to be in Tampa, Florida this weekend. However, it is not to be. We all know why, but WWE NXT will instead of broadcasting Takeover Tampa, they will be presenting matches that were scheduled originally for Takeover on the weekly NXT series on USA network. We're on the line with the Grand Poobah of NXT and beyond within WWE, Paul "Triple H" Levesque. I know it's a trying time for everybody. How are you doing, and what's it been like trying to keep the ship steady within the NXT realm and beyond during all this?

Paul “Triple H” Levesque: We're doing good. Again, we're like everybody else trying to deal with very stressful circumstances and trying to do the best with circumstances that are changing on a minute by minute basis. If you go back a month ago and tell people that you're in the situation that you're in today, it's almost unthinkable. But here we are. Over the last few weeks we've gone to doing all our shows without fans out of the Performance Center to the point of even, for the most part, doing WrestleMania that same way. The decision to shift NXT slightly to not doing a Takeover separate and bringing Takeover and putting them onto the weekly episodic series really just came down to, I think, a decision of amount of content that needed to take place in a very short period of time leading into WrestleMania and everything else, and it just made sense for us to do it in a different factor.   When you take into consideration the fact that it's a separate event, but really no one's going to be there to see it live anyways, it really made sense for us to do it this way. We'll start tonight with Keith Lee defending the North American Championship against Dominik Dijakovic and Damian Priest and continue into next week. Not all the matches, at this point, will be able to take place, but we'll get there down the line and continue to create the content that we can.   Right now, I think more than ever WWE’s stance is more than other than ever, people need entertainment and need something out there to put a smile on people's faces and let them forget about all the things that are going on in the world and the situation that everybody is in and just be entertained. And it won't be perfect, it won't be exactly what everybody wants it to be, maybe in some manner. But if they can forget about that and just tune out and turn it on and just let themselves be entertained, hopefully we can do that for you and let you forget about it for a brief period of time.

Mike Johnson: So this entire situation obviously is very unique, something that you've never dealt with before in your career. What has it been like for the NXT talents, especially given that NXT is a much more intimate fan experience in general? I've been to Full Sail Live; I've been to a lot of NXT Takeovers. But even for major Takeover shows, that fan intimacy is far more unique than say a stadium show like WrestleMania. What's it been like for the NXT talents to figure out ways to shift their own energy levels and to find ways to pull that electricity out of themselves when they don't have the fans with them?

Paul Levesque: Yeah, I think it’s that way for everybody. I don't know that necessarily... there is that intimacy with NXT, but no matter what brand it is, Smackdown, NXT, whether it's WrestleMania or whether it's Takeover. You're working for that reaction, and that is really what the performance is about. I think the shifting of that in some way, it's a totally different mindset working in an empty arena. You've heard performers talk about their performance and [they go] bigger in this direction because of that reaction. You don't have that reaction. So you're trying to pull your best feelings out, for what those reactions would be and your timing of things. You have nothing to play off of. It's difficult, but I think talent has done a phenomenal job. I think this is where they've all stepped up together as a team, they've helped each other out.   They've looked out for one another and given each other that drive and that advice of looking at things from the outside to help you get through it. It's been inspiring to see and... I think we all believe right now, and nobody is being required to do any of this, the talent aren't required to do this, if they have a problem, they don't perform. And nothing is going to be held against them. Everybody has their own feelings on this, but for the most part, our crew, our staff, our talent, it's been inspiring to see because they want to do this. Their desire to go out there and continue to perform and let people have that escape, it's been inspiring. It's interesting when you go to the Performance Center and you see the people that are there and you're going around and talking to people and everybody's having fun.  They have a smile on their face, they're having a blast. They're all banding together, feeling like they're in this together and they're this challenging situation, but they're all doing their best to make it work out. It reminds me of when we used to go over to Iraq and Afghanistan under trying circumstances performing shows for the troops where we would set up these makeshift arenas with no sleep and in bad circumstances trying to put these shows on. It's the same thing. There's a bond and a sense of camaraderie, and it's hard to put into words, but it's really, really awe inspiring to see. I'm proud of all of them.

