WWE’s Paul Heyman, both the on-screen mouthpiece for Brock Lesnar the pro wrestler, and confidante of Lesnar the person, on The MMA Hour talked Lesnar, C.M. Punk, the UFC direction, the end of Strikeforce, Ronda Rousey and his own flirtations with the business side of MMA.
World Wrestling Entertainment performer Paul Heyman, who has had many ties to mixed martial arts over the years with both UFC, Strikeforce and discussions with other promotions, spoke about wrestling, MMA, his “client” Brock Lesnar and more in an intense two-hour interview with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour on Monday.
Heyman, taking a rare Monday off Raw, the WWE’s flagship live television show, since he was scheduled for previously-taped segment on the show, was live in the studios talking about a gamut of subjects.
It was typical Heyman, charming, outgoing, political and at times evasive, such as when asked about the infamous segment with Lesnar and Undertaker (Mark Calaway) in 2010, when they exchanged words, on camera, as Lesnar was walking from the cage. Lesnar passed by Undertaker, who had been given front row tickets by Dana White, after Lesnar had host his UFC heavyweight title to Cain Velasquez in Anaheim, Calif. and after the exchange, Undertaker said, “You wanna go,” and then claimed the two had a past.
Heyman completely dodged answering what was and wasn’t real about the segment, which at the time was supposed to lead to a match at the 2011 WrestleMania. The match never happened since Lesnar was under a UFC contract at the time and Dana White refused to okay the match, since the two companies were competitors on the pay-per-view front. It could have confused the marketplace since the UFC was building to a Lesnar vs. Junior Dos Santos fight, which ended up not happening because of Lesnar having another attack of diverticulitis.
The two ended up having a match at WrestleMania 30, at the New Orleans Superdome, which ended up being one of the most talked about matches in modern pro wrestling history. The Undertaker never loses at WrestleMania, a streak that dated back to 1991, but for a variety of reasons, including the thought that it could be Undertaker’s final career match, WWE owner Vince McMahon flipped the script the day of the show, telling almost nobody, to create the most shocking in-ring moment in years when Lesnar won.
Heyman did say that he wanted the video of the segment used in promoting the WrestleMania match, but in the end Vince McMahon decided against it.
“I don’t bat 1.000 in all of my suggestions,” he said. “Of course I tried.”
The former UFC heavyweight champion’s first match since breaking the streak will be at SummerSlam on Aug. 17, in Los Angeles at the Staples Center, challenging John Cena for WWE’s championship. Heyman himself has been doing media rounds promoting the release of a DVD and Blu-Ray release on his life and career, which came out in the U.S. on Tuesday. There is some MMA talk on the DVD, but it mostly covers a wrestling career that dates back to the late 70s as a photographer at ringside at Madison Square Garden for wrestling magazines, running his own magazines, and then becoming a performer in the mid-80s, and later a booker and company owner.
Heyman talked about swearing off working for WWE since a falling out with McMahon in 2006, only to have the return of Lesnar lead to his return. Heyman was the on-camera manager of Lesnar more than a decade ago, and the two became friends. Heyman accompanied Lesnar at some of his UFC fights and played a hand in promotional ideas during that period.
He claimed he was not interested in returning, and even when he took the meeting to return, since Lesnar’s character is far more effective with someone doing most of the talking for him, that he was expecting to turn the role down. But he came back and has had a second career, as a performer. He’s doing the old pro wrestling manager role he did in his youth, except using a more modern term, an advocate, after being most famous in wrestling for his 1993 to 2001 period where he ran the controversial cult favorite Extreme Championship Wrestling promotion.
Over the years, his connection with MMA included working with investors in trying to purchase Strikeforce, where he noted one of his big ideas was to use it as the platform for Lesnar’s MMA career. He later had talks with Scott Coker about joining the promotion, which ended when UFC purchased the promotion in early 2011. He noted he has not spoken to Coker once since the purchase, which came right after he worked with Coker on the local advertising for the Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva show at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. He said that he sensed the UFC would buy Strikeforce when finding out Coker’s business partners in San Jose, Calif., were tight on advertising money for the show, figuring they wanted to get out, and UFC was the logical people who would want to buy them out. He said he mentioned it to Coker, who by then was already involved in secret negotiations for such a deal, and Coker thought he had heard rumors even though he admitted it was nothing but a hunch.
