Heroes and Villains: Paul Heyman’s Back

HOW COULD YOU EVER LET ME DOWN?

Last week I promised that this week’s column would be an in-depth look at the mechanics of pro wrestling, specifically what wrestling can and cannot do. I’m still planning on writing that column, but this isn’t really the week to do it. Not to go into great and tedious detail, but I was occupied all day on Saturday and I have a ton of grading to do for my students this week. Most of you probably don’t care that much, but I really want to make this column as good as the one I wrote on Goldberg . So to those of you who were looking forward to that one (and I have the email to prove that at least some of you were), please accept my apology.

Happily, the subject of broken promises is a suitable segue to this week’s column on pro wrestling’s very own version of Funky Flashman, the one and only (thank Eris) Paul Heyman. Heyman’s making more news this week than he has in a while. Changes are afoot in the House of McMahon, and it seems that the Pritchard brothers are, to some extent, the victims. Dr. Tom has been fired, and Bruce is officially on leave, but God only knows what that means (possibly nothing). And Vince McMahon has deigned to readmit the former Paul E. Dangerously into his kingdom, despite a history of butting heads over the past three years. Heyman will apparently be sharing power with Dave Lagana, who himself was heavily influenced by the ECW product. What does this mean to us, John Q. Nitpicker?

There are two possible ways to approach this question. One is to speculate on how Heyman will influence backstage chemistry/politics. Now I don’t have access to backstage sources like the leading lights of internet reportage (Meltzer, Scherer, and Keller, in diminishing order of brightness, at least for right now). All I could provide here is idle speculation based on fifth-hand knowledge. I get all my news from here, 411, and occasionally Lords of Pain, all of whom get their news from the above-named leading lights, who in turn have sources which, I suspect, are not exactly in the thick of things, power-wise (though I’m willing to bet that Meltzer has access to some pretty powerful folks). So I don’t know. Even if I did know, I couldn’t accurately predict the future. But I will say this: from everything I read online, there’s every reason to believe that Heyman’s presence will boost spirits in the demoralized Smackdown locker room–at least temporarily. I hope none of them think that Heyman will be able to solve all their problems, but I do think that the average midcarder was elated to hear that he’s back on the job. Whether this elation is justified is another matter. We’ll leave it at that.

The other, more fruitful way to approach this question is as a fan. Will his return to the writing staff make the product any better? Unfortunately, this brings us back to the realm of backstage politics, as it’s unclear how much influence Paul Heyman will actually have. Again, I have no way of knowing. For the sake of this intellectual exercise, let’s assume that Heyman and Lagana will be sharing the head writing duties (or, at the very least, that Heyman will be a very close #2 to Lagana). Vince McMahon will still have the final say, of course. Let’s also assume that Heyman, against all odds, has finally learned to play well with others. In reality I expect that Paul Heyman will once again try Vince McMahon’s patience, making the writing environment less than pleasant and earning him a return ticket to Queens (or wherever it is he lives most of the time). But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Vince and Paul are able to put their egos aside and cooperate. And, for the sake of argument, let’s put aside the issue of who’s idea is whose, and accept that Heyman will have a strong influence over most everything we see on Smackdown.

What can we expect? The natural tendency is to expect the product to improve. Heyman’s track record isn’t flawless by any means, but he’s responsible for some pretty cool stuff. Sadly, I haven’t seen most of this stuff. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, the 14 year old Dave Goforth, despite his total ignorance of women, work, and the world, thought he was too urbane and sophisticated for the likes of early 90s WCW. So I’ve never seen the Dangerous Alliance angle, which is frequently cited as one of the best-written storylines of the 1990s. By the time I had rediscovered my childhood and deemed wrestling once again fit for my consumption, ECW was in full swing. Unfortunately, I had no way of seeing it. Again, you David Goforth completists out there might remember that I was relying on either dormitory cable or the videotapes of a sympathetic co-worker at this time. So, though I was aware of ECW, I did not actually get to see it on anything resembling a regular basis during the glory years.

