On Sunday night, April 13, 1997, a self-proclaimed "smart ass Jewish kid from New York" permanently changed the entire pay per view industry when, against all odds, he presented a live pro wrestling pay per view from a bingo hall in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania entitled "Barely Legal."
Heyman was a controversial young force in the pro wrestling game, a forward-thinking non-athlete who broke in at the age of about 21 as a "manager" at ringisde and on interviews for promotions like Verne Gagne's AWA on ESPN and Ted Turner's WCW on SuperStartion TBS. Heyman, who made contacts galore in the industry as a teenage photographer who, according to several interviews he has given, "bullshitted (his) way backstage and to ringside," took on the name "Paul E. Dangerously" and weilded a cell phone as a weapon while managing people like Steve Austin, Rick Rude, Arn Anderson, and Mark Callous, later known as The Undertaker.
When Heyman had a falling out with Turner's WCW, he paired up with a small time promoter in Philadelphia named Tod Gordon, whose Eastern Championship Wrestling aired on Sports Channel Philadelphia on Tuesday nights at 6pm. Quite the unusual timeslot. Gordon was using Heyman's former best friend, the now-deceased Eddie Gilbert as his head writer. But they were following the old indie formula. The young talent gets exposure, but the wrestlers off WWE Chairman Vince McMahon's television show, and Turner's WCW show, got the top slots and main event billing.
Gilbert and Gordon had a falling out, and Heyman stepped in as "booker," aka head writer and producer. Heyman had an idea. Brand the company "Extreme" and make the home grown talent the stars, not the imported WWE and WCW wrestlers. Legends like Terry Funk would lose to home grown talent like Sabu, Shane Douglas, and The Public Enemy. Jimmy Snuka would have a young unknown pretty boy named Tommy Dreamer kick out of his Superfly Splash. If someone came to ECW from one of the "big two," they were used to endorse or lose to the homegrown stars. And it worked. Better than anyone could have ever imagined or expected.
There are few who could dispute that Heyman had, and probably still has, the most star making ability of anyone in pro wrestling. McMahon has the resources, but Heyman has the formula and the Martin Scorcese-like relationship with the wrestlers to get the most out of them. He helps them find themselves, and their characters, from within. No one can truly explain it, although both Mick Foley and Stone Cold Steve Austin have tried very hard to do so in their autobiographies.
Heyman fought the system. Back in the 1990s, UFC couldn't get on pay per view. Neither could anyone else other than the established boxing promoters and pro wrestling's big two of WWE and WCW. Semaphore Entertainment could present concerts, but not Ultimate Fighting. And Heyman, whose "Extreme" name was lifted by Bob Guccione's son's attempt to compete with UFC with a promotion called "Extreme Fighting," was finding it impossible to break into the closed door society of pay per view distribution.
The stories leading to the pay per view are legendary. ECW wrestler New Jack sliced up an underaged performer with a razor blade, causing a huge controversy and the cancelation of the pay per view once the company actually got clearances. Fans organized rallies and fax campaigns (early days of the internet, folks) to help the company they felt a part of get to the promised land. Heyman refused to abandon the bingo hall. He refused to put a color commentator with Joey Styles, who became the first solo announcer in wrestling ppv history. He refused to bring in an outside producer, and stuck by his right hand man Ron Buffone. He refused to compromise his product, ban the blood, tone down the violence, or do anything to sell out the vision that brought them to 'the dance."
Ah yes, the dance. Heyman's speech to his locker room full of wrestlers was captured by Academy Award winning documentary maker Barry Blaustein in a now-famous scene in the doc "Beyond The Mat," which, as legend has it, was backed by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
Heyman's "Welcome to the Dance" speech is seen by his fans as the epitome of his motivational skills,The Mad Scientist amping up his monsters like Vince Lombardi on his best day,. And to his detractors, it's seen as the cult leader pouring the kool aid down the throats of his Extreme band of misfits.
Either way, you can't deny the genius of Paul Heyman. And while Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, HHH, Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White, WWE and UFC enjoy their million dollar cashouts from their pay per view revenue streams, it's on this day that everyone should look back 15 years ago and acknowledge the chutzpah Paul Heyman, the smart ass Jewish kid from New York, displayed to the world, stuck to his guns, believed in himself and his own vision and his wrestlers enough to present a revolutionary pay per view that could only be called "Barely Legal."
As they say on Twitter, #ThankYouPaul!