In case you’ve had WWE programming on mute for the past several weeks, WrestleMania 35 will soon be upon us, which means it is our duty to periodically roll out excruciatingly detailed previews of each individual match in the month-plus leading up to April 7. This is The Ringer’s WrestleMania Match Book.
As of this writing, the card for professional wrestling’s biggest night (no offense to ROH and NJPW) has two matches on the books, and one of those is hazy: Ronda Rousey vs. Charlotte Flair and Universal Champion Brock Lesnar defending against Raw poster boy Seth Rollins. We’re not even going to touch the former contest until it’s clear that Rousey v. Flair is actually proceeding as planned, given the likelihood that story-line-suspended/hobbled Becky Lynch will fight her way into the bout on Sunday. But there’s one looming match that seems all but definite after a surprise attack and a blistering promo on Monday: living legends Triple H versus Batista. So let’s take stock of their intertwining paths in an effort to deduce why we care and who will emerge the most evolved of all.
WrestleMania Match Book, Chapter 2: Triple H vs. Batista
Nearly 17 years ago, a then-33-year-old Dave Bautista emerged from Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental and began his onscreen WWE journey in earnest, debuting on SmackDown as Deacon Batista, enforcer/acolyte for reformed Dudley Boy, D-Von. The story line was brief: man follows megalomaniacal leader, man eventually tires of and conquers said leader, spinning him off into whatever solo pursuits await. It was Million Dollar Man–Virgil in short form with higher upside. By November ’02, the gently repackaged Batista had moved to Raw and was powerbombing Kane to hell in defense of a new and more prestigious (no offense, D-Von) mentor, Ric Flair. His subsequent couple of months riding or dying alongside the legendary wheeler and dealer was, it turned out, groundwork for the launch of WWE’s most ambitious all-male stable in recent memory: Flair, Batista, D-Generation X principal-turned-top-singles-performer Triple H, and third-generation rookie Randy Orton, collectively christened Evolution.
The idea of Evolution was less about evoking ghosts of Four Horsemen past than anointing Orton and Batista as WWE’s future. Alas, the faction’s rollout was forestalled out the gate when Batista tore his triceps less than two months after Evolution’s inception. Sans their two young thoroughbreds (Orton was duly felled in that same Dudleys match), Evolution lacked cohesion or purpose, and a transparent creative scramble commenced. There were convoluted fractures and reformations in short order, and Triple H in particular embarked on a shambolic 2003 in which he defended his World Heavyweight Championship—and otherwise fended off threats from—against a motley assortment of comers including Goldberg (who would take the Game’s title later that year), Kane, and Booker T, but also, uh, the Hurricane and Maven. Not a moment too soon, Batista was cleared for a comeback and insinuated himself in the midst of Triple H and Goldberg’s beef (mmm, tasty). Things finally jelled as destined at Armageddon in mid-December ’04, when Batista tasted tag gold with Flair, Orton toppled Rob Van Dam to snag the Intercontinental belt, and Triple H completed the trifecta by surmounting Goldberg and Kane to regain his World Heavyweight Championship. Evolution had conquered the company and unquestionably birthed greatness—which could only mean it was nearly time for its progeny to leave the nest.
Real-life gangs tend to jump in aspirants before granting them comfort and privilege. But in wrestling factions, members—usually the youthful, prideful ones—get jumped out. In Randy Orton’s case, that day of reckoning arrived on August 16, 2004, 24 hours after he became the youngest World Heavyweight Champion of all time (to that point) by beating Chris Benoit at SummerSlam. Triple H, Batista, and Flair spoiled Orton’s moment and spelled out his fate with the thumbs-down heard ’round the sports-entertainment world.
Oh, the bitter irony, then, when in February 2005, Batista—fresh off his Royal Rumble win—threw those same thumbs back at Triple H and announced he was coming for the Cerebral Assassin’s title, which he had recently snatched back from Orton. By the time Batista toppled Hunter at WrestleMania 21 two months later, Evolution had effectively served its purpose. Batista, as he has pointed out multiple times in recent months, more or less owned Triple H over the course of their payoff feud. The pair’s torch-passing program concluded midsummer at Vengeance with Triple H donning a Flair-inspired crimson mask of defeat, ready to take some time off and recuperate from nagging neck issues.
Over the next half-decade, Batista largely lorded over SmackDown (when not ceding spotlight to an emergent John Cena or re-tearing his triceps, as he did yet again in January ’06, knocking him out till that July). Over on Raw, Triple H reformed D-X (or some facsimile of it), dealt with his own, requisite recurrence of torn muscle tissue, and padded his eventual total of 14 world championship reigns by besting his ex-protégé Randy Orton on a couple of major stages.