(Skip this autobiographical intrusion if you like. I was staying in a Hilton Head condo belonging to the wealthy parents of one of my friends when I first saw ECW. It was in the middle of the night on Sports South, I believe. I was blown away, as were my friends. Sandman’s entrance in particular was earth-shattering to our 19- and 18-year old brains. He smokes? And drinks? On the way to the ring? This guy’s awesome! After joining the hallowed ranks of the IWC I learned that the correct opinion re: Sandman was annoyance, particularly for that long-assed entrance. But, speaking from 1996, damn! Imagine Dave Chappelle saying that last word for added effect.)

Most of what I saw of ECW was over the last year and a half of its life, a period of decline in the eyes of most. This was not an entirely barren period, however, as Heyman managed to recruit some pretty good talent to fill up an hour on TNN on Friday nights (an hour which I managed to watch more often than not, perhaps a commentary on my meager social life c. 1999-2000). Super Crazy, Steve Corino, the FBI, Masato Tanaka, Mikey Whipwreck, Tajiri (who, a knowledgeable friend told me, was merely ripping off the Great Muta and would probably have hell to pay when he got back to Japan), Spike Dudley, and even Mike Awesome (whose nom de ring almost seemed justified during this period) all made it worth my while to skip the end of happy hour (especially since I’m not much of a drinker, particularly while it’s still daylight, and mostly because watching your friends drink is boring) in order to get home in time to watch ECW on TNN.

This was also a period, however, in which Paul Heyman weathered much criticism for his personnel decisions. Despite signing and pushing the names mentioned above, Heyman also made several conspicuous blunders. Rhino, back when his name was correctly spelled, was pushed to the moon before he was properly seasoned. Rob Van Dam was not pushed as the top attraction, despite obviously being so (though, to be fair, RVD was hurt for much of this period). Scotty Riggs was inexplicably signed and pushed. Jerry Lynn, Mike Awesome, Lance Storm, and Raven (for the second time) all slipped out of Heyman’s grasp. And in the single move for which he received the most criticism, Paul Heyman put the ECW belt on Justin Credible, a career midcarder (or worse) with little apparent potential for superstardom. Though he found some diamonds in the rough, Heyman was clearly not an infallible judge of talent.

Moreover, the things I liked about these shows typically had little to do with the writing. Most of what made ECW worth watching happened in the ring, and seemed to be the direct product of the wrestlers’ talent. Heyman seemed to be something like Mr. Burns in that episode of the Simpsons where he brought in a team of softball ringers. “You! The wily-looking Japanese guy! Go out and have a good match!” “Sure thing, skip.” Now that’s leadership that even I can handle. This criticism (voiced most notably by Scott Keith) has followed Heyman into the WWE, where he presided over a loaded Smackdown roster that included world class workers Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, and Rey Misterio Jr.; rising stars Edge, Matt Hardy, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar; and reliable role-players Jamie Noble, Tajiri, the Big Show, and Chavo Guerrero Jr. Add in the legendary Undertaker, and you have a pretty loaded roster. “You! The bald fellow and the dwarf in the mask! Go out and put on a five star match!” “Sure thing, skip.”

OPEN UP YOUR EYES, LOOK AT ALL THE WRESTLERS…

It’s times like these that I turn to the actual record. There’s really no other way to determine the contributions of a controversial figure like Paul Heyman. So what I’m going to do is look at all the Smackdown wrestlers listed above, and try to determine how they were affected by the first Heyman administration on Smackdown.

Kurt Angle Paul Heyman’s greatest contribution to Angle’s career was to give him two of his greatest opponents in Chris Benoit (with whom he’d feuded in 2001) and Brock Lesnar. I still think that Angle didn’t really turn the corner until after his neck injury-mandated respite in 2003, which was after Heyman had been yanked from the staff. But Heyman deserves credit for writing Angle as something other than a geek.

Chris Benoit Heyman wrote the prototype for the Chris Benoit we see today, a proud, intense man driven by his sheer will to succeed and love for the tradition of pro wrestling. Not necessarily a very hard character to have created, and with Benoit, you don’t exactly have a ton of options. But Heyman definitely did better by Chris Benoit than a lot of other bookers/writers.

Eddie Guerrero Here we go. Eddie’s current lying, cheating, and stealing character has its roots in the first Heyman era. Guerrero’s push to the top of the card was a post-Heyman innovation, and Eddie’s played unsavory types throughout his career, but give Heyman credit for adding that extra layer of shamelessness that makes Guerrero’s character so much fun.

