With WrestleMania around the corner, NXT owns the WWE spotlight

Paul 'Triple H' Levesque speaks to a camera crew prior to an NXT event. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Considering the nature of the industry, it shouldn’t be surprising that professional wrestlers have experienced incredible success in myriad cities across the globe.

For Paul “Triple H” Levesque, one of those cities is Portland, Oregon. 

WWE has only held a pay-per-view event in Portland twice in its history and the 50-year-old WWE wrestler-turned-executive played a major role in both. Levesque defeated Randy Orton at Unforgiven in 2004 to win the WWE world heavyweight championship and retained the WWE championship against Jeff Hardy at No Mercy in 2008.

In the 12 years since WWE held a major pay-per-view event in Portland, Levesque has semi-retired from in-ring competition, trading in his trunks for suits and moving his primary focus from the squared circle to the boardroom — the fate of his patented sledgehammer is uncertain.

The biggest change during this span has been Levesque’s building of NXT. Once considered a developmental brand — the G League of the WWE, if you will — NXT has blossomed into a full-blown phenomenon in the industry. On Sunday, NXT brings a TakeOver event to Portland for the first time in its history, looking to continue its momentum, build toward WWE’s signature event — April 5’s WrestleMania — and deliver the latest blow in its battle with its upstart competitor, All Elite Wrestling.

“I expect Portland to be what it’s always been, phenomenal,” Levesque told Yahoo Sports. “There were opportunities that were brought up, but when Portland was brought up, I thought it was phenomenal. We do TV a fair amount there, but it’s been a while since there’s been a bigger caliber event there. They’re such a live crowd, so into what we do and they have such a rich history there, it’s one of those places that you immediately know is great.”

The last major stop before WrestleMania

Known for their high-caliber in-ring performances, NXT TakeOver events have become appointment viewing for a wide array of wrestling fans. Adding to the intrigue and atmosphere of TakeOver: Portland is the fact that it will essentially set the table for WrestleMania, an event that will still be seven weeks away when all is said and done.

Finding a balance between constructing a captivating card and building toward something even larger is a task Levesque and the rest of NXT’s creative team has been dealing with in the days and weeks leading up to the event.

“When you’re looking at the storylines, where everything is going and the programs you are involved with, this event is epic, but at the same point it has to be a captivating show that leads you to the next chapter,” Levesque said. “It can’t be the one that closes it down and finalizes. There has to be some of that, but this also has to make it so you can’t wait to see the next chapter unfold. 

“Portland has to be this epic event, but also lead you into WrestleMania. That’s the goal. You have to think about it slightly differently, but when you look at the card, top to bottom, it’s stacked. You could move that to Tampa and fans would say, ‘Hell, yeah.’”

Levesque and his team aren’t the only ones who have to deal with the pressure of putting on the event. While creative can lay the foundation, it’s up to the talent to ultimately bring the project home. 

Often times, TakeOver events are attached to weekend-long extravaganzas, taking place the night before WWE’s tentpole pay-per-view events — Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam and Survivor Series. 

In Portland, all eyes will be on NXT.

“When you come into an area and you know that tomorrow night there is going to be another pay-per-view taking place, there’s a slightly different buzz,” Levesque said. “The conversations are different, some of the people are different. There’s also this moment of, ‘Hey, we have to prove ourselves so when we leave here we can say, follow that.’ When you’re in this business, every time you step into the ring, you want to leave with a moment that fans will remember you by. When you have the stage to yourself and you have the whole audience, that’s different, but the buzz is just as high.”

‘You don’t put the biggest battle scene in the middle of the movie’

Of the six matches on the card — four of which have championships on the line, there’s arguably none that has more buzz than the NXT women’s championship match between Rhea Ripley and Bianca Belair. 

Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley will square off for the NXT women's championship at TakeOver: Portland. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Ripley, an Australian star who experienced a meteoric rise to stardom late in 2019 despite being just 23 years old, has been the central figure in a feud with not just Belair, but also Charlotte Flair, who earned a championship opportunity at WrestleMania by winning the women’s Royal Rumble. 

The three women have been mixing it up on Raw and NXT for the past two weeks, leaving the door open for a possible women’s main event. Should Belair and Ripley cap off the night, it would be just the second time an NXT TakeOver featured female performers in the final match.

Levesque wouldn’t tip his hand on how the matches will be ordered on Sunday, but did note that gender doesn’t factor into how shows are booked.

“It’s a funny thing when people ask how I feel about the women headlining,” Levesque said. “When I look at the TakeOvers, I look at where it lays out from a storyline standpoint, that’s really all I look at. It’s about the overall card, but also what is causing the buzz in the moment.

“When you look at WrestleMania last year, Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair were the main event because they were in a position where they had the most buzz. They got the most TV time and the most push only because that was the reaction of the crowd. We sort of are following [the crowd], not vice-versa, in the reactions.

“To me, it’s not a man, woman thing, not a tag team or singles title thing, not anything else. Whatever the biggest storyline and whatever has the most emotional connection is what I want to see in that last spot. You don’t put the biggest battle scene in the middle of the movie and then taper it off toward the end. You want to approach this that way.”

Like Ripley, Belair is coming into TakeOver: Portland on the hottest streak of her career. Since joining WWE in 2016, the former CrossFit competitor and NCAA All-American has developed into one of the more charismatic and popular stars in the company

Despite competing for the NXT women’s championship twice last year, Belair’s defining moment came at last month’s Royal Rumble event. Entering the match second, Belair lasted longer than any other competitor and tied for the most eliminations with eight. It was a star-making performance on one of WWE’s biggest stages.

“When you watch a talent like Bianca Belair, who comes in with no experience, step into the ring with no wrestling background and you see that growth curve [it’s amazing],” Levesque said. “You watch them grow, change and excel. She’s at a point now, if you were to have said to me six months ago that she would be where she is now, I wouldn’t have doubted it, but it would have been hard for me to envision that curve being so sharp. 

“Now she’s feeling it, and a lot of this, when you’re working with someone who is training, they know what they need to do, but when the red light turns on, those are two different things. If they can only succeed at it part of the time because they are still in their head, they need more time to get that confidence. Now Bianca, she is in the zone, she is just there. Every arena she walks out in she owns the place.”

NXT star Bianca Belair. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Regardless of if Ripley-Belair is the main event of TakeOver: Portland, the match — and event as a whole — will further push NXT into the spotlight. It seems as if there’s no avoiding a crossover championship match between Flair and the winner of Ripley-Belair at WrestleMania, meaning one — or possibly both — of these women will share wrestling’s grandest stage with the daughter of arguably the industry’s most influential figure.

Flair’s looming presence in this feud lends credence to the belief that NXT is WWE’s hottest — and in many ways, best — overall product. Since moving to the USA Network from the WWE Network last fall, NXT’s footprint in the industry has grown even larger and the brand appears poised to have at least two matches on the WrestleMania main card.

“You find yourself in this situation where you have Rhea Ripley and Bianca Belair both on fire right now,” Levesque said. “If Bianca Belair wins this, would anybody be upset if it was Bianca versus Charlotte, if that was the road we went down? Would anybody be upset if it was Rhea and Charlotte? Would anybody be upset if it was a triple threat? There are so many opportunities because you have phenomenal talent, performing in incredible ways and the storylines write themselves. It’s win-win-win.”

In a city where Levesque has had some of the biggest wins of his career, the brand he’s helped build and the talent that makes it so enthralling may just get one of their own.

NXT TakeOver: Portland will stream live on the WWE Network this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.

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