Paul Heyman's promo this week at Raw Tulsa was the best four minutes of the broadcast. And he wasn't even in the building.
The promo received a passing mention in The Raw Review because, at the time of writing, an in-depth praise or analysis didn't feel in keeping with the particular theme of that review. But it's a promo, and a segment, that is due further examination and celebration.
His visage towered over the Tulsa audience, his voice radiating throughout a silent arena, enlightening the masses, in more ways than one, on the significance of the ongoing narrative-thread featuring his client, Brock Lesnar, as well as the importance of effective promo-work.
Michael Cole asks Paul Heyman to address the new stipulation that should John Cena lose to Seth Rolins at TLC that he would no longer be the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Heyman immediately asserts his dominance and power (ultimately the most fundamental message of the promo), by ignoring Cole's question and quickly segueing into what interests him. He will answer Cole's question, but only when he's finished addressing what he regards as the most important talking point. This demonstration of power is a clever business-tactic in keeping with the slimy character Heyman portrays, but it's also a clever performance-tactic where Heyman is able to navigate a segment structure that benefits him and allows him to move freely through a dialogue that he creates.
It's a dialogue that remains focused primarily on John Cena and Cena's feud with Brock Lesnar. This focus reorients the audience's focus (an audience who has been encouraged to enjoy narrative tangents for several months), existing as yet another piece of the increasingly entertaining, massive rivalry-puzzle Heyman has pieced together since before SummerSlam.
"John Cena said that Brock Lesnar only comes around once a year. That's very funny for Mr. Cena to say because we're here in the Christmas season where everyone gets together and the families gather round the tree and all the little kids get the toys that they want. It's a wonderful night, it's a festive atmosphere. Why not do Christmas three-hundred and sixty-five nights a year? Because that would be stupid!"
This is as much a real-world indictment of real-world WWE critics as it is an indictment of the John Cena character. Fans have relentlessly bemoaned the absence of Brock Lesnar, arguing that it's ludicrous that the WWE World Heavyweight Champion is a part-timer, that he doesn't regularly appear on RAW. In this promo, Heyman reduces these critics to petulant children begging for a year-round Christmas unaware that such would reduce the importance (and joy) of Christmas.
"...it defeats the purpose. Because it's special. It's unique like an appearance by my client. Why not just have every Monday called WrestleMania? Because it defeats the purpose, because it's once a year. Can't miss. Must see. Like my client."
This is a sentiment Vince McMahon would echo following the main broadcast during his interview with Steve Austin. Where McMahon's argument was ineffective, encouraging detractors, Heyman's argument is genuinely compelling because he offers analogies and he keeps the argument rooted in the significance of Championship gold.
"...there is an authority here in the WWE. There is a power. And I said it many years ago when Stone Cold Steve Austin was the champion; he who has the gold has the power and he who has the power has the gold. And I represent that power."
This is all that's needed to keep Brock Lesnar fresh in the fan's mind, to maintain to the significance of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship (which will always be essential to the health of the WWE so long as it remains a sports performance medium), and to push the championship gold narrative into the next month.
Heyman's use of the word "represent" is particularly spectacular, serving as a double-meaning. He is an advocate (or agent of sorts) who "represents" a client in the legal sense of that term. But, given that everything in pro-wrestling is symbolic of a theme or perspective, Heyman figuratively represents Brock Lesnar. Heyman is, essentially, the WWE World Heavyweight Champion whenever he appears on RAW.
The WWE's detractors are effectively silenced (for a time) thanks to this great work, but without it, without Heyman present to contextualize everything that has happened since WrestleMania 30, the WWE has demonstrated an inability (or a lack of interest) in maintaining the significance of Brock Lesnar and the WWE World Heavyweight Championship belt. And that's placing undue pressure on Heyman. There should be other performers on the roster who can work like this or, at the very least, come somewhat close.
Concessions have been made in the form of stipulations that point back toward the Lesnar/Cena rivalry, but not enough work has been done by non-Heyman performers to keep the fans' focus on the A-Story in the WWE. Cena has done his best. But without Heyman's eloquence the narrative loses steam and those obnoxious Twitter-critics the WWE (understandably) despises are emboldened. Their argument (even if it's misguided or not taking into account the points Heyman makes in this promo) begins to hold water.
It cannot be emphasized enough how effective and important these four minutes are, and how they create an environment where an absent Brock Lesnar actually does enhance the importance of the championship belt.
As you listen to Heyman, pay particular attention to the deliberate segues and the emphasis upon chronology. Even though he is very clearly a heel, even though he speaks for the penultimate heel, even though he is talking down to us, he is actually doing fans of pro-wrestling (and great art) a service. He's making sense out of what could very easily be nonsense. He's making sense out of what does devolve into nonsense without him or without someone to occasionally remind everyone about the who, what, where, and why.
"Now if John Cena gets by Seth Rollins at the TLC pay-per-view a war-weary John Cena coming out of these battles with The Authority has to face a fresh, rested, properly trained Brock Lesnar, which means the beating that John Cena will receive will make the one that he received at Summer Slam pale by comparison."
In one sentence Heyman builds the next pay-per-view, contextualizes the significance of that battle, alludes to the past couple pay-per-views where Cena has battled the Authority, and then alludes to the now infamous Summer Slam decimation of Cena (the catalyst for the entire story).
The rest of the speech weaves together Brock Lesnar's entire year in the WWE, as well as the most significant narrative events of the year: the defeat of The Undertaker, Seth Rollins curb stomping Lesnar at Night of Champions, and even the emergence of Sting.
In just four minutes Heyman doesn't just sell himself, he doesn't just sell Brock Lesnar, he sells you on everything the WWE has done since WrestleMania.
Even via satellite, this is enough to sustain the importance of the championship and the importance of Lesnar.
This is what fans are clamoring for. This acts as a reward for having watched every pay-per-view and every RAW and every SmackDown. It's a reward because we're treated to the work of a truly gifted human being, but it's also a reward in that it is an acknowledgement of the fan's commitment. And even though a Heyman promo should remain special (like Christmas), at least two a month has proven to be incredibly helpful in keeping the product healthy (and palatable).
Whether purposefully or not, Heyman's words, the context he provides, helps the fans make sense of everything they're watching and, in a subtle way, makes the fans feel thought of and cared for. This is a way of remaining in character, a way of driving all the important points home, but also a way of respecting the intelligence of the audience (even if it's littered with lovable insults directed at the audience).
When Lesnar finally does make an appearance on RAW, if booked properly, it will be explosive (just as it was when he returned prior to his Night of Champions rematch with Cena). And it will be explosive because of his beastly charisma, and because of Paul Heyman's eloquence and focus upon good storytelling.
These four minutes represent a WWE that fans of pro-wrestling sorely need. These four minutes represent a respite from misdirection, lack of clarity, or lack of consideration for the audience.
These four minutes represent the art of the promo at its finest.
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Photos via WWE screen-capture.