Monday on Raw, the show closed not with a match but with a promo. It’s not unheard of, but it’s a bold move — to rely on a statement instead of actual wrestling to advance the plot and leave fans eagerly awaiting the next chapter. To spend the night teasing a non-match — in Monday’s case, it was Triple H’s announcement of John Cena’s SummerSlam opponent — puts a lot of weight on such a segment to deliver. In pro wrestling, a punch is worth a thousand words.
But Monday’s last act featured no punches — and it delivered. Fans expected the announcement not only because WWE hyped the segment, but also because the big reveal had been spoiled for many fans by leaked SummerSlam promotional materials that were shared on the Internet: Cena’s opponent would be Brock Lesnar, who was last seen gloating the night after he dismantled the Undertaker at WrestleMania 30. Or, rather, Lesnar was last seen grinning quietly as his manager, Paul Heyman, did the gloating.
On Monday we got more of the same. Once Triple H agreed to give Lesnar the match — despite his rocky history with the former UFC champ, and even though his presumptive choice, Randy Orton, wasn’t magically disqualified from contention because Roman Reigns tackled him, but whatever — we picked up right where we left Heyman and Lesnar three months ago. This time, though, Heyman’s exultation was the main event. And in that spotlight, he delivered. His promo was so brilliant that it’s worth reading in full and breaking down like you’d review the film of an epic match. My comments are in the footnotes.
Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Paul Heyman, and my client Brock Lesnar conquered the Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania.1 Which is why at this moment my client hereby officially announces his intention to conquer John Cena and take the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam.2 Now, my client officially acknowledges this divide that permeates through the WWE universe. There are those who wear their green T-shirts and their pump-up sneakers and they scream with great passion their love and adulation for their hero by saying at the top of their lungs, “Let’s go Cena.” And there are those who offer the contrarian opinion — and whose mommies don’t tuck them into bed at night — and they will say with great fervor and passion “Cena sucks.” Now, it doesn’t matter to my client which side of the fence you want to ride on.3
This malpracticing doctor of thuganomics is in for the beating of a lifetime. I don’t just stand out here and spew hype and hyperbole; I exploit historical facts to shove my points down your throats. To wit, I offer you what happened the last time my client Brock Lesnar zeroed in on someone and decided to give them a beating.4 Now, for years, everybody said, “I want to be the one to beat the Undertaker and snap the streak.” But that wasn’t good enough for Brock Lesnar.5 At WrestleMania, my client Brock Lesnar gave such a violent beating to the Undertaker that Vince McMahon had to ride in the ambulance to the hospital with the Undertaker because even our heartless chairman was concerned for a dead man’s well-being and life.6 Oh, John Cena? That same beating awaits you. And please don’t confuse my client with some stereotypical villain that comes out here and says, “John, you can escape this beating by giving up your title and laying it down at my feet.” Brock Lesnar makes you no such offer.7 John Cena, you can’t escape this beating.
At SummerSlam my client Brock Lesnar will take John Cena down. Brock Lesnar will punch John Cena’s face in. John Cena, you’re going to be hurt by Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar’s going to injure John Cena. Brock Lesnar is going to mangle John Cena. And then, and only then, Brock Lesnar is going to F-5 John Cena and strip John Cena of the dignity of being the WWE World Heavyweight Champion,8 the same way Brock Lesnar stripped the Undertaker of his dignity and exposed the streak as just being a myth — the same myth that Brock Lesnar hears every week on television when John Cena is referred to as being the greatest WWE Champion of all time.9 Fifteen world titles in 10 years: Now that sounds like something worth conquering.10
I pledge allegiance to the greatness of the conqueror who stands before me. And to his dominance for which I stand, one Cenation, under John, now divisible, with no more hustle, loyalty, or respect for all.11 Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Paul Heyman, and I’m the one behind the 1 in 21-1,12 and at SummerSlam, my client Brock Lesnar will beat John Cena and become the WWE Heavyweight Champion of the world.
