WWE and ECW legend Paul Heyman: The Malcolm McLaren of professional wrestling
How the former ECW man - a man full complexity and contradictions - has kept up with the times
Thursday 31 July 2014
London, England, 1975. A former art student turned clothes shop owner named Malcolm McLaren saw the future. His aptly named Kings Road boutique ‘Sex’, which he ran with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was attracting interest from all over the world. The clothing they sold was a shock to most onlookers, with their fetish and bondage wear a world away from the flares and feather cuts that most of the capital city rocked.
His concept was simple.
“There are two rules I've always tried to live by: turn left, if you're supposed to turn right; go through any door that you're not supposed to enter. It's the only way to fight your way through to any kind of authentic feeling in a world beset by fakery.”
McLaren’s shop was a haven to waifs and strays who travelled from far and wide just to be seen as something different. Realising that a counterculture was waiting for a change, McLaren found that the best way to get across his message was via music.
In an attempt to break up the monopoly of prog rock and awkward dancing on Top Of The Pops, he formed the Sex Pistols, who within three years had inspired punk culture, changed the mind-set of a nation, released a number one album, and then imploded in spectacular fashion.
Malcolm McLaren knew that punk was more than just a musical movement; it was an inclination to be adhered to at all times. For every chime of Anarchy In The UK, for every New Rose or London Calling, there was thousands of people who were inspired to change their lives as a result of the ethos.
“I always said punk was an attitude. It was never about having a Mohican haircut or wearing a ripped T-shirt. It was all about destruction, and the creative potential within that.”
Philadelphia, America, 1993. A former wrestling photographer and manager named Paul Heyman saw the future. He had just taken over a fledgling wrestling promotion called Eastern Championship Wrestling, and was looking to make a change.
Heyman had big ideas for the wrestling business, having recently left another company named World Championship Wrestling, which was struggling to come to terms with the new decade.
In 2005 the WWE released a DVD entitled The Rise And Fall OF ECW. Early on in the documentary, Heyman remarked on how he set out on his plans for greatness. Just like McLaren, he saw how culture transformed through music, and how every generation needed to evolve to avoid becoming stagnant.
“I thought that the business, the industry, the presentation needed to change in the same way music had changed. Because music was all about Poison and Mötley Crüe and Winger and all these hair bands, and then along came Nirvana and *BAM*! The whole industry changed. So in the same way, I thought wrestling needed to change, in that wrestling had become the equivalent of hair bands, and we needed wrestling's version of Nirvana to come along and just shake everything up.”
Soon, Heyman, and his company which was renamed Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) became a haven for both fans of wrestling, and the wrestlers themselves. Heyman realised that wrestling had become drab and boring, and became an almost evangelical figure, who inspired devotion - and derision by his supporters and detractors.
Within a few years, his company rose from a tiny regional promotion, to one with network television, regular Pay-Per-Views, and an exciting, diverse roster of talent that was regularly poached by other companies.
A dynamo on the mic, Paul Heyman laughs in the face of adversity
As punk had transformed from dozens in the 100 Club to an ideal of living, the ECW brand at one point transcended pure wrestling, and became a higher entity.
“I was on 57th Ave. in New York City and there was a three-car pileup and a bunch of people looked at the car wreck and started chanting ‘ECW’. It's become part of the country's lexicon. It's an accepted, acknowledged phrase” commented Heyman.
Just like punk though, the good times couldn’t last forever, and 2001 saw ECW go out of business. The money had run out, and the organisation ceased to exist, despite a still rabid fan base. Within weeks, many of their talent signed to the then World Wrestling Federation, including, to the surprise of many, Paul Heyman himself.
Many wouldn’t have taken that leap into the world of WWF, especially when they had been a direct competitor mere months before. But Heyman believed in himself, and refused to accept that his day was done.
Over the last 13 years Heyman has been in a key ingredient in the success of the now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
He has been a commentator, a manager, a writer, and has even competed in the ring as a wrestler for the company.
Many WWE stars have benefited from his tutelage, including Brock Lesnar who, with Heyman by his side, was the man chosen to end the WrestleMania streak of The Undertaker.
Brock Lesnar - a man who has benefited from Paul Heyman's tutelage
Despite a near six year gap from WWE in the middle of the 2000s, Heyman has managed to remain one of the greatest interviews in wrestling, and in 2005 he helped bring back his old company ECW for a glorious one night stand, which eventually became a (watered down) television show again for a couple of years.
Away from the ring, Heyman has maintained a close relationship with the aforementioned Brock Lesnar, and wrote Lesnar’s 2011 autobiography. He has created the highly successful Heyman Hustle website, plus an advertising agency which has created content for WWE and UFC, among others.
A 2011 song called Wrestler by British dance band Does It Offend You, Yeah? sampled a Heyman speech from seminal wrestling documentary Beyond The Mat.
That same year, former WWE star CM Punk, in a passionate interview declared himself to be a ‘Paul Heyman guy’, a phrase which has become a genuine phenomenon, and even a t-shirt.
After more than 30 years in the wrestling business, WWE are releasing a feature length documentary on Heyman entitled ‘Ladies and Gentleman, my name is Paul Heyman’, on August 5th.
The boy who was running a celebrity and sporting memorabilia mail order service at 11-years-old, is now the subject of praise from many corners of the entertainment business.
How has Heyman managed to remain both contemporary and reassuringly vintage in this frequently fast moving world? Just like punk evolved into post-punk, to new wave, to hardcore and to pop-punk, Heyman has reinvented himself as a brand, from generic wrestling manager, to a sporting savant whose opinion is coveted by everybody from MMA fighters like Chael Sonnen to aspiring lingerie models.
Despite Malcolm McLaren’s relative lack of mainstream success after Johnny Rotten uttered the immortal ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated’ line after the last Sex Pistols concept, he never stopped trying to believe in change.
“I was taught that to create anything you had to believe in failure, simply because you had to be prepared to go through an idea without any fear. Failure, you learned, as I did in art school, to be a wonderful thing. It allowed you to get up in the morning and take the pillow off your head.”
Over twenty five years later, Paul Heyman closed The Rise And Fall Of ECW DVD with a similarly philosophical statement.
"You cannot achieve success without the risk of failure. And I learned a long time ago, you cannot achieve success if you fear failure. If you're not afraid to fail, man you have a chance to succeed but you're never gonna get there unless you risk it all the way. I was a failure. Sometimes half the fun is failing, learning from your mistakes, waking up the next morning and saying, okay watch out, here I come again. A little bit smarter, licking my wounds and really not looking forward to getting my ass kicked the way I just did yesterday. And now I'm just a little more dangerous."
A 90 minute documentary will never truly encapsulate the complexity and contradictions of a man like Paul Heyman, but if you’re a fan of the triumph of the human spirit, of facing adversity in the face and laughing maniacally at its distorted appearance, treat yourself to a couple of hours of insight into one of the greatest minds any creative industry has ever seen.
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