NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- STEPHANIE McMAHON milled around the Wild Horse Saloon, where three rings were set up in front of a stage. Her husband, Paul "Triple H" Levesque, was also on hand Friday, as was Nick Khan.
On this morning, the day before WWE's second-largest event, SummerSlam, the trio took in the final day of tryouts, where 50 collegiate athletes delivered promos and ran the ropes hoping to land a WWE contract. Fourteen aspirants were signed.
One person was conspicuous in his absence: Vince McMahon. For 40 years, the McMahon name has singularly towered over the world of professional wrestling -- or sports entertainment, as he calls it -- both on screen and behind the scenes.
When McMahon bought what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation in 1982 from his father, wrestling was a regional business made up of territories across the country and the world.
McMahon had a far grander vision for wrestling and executed it with the purchase of competing territories, transforming WWE from a Northeast-based company to a global brand that amassed more than $1 billion in revenue for 2021, according to the company's fourth-quarter earnings report. Thirty years since McMahon took over his father's business, WWE now stands above the competition and is synonymous with wrestling.
But in a flash, McMahon is gone, and with his departure, a gaping hole is left atop the global wrestling business.
McMahon, 76, announced his retirement on July 22 following a Wall Street Journal report that he doled out $14.6 million in payments to several women surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct.
Stephanie McMahon, Levesque and Khan are now tasked with collectively filling the enormous shoes of Vince McMahon, a titan who has presided over WWE for four decades.
With McMahon no longer in charge, his daughter, Stephanie, was named chairwoman of the publicly traded company and co-CEO alongside Khan, a longtime agent and formerly the co-head of CAA's television department. Levesque, a legendary wrestler who rose to fame in the 1990s, is in charge of talent relations and creative, the engine that powers WWE's storylines and characters on programming each week.
Inside WWE, there's optimism that Levesque's vision -- one that took shape when he led the company's developmental brand, NXT -- will lead to a product with an emphasis on quality in-ring work, edgier storylines and more creative control for talent. A departure from McMahon's philosophy.
"It is the dawning of a new era," Becky Lynch, one of WWE's top stars, told ESPN on Friday. "For me, it's crazy and sad because everything I've ever known about WWE has always had Vince in charge, and we wouldn't have WWE the way it is if it wasn't for Vince. He's somebody who believed in me and allowed me to do everything that I've done."
Questions remain about whether Levesque -- along with Stephanie McMahon and Khan, who sits on WWE's board of directors -- will maintain WWE's dominance atop the sports entertainment business. Upstart promotion AEW established itself as a competitor, the first genuine alternative to WWE since WCW was purchased by McMahon in 2001. The company has found success while using big-name talent such as CM Punk, Chris Jericho and Bryan Danielson, all formerly employed by WWE. Plus, issues within WWE's locker room have emerged, with wrestlers growing frustrated with the storytelling and upward mobility.
"We have the opportunity to change some things that maybe weren't so great that we didn't love," Lynch said to ESPN. "I think everybody's very excited and optimistic because we know that the people in charge [are] some of the greatest minds in the business, you know. Having Triple H at the helm of the ship is phenomenal. What he's done with NXT speaks for itself. What he did with the women's division and how he allowed us to change the business forever speaks for itself."
BACKSTAGE AT THE Wild Horse Saloon, The Undertaker sat on a couch moments after his 1 deadMAN Show premiere, where he told stories out of character that chronicled his 30-year run at the pinnacle of sports entertainment.
Perhaps no wrestler is more synonymous with McMahon than The Undertaker. When WWE was amid the Monday Night Wars in the 1990s with WCW, a television ratings battle that threatened WWE's place on top, Taker remained while stars such as Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart departed for the rival company.
The Undertaker, whose real name is Mark Calaway, retired from in-ring competition in 2020 following a WrestleMania 36 Boneyard match with AJ Styles. When he made his Hall of Fame speech in April, it was McMahon himself who inducted the legendary wrestler.
Calaway acknowledged that his attention to WWE's weekly programs comes in waves now that he's retired. Still, now more than ever, he's intrigued to see what lies ahead with Triple H, a man he faced at WrestleMania 27 and 28, at the helm of the company's controls.
"They're loosening the reins a little bit as far as what guys can say and do," Calaway, a longtime locker room leader, told ESPN. "I think the product will probably be a little more aggressive. I think that's going to come through in the creative.
"They've kind of been in this entertainment mode, so they're going to have to get some grit and meanness."
One instance came on the July 25 edition of Raw, the flagship program's first show under Levesque's leadership. Usually, when a WWE wrestler is bleeding, the match is stopped and the commentary team doesn't reference the wound.
But when Montez Ford of the Street Profits was busted open by Roman Reigns -- the face of WWE -- during the six-man tag team main event, the cameras even zoomed in on Ford's bloody face while the announce team discussed the injury.
"Those things are going to help because WWE is going to do it better than anybody else, and they don't throw things away," Calaway said. "Hopefully, a lot of people there know how to rein things in and make things like that mean something instead of just doing it to do it."
Calaway was also confident that changes under Levesque's leadership would be noticeable "pretty much right away." A shift was apparent during the first segment of SummerSlam this past Saturday. Following Lynch's Raw Women's Championship match with Bianca Belair, Dakota Kai, who grew disgruntled with the company before her release in April, returned. She was accompanied by Iyo Sky, who gained prominence in NXT alongside Kai.
"And we're just getting started," Levesque tweeted following the pair of surprise debuts on WWE's main roster.
A few more wrinkles came two nights later on Raw.
Ciampa, an undersized yet gifted wrestler, seldom used since his call-up to the main roster in April, was suddenly an integral part of the program. A favorite of Levesque's during his time as NXT champion, Ciampa won a triple-threat match against Dolph Ziggler and Chad Gable, two other talented "workers" who often don't receive time to showcase their skills.