“He got very spooked,” he said. “He got very distant the rest of the conversation. When I saw he was spooked, I thought my theory was 100 percent accurate.”
Heyman, over the years, also turned down offers from several MMA groups, including Bob Meyrowitz’s short-lived Yamma promotion, as well as the old International Fight League. At the time, he said that since the ending of ECW was considered a disaster for his business reputation, something alleviated in later years when the memories of ECW became nostalgic and he went from being a deceptive businessman to a iconic visionary, he wanted to make sure his next business move was a success. And he didn’t have confidence in either entity.
Heyman confirmed that Lesnar had already agreed to fight Fedor Emelianenko in 2012 for the UFC at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, and had even started early preparation for the fight, when it fell through due to Emelianenko pulling out after the death of his father.
“He was ready, willing and able, and already was starting a pretraining camp,” said Heyman, about Lesnar. “Fedor’s father passed away and he lost all desire and motivation.”
Even though it’s been more than two years since Lesnar has fought, and he’s now 37, Heyman was pushing the idea that the door isn’t closed for a return.
“He had a clean bill of health,” Heyman said about going into the planned Emelianenko fight, saying Lesnar’s health was compromised by diverticulitis which he dated back to his college wrestling days.
“He was not ready for the Alistair Overeem fight,” said Heyman. “A liver kick, well placed, will drop anyone and a liver kick from Alistair Overeem, at that size and that weight, no matter how he attained it, or even if he was 50 pounds lighter, a liver kick from Overeem will drop a horse.”
“Brock wasn’t healthy,” Heyman said. “I don’t think Brock has truly understood nor accepted the severity of the illness that took him down. They did blood work on Brock and they found out he wasn’t healthy for many, many years. His body was fighting this affliction off and using so much of his energy.
“He was handicapped the entire time. His body is so freakish, he was fighting this thing off and he had enough energy to do those other things while sick.”
He said that after the Overeem fight that he changed his treatments, changed his doctors and now has a clean bill of health, and claimed if Lesnar returned, it would be the first time he would fight while being 100 percent healthy.
Lesnar has always played WWE and UFC off against each other in negotiations. After his UFC career ended, he walked into a sweetheart deal with WWE where he would do three matches per year, all at big shows, for well into the seven figures. Most of the top WWE stars usually do between 150 and 220 matches per year. It’s a deal somewhat similar to movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I think he’s very, very happy right now with what we’re doing in WWE,” said Heyman. “It’s (returning to fight in UFC) not a subject he has to think about. If the deal ends up over in WWE, if a change of circumstances happens, and if it’s a no-brainer to get him back into the cage, I’m sure it’s something he’d consider. Right now, it’s not a topic of conversation. Why would you mess up the WWE deal?”
He claimed that while he watches UFC when he gets the chance, that Lesnar avoids it. Even when Lesnar was an active fighter, he would never watch fights on television unless a training partner was fighting, and even then he’d only watch their fight and not the entire show.
“Brock Lesnar avoids watching UFC because every person that he watches, he will turn and say, `I could whip that guy’s ass.’ Sometimes I’ll say, `Did you happen to see this fight because it’s really good?’ The one I remember, I couldn’t believe the butchering that Cain Velasquez put on Bigfoot (Antonio Silva, in their first fight in 2011). Cain Velasquez is the Abdullah the Butcher of the Octagon. He scars everyone he faces. He scarred Brock Lesnar. He not only beats people within an inch of their lives, he bloodies and massacres guys in the Octagon, and he’s the nicest guy, which makes him so scary. He doesn’t have to be loud, and then he gets into the cage, he’s the Tasmanian devil, a whirling dervish. He’s the devil.