This has been the most dependable boo line in WWE over the past several months, even though Lesnar hasn’t been on TV a single time.
Note that through the first half of the speech, Heyman largely avoids saying Lesnar’s name, instead using “my client.” This emphasizes Heyman’s centrality and it also saves Lesnar’s name for an exclamation point later.
This is a brilliant parlay — Heyman knows some people love Cena and some people hate him, and he’s making an implicit truce with the “Cena sucks” crowd, as if giving them a pass to cheer for Heyman and Lesnar at SummerSlam despite the reflex to boo them. Heyman does so just as he’s about to ramp up the antagonistic rhetoric.
At this point a video package of Lesnar demolishing the Undertaker at WrestleMania runs. It ends with the stricken faces of the shocked fans that night in New Orleans. When we return to the live feed, Heyman is grinning, and the crowd, which was previously tittering over Lesnar’s return, is noticeably subdued. Heyman is toying with us here; he gave us permission to cheer for Lesnar and now he’s stealing it back by reminding us of Mania.
Now he uses Lesnar’s name, ominously, as the specter of violence becomes more and more concrete, and he uses it relentlessly, like fists pounding down on a face.
This is true, and perhaps the most compelling footnote of the streak-ending story line.
Lesnar is always at his best when he’s teasing the line between real and cartoon in the wrestling world; he’s like a worked-shoot observational comic.
Again, this increases the stakes, especially for “smart” fans — this isn’t about title belts, which are silly story line tools, but about dignity, which is something that Lesnar has the real-world power to take away from an opponent.
Announcer Michael Cole said this earlier in the night, conspicuously; some friends and I immediately started chatting about the legitimacy of the claim and why Cole had whipped it out. It turned out to be a setup for a Heyman punch line, which, considering that Cole’s lines are fed to his earpiece by Vince McMahon, says about all you need to know about Heyman’s place in the WWE hierarchy these days.
The stakes are set: It’s not a matter of victory; it’s a vicious crusade. At this point Heyman launches into his finale.
Whether or not that made complete sense, it was the most succinct and legitimate threat anybody has made to Cena in forever.
His nickname for Lesnar, who ended the Undertaker’s 21-win undefeated WrestleMania streak.
The cameras faded out and wrestling fans exhaled. It was more than just a promo; it was a virtuoso performance for the ages. It was shocking on several levels: that a monologue could have so much more power than a match; that WWE was launching the promotion of the main event of its second-biggest show of the year without either of its competitors speaking; and, perhaps most surprising, that Paul Heyman was doing the heavy lifting.
Die-hard fans know the history of Heyman’s complicated relationship with WWE, but let’s set that aside for now, because the shock isn’t just that Heyman, the closest thing Vince has had to a business rival, is now such a prominent figure on WWE broadcasts. The bigger shock might be that WWE is using a manager in this role at all. The very concept of a manager seems to be passé these days, a stark departure from the company’s WWF early days, when managers were central to the product. This is best embodied by the “Holy Trinity” of villainous wrestling managers in the ’70s and early ’80s: “Classy” Freddie Blassie, the Grand Wizard, and Captain Lou Albano.
Blassie was a former West Coast wrestling great who found a second act as a snide, verbose mouthpiece in the WWF. In the following video, he introduces Stan Hansen to fans and directly into the main-event scene. What’s significant is how Blassie’s presence legitimizes Hansen’s threat; Hansen was great, but your average WWF fan might not have known it.13 The manager’s job was to legitimize his wards — whether or not they were legitimate. (This promo led to a steel-cage match in Madison Square Garden on April 6, 1981.)
Hansen spent much of his heyday wrestling in Japan.
