Continuing with the Top Five theme from last time, we'll each be giving our picks for the Top Five Talkers in Wrestling History.
Since I got the last word in the previous edition, I'll be going first this time. Here we go....
First, let me start off by saying this was a really difficult category to narrow down to five people. So many figures in the wrestling business have made such amazing careers out of being able to communicate and draw in the audience with a simple collection of words. The "gift of gab" is unfortunately something I was not really blessed with. I'm much better at communicating via the written word, where I can think about things ahead of time and carefully craft what I want to say. The ability to captivate a person or a whole group of people by speaking on the fly is a truly remarkable thing to me. I wish I were good at it.
In the wrestling business, being able to cut a good promo is just as important (and often moreso) as being able to wrestle. Think of how much less success Hulk Hogan would've enjoyed had he possessed the speaking ability of say Jack Swagger. He would've been a midcarder at best. But fortunately for Hogan he was charismatic and could skillfully get across his character, and we all bought into it.
Cutting a promo in 2014 is sadly a bit of a lost art, as in WWE most promos are tightly scripted by a team of mediocre-at-best writers who clearly don't know the wrestlers' characters as well as the wrestlers do themselves. Imagine if Steve Austin or The Rock had been forced to adhere to scripts. There would be no "Austin 3:16," no "If ya smell what The Rock is cookin'." I long for the days when the talent will be given the chance to write their own promos again.
Anyway, just a handful of names who didn't quite make the cut include CM Punk, Jake Roberts, Roddy Piper, Shawn Michaels, Jesse Ventura, Jim Cornette, Bobby Heenan, Arn Anderson, Chris Jericho, and possibly shocking to all of you reading this, The Rock.
I'm not including Rock in my top five and here's why. The Rock is an absolutely amazing talker and has coined more catchphrases than anyone in the business, but then he got in the habit of simply regurgitating them to the point of absurdity and after a few years stopped innovating. Where he falls short for me is that he didn't change up his promos to suit each feud. He would just do paint-by-numbers promos and rattle off the same jokes to every guy he sparred with.
Furthermore The Rock set the terrible precedent of babyfaces who were "too cool" to let the heels get under their skin. And if the heel doesn't get under the babyface's skin, why are we paying to see the babyface beat up the heel? John Cena and Sheamus are less than universally over, precisely because they've used Rock's promo style as a model (The difference between those two and Rocky, is that Rocky was so good at that schtick that he made it work). Steve Austin on the other hand, while also using catchphrases, made it clear the heel DID get under his skin. What his promos usually boiled down to was, "look, this is all a moot point cuz this Sunday when we get in the ring I'm gonna kick the shit out of you anyway," and then he did just that. So I'm sorry Dwayne, you are cut.
But enough of my pontificating, here's the top five.
5. RANDY SAVAGE
As I said in the previous column, Savage was one of the most purely entertaining promo men to ever have a mic in front of him. His character was simply an egomaniacal madman whose temper was always on the verge of boiling over. From what I've read this wasn't far off from Randy's real-life persona. As a heel he was brilliant at creatively putting down his opponents, and as a babyface he brought a nonsensical wild humor to his promos. In some of his best interviews he seemingly said nothing comprehensible, but still managed to make the audience care and relate to him. My favorite Macho Man promo is the one known as "The Beat Goes On." It's about two-and-a-half minutes of almost pure gibberish, but it makes me laugh every single time and is such a perfect encapsulation of Savage's style.
Here's a best-of compilation from his DVD. Just watch 'em all....
4. STEVE AUSTIN
Austin is the quintessential example of letting a talent just play himself "with the volume turned up." Steve was a rough, crass, beer-swilling redneck who liked to beat people up, and that's really all his character was. Anyone who thinks the business hasn't suffered from scripted promos should watch every Steve Austin promo as Exhibits A through ZZZZ why ad libbed promos work infinitely better. Austin was a master at coming up with iconic bits on the fly. He blended intimidation, anger, vulgarity, passion, and organic, effortless humor to create fantastic stories on the mic. Even during his first heel run he was totally convincing as a badass but also incredibly funny. After his neck injury at SummerSlam '97, JR conducted a sit-down interview with him, and Austin randomly delivered one of my favorite lines of his (and I don't know how JR made it through without cracking up): "Don't wipe your nose like that, it pisses me off. And don't smile either." As the industry's top babyface Austin created a ton of catchphrases, and then as a heel in 2001 he reinvented his character as a paranoid bully, inventing one of the most enduring and simple catchphrases of all time, "WHAT?" While this got old real fast, at the time he came up with it I found it absolutely hysterical. But Austin's greatest promo still has to be the legendary "Austin 3:16" one at King of the Ring. It's easily one of the most important wrestling promos in history.
