At Sunday's WWE Night of Champions pay-per-view, Paul Heyman will step into the ring beside his protege Curtis Axel to face his former friend CM Punk. Considering what might happen, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden thought it would be best to track down Mr. Heyman now in order to discuss the art of the promo, his history in the business and the iconic Jim Ross.
After all, there may not be a later once Punk gets his hands on his former ally.
Bleacher Report: I read a lot about how the manager in wrestling is dead. And yet, here you are in the main event picture on a constant basis. Is it just the fact you are a superlative talent? Or is there still room in the business for a mouthpiece?
Paul Heyman: I never approached this role as the stereotypical wrestling manager. I even avoid that word. I've called myself an advocate to disassociate myself from the old term manager that we tried to update 12 years ago as an agent.
Roles constantly have to be redefined in any form of entertainment. Look back at the gangster pics of the 1930s and 1940s and the way James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart would play the part. These roles were redefined in the 1970s by Al Pacino and Rober DeNiro. And again in the 1990s by Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. And will continue to be redefined.
It's the same way in WWE. If you approach this role as "the rebirth of the wrestling manager," it's bound to fail. You have to take it in a different direction. You have to expose the character to a different approach. Or it's nostalgia. I try to find ways to redefine the role and expand it into places it has never gone before.
B/R: I've thought a lot about your most recent clients. Your role with each has been so different. With Brock you're a true mouthpiece. With Punk it seemed like a creative partnership like Bobby Heenan and Nick Bockwinkel. And with Curtis Axel, you're the star and he seems to be getting the rub from you and not vice versa. How much do you think about which Paul Heyman you need to be for each distinct character? Almost like, if you were a real agent, your relationship with each client would be different.
Heyman: Any agent in real life does have different relationships with each and every one of his clients. So, if this were a docu-drama, my relationship with Brock Lesnar would be far different than my relationship with CM Punk. And my relationship with CM Punk would be way different than my relationship with Curtis Axel.
My off-camera friendship with Brock Lesnar has always been different than my off-camera friendship with CM Punk. But I could not tell you that I am closer to either one of them or either one of them is closer to me. It's just a different relationship.
Like any compelling show on television, what works best in WWE is relationships. What's the relationship between these two people and how does the conflict manifest itself into box office? Whether it's Walter White's relationship with his brother-in-law, or his pupil, or his ex-students, or other drug dealers—it's the relationships of the central character that make Breaking Bad so compelling. And it's the diversity of relationships that makes it so compelling.
It's the key to success for any great television show. So, I will approach a relationship on television with Brock Lesnar far differently than I would the relationship the "Heyman character" would have with CM Punk or anyone else I'm associated with.
Because off-camera relationships would be different, so should on camera ones. If "Heyman" reacts to everyone the same way it gets very old very quick.
B/R: I'm curious about your relationship with Brock. I've seen you with him at the UFC. It's not a gimmick relationship, or an on-camera relationship. How did you come to be friends? You guys are as opposite as they come on the surface. What makes you friends? What brought you together as people?
Heyman: Brock Lesnar and I are as different as any two people can be. What drew us together was the love of the actual performance aspect of what we do. While Brock detests the public eye, the travel and all the often documented things he doesn't like, Brock loves to be in the ring or the cage. He hates everything else that goes along with it. But the actual act of performing or fighting is something the man truly loves. And I share that passion with him.
And, despite the trappings of fame and fortune, we both have, at our core, a very similar value. Our children and our families are everything to us. And it always goes back to that. Brock and I met at a time when we were both about to experience fatherhood. Here we were on an airplane to the U.K., and we really didn't know each other, and neither one of us had told anybody. We were keeping it very private.
It just happened to come out that both of us were expectant fathers. And the passion with which he spoke about his dreams for his child who had yet to be born—our first children were daughters born two months apart—the fact that we had such similar dreams for our children was such a commonality between us that we became dear friends based on how similar we were despite being different at the same time.
