Lost in Translation: No Distinct Roles in the WWE Universe
I’m a fan of podcasts, and typically love to listen to those done by Steve Austin and Jim Ross, who have the best guests on, from a wrestling perspective, and ask the best questions. One thing that Ross has gone on about for weeks now is the lack of proper heels in wrestling these days. For those of you not familiar with the vocabulary of wrestling, a heel is the bad guy and a babyface is the good guy. Ross’ contention is that nobody is a proper heel anymore because they are trying too hard to be cool instead of bad.
While he didn’t place blame, the simple fact is that WCW’s nWo and WWF(E)’s Attitude Era created the situation he sees today. Steve Austin, The Rock, Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, all of them were heels when these eras started, but after a while, were more beloved by fans than the nominal babyfaces. The birth of the anti-hero is not found in Tony Soprano, but in 1997-era Steve Austin. It was Austin’s growing popularity, despite his disdain for fans and classic fan favorites like Bret Hart, that crossed over traditional lines, and the effects are still felt today. The rise of the “Internet Wrestling Community” has only served to strengthen those effects amongst most fans.
Take, for instance, the Shield. They might be beating up on fan favorites and facing them in ridiculous handicap matches, but they were awesome to watch. They had a brawler, a high-flyer, and a powerhouse, mixed together for maximum effect. They all played off each other, and the fans first respected them, then fell in love with them. Greatness does not go unrecognized amongst core wrestling fans.
This also applied to CM Punk during his run with Paul Heyman, and Brock Lesnar every time he returns. Even though Lesnar is taking on the supposed good guys at the time, such as John Cena and Triple H, he gets far louder and more cheers than either of them. That’s not an accident. It’s because fans love them, even if they are booked as heels. The effect they have, then, is that other wrestlers want to emulate them. Stories like Punk, Lesnar, and the Shield cause other wrestlers to aim for being cool instead of being good or bad, because who doesn’t want to be beloved by the fans?
The problem, though, is that storylines are harder to promulgate when fans aren’t sucked in by them. Daniel Bryan and CM Punk are the only two compelling storylines that have consistently kept fans on their side the past several years, and both of them were heels that became babyfaces through the adoration of the audience, and were appropriately booked that way against enemies and odds that were distinctly heelish. Most other storylines, though, have been stale, or don’t go as intended, because the person who is supposed to be cheered ends up being horrifically booed (shoehorning Dave Batista into a babyface slot at the height of Bryanmania and giving him a title shot was terrible booking).
I did see a small bit of progress the past couple of nights, though, beginning in the unlikeliest of places. Cameron and Naomi, the Funkadactyl Feud, saw its first match end when Cameron pulled Naomi’s tights to win their match at Battleground. Simple but effective. It buffered her heel characteristics for the fans. Paige’s heel turn on AJ was good, too, for the same reasons. She delivered a sneak attack to AJ, and followed it up by throwing her around ringside and taunting her, daring her to fight back. Those are all great things. You know who shouldn’t be doing them? The good guys, that’s who.
Ross’ second point is that faces act like heels too often these days. This has been a bone of contention for me as well. The faces, for instance, regularly win Last Man Standing matches by handcuffing, duct taping, and roping heels to something so they can’t stand up. John Cena sneak attacks people on the reg. Dean Ambrose intentionally got disqualified against Cesaro this week on RAW (although, in fairness, Ambrose is supposed to be a psychotic street fighter). Edge kidnapped Paul Bearer in his feud against Kane a few years ago. The list goes on. The sorts of actions that sneaky heels are supposed to perpetrate are being done by those we’re supposed to cheer, and the heels, meanwhile, come off as completely reasonable most of the time (save for The Authority, who have done a masterful job of making people hate them).
One of the things that I liked growing up, looking back, is that the lines were clearly drawn. The NWA/WCW did it a lot better than WWF did, though. The good guys in the WWF were far too cartoony most of the time (think Koko B. Ware, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, etc). In the NWA/WCW, though, the roles were clearly defined and the feuds were well played out. Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen, The Midnight Express, the Koloffs and Terry Funk were the heels, and Dusty Rhodes, Sting, The Road Warriors, and the Rock n’ Roll Express were the faces. People like Barry Windham and Lex Luger would go back and forth, based on whatever their motivations were at the time. The only person with real crossover appeal was Sid Vicious, who somehow caught the imagination of fans in 1989. Even though he was booked as a heel and wrestled as such, he was so big and dominant that fans gravitated to him. He couldn’t string together more than six sentences without tripping over them, but he still oozed raw charisma, and fans would cheer for him no matter who he was beating up in the ring.
Another thing that is sorely missing from today’s action is having good heel managers. The 1980s and early 1990s saw the greatest combination of managers in history. Bobby Heenan, Jimmy Hart, Paul E. Dangerously, Paul Ellering, Gary Hart, JJ Dillon, Jim Cornette, the list goes on. They knew how to cut promos, interfere when needed, distract referees, and draw heat from the fans. Bobby Heenan was one of the legit funniest people in wrestling, and even as a kid who hated the bad guys, I laughed at some of his lines. “C’mon Piper, waffle him with a tire iron!” “That’s not fair to Flair!” His partnership on commentary with Gorilla Monsoon was one of the best ever, right up there with Attitude Era Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler.
WWE has it in their power to remedy the situation. Have heels put their feet on the ropes for leverage. Encourage more tights-pulling. Stop doing so many no-DQ matches so there can be more cheating or intentional disqualifications (looking at Miz here). Take the top turnbuckle pad off and have guys get DQ’d for doing that. Get some managers developed at the Performance Center. There is no excuse for not having that. Managers have been an essential part of wrestling history. Why would you get rid of them? Paul Heyman has carried multiple feuds by himself over the past three years. That’s no accident, he’s just that damn good. Utilize Michael Hayes, Ric Flair, Arn Anderson if you must as managers. Go find Jim Cornette, kiss his ass, and bring him back to steer the Miz.
Most importantly, create distinctions again. Yes, Vince, I know you gave that speech about people having their intelligence insulted and the world not being just good guy versus bad guy anymore back in 1997, and to some extent, you’re very right, but the reason fans struggle to care about storylines is because the Hollywood writing staff is too busy being Hollywood and doesn’t know a damn thing about wrestling, and the fans have stuck around because we love wrestling, and you’re the only viable game in town. That’s not a great reason to keep the status quo. If WWE wants to be a billionaire-creating company again, it needs to go back to basics. Give me some classic heels. Give me someone I can boo. If I’m cheering most of your heels, you’re doing it wrong.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.