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WWE’s Paul Heyman explains the art of the promo – Sports Illustrated

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WWE's Paul Heyman explains the art of the promo - Sports Illustrated

For years, the mike drop has represented the most cutting way to close out a promo.

Ever the innovator, Paul Heyman once again changed that distinction, introducing wrestling fans to the phone flip during the final segment of Talking Smack two Fridays ago.

“I just knew, at the end of that promo, I wanted to do something,” Heyman says. “I don’t hold a microphone, so I needed to do the equivalent of a mike drop. The flip of the phone was what I had in mind. I figured, if I flipped the phone at the end, that our director and the producer would know that was the end of the show, and the viewer at home would say, ‘That’s different, I’ve never seen that before,’ emphasizing the point I made.”

Heyman’s Talking Smack promo further elevated the Roman Reigns–Daniel Bryan match that took place the following week, a clinic in athleticism and storytelling that delivered in the main event of WWE’s premier piece of programming. The partnership between Heyman and Reigns has been the most riveting story line in WWE over the past eight months, allowing Reigns an outlet to unveil new pieces of his persona as Heyman adds another layer to his brilliance.

The days of Reigns as the “Big Dog” are now a distant memory, as is Heyman’s role as consigliere to Brock Lesnar. As “special counsel,” Heyman aligns perfectly with Reigns in his position as “Tribal Chief,” and the combination gives WWE a headline act that has flourished in long-term programs with Kevin Owens, Edge and Bryan.

While it now seems like an overly simplistic decision, there were concerns initially from Heyman about returning to an on-air role, even one beside Reigns. Yet that is not too far out of the ordinary for the noted perfectionist, who is acutely aware of the extraordinarily rare level of success he accomplished working with Lesnar.

“I cannot begin to convey how reluctant I was to ever do anything in this industry after the eight years, let alone the 18 years, that I put together with Brock Lesnar,” Heyman says. “Look at our accomplishments: a 500-day run as champion, multiple world championships, the single biggest, most historic victory in sports entertainment history in the conquering of ‘The Streak.’ There was very little chance of me ever returning on-screen.”

Heyman and Lesnar established themselves as one of the most recognizable duos in WWE history. Their strengths seamlessly complemented one another, with Lesnar wrecking opponents in the ring and Heyman outwitting them on the microphone. Heyman enhanced the totality of Lesnar’s presence by adding an explanation and justification for every single act, single-handedly articulating to—perhaps even convincing—a skeptical crowd following WrestleMania 30 why Lesnar was the only choice to put the first mark in The Undertaker’s WrestleMania loss column.

“For me to pursue, in front of the camera, life after Brock Lesnar, the only lure that could seduce me to even attempting such an impossible goal was to do it with someone that would live their life in the pursuit of achieving that impossibility, and that’s Roman Reigns,” Heyman says. “And that’s why someone, that’s why anyone and that’s why everyone should watch Roman Reigns. Every micromoment he’s in the frame, you are witnessing the pursuit of the all-time greatest career in the annals of sport, in the annals of entertainment and in the annals of sports entertainment.”

As Reigns continues to reach new heights as a performer, Heyman also cements himself as the single most prolific talker in the history of professional wrestling. This is lofty territory, yet that is where Heyman operates after pouring himself into the industry for the past 34 years in a dedicated, determined pursuit of greatness in pro wrestling.

“My job is to create an enthusiasm regarding the items that I am entrusted with hyping,” Heyman says. “That has never changed. The way that I strategize, that has changed. That’s been a constant since 1987.

“What worked for me during the Dangerous Alliance era in WCW would not have worked for me in front of an ECW crowd. The rabble-rouser, cult leader, pied piper of the revolution in ECW would not have worked as Brock Lesnar’s advocate. Brock Lesnar’s advocate would not have worked as the ‘voice of the voice of the voiceless,’ and none of those would have worked for the special counsel for Roman Reigns or the cohost of Talking Smack. These are all distinctly different roles, and I would be doing a disservice to people if I treated it otherwise.”

Talking Smack is the most organic forum for WWE talent to share a piece of themselves and get across their talking points. Devoid of scripts and heavy on talking points, the show is particularly strong when cohosted by Heyman and the very talented Kayla Braxton. And though the focus is on the roster at large, there are moments when Heyman takes it upon himself to remind viewers that wrestling’s best promo in the mid-’90s in ECW remains on that very same elevated perch in the present day.

“It needs change on a constant level, or you grow stale very quickly,” Heyman says. “Promos are an evolving process. They have to modernize; they have to address the current wants, desires and whims of the audience.”

The secret to success in promos, Heyman explained, is to know thy audience.

