A Phone Call with Paul Heyman: On WrestleMania, His One-Man Show, and Brock Lesnar's Future

Wrestling Features Paul Heyman
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A Phone Call with Paul Heyman: On WrestleMania, His One-Man Show, and Brock Lesnar's Future

“I’m low maintenance,” Paul Heyman tells me when I express surprise that he called me directly for our interview. I’m used to talking to a publicist first, or whatever PR agent set the interview up, who then patches me onto a line with the person I’ll be talking to. I especially expect that when I’m talking to somebody like Paul Heyman, a legendary figure in the wrestling industry who might be more popular among diehard wrestling fans than anybody else in the business. From his days as the manager Paul E. Dangerously in the 1980s and early ‘90s, to his time as the booker and owner of the groundbreaking promotion ECW from 1993 to 2001, to his current on-air role as WWE Universal Champion Brock Lesnar’s advocate, Heyman has spent over three decades developing a reputation as one of the smartest minds in the business. He’s pretty much the only front office figure in wrestling history with an iconic T-shirt with his name on it.

Heyman will probably see a lot of people wearing that “I’m a Paul Heyman Guy” T-shirt at the Joy Theater in New Orleans tonight, where he’ll be the star of the one-man show An Evening with Paul Heyman. Billed as a chance to hear Heyman talk about his career, from managing in NWA and WCW in the 1980s through serving as Lesnar’s advocate today, it’s an example of what’s become a popular side business for iconic wrestling personalities. People like Jim Ross, Mick Foley and Jim Cornette have been doing one-man shows, audience Q&As and live podcasts for years, and tonight Heyman will be bringing his own version to New Orleans during the extended WrestleMania Weekend. Don’t expect some misty-eyed nostalgia, though. “I don’t present the Al Bundy Classic where I spend my adult life recalling that one moment in the high school game where the spotlight was on me,” Heyman says. “That’s not the nature of the shows that we do.”

What can you expect from An Evening with Paul Heyman? Read our interview with him below, where he discusses the show, the importance of WrestleMania, and his friend and client Brock Lesnar’s future after his big main event against Roman Reigns.

Paste: Other than the money what do you like about doing these one man shows?

Heyman: This is written by, directed by, produced by, performed by the audience. This is just me as the maestro in front of an orchestra. We learned this in London—it’s not about the format that we envision, it’s about gathering people from all over who are converging in New Orleans in the same place at the same time for the ame event, WrestleMania, and here’s an open forum for everybody to talk. We’re going to brainstorm. We’re going to have a culture meeting. And I just happen to be the guy at the front who’s the connecting dot for all these people at the same time.

Paste: So it’s a big conversation with the fans.

Heyman: And amongst the fans, too. It’s just a free form expression. Let’s all get a people in the same room at the same time, and okay audience, where do you want to take this conversation? Let’s see where we can go.

Paste: Have you ever had any of your thoughts or notions about wrestling challenged or changed by any of these conversations?

Heyman: Never changed because my thoughts on this industry change every single day because the style and the desire of the audience and what’s in and what’s out evolves every single day. So I can’t tell you that I’ve been in front of a group of people and I go “Oh my God, everybody wants us to go left!” Because I expect to walk into a room and be told that everybody wants us to go left, or right, or backwards, or forwards, or up and down. Every day the audience is going to have a different pulse. I’m never surprised by riding the pulse because tastes are ever changing.

Paste: Speaking about what the audience wants, do you think that what the type of audience who would come see a Paul Heyman show over WrestleMania weekend wants to see is what the typical WWE audience would want to see?

Heyman: I don’t know what the makeup of my audience in New Orleans is going to be. The typical WWE audience, the typical critical of WWE audience, or anything typical at all. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of different styles represented by its fanbase, all converging at the same time. I’m never of the opinion that anybody who desires a certain style is wrong for wanting that. There are people who like a certain style, and people who like another style. People who like this presentation and hate vehemently that presentation. You’re never going to get 100% on the same page with a global crowd. It’s always going to be a diverse set of opinions, which I like.

