WWE has had its share of problematic storylines, and Triple H vs Booker T is right near the top.
I would say it hasn’t aged well, but that would imply it was ever good. It was decidedly not.
There have been a lot of bad storylines in WWE history, and there have been a lot of problematic ones. This one checked all the boxes.
Worst of all, if you asked people who were there at the time, they’d tell you there was nothing wrong with it. That it was fine.
Well, it wasn’t fine. Triple H vs Booker T is one of WWE’s worst angles. It was one of its biggest missed opportunities to build new stars.
All of it could’ve been fixed in 20 seconds.
The Triple H vs Booker T feud wasn’t the disease. It was more of a symptom.
WWE was something of a mixed bag at the time. They were just getting into the swing of things with the brand split between Raw and SmackDown.
And by “into the swing of things” I mean “screwing things up horribly.”
Triple H was in the midst of his reign of terror. Both on camera and off. Since being awarded the Big Gold Belt (then the WWE World Heavyweight Championship) on Raw, Triple H was just knocking down every potential new star that showed up in his path.
Consider this: At Survivor Series 2002, Triple H defended the title in the first-ever Elimination Chamber match. Against Chris Jericho, Kane, Rob Van Dam, Booker T, and Shawn Michaels.
Michaels got the win, but not before Triple H made them all look like chumps.
Brock Lesnar won the 2003 Royal Rumble match and elected to challenge Kurt Angle for the WWE Championship. This left Triple H without a WrestleMania opponent.
And this is how we get to Triple H vs Booker T.
Brace yourself. The Triple H vs Booker T feud gets pretty ugly from here.
So with the challenger for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania set, we next had to figure out who would challenge Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Booker T won a 20-man battle royal on the February 24, 2003, episode of Raw. And he wasn’t in there with a bunch of jobbers, either. He eliminated the Rock to earn his WrestleMania title shot. The world should’ve been Booker T’s oyster.
Enter Triple H.
See, in those days, you didn’t get over in a program with Triple H. That wasn’t the object. The object was to get over in spite of him. And Triple H made that almost impossible, with one line in one promo.
“Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Triple H said. “People like you don’t deserve it.”
I’m sorry, what?
Yes. They went there. The Triple H vs. Booker T feud began in earnest with Triple H doing a “you people.”
And it didn’t stop there. Oh my God, did it not stop there. The Game then insisted that Booker was an “entertainer” and that Booker was there to “make people like [Triple H] laugh.” I’m imagine your reaction to reading that. And all I can say is, “Right?!”
Oh, It Gets Worse
Let’s speed straight past the point in the Triple H vs Booker T feud where Vince’s Game-In-Law used the word “nappy.” No, seriously, we’re gonna zip on past that one.
One week later, Booker had the crowd fired up. He turned Triple H’s shots at him around, coming clean about his past. Booker admitted to the crowd and the folks at home that he had been in prison. But that he’d turned his life around, and he’d earned everything he had. Including his shot at the world title.
The crowd was eating it up. Oh, this is what we’re going for with Triple H vs Booker T. Overcoming adversity, a positive message, making Booker a role model. This could be really g- oh, there’s Ric Flair. The Nature Boy (Triple H’s manager at the time) offered Booker a job driving Triple H’s limo.
Later in the same show, Triple H was washing his hands and gave the challenger a dollar, telling him to fetch a towel.
And through it all, the audience was firmly on Booker T’s side. They wanted Triple H vs. Booker T to end with the challenger overcoming the great odds and winning one for everybody who’s ever had to turn their life around.
So, how’d Triple H vs Booker T actually turn out?
Triple H vs Booker T for the World Heavyweight Championship was somewhere around the middle of the WrestleMania XIX card.
Which is understandable. Somehow history has largely forgotten WrestleMania XIX, despite it arguably being the most stacked WrestleMania card ever.
Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle, Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho, The Rock vs. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, and (for reasons I still don’t quite understand) Hulk Hogan vs. Mr. McMahon in a street fight.
When it was time for Triple H vs Booker T, the challenger came out with fists of fire. He hit the Game with everything he had. And none of it so much as phased the champion. If you had vision problems, you could easily mistake this for a Hogan match.