B/R: It's funny how we can find those shared life experiences, even with someone who is so different than we are. Another guy who is as opposite from Paul Heyman as it comes is "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.
I heard a pretty interesting discussion on his podcast about wrestling promos and the cost/benefit analysis of working from a script. We are told that wrestlers these days all work from a rigid script, yet you often talk for 10 or 15 minutes at a time and are so natural that I can't believe it is memorized dialogue. Do you work from bullet points instead of a script? What's your process like?
Heyman: The working procedure varies from day to day. There are people who are handed scripts and are expected to recite them word for word. That's because their performance benefits from that process in terms of "here's what you're going to say, here's how you're going to say it, don't deviate."
There are those, however, who have earned trust. And, in earning trust, you get more leeway. I have found, whether it is in WWE or anywhere, you can go off word, you just can't ever go off message. I can't imagine that any movie director will stop a brilliant performance because you deviate from reciting word-for-word what's on the written page as long as he's delivering the message in a way everyone in the audience can sink their teeth into.
I've seen too many people get hung up on "this word leads to this word, leads to this word, leads to this word." If I can convey the message and I can get across the points that you want brought forward and I can sell the message of the day, it shouldn't really matter if I get the words just right.
What's the message? And how can I convey it? How can I sell that sentiment to the widest possible audience and get them hooked into what we're trying to promote?
B/R: The top two storylines are both teasing fans, built around a payoff. Daniel Bryan overcoming the odds, and CM Punk avenging himself on you. You've been around wrestling, and story-telling, for a long time. How do you know, creatively, when it's time to give the fans what they want and when it's still time to build anticipation? How do you keep from dragging it on to the point they don't care anymore?
Heyman: It's a feel process. It's the same as having a great match. How do you know when it's time to end the match? When you have the audience going crazy, the wrong inclination is to say "let's do this for four hours tonight." Because there's going to come a time when the audience is burned out from it.
You always want to end something at 11:59 PM. You never want to end something a minute after midnight. Because now you've gone past your welcome.
B/R: Wow. That's a great way to put it. How have you made that call in your own career?
Heyman: It's just a feeling-out process. It's been something that has been done for many, many years. It's something that I did in ECW. When was it time for Tommy Dreamer to pin Raven? When was it time for Sabu to actually fight Taz? When was it time for 911 to chokeslam Bill Alfonso?
It's the same thing. It's a game of foreplay. And sooner or later you have to give them what they are paying for.
B/R: It's wrestling. You've got to give them the finish.
Heyman: Yeah. Everybody likes foreplay, but there comes a time when you've got to get to the meat of the matter, no pun intended. The key is getting to the payoff one day early. One minute early. Just as you maximize the interest. You'll get the most number of people who will pay to see the conclusion of this chapter in the central characters' lives.
B/R: You're going to be in the ring, so I wanted to go back and watch a match from 1989 at the Great American Bash. Paul E. Dangerously and Jim Cornette. There is a moment in this match when Jim Cornette hits you with a right hand and you take a crazy spinning bump. It looks like, if briefly, Jerry Lawler or Terry Funk. You've set the bar for yourself pretty high at Night of Champions. Do you have that kind of physicality in you anymore? I was amazed by that match. Do you remember this match?
Heyman: Yes I remember it. And no, I don't want to be held accountable for my performance in the ring in 1989 (laughs).
B/R: None of us are getting any younger.
Heyman: I would suggest that any physicality between Paul Heyman and CM Punk is going to be dramatically different than anything else I've been involved in in the past. I truly don't see me getting in any offense against CM Punk (laughs).
I think what we did on television is about as much offense as I'm ever going to get. And the clock is simply ticking on the a** kicking cometh.
B/R: One of the high points of the last couple decades was your creative use of what we called the SmackDown Six. (Kurt) Angle, Eddie (Guerrero), Edge and a host of great workers. It seems like WWE is having another Renaissance of great in-ring talent. How do you think the current crop of Bryan, Punk, Ziggler, Antonio Cesaro and the rest compare with guys who are now legends?