The Grand Wizard was a scrawny guy with a three-packs-a-day voice who oversaw a cadre of WWF baddies14 including “Superstar” Billy Graham, for whom the Wizard is seen here hyping an upcoming match against Rocky Johnson. Note that Graham isn’t even there. It didn’t matter; the Grand Wizard was as important as Graham, and he’s so compelling that you hardly notice the absence.
Before joining the WWF in 1972, he managed the Sheik in Detroit under the moniker Abdullah Farouk.
Captain Lou Albano is mostly known to wrestling fans of my generation as the rubber band–wearing flag bearer of the Rock ’n’ Wrestling Era — the gruff, avuncular character on the Hulk Hogan cartoon. Prior to that, however, and prior to the beef with Cyndi Lauper that got her involved with wrestling, Albano was an ominous, oddball heel manager. Here he is promoting the Wild Samoans, a duo of silent barbarians whom Albano unleashed on the WWF.
It’s impossible to watch these clips and not see Heyman’s antecedents: Albano’s orating while Afa and Sika stand in stony silence; Wizard’s speechifying in his client’s absence, as Heyman often does so ably for the itinerant Lesnar; and Blassie lending explanatory credence to his client’s out-of-the-blue challenge. Heyman uses all these rhetorical tricks, despite the current view of managers like the Holy Trinity as dinosaurs in the world of modern pro wrestling. Heyman exists in defiance of WWE’s nominal no-managers policy. But just like talent won out when Daniel Bryan and CM Punk became main-event headliners despite lacking WWE’s conventional superstar aesthetic, Heyman’s talent won out and his managerial reign marches on.
When Brock Lesnar won at WrestleMania, everyone was shocked. I had basically guaranteed a Taker victory before the event. My thinking was simple: If you made a Venn diagram of all the people who stood to gain something from beating Taker and all the people whom Vince McMahon would actually let break the streak, the overlap was either zero people or one: Daniel Bryan. And he was otherwise occupied, with a main-event title match that night. Anybody beneath Bryan on the totem pole wouldn’t have Vince’s confidence, and anyone above him didn’t need the boost. And so Lesnar, I argued, didn’t fit the bill. He already headlines events whenever he wrestles, and he performs so infrequently that WWE stood to earn more by keeping the streak intact and selling DVDs and T-shirts commemorating Undertaker’s achievement. Neither Lesnar nor WWE stood to benefit from a victory in the handful of appearances Brock would make before going back on walkabout. When he won, Internet fans made those same arguments in disapproval of the ending.
My first reaction was that WWE wanted to create a big moment with Taker’s loss, and it certainly did. My second reaction was that it wanted to get mainstream media hype, and it did that too. But the complaints still stood — were a few paragraphs in USA Today really worth the streak?
The flaw in that line of thought was the focus on Lesnar. Maybe Brock Lesnar wouldn’t be around enough to gain anything substantial from his victory. Maybe Lesnar never needed that kind of hype. But Lesnar was never going to be the beneficiary. The real winner of the match was Paul Heyman, who would be around to milk it for everything it was worth. If it’s a matter of claiming victory, Brock Lesnar didn’t break the streak. Paul Heyman broke the streak.
Somehow, the guy who ran an upstart wrestling promotion into the ground, got bailed out by Vince McMahon, then clashed with him publicly (sometimes scripted, sometimes not) and who quit, got fired, and had his various duties removed or altered throughout his time in WWE, has become perhaps a bigger onscreen star than McMahon himself. Despite not having creative control, despite not being a homegrown talent, and, above all, despite not being an in-ring talent, Heyman has become the face of the WWE.
The other manager that must of course be mentioned is Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Heenan played a more central role to the good-versus-evil balance in the WWF’s first heyday than any villain, including “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Heenan was the main target of scorn, both from wrestlers and fans, as his revolving cast of underlings terrorized the Hulkamania Era WWF. (Heenan later retired into a strictly commentary role, a sort of reverse of Heyman’s course in WWE.) Seemingly endless are the number of online wrestler bios that have lines like “He continued to feud with members of the Heenan Family through the end of 1985.”