The final sequence was pretty hard-fought, as Triple H suddenly remembered that part of wrestling was selling. After a solid back-and-forth exchange, Triple H hit the Pedigree.
Now, you know that spot in a match where a guy hits his finisher, but he’s too tired to go for the cover? Like, when the heel (let’s say Triple H) hits his finisher and takes about 20 seconds to drape an arm over the babyface (let’s say Booker T)? And then the babyface kicks out at 2.99999? That’s what they did here.
Except Booker T didn’t kick out.
That’s right. Triple H vs Booker T ended with the absolute burial of Booker T. In 23 seconds, Triple H made Booker T forever an unviable contender for the world title.
Breaking It Down
So. There are some questions about Triple H vs Booker T. First of which, what was WWE going for?
As in, were they overtly trying to make Triple H a racist heel character? If you go back and watch the promos themselves, it’s pretty obvious that they were. And I can’t even call it cheap heat. It was working.
Triple H was being an overtly racist jerk, and Booker T was even more of a plucky underdog. One that we wanted to see succeed. So what went wrong?
Just a few years earlier when Mankind transformed into Cactus Jack in advance of Royal Rumble 2000, Triple H looked like he’d seen a ghost. He looked legitimately terrified about having to step into the ring with Cactus Jack.
Three years later, he dismissed Booker T as a legitimate challenger from the start. This is Wrestling 101. If you treat your opponent like a nobody, it does nobody any favors. Beating a nobody leaves you with less credibility (or, at best, doesn’t earn you more credibility). And if the nobody wins, it was a fluke – they’re a nobody!
And somehow, during the build-up to Triple H vs Booker T, Booker was getting over. Like we said earlier, from around 2002-2005, if you were getting over against Triple H? It meant that you were getting over in spite of Triple H.
The Game wasn’t gonna have that.
How Do We Fix It?
The broken Triple H vs Booker T feud is pretty easy to fix. It’s even written a few paragraphs up.
Booker kicks out at 2.99999.
One way or another, you fix Triple H vs. Booker T by Booker winning the belt. You could have Booker go down with a valiant effort after Triple H cheats. Then he bounces back and takes the title from Hunter at the April PPV. In the main event this time, not in a midcard match surrounded by dream matches.
Or you just have Booker win the title that night.
Either way, Triple H vs Booker T should’ve ended with the plucky challenger dethroning the racist champion.
Instead, WWE did what WWE does. They wrote a self-fulfilling prophecy. They didn’t want Booker to come out of this as a “top guy.” So they engineered the situation for him to come out of it like a chump.
And when he comes out of it like a chump, they get to say, “See? Booker’s not a top guy.” In other words, it’s how WWE usually treats its marginalized talent.
But what’s worse than WWE deciding that Triple H vs Booker T didn’t make Booker a top guy?
The Damage Is Done
The fans came out of it convinced he wasn’t a top guy.
Triple H did exactly what he said he would do. He proved Booker “didn’t belong.” That “people like him” didn’t get to be world champion. And that stigma stuck.
All the way until WrestleMania 35 with Kofi-Mania. That became the status quo in WWE.
I’m genuinely shocked, in this day and age, that the Triple H vs Booker T feud doesn’t come up more. What doesn’t shock me is that WWE has never owned up to doing wrong by Booker T.
If you want some fun, check out this clip from Bruce Prichard’s podcast where he tries to backpeddle and dodge any question of whether the feud has been overtly racist.
WWE needs to own that the Triple H vs. Booker T angle was handled all kinds of wrong. But given their long, long history of problematic practices and storylines, they probably look at this as a drop in the bucket.
Booker T deserved better. And Triple H vs Booker T shines a giant spotlight on just how important Kingston’s title win was.
With Triple H vs Booker T, WWE showed itself for what it is. And Vince McMahon showed everyone – erasing all doubt – that it takes arm-wringing to get him to do what’s right for the fans and for some of his talent.
They told a story where the racist bad guy was right all along.
All images courtesy of WWE.