Heyman: I find it very difficult to compare performers from one era to another. And that's because the times are much, much different. What worked in 2002 will not necessarily work in 2013. And what works today will not necessarily work two years from now.
There is an extraordinary crop of performers in WWE right now. And you named several of them. And there are more and more still in developmental. Look at the emergence of The Shield.
B/R: They're fantastic.
Heyman: Three totally different diverse personalities. Each fitting a certain role within that three-man group. And all phenomenal performers, together and on their own.
Look at the stardom being achieved by Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. Would CM Punk have even gotten a chance 15 years ago in WWE? Because, I can tell you, they didn't want him in 2005 and 2006.
So, it's impossible to compare talent rosters from different eras because the value system is different. Pop culture is different. What's acceptable today may not have been acceptable in 2002. The performers have to fit what is acceptable in society and what is hot in pop culture.
B/R: One of the pop culture trends that wasn't there in your heyday is reality TV. We've seen wrestling explode into reality television with Total Divas. I can't help but think of the fun you'd have had with something like this in the ECW days. What would Total ECW: Behind the Scenes at the Bingo Hall have looked like? What would it have featured and how popular would it have been on HBO or Showtime?
Heyman: If there was a reality television program documenting the behind-the-scenes aspects of ECW in the 1990's we would all have been in jail.
B/R: (Laughs) That sounds like good TV.
Heyman: It's a promise though. It would have been a prison show because they would have locked us all up.
B/R: It could have aired after Oz! Switching gears to a guy who has likely never been to prison, Jim Ross just retired after a lifetime in the business. You're somebody who worked with Jim years ago and again later at the peak of his power. What is his legacy? Is it behind the scenes or as one of the most iconic announcers in history?
Heyman: I think the most honest statement that I can give about Jim Ross's legacy in this industry is that it's not confined to just a single aspect of his career. It was a multi-faceted career. His accomplishments are varied and across the board.
Whether it's the fact that he built the greatest assembly of talent as the head of talent relations for WWE in the late 1990s, whether it's his work on camera as an announcer, whether it's his teaching students how to become a commentator—in which I am one of his students—or whether it's his implementation of the talent development system, Jim Ross' contributions to this business cannot be constrained or confined to just one aspect of wrestling.
I think that's the greatest testimony to the enormity of his contributions to this industry. If you only focus on his announcing, then you're missing his talent relations work. And if you only focus on his work behind the scenes building the roster, you've forgotten he's also a great announcer. Across the board he's meant so much to the industry.
B/R: When the day comes for Paul Heyman to walk away from this business, how do you hope fans will remember you? As the guy who showed the violent potential of the cellular telephone? The guy who created ECW and shaped wrestling for a period? Or the agent working with Brock Lesnar, CM Punk and Curtis Axel? What will fans remember about you?
Heyman: I really never spend any time thinking about what my legacy is going to be because it's akin to writing your own obituary. I'm not done building that legacy.
The only legacy that I concentrate on is the legacy I leave for my children. Because my work as a father is what will truly define me as a man. Anything else is just a job. One that I take great pride in, but one I never spend time thinking about how it's going to look when I'm done.
Because I'm not finished accomplishing things yet. I would hope that it would be impossible to write or predict what my legacy will be because there is still ground to break. Still things to accomplish in this industry. I ain't done yet. I'm just starting to figure this sh*t out.
B/R: I apologize for writing you off early. You're still at the top of your game and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!
Heyman: (Laughs) I hope I'll look back at this period a year from now and say "What was I thinking back then? I'm so much better now."
B/R: That's what life is. If you're not growing, you're doing something wrong.
Heyman: Right! That's the whole point of it. The whole point is not to look back and say "Wow, boy if I could only just match what I used to do." I want to beat what I used to do. I want to look back on this in a couple of years and go "Look how stupid I was back then." I'm just starting to figure it out.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of three books, including Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were compiled firsthand.