It is Monday, January 7, 2002. Raw is live from Madison Square Garden in New York City, a place the WWE always brings their A-show to. This night would be no different, because in the closing moments of the show, the Garden crowd would hear a theme that they had not heard in eight long months. “It’s time to play the game…” it said. The New York crowd needed to hear no more before they went absolutely ballistic; The Game, Triple H was back!
“This is the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in Madison Square Garden!” the legendary Jim Ross claimed, who had been calling matches for twenty years and had surely visited MSG more times than one could count.
Triple H had missed a lot since tearing his quadricep completely off the bone, just two months after the acquisition of WCW, like the Invasion Angle that pitted WWE Superstars against former WCW Superstars to see who was superior.
He was coming back for the final months of the Attitude Era before the Ruthless Aggression Era was ushered in after WrestleMania. This era was slowly going phasing out guys like Stone Cold and The Rock and introduce us to more names like Brock Lesnar and soon John Cena. Names like Kurt Angle and Booker T would also reach new levels of fame, but where would Triple H fit in in this new era? Was he going to slowly fade away or become a star that was shining even brighter?
The deafening pop went on for several more minutes until the former WWE Champion grabbed a microphone. One by one, a hush engulfed the crowd, as they anxiously awaited what Triple H had to say. What was his first order of business after returning?
“Just in case you’ve forgotten, let me just tell you who the hell I am; I am The Game! And you can bet your ass I’m back!” By the sound of it, I don’t think Triple H reminding the fans who he was was necessary. They remembered quite well who he was. They remembered that eight months ago, he tore his quad then wrestled for five minutes afterwards to finish the match he was in. They knew, they remembered and they sure as hell appreciated it.
Trips didn’t waste any more time before making his intentions clear. After a pause, he stated; “And I am the guy that tonight, officially enters the Royal Rumble!” The Undertaker, Steve Austin and now Triple H had thrown their hat into the 2002 Royal Rumble.
Who was next? Well, Kurt Angle was next.
Angle interrupted to massive jeers. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Angle asked. “A quad injury kept you out for eight months, eight months! I won a gold medal with broken freaking neck! So you come back here for your big return; Triple H’s big return.” Asshole chants began, directed at the former Olympic Gold Medalist.
“Well, if anyone deserves this time right here, right now, it’s me! So you’re on my time pal!” As Angle neared the ring, Triple H removed his jacket and began chomping on his gum. He was chomping at the bit to hit somebody after eight months away.
Angle continued, “And I’m glad you’re out here to hear my major announcement, cause it’s even bigger than your big return. It’s something that everybody has been waiting for. And my major announcement is that I, Kurt Angle, will also enter the Royal Rumble! My first ever Royal Rumble!” Angle said from the apron before making his way through the ropes.
“And you want to know why I didn’t enter the Rumble last year, Hunter? I think you know. Cause I was too busy pinning your ass to the mat! What do you think about that?” He asked with a smug confidence.
Triple H looked at the capacity crowd, perhaps consulting them over what to do. He pounced Angle by taking him to the mat and pummeling him with a series of punches. Next, he stomped a mudhole in him in the corner. He took of his shirt for one clothesline, only for Angle to gain the advantage by reversing a Spine Buster attempt and hitting a German Suplex instead.
Angle celebrated but this game was not over. He was clotheslined then stalked for a Pedigree to the New York fans’ delight. This game was just beginning.
13 days later, Triple H would win the Royal Rumble after entering 22 and lastly eliminating Kurt Angle.
Less than two weeks after his epic return, and Triple H had not only received one of the largest pops in Madison Square Garden history, but had delivered a Pedigree to Kurt Angle and then promptly won the Royal Rumble.
At this point, you may ask yourself how somebody would have a bigger or more impactful return. Well, the answer to that question was simple; Triple H uncrowning the first ever Undisputed WWE Champion Chris Jericho at the Showcase of the Immortals. However, the question of whether he was up to accomplishing this enormous feat had yet to be answered.
The buildup to Triple H’s bout with Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 18 centered around Stephanie McMahon and Triple H’s surgically repaired knee.
Triple H and Stephanie’s on-air marriage had hit a rough patch, so Stephanie faked a pregnancy, thinking it would do the trick in getting them back together. However, when Triple H learned the pregnancy was fake, he officially dumped her, causing her to soon align with Undisputed Champion Chris Jericho.
Jericho would attack Triple H’s previously injured knee any chance he got. On the final Raw before WrestleMania, he hit him in the knee with one of his titles to stop a Pedigree to Stephanie through the announce table. Would either Stephanie or his knee hender Triple H’s chances of reclaiming the WWE’s most prized possession?
Jericho immediately attacked Triple H’s left knee upon the bell ringing. He forced him into the corner where only rope break would break Jericho’s hold on the knee. Triple H slightly favored the knee, leaving many to ask if it would hold up well enough for him to become champion on this night.
