There are two visionaries who have, over the last 30 years, shaped professional wrestling as we know it. One, of course, is Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the WWE kingpin who took a business filled with regional fiefdoms and turned it into a thriving national enterprise.
The other is Paul Heyman. While his Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion never became the box-office sensation it deserved to be, Heyman's groundbreaking production techniques, emphasis on wild stunts and his more mature storylines and presentation was the shock to the system wrestling needed to escape a mid-1990s doldrums.
Heyman's vision of what wrestling could be soon became the prevailing vision—simply put, it led directly to the WWE's Attitude era, driving the industry to new heights, both artistically and commercially.
Heyman can be seen today as the on-screen advocate for WWE sensation Brock Lesnar. Free to focus on his character instead of the overall product, he's become one of the most dynamic orators in the history of the business, holding the audience in the palm of his hand every time he touches a microphone.
But the real-life Heyman is even more intriguing, and perhaps more devious, than even his fictional counterpart. In a soon to be released documentary called Ladies and Gentlemen, My Name is Paul Heyman, WWE explores the life and times of this maverick wrestling genius.
It's a brilliant piece of wrestling history and one of the best wrestling films ever made. Bleacher Report had a chance to sit down with Heyman to talk about his life, the documentary and what's next for one of the sport's most interesting and controversial figures.
Bleacher Report: Last time we talked you all but told me that your client Brock Lesnar was going to beat the Streak. I should have listened harder. This time I will.
Paul Heyman: Okay. It's about time.
B/R: (Laughs) I'm a little worried about this interview to be honest with you, Paul. I was reading your Twitter yesterday where you talked about how much you loathe exploring the past this way. What is it about looking backwards that is uncomfortable?
Heyman: Well, it's several things. Number one, I can't change it. I hate watching myself because when I watch anything I've ever done, I realize all the ways I could have done it better.
Number two, though those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, I lived the history. I don't need to study it. Any time I spend looking back, I'm not looking forward. Someone else is going to be looking forward, and they're going to catch up with me or pass me.
B/R: Living in the present.
Heyman: I don't want to be one of these guys who sits in a room watching old footage of himself, reliving old glory. It's just not me. I want to create new adventures. I'm not trying to live vicariously through my own past.
I grew up in a household with my mother who was a Holocaust survivor. I very much understand the mentality that you cannot live in the past. You can't spend your entire life, or even portions of it, looking back and dwelling on things that have already happened. You have to move forward.
B/R: You say you haven't seen your own Blu-ray yet. I have—amazing. It's the best documentary WWE has ever done on any of their talent. Everyone's life is a series of highs and lows, but usually these things are really glossy. They leave out the lows all together. What made you decide to open up about everything?
Heyman: Unlike Frank Sinatra, I have no regrets in my life. Zero. Whatever hardships I have faced, or have caused myself, are moments I have to embrace in order to move forward. I have no problem coming to grips with either the highs or lows in my life.
It's not a compelling story when someone bats a thousand or if they consistently pitch a perfect game. Adversity, as I once said on Monday Night Raw, and I did hear Vince McMahon's father say this, "adversity defines a man in his darkest hour." And I strongly believe that.
I'm very proud of the worst moments of my life. Because I'm still here today to talk about them.
B/R: Surviving in this business is something to be proud of. And it's not just hard to survive pro wrestling—it's hard to get started too. You did it at a very young age. I'm curious about you riding the roads with Lou Albano and the Grand Wizard. How far into their confidences did they take you? Why do you think, at a time when the business was still very closed, that they decided to let you in the brotherhood?
Heyman: I really don't think I got anyone to open doors for me. I just kind of bombastically walked through those doors as if I belonged and carried myself with the demeanor that said, "I'm supposed to be here." To where even people who had seen every con, every scam and every hustle from outsiders trying to get their way in, I did it with such a passion that they figured I must belong.
B/R: Surely passion couldn't be the only thing that separated you from other fans who desperately wanted in?
Heyman: Usually when someone would try to get on the inside of this industry, especially back then, their questions were based around fandom. Who's the next champion? Who's the next star coming into WWWF, or WWF or WWE?