Edge Aside from putting him in feuds with great workers, what did Paul Heyman really ever do for this guy? Edge in 2002 is a lot like Edge in 2004. We all know who he is, but we don’t really know who he is. Dig?

Brock Lesnar Heyman’s pet project, on and off camera. I’m not sure that Heyman really directed his career at this point, since Vince McMahon was determined to shoot him up to the top. Plus, what was there to his character anyway? He grinned and flexed his muscles a lot. Maybe the current Heidenreich push will give us some idea of where Heyman would have taken Brock Lesnar if he’d gotten the chance.

Rey Misterio Jr. Rey’s like what, 5’3″? And he’s been over the whole time he’s been in the WWE? Misterio himself deserves most of the credit for this, as he’s an incredible athlete and showman. But he owes a debt of gratitude to Paul Heyman for booking him so effectively during those crucial first months after his debut. It’s harder than you’d think to make a guy as small as Rey Rey seem significant without throwing credibility out the window or quarantining him within the junior/cruiser division.

Jamie Noble (w/ Nidia) and Tajiri I put these two together because of a really cool but sadly forgotten angle with Jamie Noble as a poor, working class champion who saw the belt as his ticket out of the trailer park. Tajiri was simply along for the ride, kind of a neat addition because it made so little sense for he and Noble to be allies. It was a classic odd couple pairing, one that worked because I believed that these two would be willing to tag and even hang out together. I wish Heyman had done more with this angle, because it had a really terrific foundation.

The Big Show Heyman’s most conspicuous success story, Paul Wight went from an albatross around Vince McMahon’s neck to a great role player, someone who could be plugged in as a legitimate threat in a upper midcard or main event angle whenever needed. The Big Show is on a similar level to Kane, c. 2000-2, a strong utility man. I doubt that he’ll ever receive the sort of push that Kane is getting right now, but maybe Heyman will prove me wrong.

Chavo Guerrero Jr I don’t know how much we can credit Heyman for Chavito’s renaissance in 2002-3. Partly he benefited from his uncle’s return to Smackdown, thereby creating a natural tag team based on co-sanguinity. Chavo Jr. didn’t get a solid singles push until after Heyman’s removal.

Matt Hardy and John Cena Both got new characters under Heyman. Neither really ever went anywhere during this time, however. The WWE didn’t pull the trigger on Cena until mid-2003. Matt Hardy never got a real push, though he’s become a solid role player (instead of a jobber to the stars) on Raw. Still, give Heyman credit for giving both guys some much-needed direction.

Undertaker I end here for a reason. What did Heyman do for the Undertaker? Not much. What could he do for the Undertaker? Before his return to the darkside (or whatever) earlier this year, Taker had essentially played the same character for almost four years. The dirt sheet purveyors tell us that the Undertaker holds considerable influence over his character. I don’t have backstage access, so I can’t tell you if that’s true. I can tell you this: Heyman’s reign as lead writer didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the Undertaker’s character at all.

…WOULDN’T IT BE NICE IF THEY WERE ALWAYS OVER?

So here’s what I can think we can expect from the second Heyman administration:

1. More stuff for the women to do. I’m not saying that Paul Heyman writes well for women. Nobody in the American wrestling industry does, really. Heyman, however, will find a more effective use for the women on his roster. The Smackdown “divas” haven’t had much to do for a few months other than the usual silly gravy boat matches. Expect Heyman to use the women to advance angles between male wrestlers as this was standard procedure at ECW. In 2002, shortly after Heyman joined the WWF as a writer, we saw Debra get heavily involved in the lead up to the Rock-Austin match at Wrestlemania XVII. The women on Smackdown have been really poorly used, only getting involved in angles with each other which drew good ratings but did little to help buyrates. I’d expect more angles like the current Kane-Lita scenario on Raw. Lita is front and center, and her fans will tune in to see her on camera. Moreover, her current role serves to advance angles between male wrestlers, which results in more heated payoff matches come PPV time. That’s the right way to use the non-wrestling women.

2. Better defined characters. Heyman is generally pretty good at giving some hook to all his wrestlers. The only real exceptions are those folks who are talented enough to get over based on the quality of their work; in these cases, Heyman has a history of being somewhat lazy about assigning motivation. Still, I’d expect more John Cenas and fewer Matt Morgans.

