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Past Meets Present: Can Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman Revolutionize the WWE?

Giancarlo Ferrari-King@@GiancarloKingFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2019

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR 2K - WWE Cover Superstar Brock Lesnar with his advocate Paul Heyman, left, at the WWE 2K17 SummerSlam Kickoff Event in New York, on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. (Adam Hunger/AP Images for 2K)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Change is in the air for our beloved WWE. The company's recent decision to hire Paul Heyman as the executive director of Raw and appoint Eric Bischoff to the same post for SmackDown sparked hope in fans, coming off a period of low ratings and unrelenting internet backlash.

Heyman and Bischoff won't be the sole reason why WWE undergoes this change—historically, change has come from the top, with Vince McMahon still in charge of the company. However, bringing two established voices into the tent can't be a bad thing. Heyman's ideology and pedigree within the business is unquestioned, while Bischoff seems to have a tangible pulse for operating successfully within the confines of a corporate structure.

These hires, if nothing else, will help adjust the landscape of WWE as a competitor with deep pockets lurks on the horizon—Tony Khan's All Elite Wrestling—and McMahon gets set to relaunch his XFL brand of professional football.

In order to properly focus on what the hires means for WWE programming, let's look at the resumes of both men and use them as a way to get a glimpse into the future of the promotion.

                   

Brock Lesnar celebrates, with his manager Paul Heyman, after winning the WWE Universal Championship match as part of as part of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Crown Jewel pay-per-view at the King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2
FAYEZ NURELDINE/Getty Images

Paul Heyman: An Elevator of Talent

Heyman's history as a decision-maker has plenty of high points. The former owner of Extreme Championship Wrestling and WWE creative lead has managed to bring an unmistakable brand of wrestling with him wherever he goes.

If you deconstruct Heyman's ECW days—which consisted of revolutionary tactics and made-for-TV moments—one critical takeaway was his gift for elevating talent.

Throughout ECW's run, Heyman put talent in key positions to succeed. Whether that was giving Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko a tangible, in-ring platform to showcase their unique abilities, or turning Shane Douglas—a former WWE midcarder—into a legitimate heavyweight champion by way of the microphone, Heyman understood what worked and what should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

This elevation of talent helped ECW set a stone during the heyday of wrestling's Monday Night War and kept the company in business, even as rival promotions were constantly poaching stars.

Heyman's ECW backstory also set him up perfectly for guiding SmackDown's creative team in 2002 during the initial brand extension era. In WWE, his backstage resume grew tenfold.

Considered the godfather of the SmackDown Six—a group of main event stars consisting of Edge, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio and Chavo Guerrero—Heyman offered a brand of wrestling that was off-the-charts good for the year he was in charge. Storylines aside, his willingness to even put the SmackDown Six together was the stuff wrestling fans salivate over.

The infamous story of Heyman, in real life, trading Chris Jericho and the Un-Americans—Christian, Test and Lance Storm—to Raw's creative team in exchange for Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit was proof of his vision.

Heyman's brief tenure steering the SmackDown ship remains a highlight in WWE's history books. Perhaps on his return to the new role of executive director of Raw, he will lean on his tried-and-true method, as explained to Bleacher Report in 2017: "It's a very basic formula. You move new talent into the main event mix to feed your legacy superstars. A select few, in time, become your new legacy superstars, in need of new talent to be moved up to work with them."

                   

How Will This Apply to Raw?

Times are different than Heyman's last run atop WWE programming. But despite the change, Heyman remains a critical thinker.

Take his comments from an interview with Inside The Ropes. He laid out concrete reasons why the general manager role in WWE has run its course: "The role of the general manager is played out. I don't want to do it because it's been going on for 20 years. And whether you're the hero general manager or the villain general manager, it's enough."

WWE has since shifted away from its GM model—outside of SmackDown's random use of Shane McMahon—and the product's flow has generally improved. There's less of a "make this match happen, and make it happen right now" approach. Storylines feature more of a talent-facing-talent structure, as apparent by the renewed and visceral Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar feud, as well as Bray Wyatt's demonic fascination with Finn Balor.

Heyman's past also points to his commanding belief in renewing the art of long-term storytelling, as he told Inside The Ropes (h/t Harry Mukhner of Bodyslam.net): "I want to know where I'm going. I've never written the first page of a story and then figured it out along the way. I always write the end first. It's just my training, and it's just the way that I see things.".

Long-term storytelling was a strength of ECW and during his SmackDown days. Based on what we've seen before, and his recent comments, you have to believe under Heyman's leadership that Raw will pivot more towards this.

TOKYO,JAPAN - JUNE 29: Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss compete during the WWE Live Tokyo at Ryogoku Kokugikan on June 29, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)
Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Aside from structural changes on the production side, Heyman could also elevate talent. Raw has a diverse roster. From the flying Ricochet to a refreshed Wyatt and Becky Lynch—not to mention the attraction of having Lesnar around—there are plenty of pieces for Heyman to move around the proverbial chess board.

"Paul was a unique talent that could accentuate positives," WWE senior vice president Bruce Prichard explained to Bleacher Report. "That was shown during his ECW days."

Betting on talent being put in positions to succeed, the evolution of meaningful feuds and a return to more long-term storytelling are all safe bets. And if Raw can achieve a fraction of what SmackDown did in 2002, fans will be carving a marble statue with Heyman's name on it.