And my questions were always related to the concepts and the structure of the presentation. Why was this match on third and not fourth? Why did you open with this match? What was the reason you put this match on as the semi-main event instead of that match? Tell me why you hold the microphone in this hand and you put this foot forward. Is there a certain reason you stand that way when you speak? How does that enhance your persona? What's the best way to utilize your oratory skills to elicit a response from the audience?
These were the questions that I would ask. So, I wasn't sitting there caring about who won and who lost and what the next feud was or who was going to dye their hair blond. I was more concerned with the presentation and the marketing and the enhancement of the characters.
I think all that forced them to brainstorm. They had someone with youth and enthusiasm around them who was looking at it from a different perspective from the same old they were used to hearing.
B/R: In the Blu-ray documentary you talk about the younger talent in WWE and how important their perspective is. Have you come full circle? Are you now the Lou Albano in the exchange of ideas? You're the jaded older guy and they're the young Paul Heyman, someone who doesn't know all the reasons their idea doesn't work. And you need that perspective to push past barriers and the idea of "this is how it's always been done."
Heyman: Absolutely. Experience is the greatest deterrent to creativity. Because you know all the reasons why not to do something.
Here are these vibrant, ambitious, hungry young kids coming up with all these ideas. And your first internal reaction, having been around the business so long, is to say "Here's why you don't do that kid." But the right way to look at it is, "Why shouldn't we do this? Why isn't this the approach? How does he feel it and someone who's old and jaded not feel it?"
If you surround yourself with old ideas you're going to become antiquated very fast. If you surround yourself with a vibrant group of young ideas, you're going to come at it from a youth's perspective. And it is a youth oriented business. And we do market to a younger culture.
B/R: I think this is the perfect time to throw out a reader question from Twitter. Because, while ECW was a promotion that felt cutting edge and was taking wrestling in a new direction, obviously it was a product in part of your experience and the experiences of others around you.
@ECWPaulHeymanGuy asks "Was the blood and guts style of ECW influenced by Japanese hardcore wrestling and Onita?" I can see that, but I also see Memphis and other influences. Where did ECW come from?
Heyman: I don't buy into the revisionist history that ECW was a blood-and-guts promotion. I think the level of violence ECW brought to the table, or crashed through the table, pardon the metaphor...
Heyman: ...seemed more extreme because we were doing it in an era when there was very little blood, and the entire industry was toned down pretty dramatically for a lot of different political reasons. With the industry so tame and so cartoonish, along comes this adult, contemporary product. With profane language, hardcore music and blood and guts and violence—but these were all wrapped around intimate, long-term, deeply personal storylines.
Heyman: We didn't say, "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight Sandman is going to have his very first match against Rob Van Dam and it's going to be in a tables wrapped in barbed wire match as they fight with fluorescent lightbulbs as if they were lightsabers from Star Wars."
We told long-term stories. It took a long time to get to a Barbed-Wire match, or a Tables match or a Ladder match. It was never just gimmickry for the sake of gimmickry. They were deeply personal, heated issues that could only be solved in these dramatic matches with these over-violent stipulations attached to them because we had already run the gamut of matches and avenues we had traveled down until there was nothing left but to surround the ring with barbed wire or put up a steel cage.
ECW wasn't just about the spectacularly violent aspect. We built to it. It was about the storylines that played out all the way to a match of that level.
B/R: I think that's why we loved it. But, despite all these spectacular things happening in the footage, I was most disturbed watching footage of you on this thing during those ECW years. You don't look healthy at times. Was the stress of running a promotion eating away at your well-being?
Heyman: I'm sure I took 20 years off my life running ECW. But I probably gained a hundred lifetimes of satisfaction in doing so. You can't live a dream and exploit the living of that dream with the joy and passion that I did and not cause a downturn in your own well-being.
I was putting in 50, 60, 70 hours a week straight at the studio doing television. While running the company. While writing out the very TV shows I would help edit and post-produce. And I loved every minute of it.
There is a tremendous stress factor in running a company that was on death's door from the very day I took it over. I say in this documentary that every day was a fight for ECW to stay alive. And every day that we stayed alive was a miracle. And that's very true.
