The 2015 NFL season was dominated by Deflategate. It was football's version of the Austin-McMahon feud (if half the country hated Stone Cold) and was supposed to culminate with Tom Brady giving the evil commissioner a stunner on the Super Bowl winner’s podium. Instead, the main event was coopted by another familiar trope. The wily veteran well past his physical prime, Peyton Manning, used smarts and guile (and some help from DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller) to lead his team to the promised land. In the end, Manning and not Brady got the storybook ending, sealed with a kiss from Papa John.
In the world of professional wrestling, it’s been a particularly bruising year for the WWE. Everyone’s favorite underdog, Daniel Bryan, retired from competition, costing the company its most compelling superstar since The Rock. Furthermore, injuries to John Cena, Randy Orton and Seth Rollins decimated the main event, Roman Reigns failed to connect as a hero, and the perplexing Shane McMahon-Undertaker feud is a disaster. All this is to say there is an opportunity for Triple H, who’s facing Reigns at WrestleMania, to take center stage at WWE’s Super Bowl. He might even be counting on it.
Peyton Manning is a student of the game with a (mostly) spotless record of personal conduct. He makes funny commercials and commands offenses like no one else. (Those audibles, though!) But he has his detractors who think he’s selfish, more interested in padding stats than helping teammates. For years he was his own offensive coordinator, calling pass plays in goal-line situations and keeping himself in games deep into blowouts. Even his return from injury last year came at the expense of the younger and more athletic Brock Osweiler. Sure, Manning got the job done, but with Denver’s defense, you can argue the Broncos win the Super Bowl no matter who’s under center. But you can bet Manning wasn’t about to find out. And the fact Brock, the future of the franchise, bolted for Houston after Peyton’s retirement tells me their relationship wasn’t exactly Rooney-Beaman.
Triple H is an executive, part-time wrestler and current WWE champion who’s putting on better matches now than perhaps any point in his long career. The 46-year-old is also a student of the game and one of the greats ever to lace up a pair of calf-length boots. But his marriage to the boss’ daughter and history of manipulation behind the scenes earned him a reputation as a cutthroat opportunist, using his backstage influence to inflate his character’s win-loss record at the expense of fellow wrestlers. Even now, with his image considerably softened, there are people critical of a middle aged part-timer holding the industry’s top prize. So the question is, will Triple H step aside for the younger, more athletic Reigns or will he cling to his spot, believing a victory at WrestleMania is what’s best for business? (The chorus of boos meeting Reigns when he walks into an arena makes you wonder if maybe the WWE wouldn’t be better off leaving the belt on The Game, anyway.)
Manning got his fairytale ending but seemed reticent to retire, suggesting the guy was considering a few late career Ric Flair-like seasons as a game manager for the Rams or Jets. Triple H has no such employment issues. Win or lose (and he’ll likely lose), he’ll be on TV the next night. He’s not performing for his professional life like Manning was but his legacy is still on the line. And for a guy like Triple H, that may be all he needs to steal the show.