“I saw that beating. It was so impressive. I said, `Brock, you have to watch this.’ Brock turned and said, `I could kick his ass. I see exactly how I’d do it.’
“The Brock Lesnar who stepped into the cage with Alistair Overeem, he was at 50, 75 percent. You’re going to fight Alistair Overeem at 75 percent, Cain Velasquez at 75 percent. He fought Shane Carwin at 75, or 60, or 80 percent, but even at 95 percent against Shane Carwin, you’re at a disadvantage.”
Heyman said that Lesnar considers Overeem’s recent challenge to Lesnar as a grandstand challenge.
“He was unimpressed. He thought Alistair should call out people who are in the UFC and people he could draw money with.”
Heyman claimed that UFC has the next big thing in Ronda Rousey. While admitting Floyd Mayweather Jr. was a bigger single-event draw, he felt Rousey had more long-term potential, noting Mayweather Jr.’s troubles with the law make him not sponsor friendly, while she is, and that networks could do a reality show based on her.
“Everybody is looking for the next Mike Tyson and UFC has her, and her name is Ronda Rousey. I don’t think anyone watched her last fight said, `I’m hoping it goes five rounds.’ That was tremendous.”
He spoke of understanding the UFC’s change in business model to oversaturation, a word he used and said it wasn’t necessarily a bad one. But he refused to say whether he agreed or disagreed with it. He said he believed pay-per-view was a declining business and defended the WWE Network, which has caused the company major short-term financial difficulties and resulted in eight percent of the work force laid off last week. But he felt Anderson Silva vs. Nick Diaz, Rousey vs. Gina Carano and Rousey vs. Cris Cyborg Justino would be huge events even in an era of almost 50 shows per year.
“It doesn’t matter if i agree,” he said of UFC’s current direction. “False humility aside, who am I to agree or not to agree?”
He said that the end of UFC’s seven-year deal with FOX, the end of 2018, will tell the tale of the new direction, and with all the changes in technology, it is impossible to predict how the landscape will change.
“They have four years left on their deal,” he said. “What’s technology going to be like in four years? What’s distribution going to be like in four years? There may be a time where FOX has a billion dollar offer and they don’t want it. I get the idea for that many years, they got guaranteed money, while the new technologies emerge. My answer, without copping out, is I certainly understand why Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta think it is a progressive, intelligent direction to take. Whether they can pull it off remains to be seen.”
For wrestling fans, the most interesting revelation was an insight into C.M. Punk, who quit WWE in January. Heyman and Punk are personal friends besides their television business relationship. Punk, ever since quitting, has gone silent, refusing to discuss WWE or anything to do with his future and recent past as a pro wrestler.
“I think C.M. Punk’s mind set is to never come back, and their (WWE) mind set is they never want him back,” Heyman said.
But Heyman said that if you asked him in 2010, he would swear on his testicles that he would never work for WWE again, and he’s been working there now for a couple of years.
“He’s driven and determined never to go back. He feels that if he ever goes back, it’ll be a sign of failure on his part. His success in life is predicated on the idea he never goes back.”
Still, Heyman has been around pro wrestling long enough to know that never say never. People like Bret Hart and Bruno Sammartino, who one figured would never go back to WWE, have made details with the company after years of animosity, and Heyman and Lesnar, went back.
He teased that Punk could follow names like Lesnar, Dave Bautista and Bobby Lashley in trying out MMA, even though he’s almost 36, and never competed at a high level in a sport like boxing, kickboxing or amateur wrestling. But Punk has trained for years in multiple disciplines.
“Punk has always had the opinion that at its core, when the cage door gets locked it’s two really capable people punching each other in the face until one drops. Sometimes the skill level is overrated, and the ability to just fight comes into play. He’s educated in MMA. He’ a very serious student of the disciplines and he’s become far more entrenched.
“He’s a fighter at heart. One of the things that makes it so interesting is he came into the wrestling world as a fighter who ended up performing, not a performer making a transition into the fighting world.”
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