3. MICK FOLEY
I'm not sure there's ever been a better pure storyteller in wrestling. Foley was able to get across the essence of his character and each rivalry through a promo possibly better than anyone. From his amazing "Cane Dewey" promo in ECW, to this three-part sit-down with Jim Ross in the WWF, Foley really made an art of cutting a long-form promo. He could truly make the viewer believe he was mentally deranged and violent. On the flipside he was also capable of making us all laugh. Foley is one of the few real visionaries, where it's obvious he had a clear goal of where he wanted his promos to go and what character traits and story twists he wanted to convey. Foley really brought the sensibility of a serious actor, portraying a character. I defy anyone to watch some of his biggest promos and tell me he wasn't totally convincing. Foley's best promo is probably the three-parter with JR. This was brilliantly done (and not scripted), and got the Mankind character over in totally unexpected ways. It turned a violent monster heel into a three-dimensional, emotionally disturbed anti-hero. There's a reason Foley considers this one of the best things he ever did.
2. RIC FLAIR
Simply a classic elitist, arrogant, douchy heel character who always managed to escape his comeuppance. Flair could beat anyone by hook or crook, and he knew it better than anyone. That's all the "Nature Boy" boiled down to, and goddamn could he sell tickets. Flair could make every single man in the audience want to punch him in the face, and make every woman want to go home with him. This is the perfect villainous wrestling character to evoke an emotional reaction from every single viewer. The fans wanted to see their heroes beat the absolute piss out of Flair. Hence every seat in the house was full. If there's ever been anyone in wrestling better at connecting with every fan on a base level, I couldn't tell you who it was. And yet, Flair still understood that as the heel, he needed to appear vulnerable and beatable in order for the audience to keep showing up. That was the key to it all. The fans needed to believe "this will finally be the night when Flair gets beaten up." It was so simple and brilliant I can't understand why the business has gotten so far away from this concept. A heel's job is to be hated, period, and Flair knew exactly how to get there. I'm not sure I can pick a single favorite Flair promo because he had so many great ones, but here's one of 'em....
1. PAUL HEYMAN
Heyman is bar-none the most compelling talker I have ever seen on a wrestling program. He's got to be the best salesman in the history of the business. A little something about me: I hate asparagus. Hate it. But I don't doubt Paul Heyman could sell me a freshly cooked (or blackened and rotting, why not?) vat of the stuff. There's a reason he's known as "the David Koresh of wrestling."
Heyman has made a career (and built an immensely influential company) out of highlighting the strengths and masking the weaknesses of every talent he's associated with. He is easily one of the five most creative minds in wrestling history, and I'd wager that if Ted Turner had made him WCW President in 1994 instead of Eric Bischoff we might all be watching and talking about the other night's episode of WCW Nitro right now. Heyman's ability to create and package stars out of even the most marginal of talents is uncanny, and when paired with truly remarkable wrestlers he helps create magic.
His instincts and storytelling ability when cutting a promo are nearly unmatched, and even in interviews when discussing banal topics I find his stories utterly riveting. This is a man who has never needed to rely on catchphrases, cheap put-downs, or sleazy innuendos to enhance whatever angle or storyline he's worked with. Heyman has the innate aptitude to find the trigger point for each issue and press it hard, garnering exactly the reaction he's looking for.
In my estimation, Paul Heyman is the most naturally gifted orator in the history of pro wrestling. One of my favorite promos is his recent masterpiece the night after WrestleMania 30.
Ok, Jim's turn.
I am an unabashed and unapologetic babyface fan, as you have likely already divined from my previous posts to this site. Being a babyface is tough, man. A great babyface makes me want to cheer for her because, well, she makes me want to cheer for her for her.
With that being said, my wrestling interview heroes are all heels. This is for the same reason why I love babyfaces in the ring: it’s hard.
Wrestling is, after all, a melodrama, a long-form comedy in the manner of Euripedes, French farce or Punch and Judy. A good melodrama needs a happy ending, at least after a fashion. Every heel knows that their ultimate job, then, is to lose, to get somebody else over by appearing to be a threat that you’re not likely to really be in the end.
This is not a simple task.
To cut a great heel promo requires a tight and technically-sound dedication to two principles. “They” are really one principle: logic both reasonable and unreasonable. In the words of Michael Hayes, a terrific heel interview who just missed my cut here, the heel must “believe the ridiculous shit he says”. Logic both reasonable and unreasonable. The speaker must appear to subjectively believe in the wholehearted truth of what the speaker says, and simultaneously the audience must understand, hopefully, that the heel is lying or at least really, really wrong.
Heel talkers are awesome. So all of these guys are heels, save for Dusty Rhodes, who learned to cut great promos as a heel and then continued to cut great heel promos as a babyface.
Please for the moment let’s leave out Raven’s shoot interviews. They are great, too, but Scott Levy isn’t Raven.
Raven’s “truth”: Raven is here to help you, and you’re all just too stupid or banal or brainwashed to understand. Sounds like a cliché, right? That’s because it is. It’s a cliché as old as time. Raven is Paris, Raven is Lady Macbeth, Raven is Magneto - Raven is Josef Stalin.