Fast-forward to spring 2010, when Batista walked (or angrily wheeled himself, as it were) out of WWE, seemingly for good, and Triple H—having started a family with wife and McMahon family scion Stephanie and climbed the corporate ladder behind the scenes—began his slow transition into onscreen authority and part-time wrestler, punctuated by an aptly hellacious, era-bookending series of bouts against the Undertaker. And given Bautista’s unlikely segue into Hollywood A-list status on the back of his turn as Drax in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, there was every reason to think he and Triple H would never tango again.
Final Chapter, Part 1
It was storybook, if not textbook. In early 2014, Batista returned to Raw for the first time in the better part of four years and announced his intention to come for Randy Orton’s World Heavyweight Championship. (In reality, it was a lengthy promotional layover for Guardians, which was to hit theaters that August, but I digress.) Initially, all went as planned, with Triple H brokering the encounter and otherwise stepping aside. But much had changed in Batista’s absence, namely the rise of Daniel Bryan and his “Yes! Movement,” and a corresponding uptick in fans’ expectation that they could dictate story lines. When Batista stormed the Royal Rumble match at no. 28, he was booed. When he won, he was booed. Not even because it was preordained, but because for many the outcome felt like WWE thumbing its nose at those who’d collectively gotten their hopes up for Bryan-at-Mania or bust. Triple H quickly course-corrected, booking a match between himself and Bryan at WrestleMania XXX that April. If Bryan won, he’d be inserted into the main event with Orton and Batista. Sadly for Batista, Bryan triumphed and then won the World Heavyweight Championship that same night. Triple H, Batista, and Orton bonded over being bested by a sub-6-foot vegan and reanimated Evolution. If nothing else, their June showdown against the Shield gave us Bluetista, though virtually as quickly, Batista performed an echo of his 2010 resignation and said sayonara.
Final Chapter, Part 2
Picture it: Washington, D.C., Bautista’s hometown, Oct. 16, 2018. The stars are literally aligned for a 15-ish-year reunion of Evolution, one self-aware enough to contain itself to a stand-alone ceremony on SmackDown but forward-thinking enough to build a foundation for something bigger down the road. (Perhaps, even, the looming road to Mania 35?) The segment was, in point of fact, a welcome back to Ric Flair, who’d narrowly escaped actual death that summer. Then Bautista got on a roll, doling out platitudes for the Nature Boy and Orton, ultimately extolling Triple H’s virtues, but not without noting, “He’s done everything in this business, except beat me.” The ribbing was received in good spirit and manhugs were shared, but not without Triple H glancing back in a manner that communicated to the world, “We’ve got some serious animosity to manufacture between now and early next year, cause our Mania collision is on, my friend!”
In the immediate future, Bautista retreated back to prepping for his part in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune redux. Triple H rapidly pivoted toward an even more lucrative nostalgia well, seducing Shawn Michaels out of retirement for a D-X tag match against Undertaker and Kane in Saudi Arabia that they hoped would persevere over intense political headwinds heading into Crown Jewel. (It kinda, sorta did.) But a few weeks ago on Raw, Triple H made the mistake of yet again dedicating airtime to honoring Ric Flair’s existence—on the occasion of his 70th birthday—and the outcome was almost inevitable: Bautista assaulted the septuagenarian backstage, snatched a cameraman like he was some stealthy Quiet Place monster, and barked about how maybe now he has Triple H’s attention.
Triple H offered his rebuttal on the next week’s Raw, slung some mud about Bautista being a crybaby quitter and playing “Bad Guy 101 with me.” Snap. There are no pretenses heading into this slugfest, which has yet to be officially confirmed or stipulated as of this writing, but is a tacit go. Game on.
Triple H’s promo did some solid heavy lifting to put over a feud that’s been fairly dormant for more than a decade. And Bautista’s done trolling everyone with his hazily aloof movie-star shtick and dedicated himself to playing the brass-tacks villain, however introductory Triple H deems the approach. There’s no sight of Undertaker this April, no more Sting or Shawn Michaels to slot in the customary legends’ spot. Triple H might be crazy for taking half the onus on himself, having torn his pec all of three-plus months ago, but that’s why he’s got an army of personal trainers and what one assumes is a customer-friendly out-of-pocket maximum on his health insurance. For Bautista, there’s more than a faint whiff of 2014’s cross-promotional incentive, as he has four films—including a reprisal of Drax in the new Avengers—slated for release in 2019. But both elder statesmen (Bautista is 50, Triple H 49) remain physical specimens, their features having aged relatively gracefully to this point, and it’s harder than usual to make a case—as has been increasingly, depressingly obvious with Taker—that it’s about the payday and nothing else. That’s what makes the story they’re telling, one stripped of artifice, work so far. At issue between now and April 7 is how convincingly they continue to persuade us that there is no love lost.