But whereas Heenan was often reduced to a comic foil, Heyman has been elevated to the level of superstar. Heyman is the Heenan of the modern era,15 except if Big John Studd had triumphantly won the $15,000 Body Slam Challenge.
We talked about this Monday on Aubrey Sitterson’s Straight Shoot show.
Heyman has become not just a go-to for getting middling guys over to the next stage in their careers and for taking already popular guys to the top,16 he’s a character with whom stars like CM Punk will request to feud, and he’s a scoundrel whose comeuppance fans relish more than that of any real brawler.17 Heyman is a character whose teaser tweets drive the WWE narrative more than most of the things that happen onscreen. And on the air, the announcers set up his punch lines — like Michael Cole calling Cena the greatest WWE champion of all time — and Triple H is willing to defer to him at the end of the show.
His short-circuited relationship with Cesaro notwithstanding.
Managers of yore often appeared in payoff matches, too — Heenan could bump like nobody’s business, and who can forget Albano slicing his forehead open ostentatiously in a match against Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka at MSG?
When WWE hands John Cena the ball, wrestling fans grumble because we think he’s just Vince McMahon’s idea of a professional wrestler — big muscles, flashy moves, cartoon personality, and catchphrases galore. When WWE puts Heyman in the spotlight, it’s easy to overlook that it’s spotlighting someone who is the opposite of all of those predictable tropes. If John Cena made it to the top because he checked all the boxes, Heyman made it because he refused to check any. Just like he succeeded against all odds with ECW by positioning it as the counterculture to the WWF-WCW mainstream, Heyman has found success in WWE by being everything the company has resisted in its onscreen talent over the past decade or two.
So here we are, a month out from SummerSlam, at a time when WWE needs all the publicity it can get. For that reason alone, John Cena versus Brock Lesnar is an obvious choice for the main event. But despite the garlands decorating the competitors, Cena is more a superstar than a ring technician and Lesnar is more of an MMA fighter than a pro wrestler. The main event features two big names, but somehow it feels somewhat lacking in pro-wrestling substance. Lesnar’s part-time schedule makes him a questionable threat, and history has told us that no beatdown — no matter how severe — can squash Cena’s hustle. But with Paul Heyman selling the event, Lesnar’s dominance seems incontrovertible and his freelance status feels like an extra dose of intimidation rather than a reason not to care. With Heyman, it all suddenly makes sense; it feels like genuine pro wrestling spectacle.
Heyman is the living embodiment of the show-closing promo — the statement that stands in for physicality. A paragraph from Heyman is better than a match from most wrestlers. And it seems as if WWE has figured this out. Heyman’s promo Monday night was the most talked-about main-event segment in months, and it wasn’t because it was a surprise — the news about Lesnar had been out for more than a week. The buzz was over Heyman’s breathtaking talent. Like WWE learned to accept the rises of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, the company has now realized that the biggest heel on the roster isn’t Lesnar or Orton or even Triple H.
In the ’90s, when show-closing promos were in vogue, it was more of an out than a feature — a way to get the big star in the ring without having to stage a real match. With Heyman, it’s something else entirely: a promo as a match. It’s not an idle threat; it’s multidimensional drama. If being a pro wrestler is equal parts acting and athleticism, and if people can seriously consider somebody — like Lesnar, for instance — the best pro wrestler in the world without hearing him talk on a microphone, then what’s wrong with Heyman being such a transcendent talker that it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t wrestle? Nobody would question you if you called Lesnar the best pro wrestler in the game, even though most fans would rather watch Paul Heyman wrestle than listen to Lesnar cut a promo.
In a match between a 15-time World Champion and the most dominating real-life wrestler in the world, Paul Heyman is somehow the best pro wrestler in the story line. So forget Cena and Bryan and Orton and Roman Reigns — Paul Heyman is the face of the WWE. How in the world did that happen?