!So here’s a topic I see debated about quite a bit… what makes someone an effective heel in the modern age of wrestling? There are surely a lot of thoughts on this, but the way I look at it, the answer is actually a lot simpler than most realize. And yet, at the same time, it’s maybe the most difficult solution to pull off.
It’s funny to me, because you see people booing, you see people getting upset and… there’s a debate now about what that means. Lines blurred on whether people react to them as you should a heel, or if they simply don’t enjoy them as a performer. It’s an interesting thing that’s arisen as more and more fans now take to this sport with a more analytical eye. Where reactions so often seem to have less to do with whether they’re playing a good guy or a bad guy, but rather, are simply based on people’s opinion of them as a wrestler.
So there’s a debate as to what booing even means now. Essentially, if you ever find yourself genuinely disliking any heel, and voice that opinion, you’ll have it shouted down your throat that it’s how it’s supposed to be. You’re effectively not allowed to simply not enjoy the work of any villain, it translates directly to simply being heel heat in the minds of many.
This argument makes being a bad wrestler and being a good heel go hand-in-hand.
Indeed, what some would tell you effectively boils down to just that. One simply can’t be a Seth Rollins or Johnny Gargano level talent and generate heat, can they? If you want to be a bad guy, you can’t have awesome matches… people will enjoy your work too much to dislike you.
It seems ludicrous but there’s atleast something to it. If Miz were the exact same guy except he wrestled like Daniel Bryan, would he have ever raised people’s ire so much? If Elias was half as solid between the ropes as he was on the mic, would he ever get jeered? Eh… maybe, maybe not.
This does somewhat play into how heels used to work, as well. For a long time, even in early to mid 2000s WWE, people wrestled differently as a heel than they did a babyface. Not just in terms of fighting dirty either, they also limited the flashier aspects of their moveset. People who regularly performed dives and springboards previously slowed down considerably upon turning heel, allowing their opponents to be flashier.
That had been a constant in mainstream wrestling for decades prior and the more spectacular and vast the average moveset became, the more stark the contrast between a face wrestler and a heel wrestler.
It was, in a way, a sign of mastery over our beautiful artform.
It’s a unique skill, isn’t it? To be an amazing, top level main event talent, and yet be able to convince people that you’re lousy. The best heels in the game could seriously do it though. Imagine being there back in the day and thinking, “Man this Macho Man guy is a total hack. Show ‘em how it’s done, JYD!”
It’s not totally dead. It was one of the things revived by, well, the Revival during their stellar run of NXT’s tag division. Eventually people caught onto the fact that they were among the greatest tag teams of the modern era, but at first, folks were fooled by their unselfish style. I should know, I was one of them! Somehow they managed to make Enzo and Cass look like they were better wrestlers than them on one occasion, and I’m honestly staggered by this in hindsight.
But it’s rare that you see a heel actually do this on purpose in 2019.
Eventually this practice fell by the wayside for the most part, certainly in WWE. And now it would seem the only ones who benefit from this are those who wouldn’t be able to work at that speed in the first place. So again, we have to ask: is [insert wrestler who’s work you don’t enjoy] a bad wrestler or simply a good heel?
It seems silly to even argue about this, except for one little tidbit. When people see a wrestler they despise, kayfabe or otherwise… they boo. After all, in the mob setting that is being in a wrestling crowd, when people in unison dislike something, it’s only natural they end up booing. It’s not even a wrestling thing, if you’re in a crowd at a peace rally and see a politician you despise, you start booing.
And boos sound the same regardless of where they originate. But do people really boo, say, Baron Corbin, the same way they booed the likes of Gorgeous George some 60 years ago? I don’t mean in volume, simply in effect. Is hating someone because the way they work or the character they have bores you a genuine substitute for the fury Roddy Piper used to drum up?
Empirically speaking, the answer is no.
To make this complex issue very simple: a heel’s job is not to make people want to see them go away. Their job is to make people want to see them get beaten, proven wrong and/or humiliated on a grand stage. The idea certainly isn’t to make people change the channel when you’re on-screen, or refuse to buy a ticket to a show you’re headlining.
In the modern day, the biggest examples of effective heels aren’t even in wrestling. Floyd Mayweather made himself unfathomably rich by becoming a hated whilst also never once losing a fight. In an age where boxing was dying a slow death, he got people to buy tons of PPVs for the chance to watch as he finally hit the mat. Of course even there, many will tell you they truly detest him as a person or even as a boxer for his boring style, but the results speak for themselves.
The same results don’t seem to be there for those who end up getting this defense when people are vocal about not being fans of theirs. The Miz certainly wasn’t known for causing big ratings spikes. Eva Marie never ended up making a megastar of herself. Jinder Mahal won’t exactly go down in history as a money spinning WWE Champion.
Allow me to give you a personal example of a heel that I don’t like watching.
Shayna Baszler is probably my least favorite wrestler under the entire WWE banner. Mind you, that’s not saying too much as on some level I consider myself a fan of just about all wrestlers on principle and I support basically everyone. There are very, very few workers in the game period that I just hate watching, and I wouldn’t say that I hate Shayna as a worker either. But I certainly never look forward to her work.
To be more specific, what I really dislike about her is how much my enjoyment of the NXT women’s division as a whole plummeted the moment she entered the title scene. You see, before she came along, we had a run of amazing champions. Whether beloved faces or hated heels, they were all fantastic workers, beautiful examples of the modern generation of women’s wrestling. From Paige to Ember Moon, every last one of them was quantifiably the best choice at the time of their reign and they all put on one awesome title defense after another.