Raven cuts great heel promos just by standing there while somebody else cuts a great heel promo. Cactus Jack to Tommy Dreamer in ECW: “I love you, man! I only want what’s best for you. And even though Raven’s hurt you so many times…” Raven cuts a promo by standing there.
Raven is the heel I wish I could be.
4. DUSTY RHODES
Please for the moment let’s leave out Dusty’s family legacy of good mic guys. That’s great, too, but Virgil Runnels isn’t Goldust.
Dusty Rhodes’ Florida heel “truth”: You cannot stop Dusty Rhodes from being as great as he wants to be. The ceiling is unlimited. Dusty learned to cut a heel promo, in part, from my number one on this list, and it showed. The best heel interview Dusty did in Florida was actually his first babyface promo, a voice-over, given together with Gordon Solie, of taped footage from the house show in which Dusty “got tired of cheating” and turned on Pak Song and Gary Hart, got beaten down and then rescued by the Grahams. Dusty just says to Solie, matter-of-fact, “and that’s when Mike Graham became a brother”. That was NOT a babyface line, that was a heel line and a great one, but delivered in babyface fashion by a soon-to-be-white-meat babyface.
At the apex of his career in the mid-80s NWA, Dusty still cut great heel promos as a babyface. My favorite Dusty bit from that era is when he calmly explained that there are only two wrestlers he’s ever wrestled that he wanted to personally see bad things happen to. The first is Terry Funk, almost whispered, and the other one is TULLY BLANCHARD and he’s going to KILL HIM NEXT WEEKEND AT THE OMNI (or wherever). That is one ticket-moving, seat-filling heel-babyface promo line. Dusty ruled the one-liner and deserves to be on this list.
3. JIM CORNETTE
This time, for a moment let’s NOT leave out both Cornette’s shoot interviews and the fact that’s he’s supposedly pretty crazy in person, because dare I say this, Jim Cornette is Jim Cornette.
Jim Cornette’s “truth”: I am already rich, and winning matches makes me even more so. The perfection of that gimmick, of course, is that it’s bulletproof. In heel logic reasonable and unreasonable, even if his team loses, he’s still rich, and he could always just buy and train a new team. Hey, why not the Dynamic Dudes!
He was so good at getting fantastic wrestlers who couldn’t talk over (cough cough Bobby Eaton) that they eventually gave him giant sacks of shit who couldn’t do anything (cough cough Crush) to work with and he generally did all right with them, too: Crush became the “MASTER OF THE HEAD VISE!” Hell yeah he was Jimmy!
And of all the active managers of that era, not even Bobby Heenan had as many catchphrases as did Cornette. Plus, like Bobby, they never became catch-phrases because he could always move on to something different and usually just as good. For posterity, my favorite remains “I came home here to Louisville, they gave me the key to the city, then they changed all the locks”. Groucho Marx couldn’t have timed that line any better.
His shoot interviews were often delivered in the same manner, too. Jim had lots of enemies real or imagined and once I heard him asked on the old Observer Live show “if you were on a sinking ship with Paul Heyman, Vince Russo, Shane Douglas and Jim Crockett, who would you rescue?” He laughed for a minute, and then seriously answered “I’d save Russo, because then the other guys couldn’t see what I would do to him later”. Well played, Corny.
2. PAUL HEYMAN
What Justin said.
And if that’s cheating, I guess I just cut a pretty good heel promo there.
1. KEVIN SULLIVAN
This one is different.
That is because Kevin Sullivan’s heel “truth” is the real truth of professional wrestling. That truth is this: you watch tv to watch babyfaces win, but you buy tickets to watch heels lose. And that knowledge, that certainty of belief in and commitment to the real truth, makes Sullivan the greatest mic man in North American history.
In the 1970s, on his own motion Kevin Sullivan “became a Satanist”. They told him not to do it: it’s too dangerous, Eddie Graham said. You’ll get killed. Bring it. I can handle it. I’ll just learn another work, another make-believe lingo, and we’ll all get paid. Especially me. He was right.
In the 80s, on his own motion Kevin Sullivan started the Varsity Club, heels that were really babyfaces only the crowd didn’t realize it and they liked it that way. They told him not to do it: they won’t understand what you’re doing, Ric Flair said. It’ll never get over. Bring it. I can handle it. We’ll all get paid. He was right.
The single greatest opening line I have ever heard in a promo was a Varsity Club one, cut just before Mike Rotunda was set to meet Nikita Koloff, still fresh off of the SuperPowers and way, way over: “Nikita Koloff! I don’t hate you. I don’t even KNOW you”. Beautiful. He then went on all Roddy Piper, all Arn Anderson – we have to beat you because this is how we make our living.
In the 90s, on his own motion Kevin Sullivan booked his real-life wife to “cheat” on him with another guy, and had them travel together. They told him not to do it: that guy’s way good-looking and a little crazy, not enough people said I guess. Bring it. I can handle it. And promotionally, he was right. Kevin Sullivan was such a great booker that he ended up getting cuckolded in real life because he knew that it would make a good wrestling story.
As an aside, she really ought to have stayed with Kevin Sullivan.