It’s been a long time since I really enjoyed pro wrestling. I was a diehard fan throughout my Hulk Hogan-obsessed youth and even more fanatical as a high schooler during the Attitude Era. But after a stint in my mid-twenties as a WWE writer – where I saw firsthand how the sausage was made – I walked away less interested and infinitely more jaded.
Nowadays, I read results online rather than watch any of the company’s weekly programs and only revisit my now-forgotten passion by going to pay-per-view events whenever they take place in, or near, Los Angeles. In short, like a lot of folks my age, I’ve become a casual fan of pro wrestling. But no matter how distant I get from the company, it seems I just can’t stop watching one WWE character in particular: Paul Heyman.
The backstory of pro wrestling’s most manic mouthpiece has been well-documented, but all you need to know to understand his genius in 2015 is that he’s lived more lives than any alley cat and worn more hats than Carmelo Anthony. His revolutionary wrestling promotion, ECW, shuttered its doors more than a decade ago, but in the time since, Heyman has worked as a commentator, booker, entrepreneur and manager – and developed his on-screen “advocate” role, repping main eventers like CM Punk and current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.
In fact, as he enters his fourth decade in the wrestling business, you could argue Heyman’s just hitting his stride. He is to WWE programming what Mike is to Better Call Saul: When he’s on-screen, you know things are about to get amazing. Possessing smarts, bravado and acting abilities that seem almost out of place in the world of belly-to-belly suplexes and ridiculous storylines, he brings complexity and fire to his role. Ask any smart wrestling fan, and they’ll tell you – Paul Heyman is a legend. And he’s done it all with just a microphone.
As he readies his client, Brock Lesnar – the recipient of a lucrative WWE contract extension this week – for a main-event showdown with Roman Reigns at WrestleMania, Heyman and I spoke about his rise to fame, his expectations for Sunday’s Super Bowl of Sports Entertainment and how he builds his arsenal of bullshit.
Asking if you’re ready for WrestleMania is a lot like asking House of Pain if they’re ready to perform “Jump Around” on St. Patrick’s Day. But I’ll do it anyway: Are you ready for Sunday?
I completed my task on Monday night, with the final promo going into this Sunday’s WrestleMania. Now it’s up to Brock Lesnar. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he is more than ready to deliver like no one else in WrestleMania history. Many may read that as marketing and hyperbole, but I think when it comes to Brock Lesnar, I consistently under-promise and he consistently over-delivers
You’re approaching 50, but would you agree that you’re only now hitting your stride in this business?
I would like to think I am only scratching the very beginnings of my prime. I’m just starting to figure this all out now. It sure took long enough. My goal is for next year’s series of WrestleMania promos to blow away this year’s series; and for the series of promos I cut in two years to blow away whatever I say next year. You’re only as good as your worst performance, and I am having the absolute time of my life going out there every Monday night and seeing how far I can take it.
One of the most important lessons I learned while working at WWE came from you: Approach every opportunity like it’s the one that will change your life. I feel like that drive is rare in pro wrestling these days. When did that gusto disappear?
I don’t think the “gusto,” as you call it, disappeared. The culture surrounding those breaking into the business now is much different. Instead of asserting yourself to the point [where people are thinking] “This kid better be worth every single, solitary bit of aggravation he causes by pushing for more and more opportunities, because the moment he doesn’t knock it out of the park, we can’t wait to fire him,” the sensibility now is “Don’t rock the boat until you’re in the position of being Captain!” I can’t tell you if a young Paul Heyman would have survived in the current system, but I’d like to think I would adapt to the surroundings and force my way in through the front door by hook, crook or hustle.
During downtime in the WWE production room, I’d usually force you to tell me an amazing Studio 54 story, since you started as a teenage photographer there, and somehow became a party promoter. How does something like that happen?
With a practiced and perfected arsenal of bullshit! I learned at Studio 54 that a more effective marketing approach to the carnival barker mentality of “Step right up, don’t be late, here it is, don’t ya dare go anywhere else” is to tell people, “Red velvet rope is up, you’re not allowed in. You can’t see what’s going on inside, and it’s good! It’s exclusive. It’s rare. It’s extraordinary. Admission is selective, and you have to earn it!” As soon as you tell people, “You must!” they say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” As soon as you say, “You can’t,” people respond with, “Oh yeah? Why can’t I? want to!”
Here in Los Angeles there’s a small circle of comedians and creative types who all constantly talk wrestling or attend local shows, and we all seem to have the same question: Why is Paul Heyman not acting in mainstream stuff?
It’s something I’m very interested in, but I want to do it right. I’m blessed with the fact that people are into what I do in terms of performance, but I really have the easiest job in the world. I get to legitimately advocate the position of why you should pay your money to see a once in a lifetime athlete-slash-attraction. So when people say that I’m so invested or committed in what I say, I take that compliment with the self-awareness that I’m just riffing about my true feelings.
Are there any actors or actresses that you look to for influence?
There are several, and it’s not about the individual performance, but rather the process he or she went through to achieve that performance. It’s the ability to push past one’s own fears, inhibitions and limitations that fascinates me. I respect the performance, but I passionately embrace the concept of completely immersing oneself in a character and having to – at times – fight your way back to being yourself.
You’ve said it before, and much of your DVD focuses on it, but it always feels like the business is waiting for your nine lives to be up. Any idea when that will happen?
This Cinderella will be bolting out of the ballroom at 11:59 instead of 12:01. Of course, that’s predicated on the premise that I outlive my ability to offer something that is worthy of being exploited for the betterment of the product. There are some performers who are worth more in their more-experienced years than when they were the young upstarts redefining their industries.
Had something like Kickstarter existed in 2001, do you think ECW would have survived?
I never look back. Kickstarter wasn’t around during the ECW days, so to fantasize what it would have been like to have Kickstarter is an exercise in futility. I’d rather spend my time thinking of something that can be applied or implemented.
At last year’s WrestleMania, Brock Lesnar broke the Undertaker’s vaunted streak. This year, he’s facing Roman Reigns. Do you have different goals this time?
My goal this Sunday is to have enough input behind the scenes to ensure Brock is given the platform to present something so memorable to the consumer that on Monday I am truly challenged to convey it in words, and get everyone exhilarated about the next steps we’re going to take and do it better than anyone else in the history of the business has even attempted to do it before me!