Brock Lesnar finally had the pleasure of getting his revenge SummerSlam.
A detailed, nuanced and action-packed storyline came to a close on Saturday night, with Lesnar’s cathartic moment finally taking place when he slammed Paul Heyman into the announcer’s table with an F5. Heyman was his longtime on-screen advisor (or, as Heyman would say, “advocate”). For years, if you saw Lesnar, the next person in your peripheral vision would undoubtedly be Heyman.
While still close behind the scenes, their on-screen narrative changed six months ago when Heyman pledged allegiance to Roman Reigns instead of Lesnar. It was satisfying to see Lesnar finally complete his storyline with Heyman, which immediately followed the violent end of the Lesnar-Reigns program. There was a reason Reigns speared Lesnar right after he hit the F5 on Heyman. Ever the opportunist, Reigns seized the moment Lesnar was distracted, then he and Bloodline brothers Jimmy and Jey Uso began their beatdown and series of false finishes that ended SummerSlam in a dramatic way.
Reigns was victorious in that Last Man Standing match, which means, of course, so was Heyman. This is history combined with real life. Now entering his fifth decade in professional wrestling, Heyman has created a distinct legacy. He laid the groundwork for his future as a much-underrated manager in WCW, later returning to an evolved version of the role, notably with Lesnar and Reigns. He’s found success — and yes, a lot of controversy — at every stop along the way, carving out an iconic legacy as the chief operating officer of Extreme Championship Wrestling in the mid-1990s. That’ll be the reason for Heyman’s appearance this Sunday on A&E’s WWE Rivalswhere he will share a perspective unlike any other of the WWE-WCW battles during the famous “Monday Night Wars” era.
Heyman played an integral role in that battle, but it wasn’t because he carried a rival show on Monday nights. Often, you couldn’t find ECW on the air until two or three in the morning. Long before the DVR, it took a leap of faith to trust your VCR to record as programmed in the hope that you would witness an uncut, uncensored, extreme version of pro wrestling.
“What was it like competing in the single most hyper-competitive environment in the history of this industry?” says Heyman. “With absolutely no sponsors, no advertisers, no big money backers or trust funds behind me? It was exciting.”
ECW has been a constant factor in determining the hot hand in the weekly WWE-WCW battle for wrestling supremacy. This was in part because, at first, it appeared that the talent brought in from ECW would affect the ratings. When Public Enemy and Sabu signed with WCW or when Shane Douglas “The Franchise” left for greener pastures and the opportunity to benefit from the brilliant mind of Vince McMahon, there was no doubt that the slow death of ECW was coming faster than expected. However, an unexpected turn of events shaped the entire next generation of professional wrestling. It wasn’t just the wrestlers who would determine it Monday Night Raw–Nitro struggle, but rather the attitude. ECW, led by Heyman and an extremely talented, evolving roster, took the industry to the extreme. In terms of content and athleticism, ECW is still the blueprint for every major wrestling promotion in North America, especially WWE and AEW.
“My role wasn’t to be a dollar-for-dollar competitor,” Heyman says. “My role was to be the disruptor, to be the catalyst for change in the business. I understood. I also understood that history would see ECW as a cause rather than a business, and ultimately, we would fall victim to that labeling and stigma because it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was no way we could ever survive fighting two billion dollar companies with no money, no muscle, and no mouthpiece. All we had were balls, bulls— and bravo.
“In my 35 years as an orator, I have yet to find a better sound than Bubba Ray Dudley, who said we were Napster. We weren’t meant to survive. We intended to disrupt. We were a cause, which continues to see its ideas implemented and exploited and benefit an industry. We were the troublemakers, with Faustian zeal, of an entire generation.”
There is no shortage of “Paul Heyman Guys” in wrestling, with Steve Austin and The Undertaker leading the team. However, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone more closely associated on-screen with Heyman than Lesnar or now Reigns, a pairing that has exceeded all expectations.
“I understand the level of greatness that both of these men can achieve,” Heyman says. “I had the easiest job in the last 20 years. Look who I’m hyping. However, no matter how much I advertise them, I still promise and they still prevail.”