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Paste: What sort of topics do you typically wind up talking about at these shows?

Heyman: I have a feeling with it being a few days before WrestleMania the dominant topics are going to be Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns and what happens after April 8. And just thoughts on the current product, or on the different styles that are emerging out there that are not yet incorporated into the WWE product today.

Paste: That basically sounds like all the questions I have prepared to ask you today.

Heyman: So your questions are in line with what’s going to be the conscience of the audience in New Orleans.

Paste: Before we get to that current product, I want to talk about your past as a wrestling fan. What wrestling did you grow up watching when you were young?

Heyman: When I first started I was a fan of Eddie Einhorn’s promotion, the IWA. And they lost their time slot in New York, and the WWWF, which was led by Vincent James McMahon, took over the dominant time slots in New York. And so I ended up watching that promotion. And I watched Florida, like everybody else did, all the other New York fans. Florida used to be on the Spanish station, Tuesday nights at 11:30.

Paste: And that was Eddie Graham’s promotion?

Heyman: Of course it was.

Paste: When you were a kid and first getting into wrestling what did you love about it? What made you think, wow, this is what my career’s going to be?

Heyman: I never thought it was what my career was going to be. But I was always fascinated by the manner in which the show was presented. I always looked at it from the perspective of how to create it, how to write it, how to produce it, how to get the most out of the personalities. How you find the characters within the personalities. The psychological aspect of the engine that propels the presentation forward was always fascinating to me.

Paste: When you started in the business, was it hard to get the respect of the wrestlers? What was it like, breaking into wrestling??

Heyman: I actually was around a lot of people from the time I was 15 years old. I was always super respectful to the sacrifices that were necessary to reach a level of performance in this industry where you’re actually a box office attraction. I was always so super respectful as a kid that by the time I broke in there were a lot of things I could be accused of but disrespectful towards the business was never one of them. Because everybody understood how much I respected the business I can’t tell you that I had any harder time than anybody else had to, earning their stripes in the locker room.

Paste: During your career you’ve been a manager, a commentator, a promoter and a booker and the owner of a promotion. What’s been your favorite era of your own career?

Heyman: This moment.

Paste: What do you like so much about it?

Heyman: Because everything that I’ve done, everything I’ve been exposed to, everything I’ve worked for, any sacrifice I’ve made, has lead to this moment right here at this place in time. Look at where we are. Brock and I started on television in 2002. He has since that time been a top box office attraction, has gone into history as accomplishing something no one else could accomplish in terms of conquering the Undertaker’s streak. He has been a UFC Heavyweight Champion, beating the greatest heavyweight champion in UFC history, Randy Couture. Knocking Randy Couture out to take the title. Come back from a deadly disease and here we are with me, at 52, having started at 21 in the business, and we’re walking into the main event of WrestleMania, and we are opposing someone who is now such a box office attraction that he’s in his fourth consecutive WrestleMania event. Holy shit, man! You know what, life doesn’t suck right now. It’s pretty fucking good. So what’s my favorite era ever? Right now. And my kids are healthy and they have a chance to see the experience for good and for bad with me along the ride. And the person I work with is legitimately my best friend in the world. And I admire him both as a performer, as an athlete and also just as a human being and a husband and a father. I admire him more than I could ever talk about on television when I’m extolling his virtues.

Paste: I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but who would you say is the most naturally gifted pro wrestler you’ve ever seen, the person who was most built to be a pro wrestler?

Heyman: Brock Lesnar. And just because I’m biased in my answer doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I’m actually correct: it is Brock Lesnar. If DC and Marvel merged tomorrow and they came to you and said “draw us the ultimate professional wrestler,” that’s what you would draw. 6’ 3”! 265 to 295 pounds, depending on his mood! Can you do a vertical leap of 10’, the 100 yard dash and quarter mile in Olympic qualifying time, one of the strongest human beings on the face of the planet, and bad enough to be an NCAA Division 1 Heavyweight Champion AND a UFC Heavyweight Champion? Yo! And he looks like that!? I mean, come on. You couldn’t draw this better! You couldn’t make this shit up. And his parents named him Brock Lesnar. The man’s name was made to be said with violence and a sense of majesty. We could have a discussion all day long about how’s number two, but the answer to the question is pretty obvious.

