Some people misinterpret Paul Heyman’s onscreen barking as bluster. But it’s more like a dramatic extension of the defiance instilled by his Holocaust-survivor mother and Navy vet (turned prominent attorney) father. In life, the 49-year-old wrestling promoter, broadcaster and TV villain vocally advocates for family, loyalty and appreciating the complexity of every individual’s historical narrative. That latter attribute is perhaps why he’s always seemed to intuit the nuances of sports-entertainment storytelling so well.
Inside the ring, he channels that indignation and elevates it into epic oratory on behalf of his designated clients, such as current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, who puts his title on the line against John Cena and Seth Rollins in a triple-threat match this Sunday at the Royal Rumble. On Monday night’s Raw, Heyman watched as Lesnar – the man known as “the Beast Incarnate” – laid waste to a large portion of the WWE’s upper echelon, but the week before, in a compelling contract-signing segment (words not typically adjoined) designed to hype the pay-per-view, it was Heyman’s capacity to move the crowd that took center stage. And it was no accident.
“What happened there was I was watching on the monitor, and you look at who’s in the ring,” Heyman recalls. “You have John Cena, the top name in this industry for the past 10 years. You have Triple H and all of his accomplishments. You have Stephanie McMahon standing there. You have the Big Show standing there. And you have Seth Rollins, who is – in my opinion – the single best in-ring performer in the world today. Undisputed. And you’re about to have Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman join this group.
“So we’re standing [backstage] waiting for Brock’s music to play, and I looked at him and said, ‘You know, you can barely tell the players without a scorecard.’ And Brock said, ‘Say that,'” he continues. “And I did, because I figured before this all breaks down into some spectacular scenario, why don’t we let everyone here understand exactly what they’re looking at, and by the way, listen to the people whose names I’m calling out, because they’re all A-listers. Why not take that moment to catch your breath and realize this is an all-star cast in front of your eyes?”
And if there’s one thing Heyman’s qualified to assess, it’s magnetism. He was the one drawn to CM Punk and who vouched for his place within the WWE. He was the one who recognized that Lesnar, as he puts it, likely never “sat down for a moment in his life, biting his fingernails, saying, ‘Gee, I wonder if I’m gonna make it.'” But even prior to that, he saw the future in unconventional bruisers like the Dudley Boyz, and countless other homegrown talents who gained exposure under Heyman’s fabled Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion in the mid-to-late 1990s. And let’s not forget it was Heyman who resuscitated jettisoned WCW midcarder Steve Austin’s career by allowing him to plant the seeds for his future “Stone Cold” persona with ECW.
Still, not everyone clicks and sticks, and some so-called “Paul Heyman guys” (a classification WWE programming has noticeably steered away from in recent months), particularly Cesaro and Curtis Axel, didn’t quite complement their storyline mentor. That’s a fact Heyman doesn’t deny, but he views it more as a symptom of his singular unions with Lesnar and Punk than any indictment of Axel or Cesaro’s abilities.
“I think the bar was set so high with the chemistry that Brock and I have, and the chemistry that Punk and I had, that it would be very difficult to match that,” he says frankly. “It’s not just a situation of, ‘Stick manager A with wrestler B.’ Especially when you’re shooting for the top. I’ve never walked through the curtain with someone I wasn’t trying to audition as a WrestleMania main-eventer, and I never want to. And I’m sure the performers I’ve worked with didn’t want to have an advocate whose goal was anything less. But sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there.”
That very dynamic he shares with Lesnar assures Heyman he’s accomplished something unprecedented since last year’s WrestleMania, when the Beast ended the Undertaker’s vaunted ‘Mania winning streak. He understands people wanting more of his client on a regular basis, but asserts that with time and hindsight, the myth of Lesnar’s current run – the paucity of his TV appearances notwithstanding – will speak for itself.
“If you look back on WWE 20 years from now, I would suggest the two most newsworthy matches [of this past year] were Brock Lesnar conquering the Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania, and the most one-sided, uncontested beatdown of a top star in history when Brock hit John Cena with 16 suplexes and crushed him at SummerSlam,” he enthuses. “I don’t think anything else, from a historical perspective, can hold water to those two.”
We can debate that point (and surely will) endlessly, but Heyman does understand and sympathize with the WWE audience’s expectations for the product, whether in relation to their champion’s TV schedule or how other talent is being utilized. Nor would he deter them from being vocal in expressing their displeasure (never mind that would be awfully disingenuous from such an outspoken figure). The fact that he views his own performance on Raw from week-to-week as “an audition to appear on the next show” is a microcosm of how he feels fans should hold the entire broadcast accountable.
“I don’t think the fanbase should ever compromise. They should demand the best product they can get for their money and for their attention,” he says. “I’m not one of those people that sits there and says, ‘My God, what does the audience really want?’ The audience wants something that entertains them, and whether that entertainment is in the form of a physical match or in the form of a skit or video or promo, it’s our job to deliver it to them, to the point where the audience becomes the biggest champion of our brand. And if we can’t match that, then we’re falling short.”
So when talking with the man who helped hasten wrestling’s late-Nineties rush to innovation and introduced two of the ensuing decade’s most captivating performers in Lesnar and Punk, the more pertinent question to ask might not be, “How is WWE doing lately?” but rather, “What’s next?”
For that answer, Heyman need look no further than his own 10-and-12-year-old children − whom he affectionately observes “never turn on a television” in deference to their smartphones and tablets.
“The next evolution of the business won’t be the actual content or presentation, but the manner in which the business and the content is distributed,” he offers. “I would suggest to you that [with] today’s distribution channels, which are smartphones and other handheld accessories, that the product will skew younger in the next couple of years, because that’s going to be the audience.”
It’s at this point that Heyman reflects on a New York apartment he lived in some time ago. The residence was furnished with so many TV sets he says it was “like the movie Network.” He’s audibly aghast at how quaint that kind of monolithic entertainment center seems today, and wonders if it’s a metaphor for whether the culture – and the increasingly volatile pro-wrestling business – threatens to pass him by.
Fortunately for Heyman, it’ll have to go through Brock Lesnar first.
“I don’t know if the audience understands the history that’s unfolding before their eyes at the moment,” he says. “But it’s really not something that either I or Brock spend or time worrying about. Because if you’re worrying about how history’s going to view you, you’re not out there taking the next steps.”