On Friday, WWE Smackdown will return to the Smoothie King Center under new circumstances.
Longtime CEO Vince McMahon retired after an investigation discovered that he had spent millions on nondisclosure agreements with female employees to keep sexual relationships quiet.
Many feared that the promotion would suffer without him, but the opposite has happened. Former WWE Superstar Triple H — Paul Levesque — became head of creative, and the product hasn’t been hotter.
Ratings, ticket sales, and morale are all up as his booking has featured some of the underused talent on the roster, particularly the women.
According to a 14-year veteran who goes by the single name Natalya, “Triple H seems to want more for the women.” Natalya has wrestled more matches than any woman in WWE history, so she has been around long enough to see fluctuations in the attention paid to the women’s division.
“Prior to Triple H taking over, there was only one women’s match on a pay-per-view,” she said, and if a segment ran long on Monday Night Raw or Smackdown, they got back on schedule by cutting the length of women’s matches.
“It felt like women were getting lost in the shuffle.”
Levesque started preparing for the role when he was instrumental in the creation of NXT in 2010. NXT is WWE’s developmental brand, and he ran it as executive producer until 2021, when a heart condition forced him to step down to recover. He made NXT must-see television by giving younger talent an opportunity to hone their skills and find their audience.
One of his signature accomplishments was nurturing four women who turned around women’s wrestling at the WWE when they joined the main roster — Charlotte Flair, Bayley, Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks.
In 2014, Natalya wrestled Charlotte in NXT while she was still finding her character and voice in the ring.
“Triple H gave us no time limit and told us to go out there and have fun,” Natalya said, appreciative of the confidence he showed in them. “We had a really great match.”
Levesque signaled that he was making WWE his when on Aug. 1 when Bayley, Iyo Sky and Dakota Kai starred in the opening segment of Raw, a position in the show that rarely featured women. All were NXT alumni, and they were introduced as a new disruptive force in WWE.
According to WWE Superstar Raquel Rodriguez, the women’s locker room thought the same thing that many fans did at home when they saw it.
“It felt like a statement, 100%,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez moved from NXT to the main roster shortly before McMahon left, and her on-screen time before and after is indicative of the change. Her first appearance on WWE television came in a backstage segment when the Latino tag team Los Lotharios wanted a kiss.
With Levesque in charge of creative, she has been in a feud with Kai and Sky, beating them to win the women’s tag team title with her partner Aliyah, then losing them during a rematch. She’s also excited by the new sense of possibilities she sees.
“The women have been represented on the card more, and you can feel it and see it in the women’s locker room,” she said.
Part of the fun of her current program is that she worked with all of the women including Aliyah during her time at NXT and considers them family.
“We have so much chemistry together,” Rodriguez said. “We know each other. We’ve grown together. We have so much experience — not just work but life together.”
She spent a lot of time at NXT with Kai as tag team partners and enemies, so she was particularly excited to get to work together on the main roster. “I learn from her every single time I get to be out there with her.”
Since taking over booking, Levesque also has brought back some WWE favorites including the giant Braun Strowman and some of the most promising NXT performers that didn’t have the stature McMahon preferred. Ricochet and Johnny Gargano, for instance, look more like defensive backs than body builders, but they proved at NXT that what they lack in clubbing power they make up for with athleticism and exciting in-ring storytelling.
“Triple H is fair. Good matches are good matches, men or women,” Natalya said. Because of that, backstage morale is good, and she’s excited that Levesque is taking his time to work out who should be faces and who are best as heels.
“He’s trying to work out long-term storylines for everybody,” she said.
That effort has created a good work environment and better shows, but Natalya points to another meaningful recent change. When McMahon stepped down, he was replaced by co-CEOs Nick Khan and McMahon’s daughter Stephanie, who has had roles in WWE on and off screen since she was 13.
“She’s been there for the women in the locker room,” Natalya said. She was one of the forces behind the 2018 Evolution pay-per-view, which focused solely on the WWE’s women talent. When Natalya saw her promoted, she thought, “Wow, there’s someone who’s really going to advocate for us.”
For Raquel Rodriguez, the new attention comes with responsibility.
“We want to give the women the representation they deserve because all of the women on Raw and Smackdown and NXT have worked so hard for the positions that they’re in,” she said.
WWE Friday Night Smackdown
WHEN: 6:45 p.m. Friday (Oct. 14)
WHERE: Smoothie King Center
INFO: (504) 587-3663
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