Examining Paul Heyman's Legacy as a Sports Entertainment Revolutionary
As a wrestling promoter and storyteller, Paul Heyman didn't wait for change, he created it.
Even years after Extreme Championship Wrestling's collapse and Heyman moving from role to role within the industry, his influence on pro wrestling is undeniable. He ranks among the most creative and talented men to ever work behind the scenes in this business.
Heyman stands alongside Bill Watts from Mid-South Wrestling, Gabe Sapolsky from Ring of Honor, Jim Cornette from Smoky Mountain Wrestling and WCW as well as both Vince K. and Vince J. Mahon as one of wrestling's best promoters.
He is not without his flaws, however. John Powell of Slam! Sports detailed some of the lawsuits former wrestlers have had against him and Heyman's various financial failings with ECW.
Those issues and other misfires aside, Heyman will always be remembered for his impact on pro wrestling.
After taking charge of ECW in 1993, he proceeded to make that company his canvas as he showed the world the power of his innovative mind. While both borrowing from the past and carving out his own path in his rejection of the status quo, Heyman revolutionized the business.
A Rebellion of Aggression
Ridiculousness ruled wrestling's two major companies in the early '90s. Prison inmates, repo men, clowns and vikings were all part of the melange of WWE characters. WCW often felt out of touch as well, carting out wrestlers like The ShockMaster and Big Josh the lumberjack.
Heyman's vision of wrestling was marked by grit and attitude that would be hallmarks for those companies at the end of the decade.
Melding the chaotic feel of wrestling from Memphis Wrestling and violent, extreme elements from various Japanese promotions, Heyman spearheaded a journey into brutality and excitement.
In adding sex appeal, violence and an aura of defiance, Heyman found a means to make wrestling cool.
Beyond standard wrestling moves, ECW's shows included wrestlers using everything around them from balconies to tables. Barbed wire became a major player. Women stripped other women in front of a leering audience.
That fiery, rebellious energy that Heyman's product emanated is something other companies have tried to recreate. Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South and Combat Zone Wrestling have borrowed elements of ECW's gore.
In addition, wrestling's first Three-Way Dance, the precursor to the Triple Threat match, happened under Heyman’s watch in February of 1994 when Shane Douglas, Terry Funk and Sabu fought in front of ECW fans.
When fans watch a match today where a wrestler throws someone through a table or where three men battle at one time, they're watching elements of the business that Heyman emphasized. These are the weapons he used to go from small-time upstart to a company with a cult following that refuses to go away even today.
Stories and Stars
As much attention as ECW's violence gets, Heyman oversaw something that was more than blood and guts, something built on strong narratives that stuck with the fans.
His vision for talent and his talent for telling stories has him ranked among the best and most inventive wrestling bookers. He found the best way to utilize marginal talents and signed guys who went on to become Superstars.
Mike Awesome had his best years at ECW. Heyman made him a star by having him destroy smaller competition. Awesome tried to duplicate his success in WWE and WCW but couldn't.
Public Enemy, the Pitbulls and others all tried to go elsewhere with disappointing results.
Their stories are like those of a receiver who plays with a guy like Tom Brady and decides to go to another team for more money. When that player bombs elsewhere, he realizes the value of his old teammate.
The same is true for Heyman. Without his guidance and storytelling skills, some of ECW's biggest names couldn't thrive.
Heyman took a guy like 911 and made him a sensation. Putting him in a cookie-cutter role likely wouldn't have worked. Instead, Heyman made him a special attraction, a man who would chokeslam the folks who deserved such treatment.
In some cases, Heyman focused the spotlight on someone and the other companies could then see the budding stardom that he saw all along.
It wasn't until after his ECW stint that WCW was interested in Chris Jericho or Rey Mysterio.
Plenty of credit has to be given to the performers of course, but Heyman's resume bursts with examples of him maximizing wrestlers' talents. The story of Sandman struggling with blindness in 1994 was some of his best work. Tommy Dreamer and Raven's feud elevated their careers.
Heyman's talent for storytelling continued after ECW folded.
Look back at episodes of WWE SmackDown from 2002. Notice the perfect balance of control and chaos and the great feuds and matches that happened that year. That was during Heyman's tenure as head writer.
He inserted names like Mysterio, Edge and Eddie Guerrero into a three-team feud that produced several classics.
Each of those men gained major momentum during that year and went onto Hall of Fame-quality careers. Heyman didn't make those guys, but he knew how to best position them for success.
He took chances with wrestlers that traditionalists might have ignored. Would Rob Van Dam have gotten a fair shot with WCW for example?
Add this run of excellence to his work with the revived WWE-owned ECW and Heyman's resume compares favorably with the best in the business even with all the missteps he's had.
His history with CM Punk has been revisited a lot lately and it highlights his vision.
Experts and bigwigs around him didn't understand what Punk had to offer while he was at Ohio Valley Wrestling and then the new ECW. Heyman had enough foresight to see that this lean, tattooed kid was going to be huge.
He now finds himself embroiled in a feud with Punk. The two have traded increasingly harsh words on WWE Raw.
For some fans, this is the role they know Heyman for, an agitator, loudmouth and an advocate for both Brock Lesnar and Curtis Axel. Before he was slithering across the screen for WWE, Heyman was working to transform the entire industry.
For being the forerunner to WWE's Attitude Era and to WCW's edgier product, for shaking up everything in favor of bettering the product, Heyman will always be considered a pioneer.
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