Paste: Saying his name with a sense of majesty, like the way you snap into “Brock” every time you talk about him on Raw.

Heyman: That’s who he is to me. I say his name like that in person, when I’m two feet away from him. That’s who he is. If you know him, and I know him probably better than anybody outside his family, you know he really is Brock Lesnar. He’s not just some sedentary or laidback dude who just happens to portray this role on television. You look at him, you understand he’s Brock Lesnar. The guy is Wreck-It Ralph in person.

Paste: So right now with Brock you’re basically the last manager in WWE. They haven’t used a lot of managers the last 20 or so years. From you’re experience in the business, do you think that role is passé or does it still have value in wrestling if used correctly?

Heyman: I thought it was passé in 1991 when I asked to be called the CEO of the Dangerous Alliance instead of being called their manager. I haven’t wanted to portray a manger since Paul E. Dangerously was with the Samoan Swat Team in 1989. I’ve always wanted to do some different presentation in that role. I don’t consider myself a manger—I’m an advocate, and I truly believe that that is the description for the role that I play. If there’s an act out there where somebody can play the manager, or be the manager, and it works, and it clicks at the box office with the audience, then all of a sudden it’s not passé. As for now, how I envision what I can bring to the table, I don’t think I can play what I consider to be the antiquated role of a manger. I think I play a different character, and that’s the portrayal of, and actual implementation of, Brock’s advocate.

Paste: So WrestleMania is the big show coming up. Can you give us any insight, potentially, into Brock’s future?

Heyman: He’s going to main event at WrestleMania in a Universal Championship match against Roman Reigns. Right now that’s his future. [Note: This interview was conducted before Dana White said Lesnar would be returning to UFC.]

Paste: Yeah. Okay. That’s the match everybody’s looking forward to. What matches are you looking forward to, besides the main event?

Heyman: The entire card. It’s an experience. It’s the same thing as going to a Broadway play. If you’re going to obsess over how many lines a character has, or how the people who created the play envisioned it ending, then you’re missing the point. If you go to a Broadway play and you walk away going “oh my God, that’s the best Broadway experience I’ve ever had,” then you’ve seen a great play. If you walk away saying “I’m sorry I spent my two and a half hours at that Broadway play,” then it wasn’t a great experience. WrestleMania is an experience. It’s an overall ride, its ups and its downs and its curves and its music. It’s presentation and it’s emotion and it’s paying tribute to the past and progressing the product into the future. It’s career defining moments for people who live for career defining moments. And believe me when I tell you, every single person who walks out to the ring during WrestleMania wants to make it a memorable moment in their career that they’ve walked out to the ring during WrestleMania. So you’re seeing people who do what they do better than anybody else on the face of the planet at their absolute best and determined and driven to make it their best performance of the year. So for everyone, I don’t care if it’s the guy who replaces the turnbuckle, he’s on his best behavior on this day. You get to watch peak performers do it at a level that they feel is their best.

Paste: So the WrestleMania Moment isn’t just marketing, or commentary spiel. It’s a real thing for the wrestlers.

Heyman: If your heart’s not pumping premium on WrestleMania Sunday, then I don’t understand what you’re doing at WrestleMania. We as people in an industry that is based on audience interaction live for anticipation and the drama that is desired by a WrestleMania crowd. No one goes to WrestleMania wanting to walk away going “yeah it was okay but I thought last year’s was better.” Everybody wants to go to WrestleMania with the hope of walking away saying “that was the greatest fucking show I’ve ever seen in my entire life!” Everyone wants that, don’t they? Does a fan really go and not want that? I’m not saying they have to expect it, but they don’t want that? And everybody on that show wants you to walk away saying “I will never forget this WrestleMania because of this. Because the Usos did this. Because Kevin Owens did that. Because Triple H said this. Because Ronda Rousey did that. Because Roman Reigns did this or didn’t do this, and Brock Lesnar, oh my God.” These are the moments for which a global crowd converges in the same place at the same time to exploit their own passion for a product that they support by flying in from around the world. They want everyone at their best. They want to walk away saying “oh my God, I’ll never forget this.”