Trips, though, would fight back with punches to Jericho to set up a back body drop. The only time he would be slowed down is when Jericho successfully hit a move that attacked his knee, something Stephanie pleaded him to do throughout the match. She wanted to rob her soon to be ex-husband of everything he had. His fame, his health, his job, in addition to everything he wanted; the two titles that Chris Jericho had beaten The Rock and Steve Austin respectively for. She would even get involved by sticking her nails in the eyes of Triple H, to break his Figure Four on Jericho.
Trips responded by lifting her by her hair onto the apron. Jericho would attempt to stop him, but instead hit Stephanie with the knee. Trips would toss Stephanie in the ring now as Jericho recovered from his failed offense on the outside. He’d go for a Pedigree, but Jericho intervened in the nick of time, hitting a Missile Dropkick off the top rope.
Jericho then went back to work, slamming Trips’ knee against the steel ring post. If he could separate the wire holding his opponent’s knee together, he could possibly end his career and escape WrestleMania 18 victorious.
Jericho rolled back in the ring while Triple H slowly recovered, ripe for the picking of Stephanie to target his knee herself. She nailed a couple kicks on the de-facto bullseye that the knee pad and tape underneath had become.
In the next several minutes, a submission-based offensive onslaught ensued at the hands of Chris Jericho. He dissected Triple H’s knee in every conceivable way possible. Even when Triple H did get back on the offensive, most moves would trigger more pain from his left knee.
Jim Ross reasoned the longer the match went, the more the advantage titled in Jericho’s favor. Triple H needed to end this match as quickly as possible because he was inside the ring with a dangerous and savvy veteran.
That he didn’t do however, proving Ross to indeed be right; Jericho again took the advantage and seemingly didn’t let it go. He would lock in the Walls of Jericho as Triple H’s hopes faded. Trips screamed in agony as he dragged Jericho across the ring to the ropes, only to be pulled back. Nonetheless, a second time was the charm in relieving his knee.
Jericho went to grab a steel chair and tossed the timekeeper several feet in doing so. He headed towards Triple H, but Trips bought himself more time by kneeing (with his healthy knee) the chair into Jericho’s face.
Out of nowhere, Triple H hit a DDT on Jericho onto the chair. Jericho was now the one in pain as The Game went for the cover; 1, 2, kickout by the champion!
Stephanie entered the ring while Earl Hebner was distracted by Triple H and his bum knee. She grabbed the steel chair and looked to hit the challenger until Hebner grabbed it from her. She pushed him but happened to turn around to Triple H. Her attempted runaway went awry so she instead ate a Pedigree.
Hebner rolled Stephanie out of the ring as Trips stumbled into a steel chair shot from Jericho. Pinfall; 1, 2, kickout!
“This is the greatest display of intestinal fortitude and raw guts I’ve ever seen.” -Jim Ross
Jericho positioned Triple H for his own finishing move, but Trips reversed and slinged the champ onto the the second turnbuckle. Jericho climbed up one turnbuckle and leaped off to a kick. Triple H hit the the Pedigree! Pin; 1,2,3!
Triple H had returned from a career threatening injury, won the Royal Rumble, then the Undisputed Championship at the Grandest Stage of Them All in the span of just a couple months. He had overcome the odds. He had overcome 29 other men. He had overcome Stephanie McMahon. And last but not least, he overcame a brutal attack from Chris Jericho to stand tall at the 18 installment of the worldwide extravaganza to become the man in the WWE.
Triple H would lose his Undisputed WWE Championship a month later at Backlash to Hulk Hogan. However, he’d soon be crowned the first ever World Heavyweight Champion by General Manager Eric Bischoff after SmackDown was left without a world champion when Brock Lesnar’s WWE Championship became exclusive to SmackDown. He had turned heel by attacking Shawn Michaels during a DX reunion, leading to a long feud. Michaels would claim the world title inside the first ever Elimination Chamber match at Survivor Series 2002, but Triple H would win it back in a Three Stages of Hell Match to end the rivalry.
Trips became the leader, alongside Ric Flair, of Evolution to dominate the WWE and its world title picture for almost three years. He would have a record breaking WWE Championship reign beginning in 2008, reformed D-Generation-X once more and had two of the greatest matches of all-time with The Undertaker at consecutive WrestleManias, none of which would have happened if The Game didn’t make his epic return on that night in early 2002.
Few have won more championships in professional wrestling history than Triple H. Nobody has made a bigger impact on the wrestling industry than Triple H. Just imagine how different the WWE landscape may look if Triple H never would have returned.
Is there any other return you could erase from history without leaving so many questions?
I think not.
Thanks for reading my EvE competition article against Kevin Berge for the WrestleEnigma Championship. Please stay tuned to the site for Berge’s article and for the voting article in the coming hours.
In the meantime, voice your opinion on this topic in the comment section below. Has any man’s return left a bigger impact than Triple H’s in 2002? What if Triple H’s indelible legacy past 2002 never occurred? How different would the WWE be today?