Mike Johnson: Logistically, running NXT, how hard has this been to get all of the television taped and to figure out the proper way to work under the CDC guidelines and stuff? As a company, it's got to be an incredible undertaking, but for you being in charge of everything, what's it been like overseeing this insurmountable task?

Paul Levesque: Well, it's been challenging for everybody and me being a part of that really extends well beyond NXT to all of it, RAW, Smackdown, WrestleMania coming into the Performance Center. Our team's medical, working with CDC and with state and local officials to try to in the best way possible, make sure that we're ensuring the safety of our crew, our staff, our performers, making sure that we're screening them in the best way possible to keep….even to the point of running the events in waves where we bring in certain talent, do part of the show, they leave, bring in another grouping of talent, do some part of the show to keep people as isolated, so to speak, or within guidelines, it's been very challenging. But it's been a challenge we all feel like we're doing what we can for others.   This moment in time, people need an escape and there's really nothing else out there. We have a unique opportunity, different from the other sports entities out there. NBA, you have to take an entire team, their crew, medical, everybody. You've got to put them on a plane, you got to fly them to different cities, you've got to expose them to another city and expose them to another city, there are things right now that just make it impossible to do. We can do our stuff in a different manner. We can script out differently, we can shoot things out of order, we can do things in sequence, we can do totally differently to put together a product and still make something entertaining for our fans and that's what you're going to see WrestleMania, the ability to blow it out into two days, to make it bigger in some ways, to do some of it live, some of it not live, still incorporate Gronk as a host, do matches that we wouldn't normally have the opportunity to do that. The Firefly Funhouse, The Undertaker's Boneyard match and do them in different locations and different styles and different feels. It's an opportunity to do something and hopefully give fans that escape. That's our goal is really just give them that escape and give them some entertainment, take their mind off all of it.

Mike Johnson: What matches are you most looking forward to fans being able to see over the next several weeks as we see what would have been NXT Takeover reconfigured into episodes of WWE NXT?

Paul Levesque: Well, I can tell you the Triple Threat men's match for the North American title, I can tell you that the Gargano, Ciampa match will be something special. I think that fans are going to find that very unique and something special, and the women's number one contenders Ladder match, something's special will take place there as well.  And that's just getting into the meat of it, but there's more to come from that as well. This whole weekend with WrestleMania and everything else is going to be spectacular. Like I said, the offsite stuff is incredible. The things that we have, hopefully we'll still be able to put surprises and twists and turns in there that nobody sees coming. And hopefully again, be able to entertain people to the best of the ability in really what are very trying times. My hats off right now to everybody that's continuing to try to do that, really.

Mike Johnson: So, one last question then we'll let you go. Ciampa and Gargano has been pushed as the final ever confrontation between the two. Obviously it's pro wrestling and things always have their way of disappearing and in returning. Is the intention right now for that to be the final match?

Paul Levesque: It is the intention, yeah. We would all like to move in different directions. They had such a spectacular rivalry and partnership and everything else over the years. And it seems like in some manner, every time we get to the giant climax episode, so to speak, or chapter of their story, something comes up, be it an injury or something comes up that doesn't allow it to happen in the manner that we expected it to happen. And this is no different, but it will spectacular, and I believe it will put some finality to this and deliver to fans in a meaningful way and you have the incentive to move into unique directions. So, everybody will have to watch and see, but we believe that is what is going to take place.

Mike Johnson: All right, Paul, I know you've got to go. I want to thank you for joining us. I look forward to talking you down the line when things get back to relative normalcy, even for pro wrestling, and we wish everybody at NXT and everybody in your family nothing but the best as we all navigate this. And again, I want to thank you for sitting down and talking to us today.

Paul Levesque: Thank you very much. I appreciate the time. Everybody stay safe out there. Take care of yourselves as best you can and we will get through this. That's what everybody does.

Mike Johnson: All right, everybody, thank you for listening. Until next time, I'm Mike Johnson.


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