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Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff Re-enter the Ring

Can WWE’s two biggest onetime rivals right the ship?

WWE/Ringer illustration

Almost precisely 18 years ago, on July 9, 2001, a grab bag of former WCW and ECW superstars stomped around the Monday Night Raw ring, celebrating the unlikeliest of coups. Led by longtime ECW kingpin Paul Heyman and WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s prodigal son, Shane—standing in, as it were, for Vince’s real-life corporate nemesis and ex-WCW boss, Eric Bischoff—the crop-topped collection of ostensible castoffs (Shawn Stasiak, Justin Credible, etc.) claimed McMahon’s turf as their own, forging an alliance of usurpers dubbed, well, the Alliance.

It was a mind-bending moment. Essentially, WWE had plotted out a made-for-TV scenario in which figureheads and fresh talent from its depleted competition—McMahon had acquired both WCW and ECW and its assets by this point—try to subsume the company’s established order from within. The curtain may have pulled back on wrestling’s reality by 2001, but there was still enough opacity to the business side of things that WWE could effectively manipulate its genuine monopoly into what, by all appearances, was televised mutiny. Nearly 20 years later, WWE is in the midst of a very different identity crisis, and as fate would have it, some familiar faces have been asked to right the ship.

As was reported Thursday by Sports Illustrated and then confirmed on the company’s own site, Paul Heyman (onscreen advocate for erstwhile champ Brock Lesnar and real-life mastermind behind ’90s insurgent promotion ECW) has been named executive director of Raw, while Eric Bischoff (head honcho of WCW during its ’90s nWo heyday) assumes a parallel post overseeing SmackDown , which is set for its Fox debut on Friday nights this October.

WWE’s characterization of the news makes plain what most of us immediately inferred: That starting this fall, the promotion’s two prime-time juggernauts will forge distinct creative identities, with Heyman ideally refreshing a relatively renegade operation on Mondays, and Bischoff tending to the tactical imperatives of competing for network viewers on Friday nights. And yes, the statement emphasizes, both men will be reporting directly to Vince McMahon, lest there be any perception that Heyman and Bischoff—both of whose companies were absorbed by a swaggering, Attitude Era WWE in the early 2000s—have utterly prevailed in the end.

But it’s the closest McMahon has come in decades to conceding that his business has become creatively bankrupt even as revenue rolls in from WWE Network subscriptions, TV rights deals, and multimillion-dollar foreign partnerships with countries like Saudi Arabia (ugh) and India. It’s an open secret in sports entertainment that, for several years at least, Raw and SmackDown and their attendant PPVs have been scripted by a rotating cast of TV writers and ex-wrestlers with an alarmingly high burnout rate, and McMahon himself sits (literally) between the creative team and the content, revising scripts up to and beyond the last minute.

What both Raw and SmackDown have lacked are distinct showrunners, empowered decision-makers whose distinct visions become synonymous with the show. (The model, ironically, is the relationship between Triple H and WWE’s developmental league, NXT, a beloved promotion built on one man’s wrestling id. The fact that Trips didn’t end up with one of these two jobs is conspicuous, but let’s not read too much into it [yet].) Whether Bischoff can become synonymous with an invigorated SmackDown is, admittedly, almost beside the point. As was the case with WCW once upon a time, his success will live or die by his ability to integrate WWE’s uniquely eccentric product with an urgent corporate mandate—his track record managing WCW’s relationship with Turner back in the day will be invaluable in the new SmackDown-Fox collaboration. Heyman, on the other hand, is being called upon to officially commit himself to what had become his true side hustle: coaxing and coaching WWE performers to find their characters’ voice and appeal—evolving the stars that WWE has had difficulty building in recent years and reasserting his guru reputation.

Despite the loud insistence that both individuals are ultimately subservient to Mr. McMahon, and without details on terms of contracts available, it’s safe to assume they’ve been enticed by some significant degree of professional autonomy and financial security. And beyond whatever family dynasty drama we’ve been privy to (in and out of character) between the chairman, his children Shane and Stephanie, and aforementioned son-in-law Triple H, this is the closest Vince has come to authoring a true succession plan—or, at least, a creative flowchart. At minimum, it frees him up somewhat to micromanage the XFL’s resurrection.

It’s tempting to kid about the wrestling business’s incestuous circles of influence, and fair to wonder how far WWE has come in addressing criticisms and flagging ratings by hiring the very men it vanquished at its commercial height. But who else would you or I prefer the McMahon clan to entrust with formatting mainstream wrestling’s future than two vital architects of its past? If the Undertaker can still pull on the spandex to turn out fans, why not look back to the masterminds of bygone eras for a master class in how to woo the crowd? Heyman and Bischoff are, if nothing else, distinct and significant voices rooted in wrestling’s most recent heyday, and hopefully they can provide the crucial input of their experience and establish functioning order, clearing a path for whoever or whatever might shake things up next.