That wasn't all. AJ Styles, The Miz and Mustafa Ali competed in another triple threat to determine a No. 1 contender for the U.S. title held by Bobby Lashley. Ciampa later defeated Styles in a singles match and will challenge Lashley on Monday's edition of Raw.
All three matches were given proper television time to play out and tell a story. In the past, such bouts were often abbreviated. Furthermore, mid-card titles such as the U.S. Championship and Intercontinental Championship are often given little attention or ignored outright. But on this episode of Raw, a vignette detailing the storied history of the U.S. Championship was featured in an attempt to legitimize the title.
"I mean, he's brilliant, he really is," Calaway said of Levesque. "I don't think he gets enough credit for his wrestling acumen. I think he'll be a huge asset to the development of a lot of guys.
"And he's a no bulls--- kind of guy too. He's going to let you know what you're doing that's right and what you're doing that's wrong. I think it's going to be a step in the right direction with Hunter [another nickname for Levesque]."
Lashley, who retained his U.S. title with a victory over rising star Theory at SummerSlam, isn't so sure Vince McMahon will be entirely removed from the inner workings of the business. After all, McMahon remains the multibillion-dollar company's majority shareholder.
"It's not like Vince isn't going to be there anymore," Lashley told ESPN. "He's not going to just let his baby that he's grown to this level just falter. So, he's still going to be there. He's just giving other people opportunities to keep pressing on.
"Stephanie, she's been in the business her whole entire life, so it's not like she doesn't know. ... And look what he did with NXT; that's a big thing Triple H did. So he's just going to take that same mentality and same philosophy, building stars, bring it up to the main roster, which is cool. It's going to be refreshing."
Stephanie McMahon addresses her father Vince McMahon's WWE retirement during the opening of SmackDown.
WHEN FORMER UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar entered Gorilla Position, the staging area wrestlers enter and exit on the other side of the curtain, McMahon wasn't there to greet him following his Last Man Standing match with Reigns for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship that headlined last weekend's SummerSlam.
McMahon typically is in charge of the headset backstage, as the person in the earpiece of the broadcasters as they call the matches and set the storylines. In his place was Levesque, and it's believed this was the first of WWE's big five events McMahon has ever missed since taking over. (WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, Survivor Series and Money in the Bank round out the quintet.)
"This is the longest-running stuff on TV," said Levesque, who stepped away from WWE in September following a cardiac episode, only to return in the spring. "I do not dream for one second that I could fill those shoes by myself, period. It's going to take everybody here to fill those shoes and continue this on, but we will.
"The intent is to continue the legacy of what has been going on, what made me fall in love with this business that he created, and to take it to new levels. To take it beyond where it is now. The only way we're going to do that is with a team. That's with Steph, that's with Nick Khan, that's with myself, that's with Kevin Dunn [who produces WWE's TV programs], that's with everybody that is here, that is with all this talent. We have the greatest, hardest-working talent in the world. I have no doubt in mind, with this team, we can do it."
During his time at CAA, Khan represented 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow along with a who's who of sports broadcasters, ranging from former athletes to journalists. Regarded as the most dominant sports media agent in the business, Khan was approached by Levesque with a pitch after the New England Patriots cut Tebow in August 2013. He proposed a WrestleMania 30 matchup featuring Tebow against the Big Show. The bout never materialized, but a friendship was forged.
After Levesque invited Khan to his 50th birthday party in 2019, their bond grew stronger and solidified Khan's belief in who he wanted with him in the trenches. Levesque and Stephanie introduced Khan to McMahon, which led to Khan assisting in their most recent TV rights negotiation. The result: three times the value after Khan split the programs up in the network deals, maintaining Raw on USA but bringing SmackDown to Fox.
Those deals -- $265 million annually for Raw; $205M for SmackDown -- run through the fourth quarter in 2024. In 2020, Khan joined WWE as president and chief revenue officer, leaving the agency business behind. He worked with the McMahons and Levesque to negotiate a deal for streaming service Peacock to carry WWE Network, a partnership worth approximately $1 billion over five years that runs through 2026.
Inside WWE's walls in Stamford, Connecticut, the new leadership trio plans to look at each part of the business with a fresh set of eyes, a source told ESPN.
Khan is joined on the business side by Stephanie McMahon, who has worked in wrestling since childhood. She's a longtime on-screen character but also an ambassador of the brand who suddenly finds herself as the face of the company in the wake of her father's departure.
Now, the challenge is to blend mainstream appeal with the in-ring credibility of the NXT Black and Gold brand that Levesque is revered for developing.
"He understands as a talent what we go through and what we need to be more creatively energized," Lynch said. "There has been a tendency in the past for creative to change last minute, or we don't know where we're going. It's hard to bring everybody along on this journey if we're rambling.
"Triple H has a great eye for storytelling and for treating the women the same way he treats the guys. Just everybody's equal. How do we tell great stories? And that's all this is."
McMahon, of course, was notorious for tearing up scripts at the eleventh hour. And as Lynch alluded to, the programs often lacked cohesive storytelling and featured plot holes. That's one area Levesque will aim to correct.
But there's another, lighter possibility for why Lynch is giddy.
"Maybe we get to bring some words back. I like words. I like having a free range of lots of words," she said. "Belts, fans, whatever else it is."
Such words -- along with wrestling -- were banned by McMahon in favor of terms such as "championship" and "WWE Universe."
But it's a new era filled with hope, perhaps a sprinkle of blood and, yes, even some terms long forbidden by the titan who's presided over WWE and transformed it into a powerhouse.
Just maybe, sports entertainment is making room for a little more wrestling.
Editor's note: Mike Coppinger is also represented by CAA.