Paul Heyman defines the art of the wrestling promo

Paul Heyman's secret to cutting a legendary wrestling promo (4:04)

In an interview from 2016, Paul Heyman opened up about the art of creating a character and cutting a promo. (4:04)

Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2016.

Over the past five years, a number of great WWE promos that didn't come directly from the mouth of Paul Heyman have garnered significant attention, despite how much his recent run makes it easy to forget that anyone can possibly approach his level.

But no one has been as consistently entertaining and impassioned on the microphone as this veteran salesman, whose mad scientist brain owes its genius to his constant evolution. From his days as a teenage photographer to high-profile roles as manager, commentator, writer and promoter for just about every organization that has mattered, Heyman has seen it all over the course of 35-plus years (and counting) in pro wrestling.

His legacy has largely been built upon the iconography of his rebelliousness, which has proved as much a blessing as a curse in each stop along the journey. Heyman has managed to tone down a few key aspects of that act, and has thrived in focusing his attention exclusively on Brock Lesnar.

For the many chapters in the book of Heyman's unique career, he's writing his masterpiece in this current incarnation of "advocate." In an era where managers are all but extinct, and creative liberties on the microphone are stingily rationed by WWE, Heyman stands out as something significantly different, not to mention brilliant.

At 51, he's the best in the world at what he does. Quite unabashedly, he knows it.

Test him with the formalities of asking who's the best talker in pro wrestling and Heyman fails to break stride in saying himself. Ask him who is No. 2 and he just as quickly says Lesnar, before stamping on a vainglorious qualifier.

"You know why? Because he lets Paul Heyman talk for him," Heyman told ESPN.com.

To talk about the art of the promo with Paul Heyman is to summon from deep within him the passion that fuels everything he does -- a passion that acts as the medium to connect with his on-screen alter ego.

"I'd say that I'm probably possessed by that character at times, and need an exorcist to pull me -- the dad at home -- back out of him," Heyman said. "And I'd say at times that I possess him. There's a balance. There's no tug of war for my soul -- my soul is condemned as it is. But we have a relationship and we kind of learn how to co-exist."

Explaining his artistry creates a measured tone in the speech of the often bombastic Heyman as he intently describes what goes into making a great promo.

"Credibility. Authenticity. Believing in everything that you are saying," Heyman said. "It's something that some people are born with and don't know how to tap into. And it's something some people are not born with, but once they feel the affirmation of the crowd ... [they] get that rush."

The pop and electricity of a reaction from a live crowd has long been an unquenchable drug that has called many pro wrestlers back into the ring long after their bodies told them to stop. Heyman is just as much of a junkie to that phenomenon, describing that "synergistic moment with an audience" with an almost lustful tone.

"It's sex. It's music," Heyman said. "And there's a rhythm to it, and there's an interaction to it. There's something very deeply personal about it as well. So once you tap into that you're hooked, and you seek that every time you dare open your mouth in a public forum."

Only Heyman could make talking about the process of talking this interesting. As effortless as it looks when he delivers a promo, there's an obsessive journey unseen by the audience before the finished product, with Heyman stressing over every word, inflection and moment of the time afforded to him to sell a particular message.

The competitor within Heyman, the same guy who improbably built ECW into a revolutionary promotion in the late 1990s, is still present within him, but he's largely competing with himself these days as he challenges himself to stay on such a high level.

There are many different kinds of promos, and Heyman has delivered them all well. He can incite a crowd with his wit and delivery, or ad-lib off of their emotions like a great jazz player. At the end of the day, he says, nothing matters if his message doesn't lead to the company making money.

Unlike most performers, Heyman is allowed to write his own scripts and "put together the salesmanship of it" after being told the mission of each promo. The reason he's afforded such freedom, he says, goes back to WWE chairman Vince McMahon's willingness to honor those who boldly "reach for the brass ring."

While it's clear that Heyman is trusted by WWE despite an, at-times, rocky 15-year relationship (which includes a sizable gap of employment from 2006 to 2012 following creative disagreements), his freedom comes with tremendous responsibility and pressure.

"If you truly want to reach for the brass ring, you need to put your balls on the table," Heyman said. "I can go off-point, I can go off-word, I can go off-paragraph, but I can never go off message. Because when I come back through that curtain, if I haven't sold [McMahon] tickets or pay-per-views or merchandise or network subscriptions, it's not about reaching for the brass ring -- my balls are getting chopped off.