If Lesnar and Reigns ever got into a time machine with the now 56-year-old Heyman, somehow traveling back to the future and landing in Philadelphia—a city that knows a thing or two about being revolutionary—in front of a rabid ECW crowd Arena in April 1997, Heyman believes there would be nothing but limitless opportunities for magic in the ring, on screen.
Scroll to continue
“Rob Van Dam could have hung with them, or anyone for that matter,” says Heyman. “I think Taz was a fascinating character who could believably stick with anyone. The Dudleys could hang out with anyone.’
The single biggest misconception of ECW is that it was all blood, guts and nudity. While these were all prominent features of the brand, it would not have endured if there was only style without substance. The backbone of ECW was its wrestling, whether it was presented by Rey Mysterio, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Tommy Dreamer, Too Cold Scorpio, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mick Foley, Mikey Whipwreck, The Great Sasuke, Lance Storm, Psicosis or aforementioned stars such as Van Dam, The Dudleys, Sabu and Taz. This gave the promotion a pulse, vindication for all the wrestling fans who had been disillusioned with a product they no longer liked. And ECW wouldn’t—and couldn’t—be ECW without the legendary, timeless Funk, who would have put on a masterpiece against either Reigns or Lesnar.
“Terry Funk was a completely different style,” says Heyman. “He was a genius at delivering the vision and expectations of the audience he was playing for. The forearm, the standard for classic professional wrestling, as far as grappling is concerned, remains Flair vs. Steamboat and the Briscoes vs. the Funks. As much as Terry Funk’s reputation is heralded for his wild antics, he was also one of the great mat technicians of his era who could go on 60 Minutes with Jack Brisco anywhere in the world. And when Terry Funk took on Jack Briscoe, that was the performance he gave. When Terry Funk teamed up with Harley Race, you saw a bare and dirty, bare knuckle brawl. When Terry Funk was paired with Ric Flair, you saw the antics of Terry Funk against the purity and fluidity and finesse of Ric Flair.
“What Terry Funk was great at was understanding what people paid to see. He did not define a specific role. He conquered everything. So anybody opposite Terry Funk would be great, because he would make it great.”
There is no known means of time travel, but there is an exciting alternative. Heyman’s presence on Sunday Rivals will provide an enlightening look at the past, present and future of professional wrestling through the lens of her most advanced mind.
“I’m going to bring light to a part of the story that A&E is doing Biography up,” says Heyman. “So far, I have been blown away by the quality and storytelling that has been told in these A&E Biographies. I answered honestly for historical reasons, and to A&E’s credit, they hired some top directors to present these narratives.”
An exciting theme for the show will be Heyman’s partnership with WWE in 1997, which led to an unforgettable version of Monday Night Raw and the introduction of Van Dam as “Mr. Monday night”. Separating fact from fiction, Heyman made it clear that his partnership with Vince McMahon had its own set of risks for ECW.
“The understanding I had with Vince in ’97 didn’t deter him from competing with us or us from competing with him,” Heyman says. “There was just an understanding that if an aggressive move was going to be made, then at least I would be informed in advance that it was going to be made. I had the same information in WCW through Kevin Sullivan. When Sullivan was out of power, these hints stopped. Then they aggressively went after talent with signing bonuses instead of a phone call telling us we were ready. That was the heads up I would get from WWE. It was, “Hey, we’re interested in this person. How can we make this not hurt your business?’ This was a courtesy given by Vince McMahon to ECW. But it was still all work, and ideas, ideas and talent could be attacked.”
Heyman’s longevity is remarkable, as is his ability to tell a story. The two are linked, irrevocably, and that will be on display this weekend. Only days after Lesnar, Reigns, Heyman, The Usos and referee Chad Patton received standing ovations backstage from their peers at SummerSlam in sincere appreciation for the classic match presented, viewers now have the opportunity to learn how the past became the present. While the backstage ovation was a topic Heyman wouldn’t discuss, he won’t hold back this Sunday Rivals.
“These episodes are of such high quality,” says Heyman. “If they’re not nominated for an Emmy, there’s something wrong here.”
More wrestling coverage:
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Justin Barrasso.