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Paste: Speaking of how every wrestler wants every WrestleMania to be as big for them as possible, going back a few years, when CM Punk walked away, part of his disquietude was over some of the WrestleMania plans for him that year. Do you think a justified reaction, looking out for his career in that way?

Heyman: It doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what Phil Brooks thinks. If in Phil Brooks’s heart he is a righteous man by saying, “I want the WrestleMania main event, I earned the WrestleMania main event, I feel that is my destiny, or there is nothing for me to pursue”—if he feels that he is a righteous man by saying, “now that I understand that there is nothing left to pursue, so I’m out”—then he is a righteous man. If Phil Brooks doesn’t think it was righteous for him to do it, then he’s not a righteous man. But it’s not for me to judge Phil Brooks as to what is right or wrong or whether he feels justified or not.

Paste: Are you still in contact with him?

Heyman: Whether I am or I’m not, is a matter between friends, and since we have no business out in front of the public anything I would say about Phil Brooks as a friend, a former friend, a future friend, would be revealing a trust between us that I choose to remain loyal as someone who keeps our personal conversations personal. This man knows my children. If soembody knows my children, I don’t expect them be on podcasts going “oh yeah, I had pizza with Paul Heyman’s children” and blah blah blah. I don’t talk about their personal conversations and they never talk about mine.

Paste: When you look at all the talent currently in WWE, down to NXT and the Performance Center and everything, who are some wrestlers that you think have especially bright futures ahead of them?

Heyman: That is a very difficult question for me to answer because I look at this industry as the rightful exploitation of some very talented individuals’ ability to perform at a level that people will pay money to see. To look at the NXT roster and say this person from the male roster, or this person from the female roster, or this announcer, or this commentator, is so good that they will actually change the game on Raw or Smackdown when they move up to the main roster… In order for me to give that assessment I’d have to say that the people who’ve been on the main roster who came from NXT, and now are moving their way to the top of the box office sphere of the main roster, these are the people that should be branded “the future” first before the pressure of being the future is placed upon those who haven’t been brought into the main system yet. And by example, I think in the next year the Usos will be amongst the greatest tag teams of all time.

Paste: They might already be there after this last year.

Heyman: They are an act on Snackdown that I cannot take my attention away from, even for a moment. They are must see. And they’re next at the top of the box office food chain. Seth Rollins wrestled over an hour on television and put on a performance that, in the tape trading days, would have gotten worldwide acclaim with people checking their mailbox every day waiting for the tape to see the performance that everyone is buzzing about. And I can tell you that this is someone who is driven to deliver that every night if he’s given the platform. He wants to earn the platform. How can you talk about a future and not actually say, well, shit, Daniel Bryan’s picking up where he left off? He’s not a nostalgia act, he’s the real deal, and he’s coming back to be everything that he was deprived by his health of being. So when you ask me who do I see as the next breakout superstars, I think they’re already on the roster, and they have been scratching and clawing their way to the top and they’re about to get their opportunity because they earned that opportunity.

Paste: The whole story of Bryan’s return from injury, and how unexpected that is, I’d think that match could overwhelm everything else on the show in fan interest, even the main event.

Heyman: It’s a major, dramatic, emotional story. It’s fantastic.

Paste: Will you catch any other wrestling shows while you’re in New Orleans or just the WWE schedule?

Heyman: No. I’m doing this one-man show, I’m doing the Hall of Fame, and I’m doing WrestleMania.

Paste: Do you still check out other promotions when you get a chance?

Heyman: I watch them religiously from home. I check out all styles that captures.. if there’s a style out there that people are willing to embrace as their own, or support, I want to see that.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.