NXT Women’s Title matches routinely stole the show at Takeover events. When they put Sasha and Bayley in the main event of Takeover: Respect, it wasn’t a token PR move. They did it because so frequently, the women completely stole the thunder of previous main events anyway, leaving the crowd drained – in a good way! – after their performances. Simply put, that all stopped the moment Shayna won the title in January of 2018 and has yet to happen again since.
This is not to say that Shayna’s matches don’t have their own drama.
Actually they’re some of the most well-produced matches of the year, but therein lies the rub. That’s always the highest praise I can give them, that some agent in the back did a great job covering for Shayna’s weaknesses. The way they put the matches together, they’re able to disguise her lacking stamina and limited moveset whilst still allowing the bouts to go upwards of ten minutes, which is worth commending.
But man, is it ever a step down to go from the Asuka-Ember Moon series directly into someone who needs that kind of help. I miss the days when a major women’s title bout was a legit MOTN contender even on the most stacked of Takeover cards. And I know they’ll go right back to being that way the moment Shayna leaves the picture, so of course I want that to happen as soon as possible.
I want her to lose, sure, but… I’m not chomping at the bit, on the edge of my seat waiting for her to finally be defeated like I was with the Revival years back. I can’t even remember the last time I came into a match of hers even remotely expecting her to lose. And I don’t think I’ll be that excited when she does, I’m just… ready to be past the reign. Have been for a long time.
I’m ready to see Candice LaRae and Io Shirai tear it up for half an hour in front of a red hot crowd. I’m ready to see Bianca Belair live up to her potential and become a main event level performer. To do that, she’ll need to go against better workers than Shayna. Honestly, I’m ready to see a combination of anyone else square off for that title on a Takeover.
Now, Shayna has her fans and rightfully so.
I know many adore her act and find her to be a wonderful champion. I respect that, and I understand that. She’s believable as both a worker and a character, minus the rare times where the protective smoke and mirrors become a little too obvious. For what she is, she does her job well, and I have nothing against that.
Certainly it’s cool if people dig her work. She’s just personally not what I’m looking for, and her matches really make me miss the reigns of previous years. It’s hard for me to stop thinking about that when I watch these title defenses.
My apologies for the tangent, but I believe many would hear me talk about this and simply dismiss me as being worked by a great heel. And I wanted to show that this is not the case in every instance. I’m not even necessarily angry when I see Shayna win, it just gets a sigh out of me. She gets me to wish she’d be called up to the main roster so someone else could take her spot, and believe me, I don’t feel that way about literally anyone else in NXT.
So that’s why I don’t feel that being a heel who people don’t enjoy seeing doesn’t necessarily translate to getting genuine heel heat. But is not liking someone’s work still a prerequisite to them being an effective heel for you? The kind you’re aching to see get taken down a notch?
Naturally, and thankfully, the answer is a definitive no.
If people think true heel heat is dead, they’re not looking hard enough. There’s nothing else to call the phenomenon that was Tommasso Ciampa in the early half of his feud with Gargano. He was booed so vociferously that they opted not to give him an entrance theme so as not to drown it out. Without question, there’s nothing else you can call legions of NXT UK fans taking their shoes off to display their displeasure with Zack Gibson. And there couldn’t possibly be another way to describe the overwhelming jeers MJF received at Double or Nothing.
All of these men are either incredible wrestlers, fantastically entertaining characters or both. And odds are good, if you asked the people booing them, they’d eventually admit as much themselves. Yet, they boo them with such venom that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d traveled back in time to the days where the crowd really thought the man in the ring with the curly-toed boots wanted to kill America.
They’re all extremely different performers, to be sure. They all gained their heat through very different ways and were even being booed by fairly different audiences. So what links them? What did these few golden modern heels have in common, that so united people in their disgust?
One thing: investment in the product.
Isn’t that the simplest answer in the world? And yet, attaining it is something that so many supposedly brilliant wrestling minds have struggled with. Many would even tell you that the fall of the heel is a big reason for this lack of investment. But I’m here to tell you it’s the other way around.
Sure it’s tougher now that kayfabe is a relic term, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter how smartened up the viewers are. It doesn’t matter what year we live in, it doesn’t matter what flavor of wrestling you like to put forth. If you manage to gather a core audience that has fallen in love with your product, and draw a crowd that’s genuinely excited and up for anything you have to give them… and put on a big heel angle in front of them with someone who’s good at what they do?
They’ll boo ‘til they’re hoarse. And they’ll boo with love.
Because to truly be invested in a pro wrestling product is to allow yourself to depart from reality. To join into a mesmerizing fantasy for a few hours. Sure on some level you may know for a fact that the bloodied and battered dudes in the ring are best friends in real life. But if you care enough about what they’re doing, it’s shockingly easy to put that aside. It’s easy to wholeheartedly believe in the hatred they espouse for each other.
There’s no faking heel heat either.
I consider it something of a common courtesy to boo heels that I like. To me, that’s just the way you show support for them. Even as a pre-teen I felt this way, going to my first live WWE shows. Edge was one of my favorite performers in the game, for example. But when he came out, you’d best believe I tried to boo him out of the building.
But you can only pretend to such an extent. To jeer purely by choice will only take you so far. There’s a certain intensity that will only come out of you when the show takes you there. And don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t something that happens in this day and age.
There are heels that have and will continue to make people buy in enough to hate them. And they don’t do it with hackneyed worked shoots. They sure as hell don’t do it by having dull performances until everyone’s sick of seeing them. They do it by being good enough, in front of a crowd that’s willing to suspend their disbelief.
And there’s nothing more powerful in wrestling than suspension of disbelief. When that hits, you might as well be that little kid in the front row, begging for someone to shut up Superstar Billy Graham.
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