                    

Eric Bischoff: The King of Corporate

We know WWE's last true competitor was World Championship Wrestling. During the promotion's heyday, Bischoff was the man responsible for calling the shots.

WCW was different than McMahon's promotion in more ways than one. Perhaps the biggest hurdle the promotion faced was the overarching corporate structure it operated within thanks to Turner Sports.

Sure, Bischoff was awarded free rein to run WCW how he saw fit—as he's discussed candidly on his outstanding podcast, 83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff. But having the weight of higher-ups looking down on your every move was in stark contrast to how WWE operated. In the end, it was a prominent reason why the company folded.

Despite those challenges, for the better part of five years, Bischoff was able to navigate the choppy suit-and-tie filled waters. At WCW's peak, which was fueled by larger-than-life stars and jaw-dropping storylines, the wrestling business reached heights it had never seen before. It became ingrained in pop culture's fabric rather than being a blip on the radar.

Bischoff is the man responsible for turning Hulk Hogan heel, creating the New World Order—perhaps the most recognizable group in wrestling history—and overseeing Bill Goldberg's meteoric rise to fame. His leadership role at WCW also reshaped the industry, from luring talent from WWE to dishing out guaranteed contracts and even providing TNT's airwaves with a more high-flying, lucha libre-inspired brand of wrestling.

ERIK S. LESSER/Associated Press

On top of that, Bischoff was forced to deal with the reality of having to steward two marquee wrestling programs, WCW Nitro and WCW Thunder—the latter the precursor to WWE's SmackDown.

You can sit around and spin an entire conversation around Bischoff's downfall and failures while with WCW. But his triumphs, both with creative, in television and in surviving for as long as he did in a corporate setting, remain landmarks an entire generation of wrestling fans will never forget.

                     

How Will This Apply to SmackDown?

"As was the case with WCW once upon a time, his success will live or die by his ability to integrate WWE's uniquely eccentric product with an urgent corporate mandate—his track record managing WCW's relationship with Turner back in the day will be invaluable in the new SmackDown-Fox collaboration," The Ringer and B/R contributor Kenny Herzog wrote about Bischoff's transition back into TV.

If nothing else, you have to believe he will be entrusted to satisfy WWE's deal with Fox, finding ways to build on that partnership. It's what Bischoff does best.

Yet it's important to make note of what Bischoff was brought in to accomplish outside of the boardroom. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter originally discussed how the former WCW president wasn't going to be heavily involved with creative (h/t Wrestling Inc's Marc Middleton). Bischoff, never one to hold back, blasted the report as false on his 83 Weeks podcast (h/t Robert Gunier of Wrestling Inc).

Presumably, with creative on his plate, we know Bischoff remains incredibly opinionated on the product. Discussing WWE's programming leading up to WrestleMania 35, he told the New York Post's Joseph Straszewski: "It's been very good. There is nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing great about it because it's become very sterilized for the masses."

Perhaps this means Bischoff will to attempt to bring even more of an edgier feel to SmackDown. Based on the conversation he held with Inside The Ropes, his belief is that in order to make WWE's brand extension genuinely work, you need to separate each show and give one a genuine sense of grit.

It will also be fun to watch how Bischoff incorporates star power back into the blue brand. With a decorated history of finding the right pop culture stars ready to jump ship into wrestling—like Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone, Kevin Greene and even Jay Leno—you have to wonder whether Bischoff will pull the attraction card once more. This was a pivotal component to his WCW strategy.

PAULA ILLINGWORTH/Associated Press

Another distinct possibility will be a renewed use of stables. WCW was full of them, as we watched the NWO, Four Horsemen, The Flock and others take up chunks of TV time. Could we see NXT's Undisputed Era or even the Forgotten Sons find a home on SmackDown? If anyone can give them a centralized role within the main roster, oddsmakers would probably point to Bischoff as the favorite.

SmackDown could also see an increase in cruiserweight moments. Before WWE created 205 Live in 2016, Bischoff was the guy who helped push the cruiserweight division while in WCW. In order for WWE to take advantage of talent and create more mainstream, household names, incorporating the 205 Live roster into what the blue brand is doing seems to make a lot of sense.

Another prediction for the impending Bischoff regime centers around finding the right way to showcase big men. WWE's roster is full of them. But aside from Braun Strowman, they have encountered issues in recent years, making fans care less about these unstoppable forces.

Bischoff worked magic with Goldberg and created a must-see, super-famous monster. Is there hope for a Lars Sullivan or perhaps even Jaxson Ryker of NXT fame to make a splash on the main roster?

All of these elements, combined with Bischoff's corporate pedigree, should provide SmackDown with a new, almost distinct look and feel. Having a guy who encapsulates that big picture is something WWE has desperately missed.

                      

The Final Verdict

It hasn't been easy watching WWE programming over the past two years. Outside of scintillating ring work, NXT and the addition of talent, the product has become a parody of itself. It hasn't captured our imaginations.

If nothing else, bringing aboard Bischoff and Heyman should lead to an infusion of different ideas. And different is good. If either man can channel part of his historic past, WWE could ensure the insurgent AEW never gains enough of a footing to rock the boat.