“You have to read the room,” Heyman says. “If not, you’re a nostalgia act before you’re even cognizant of the fact that time has passed you by. In some ways it hasn’t changed. I still ask myself, ‘What’s my goal? What am I selling?’ I’m a salesman, I’m a hype artist, I’m an interest-facilitator. My job is to get you interested in the product, in the personalities I’m selling, in the match I want you to witness, subscribe and buy. With Talking Smack, the medium is different; the platform is different. It’s like comparing Twitter to Instagram. The promo that I did on SmackDown, the ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! No! No! No!’ promo was all about just how great Daniel Bryan is and why that demonstrates the enormity of Roman Reigns’s star power—because as great as Daniel Bryan is and all he’s overcome, he’ll never overcome Roman Reigns.

“The promos on Talking Smack are not the same as SmackDown. SmackDown is a two-hour network show that has multiple story lines. Talking Smack is exactly the title of the show; we’re out there talking smack. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere without the time constraints, and it’s conversation. While the job is always to hype and create interest and awareness, it’s not with theatrics and a raised voice. It’s more of a ‘Let’s have breakfast, lunch or dinner together, and let me tell you why Roman Reigns is the end-all, be-all attraction in sports entertainment today.’ ”

Heyman also detailed the methodology behind delivering a promo for Reigns compared to one for himself on a forum like Talking Smack.

“At this stage, the Paul Heyman promo is to enlighten the audience as to just how talented, how great and how marketable the opponent for Roman Reigns is, and then, by contrast, even if Roman Reigns’s opponent is a 12 on a scale of zero to 10, he’s still not at Roman Reigns’s level,” Heyman says. “A Roman Reigns promo is a fascinating offering on Friday Night SmackDown. I find it funny that I have to spend any time this week doing media interviews because I think SmackDown sells itself. And SmackDown sells itself on the mere fact that Roman Reigns is on the show. SmackDown is the best reality show on television today because you are seeing the real Roman Reigns unfold in front of your very eyes.

“Take a look at where we were at the end of August and the beginning of September when you were introduced to this side of his personality. Then you saw a little more of the layers get peeled back as you understood why he’s the ‘Tribal Chief’ and what made him the head of the table for his family in his rivalry with his cousin Jey Uso. Then you saw just how savage the ambition of Roman Reigns could be as he explained to the audience just how much he wants to deliver greatness, how he’s a generational performer, how he is determined to be the greatest of all time when we were up against Kevin Owens. And now you’re seeing another side of his personality as he’s taken out Edge and taken out Daniel Bryan and shifted his focus to Cesaro.

“Every week on television, you see another layer of Roman Reigns. And watching his persona evolve right in front of your very eyes, understanding the psyche of this remarkable human being, is the most compelling character on television because it’s not a character at all. You are seeing the actual man allow you to understand who he truly is. I’m blown away by the fact that, within his strength of character, he is leaving himself vulnerable at the very same moment by letting you know who he really is.”

Reigns now moves forward on this week’s throwback edition of SmackDown in his program with Cesaro, who presents a different type of opponent than Owens, Edge or Bryan.

“This entire situation regarding Cesaro needs to be addressed,” Heyman says. “After what Roman Reigns accomplished at WrestleMania, which was the most declaratively dominant pinfall in the history of WrestleMania main events, and then Daniel Bryan kept on coming at Roman Reigns, to the point where we had to deprive the SmackDown audience of the pleasure of seeing a guaranteed Hall of Famer like Daniel Bryan ply his trade—now Cesaro wants to step up against the ‘Tribal Chief.’ Unfortunately for him, he’ll learn the same lesson that Edge learned, that Daniel Bryan learned and that Kevin Owens learned. And that is that Roman Reigns has entered his prime.

“Roman Reigns, at this level, is untouchable. There is no one at his level. And as great as Cesaro may be, well, Daniel Bryan was great, too—and Edge was great, too. These are top-tier performers; these are WrestleMania main-eventers. Cesaro has every quality of being a WrestleMania main-eventer, except he’s stepping in the ring with Roman Reigns and that just makes it a bad day for Cesaro. In WWE and across every other brand, no one is at Roman Reigns’s level.”

Despite promising that Reigns is going to decimate every single opponent placed in front of him, Heyman noted that Reigns’s sheer dominance in every aspect of his performance is the quintessential essence of the entire WWE product. That brilliance should be savored, he added, as it has its own distinct shelf life, so Heyman implored people to continue watching to capture a glimpse of greatness.

“Keep watching because it’s not forever,” Heyman says. “It’s a rare opportunity, and this only lasts as long as Roman Reigns determines it should last. There is a body of work being put together that won’t be matched, and there is a driving force, a vision, a dream, a want, a desire and a yearning to accomplish.

“Our objective is clear. Stack up ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and Bruno Sammartino—these Mount Rushmore names that are beyond iconic—stack them all up together and they won’t be able to reach the level that Roman Reigns will accomplish. That’s the goal here. I say that as a hype artist; I say that as the ‘special counsel’ to the ‘Tribal Chief,’ but there is no hype in that hyperbole—it’s what they call a shoot.”

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