"And you have to be willing to put your balls on the line with that. Now if you are, he'll let you do it. It's your funeral. Or it's you reaching for the brass ring. Either way, it's a risk that you have to take."

Heyman defends the WWE's reliance on scripted dialogue with a reminder that the company is putting out a live show on worldwide television with a multimillion-dollar-a-week contract to deliver. As he puts it, "You can't just let people go out there and do whatever the hell they want to do," saying it's a violation of WWE's responsibility to shareholders not to control everything that goes out under its brand.

It's at least worth questioning, however, whether Heyman's gifts as a persuasive communicator would've been better served in a different field, with his same ability to challenge your core beliefs and turn them upside down often found in preachers, lawyers and politicians.

"I would probably confess that I was the greatest disappointment of my mother's life, but my father only admired his son's moxie, drive, hustle and wherewithal to pursue his dreams no matter how I achieve them," he said, describing his late parents in the 2014 WWE documentary titled "Ladies and Gentleman, My Name is Paul Heyman."

He credits his ability to deliver a message to his father, Richard, calling him "the most ethical, honest personal injury attorney in the history of the Bronx." His mother, Sulamita, was a Holocaust survivor and "the single most intense, driven individual" he said he has ever met.

One of the biggest keys to Heyman's pro wrestling education was the opportunity to learn from some of the brightest minds and best talkers in history; core concepts like how to get heat as a heel, and the difference between just being entertaining and drawing money. He credits his time spent riding in the car or in the announcing booth alongside the likes of Freddie Blassie, Austin Idol, Dusty Rhodes and Jim Ross for helping him create the character he is today.

Heyman believes he has lived multiple careers within the same industry; the loudmouth Paul E. Dangerously, the cult leader of ECW, and the celebrated head writer of WWE SmackDown, to name a few. But he's steadfast in his unwillingness to compare his accomplishments or attempt to identify his contribution to the genre.

"Sharks only move forward -- they can't go back, can't move sideways," Heyman said. "I don't want to be that old boxer sitting downstairs in the basement watching that grainy footage saying, 'So you see, that's when I was relevant.' I want to be more relevant tomorrow than I am today."

Heyman maintains that relevance, in part, by constantly staying ahead of the social curve and using his accomplishments as a means to add credibility to the next thing he's trying to sell. It's a mindset that has helped make his day job running his viral marketing agency Looking4Larry and his Heyman Hustle website so profitable.

There's also the fact that Heyman says he rarely sleeps more than three to four hours per night and often churns out 18- to 20-hour workdays between pro wrestling and his business.

"I'm involved with projects that strike up a passion with me, that stir up completion inside of me," Heyman said. "People come at me and go, 'My job makes me feel alive.' OK, well good for you. My job doesn't make me feel alive, my job makes me feel alive! I love what I do. I'm passionate about what I do. I live for what I do. And every morning I can't wait to stop sleeping and to jump up and get out of bed and start doing what I do."

An insatiable work ethic and a disdain for sleep -- that sounds a lot like another sports entertainment visionary, Vince McMahon, doesn't it?

"Yeah, but he's insane," Heyman said. "At least I'm rather sane about it. Then again, I'm sane and I'm a thousandaire, and he's insane and he's a billionaire."

Could it be a case of kindred spirits?

"I don't think Vince would be flattered by the comparison, but in my little synagogue of life, I could see where maybe we could kibitz a little about that," he said.

Heyman has no plans to walk away from wrestling, not with how much fun his "cushy" and "lucrative" 14-year run alongside his friend Lesnar continues to be. But he readily admits he would be surprised had someone told him 20 years ago that he would be a featured and valued performer with WWE at this stage, not to mention someone who McMahon trusts and respects.

"I don't know what explains my longevity," Heyman said. "I think I'm kind of like the cockroach of the sports entertainment industry. You could drop a nuclear bomb somewhere but who is going to survive? The cockroaches are always going to survive. They are going to be the last things on earth.

"I've survived it all. And you know what? Why would they want to get rid of me by now? 'This guy is still alive? No one has killed him yet? Put him on television, he must have something to offer!'"

Ladies and gentleman, his name is Paul Heyman.