3. Higher quality matches. No, Heyman can’t make his wrestlers into better workers. He does have a history, however, of putting together feuds which emphasize quality wrestling. Yeah, it’s a simple enough thing to do, but I’m still glad that he does this.

4. More emphasis on the titles. Paul Heyman has a fantastic track record for making fans care about belts. The ECW TV Title was far more respected than the comparable secondary belts of the WWF and WCW. The Smackdown tag straps were created under Heyman, and quickly became the most hotly contested tag belts since the heyday of the New Age Outlaws. Expect title feuds to really play up the prestige of winning a championship belt.

These are all positive changes which, given his track record, I feel we can expect Paul Heyman to implement. Still, we shouldn’t expect too much from him. Here are some things that we probably won’t see under Heyman:

1. More coherent storylines. Heyman doesn’t have a great record for crafting quality feuds with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Then again, nobody in wrestling is particularly good at this (though I think, if given the opportunity, Mick Foley could probably manage this). Heyman also has a tendency to drop angles before they’re finished, which can be sort of annoying.

2. A bigger emphasis on the cruiserweights. I’m not saying this is completely out of the question. I’m just saying that Heyman hasn’t got a history, in his time in the WWE, for pushing this division to the forefront. His record at ECW proves that he values smaller talent, but Heyman’s more apt, as best I can tell, to mix the small guys in with the big guys.

3. A complete shakeup in who’s pushed. This is clearly Vince McMahon’s call. The most we can expect from Heyman is to create characters which will garner greater acclaim from the fans, which will in turn convince McMahon to push these wrestlers. This seems to have been the case for Eddie Guerrero and John Cena, for instance.

In the end, I think there’s reason to expect that Paul Heyman will do his part to solidify an improving Smackdown brand. Just don’t expect a return to the days of 2002, since Heyman’s been dealt a much weaker hand this time out. Still, Smackdown is on the rise and there’s some pretty good talent waiting to be molded. I’m not expecting a renaissance, but I am expecting a more coherent, lucid product, and a more motivated, enthusiastic roster of wrestlers every Thursday night.

STABBING ISSUES

Not much this time, since this week’s column is more or less STABBING ISSUES writ large. Two brief notes, then I’ll send you on your way:

First, I was glad to see HHH take the belt from Orton. Orton’s face character needs some serious work, and putting him out front with the belt exposes and amplifies all his shortcomings. Orton needs a few months to be re-tooled. Hopefully the writers will try to create a face character for Orton that plays to his unique strengths and minimizes his weaknesses rather than trying to make him Stone Cold Jr. or something. By the way, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that the plan was for HHH to win the belt at this PPV all along.

Second, I had fewer instances of being annoyed by students on my campus this week. Someone did nearly run me down on a bike, but he apologized as he did so. Then again, he looked to be too old to be a college student. A mixed bag this week, I suppose.

OTHER THINGS THAT APPEAR ON OUR SITE

I’ve been way too remiss in the plug department. Here’s my attempt to make up for that.

The Comics Nexus: My favorite section of the site outside of wrestling, there’s always something worth reading here. Those of you who miss Iain Burnside (and frankly, who doesn’t?) can find him here, alongside many other talented writers.

Will Cooling’s Daily Pulse: Will’s political views are diametrically opposed to my own, but he’s a good egg (or as good an egg as an arch-conservative can be). (Just kidding, Will.) Lots of stuff on British politics, which is good for those of us, like myself, who are shamefully ignorant on this subject.

Eric Szulczewski’s Daily Pulse: And in the interest of balance, here’s Eric. I really liked this particular column–probably my favorite of all that Eric’s written since IP launched. I expect more columns like this as we get closer to November.

Cory Laflin’s Second and Long: I always liked Cory’s columns in the games section, but this column seems like his true calling. Can’t pull for the Chiefs though. My girlfriend’s from Denver.

NEXT WEEK

My plan is to write that promised column on what pro wrestling can and can’t do. But I’ve got a lot of grading to do, and you never know if a bicycle-related mishap is in the cards (especially with rogue cyclists out to get me after last week’s column). We’ll see, I guess.

Several of this week’s column headers are bastardizations of song lyrics by the Hollies and Buzzcocks. My apologies to Graham Nash, Allan Clarke, and Pete Shelly. You can help me make it up to them by listening to their music.

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