On the 21st May 2001 a remarkable series of events started. Almost fifteen years ago we stayed up to watch Monday Night Raw on our analogue satellite sets or our little black cable boxes, like we had done for many years. The Invasion of WCW/ECW was yet to occur and we still weren’t sure exactly why Stone Cold Steve Austin was still an arsehole, but he did have that cool Disturbed theme tune. By now, we gained our experience in deconstructing the ‘kayfabe’ of sports entertainment through the dial-up internet. We’d seen grainy video of Sid Vicious’s leg break from the year before over and over. We’d been on eBay and other websites to sell and trade tapes of Japanese King of the Death Match tournaments. We knew our shit.
So when Triple H (real name Paul Levesque) in the main event fifteen years ago clotheslined Chris Jericho from behind to break Stone Cold out of the Walls of Jericho hold, we thought nothing of it. As he hobbled outside of the ring and lifted Jericho on the announce table, stood up to pedigree him, got flipped over and was then also put in the Walls of Jericho (a modified Boston Crab that wrenches the legs around to put painful pressure on the lower back), this was all going to plan and nothing was amiss. As Chris Benoit pushed Triple H out of the ring to allow Jericho to get the pin on Stone Cold and win the Tag Team Titles, this was all part of the show.
We didn’t see what happened next at the time, but we have seen the shot in every video, broadcast or warning message since. “Don’t Try This At Home,” as Triple H is led up the entrance ramp on the shoulders of a referee and a trainer, unable to move his left leg, his kayfabe wife and real life girlfriend, Stephanie McMahon trailing behind, head down trying not to show her genuine concern to her partners pain.
As HHH went to clothesline Jericho he planted his leg, following through with his momentum from where Jericho was, and immediately knew something was wrong. His left quadricep muscle tore from the bone it attaches to, the patella, which is known as a tear of vastus intermedius, and HHH recounts the moment in his memoir Making The Game:
I felt a searing pain in my leg, like someone stabbed my thigh with a knife and ripped it down to the knee. The pain was intense. My leg filled with uncomfortable warmth. I could feel my quad muscle roll up my leg as I collapsed, unable to support myself.
Watching the match it’s a wonder how, especially with how much the quad muscles absorb a lot of the aforementioned Walls of Jericho (as HHH also says “You dumb jackass… what were you thinking with this?”), he is still even able to walk normally to this day. The fabled Dr. Andrews, at the time one of Sports Medicine’s leading orthopaedic surgeons, said, looking at the X-Ray in the WWE’s Thy Kingdom Come feature, “it really was torn uniquely, cleanly off the top of his kneecap. He stood up on it after it happened which is impossible… I want to see that tape because I can’t quite imagine him being able to do anything after rupturing his quadriceps.”
Maybe we take this as a vignette, with a pinch of salt, but the truth is alarmingly close to that appraisal. Levesque’s history of body building and obsession with weight training and fitness gave him two things: 1) a strong and durable body and 2) mental willpower. Initial expectations of a six month absence doubled after surgery. Whilst there was caution, there was optimism that Levesque would return to the ring but it quickly became clear that this would be an impossible task made possible. Levesque recalls in his memoir:
A sports magazine called Dr. Andrews toward the end of my rehab, asking him to contribute to an article on quad tears. They wanted him to talk about athletes he treated who came back after receiving a full quad repair… Well, he went through his files, made a bunch of phone calls, and he couldn’t find any… On the day he finally gave up looking, he came over to me to tell me the story and said, “You’re gonna be my first guy on this, so don’t screw up!”
If you follow sports you will probably hear a lot about ruptures and tears in impact sports, especially in the US. Sports are very hard on the knees. ACL tears, MCL tears, and the like are called “career-ending” injuries for a reason. Former WWE Champion Seth Rollins is currently out injured with ruptures to his left MCL, ACL and medial meniscus. If you look at the comments sections on websites like SportsMD you will see stories of people who still experience pain, who never fully recover and who struggle with things like stairs. Even researching this, I could not find another athlete who has returned from a quadriceps tendon rupture – Except for Paul Levesque.
It was not easy. He moved to the rehab centre in Alabama, moved away from his then girlfriend Stephanie, his home, his schedule – everything. There’s small pieces of footage of Levesque with therapist Kevin Wilk, the operation and the struggle to regain normality. We did not see anything except the determination of a man who for the most part was a despised villain to the fans, to return to what he loved and we couldn’t quite imagine what he was going through. When some of the early goals you set yourself are things like “Wiggle my foot” and “Walk without a limp” then you have to admire the mental drive that Paul Levesque has to take these steps slowly but methodically and not lose hope. And he did not…
The packages ran for a few weeks leading up to Monday Night Raw – January 7, 2002 – TRIPLE H RETURNS! The promos started and we were excited. In our modern context of who HHH is as a character and as a person, he’s a part of “The Family”. He’s business and he does what needs to be done to get what the company he is responsible for money, regardless of what its fans think. In reality he is the man who’s spearheaded and pioneered the most interesting product, training and entertainment revolution in wrestling with NXT. But for many who grew up watching him over the past eight years, he’s the all powerful, dominating arsehole who plays the constant villain, the old guard that will not stand down.
But as 2002 came closer, we’d all been left deflated. One of the most exciting competitors had missed one of the most important (and arguably botched) storylines in wrestling history. The invasion of a now WWE owned WCW and ECW. An end to the fabled Monday Night Wars from a entertainment and talent standpoint. But on January 7th 2002 as the music hit, the crowd at Madison Square Garden (the spiritual home of WWE) erupted. That is not hyperbole. Triple H looked at Vince with, in his words “a look that if it could talk, would have said, ‘Holy Shit! I can’t believe this!'”. He came through the curtain as a giant hulk of a man. It’s not just because he was a confident character, or had kick ass entrance music from Motorhead. For us, HHH was wrestling. He’d help create a radical new direction that spoke to us, not as wrestling fans, but as adolescents trying to find something to relate to. Not all of us were playing football every day, or had the nuance to be obsessed with musical sub-genres. Some of us just wanted to be entertained and HHH had done that. He’s helped our hero, the crazy and lovable Mick Foley, retire (at the time) with dignity, with class and with an impact that elevated the respect for both men. HHH could kick ass.
In the ring in his leather jacket with a ripped denim coat over the top and a HHH T-Shirt, he spoke… Briefly. Kurt Angle came to the ring and the crowd sounded like it was going to riot. Millions of people in front of their TV’s expected some conflict but we all were happy that Kurt Angle was the one who was going to get smashed in the face. And he did, Pedigreed well and truly face first. During the confrontation, HHH threw off his T-Shirt. The crowd gasped and then roared. Commentator Jim Ross was aghast at the physical condition he was in. “The King” Jerry Lawler actually let out a trademark call and a yell which felt utterly involuntary. Conversations are still had with my friends to this day remembering the day The Game returned, revealed his physique and made us all say “oh my fucking god!”
We knew HHH was a big guy. We knew he worked out. We even knew of his love for body building and Schwarzenegger’s legacy. We were young and not completely in to the whole fitness thing, but we got the reality of wrestling’s physical demands and we understood that physiques were a thing. But when HHH came back it was like seeing a Greek God climb down from the peak of Mount Olympus to grace us with his presence. It still sticks in my mind as one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in my years watching wrestling. The day HHH returned was impressive for us because it turned Triple H in to a hero, nay, in to a legend. It cemented that we were thankful for the dedication he showed to entertaining us and that the fans, even now fourteen years later, would never forget that. But in reality the honour is all his, and deservedly so.