We didn't have the luxury of losing tens of millions of dollars. We never had a network that paid us for our content. We never had big-name sponsorships except from Acclaim Entertainment when they licensed our video game. That was it. We had some music labels that threw us a few dollars, but nothing significant. No seven-figure deals.
B/R: Nothing came easy?
Heyman: We weren't handed pay-per-view. We had to fight. It took us three years to get on pay-per-view and even then there were such limitations and such restrictions and a later timeslot than everybody else. Everybody breathing down our neck and politicians coming after us and state athletic commissions wanting to ban us—it was a terrible struggle.
And, yet, that's what the promotion was about. That's what made ECW and made the ECW audience so passionate. Because it was a fight. It was a revolution. Bubba Ray Dudley, of all people, says it best. Those who look at ECW having gone out of business in 2001 and think it was a failure miss the point. That doesn't make it unsuccesful. ECW was Napster. We completely changed the landscape of the wrestling business.
Sports entertainment will never be the same again and that's because of the radical concepts that ECW brought to the table. It's the same way that Napster completely changed the way music is produced, packaged, manufactured and sold to this day.
Our goal always was to change the business. That's who we were. We were young and crazy and stupid and radical. We were revolutionaries, looking to carve out a place in history. And we did. So, when I look back on that time, I do so with the understanding of our goal and the fact we accomplished it. Did I pay a heavy price with my health? Of course I did!
That's why I really don't want to watch it. Because I'm going to look at myself and think "I didn't sleep for a week in that clip." And I didn't. But I couldn't tell you I regret it. Or that I didn't have the time of my life staying up all night working on those TV shows. I can't imagine it was good for my health to run an ECW Arena show and then stay up to five in the morning producing promos on that night, and I had the time of my life doing it.
B/R: We've been delving into the past, but I like to be forward looking and I know you do too. I've been trying to think of what's next for Paul Heyman? Where can he leave his imprint on this business, what can he do that he hasn't done before?
It strikes me that women's wrestling is the place. There was always a rumor that All Japan Women were coming to ECW and it never happened. With the success of Ronda Rousey in the UFC and the bright young crop of talent lurking in the WWE system, will we see you explore this area? Is this something new for Paul Heyman to sink his teeth into?
Heyman: I'll give you two answers. Number one—forever the pay-per-view industry has been looking for the next Mike Tyson. They have found it. And the next Mike Tyson is Ronda Rousey.
Ronda Rousey is a box-office attraction for UFC the likes of which they've never had. And that's because she's so fascinating. The mainstream media won't get enough of her for years. There's no saturation point with her. She's never going to be complacent. She's a phenomenal attraction who keeps getting better with every fight.
I think my contribution to this industry in the next year, and this will sound like a lot of hype but it's not, will be the work that I do with Brock Lesnar. We are both driven, not only to cement our legacies, but to insure the body of work that we compile in this next series of matches and this next run will be the career-defining year of Brock Lesnar.
I'm attached to his hip. I've been riding Brock's coattails now for 12 years. As John Cena said on television, 40 men have held the WWE championship. Only one man has broken the streak.
B/R: That was pretty special.
Heyman: The only equivalent I can give you on that is the difference between saying "I've been elected President of the United States" and saying "I've been elected God."
Heyman: A lot of people have been elected President. Only one has held the position of God. So when you get elected to that position, you're kind of unique and above everyone else. And that's what it's like to beat the Undertaker at WrestleMania.
But my goal, my ambition, my obsession, is to compile a body of work over the next year with Brock that forces the public to look at the victory over the Undertaker as the launching pad for the career-defining moments in Brock's career and not to be the career-defining moment.
If we can top that moment with a body of work that separates Brock Lesnar and his advocate from any other run in WWE history, then we've done our job. That's my desire. That's why I'm so deeply passionate about what I say on television right now. Because I am compelled to find a way to make us stand out from everybody else. And to go down in history with this run being one of the most, if not the most, significant runs in WWE history.
B/R: That's a lofty goal indeed. I wish you a lot of luck. It's going to be fun watching you try.
WWE's latest documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen, My Name is Paul Heyman, will be released August 5th on Blu-ray and DVD. Paul Heyman will also accompany Brock Lesnar to ringside for his match with John Cena at WWE Summerslam on August 17th at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.