TAMPA — As a 14-time WWE champion, Paul “Triple H” Levesque has had his share of time with the professional wrestling federation’s title belt. And for as big as he was in his heyday, he realized that sometimes the belt itself was a bigger star — especially around other athletes.
“If you had the championship belt, they couldn’t get enough of holding it and taking a picture with it, walking around with it, putting it on, putting it over their shoulder, everything that they had seen on TV was such a huge thing to them,” said Levesque, now WWE’s executive vice president of global talent strategy and development.
“If you’re a champion in your league, you don’t have this sort of badge that says you’re the best. The belt is that.”
Several years ago, Levesque began sending custom-made belts to pro teams that won championships, and they became commonplace in the celebrations and parades that followed. WWE delivered belts to both the Lightning and Bucs after their recent Stanley Cup and Super Bowl titles.
When the Bucs won Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium — the site of this weekend’s WrestleMania 37 — a belt was delivered to the stadium with changeable plates on the side, one for the Bucs and one for the Chiefs, and ready to go into the winning locker room right after the game.
Bucs rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. quickly swiped the belt and made it his own. He wore it over his shoulder during his postgame news conference and took it to the team’s boat parade celebration.
“This right here is basically saying that we’re world champions,” Winfield said, his eyes glowing, when asked about the belt after the Super Bowl win. “It’s got the Bucs logo on the side, you know? Heavyweight champions right here, baby.”
The tradition began in 2013, when Levesque sent a belt to David Ortiz after the Red Sox won the World Series. Ortiz wore it everywhere he went as Boston celebrated its championship. More teams asked for belts after winning titles, and eventually WWE started distributing them before the requests arrived. When the Cavaliers won the NBA title in 2016, LeBron James asked for multiple belts so every player could get one, offering to foot the bill himself, Levesque said.
WNBA star Sue Bird sported a belt over each shoulder after the Seattle Storm won their second title in three years in 2020. Belts were given to the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s soccer team, as well as winners of the Premier League and Bundesliga in European soccer. The 2019 Cricket World Cup championship team from England also received one.
The adoration other athletes have for pro wrestling goes deep. Before the pandemic, they were front-row fixtures at WWE shows, sometimes even participating in storylines. When the New World Order (nWo) was the most popular faction of World Championship Wrestling (WCW), NBA stars Dennis Rodman and Karl Malone called Hulk Hogan begging to join.
Numerous WWE stars have football roots, from current WWE Universal title holder Roman Reigns to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Goldberg. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks sometimes simulate Battle Royal matches in the halls. And the way they go after opposing mascots in visiting arenas is straight out of a WWE production.
“It’s funny, because in some ways with professional athletes, there’s so many rules and restrictions around what you can and cannot do,” Levesque said. “The freedom and the nature of what we do is being larger than life, and that’s what everybody wants to be in some manner holding that championship belt.”
Like anyone else who grew up watching pro wrestling, there’s a combination of fanaticism and fantasy for pro athletes.
“Like a lot of guys, I grew up a wrestling fan,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “My mom wouldn’t let me watch, but I loved watching ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and ‘The Rock.’”
The Lightning’s WWE belt is in the possession of general manager Julien BriseBois, according to the team. But when it won the Stanley Cup in September, two non-WWE championship wrestling belts with NHL logos on them were in the locker room. Killorn swiped one, wore it during the celebratory boat parade and draped it over owner Jeff Vinik’s shoulder during the victory celebration at Raymond James Stadium.
Levesque said the belt probably lets you get away with things you might not otherwise.
“Guys win the Super Bowl, they have the parade, and there’s always one guy with that title belt, holding that title, and he’s in full-on wrestler mode drinking beer and spitting in the air and just doing craziness that if somebody was to criticize him, he could just be like, ‘Nah, I was just doing the WWE thing.’” Levesque said. “It’s like a license to go be larger than life and be crazy and people laugh at it, where if you did it that another time they might go, ‘That guy’s just a jerk.’”
Now, almost every time Levesque encounters a professional athlete, they’re telling him to prepare a belt.
“It’s kind of the ultimate symbol of you are the best and you’re the champion,” Levesque said. “There are so many athletes who come to me during the year and go, ‘Hey dude, get my belt ready, because we’re going all the way this year.’”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected]. Follow @EddieInTheYard.