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The art of the great heel who can make viewers loathe their very existence in a way that entices them to part way with their hard-earned money to see the good guy lay on the bruisin’ that they’ve been cruisin for is a fading art. Nowadays, “heels” are more concerned about making themselves look good, getting in the coolest spots, and producing a “this is awesome” chant from the crowd.
The art of playing an effective heel is largely lost in modern wrestling, but the aspiration for it shouldn’t be. People can come up with excuses about the industry changing, but the reality is that wrestling is always at its best with a strong babyface vs. heel dynamic, from both a business perspective and an entertainment perspective. Yes, I do realise that while the “modern epic” style isn’t for everyone, the people who it is for adore it. You know what else they adored? Daniel Bryan overcoming the odds to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30. Wrestling, like basically every form of entertainment, is at its most enjoyable when there’s a strong protagonist that you want to root for (the babyface) having to overcome a strong antagonist that you want to see get their comeuppance (the heel).
So what can modern pro wrestlers do to become more effective heels? In this edition of “Five Count,” I’ll be looking at five lessons that modern pro wrestlers and bookers can learn to respectively become and book better heels. We’ll be looking at the different types of heels that can be effective, what an ineffective heel is, and exploring some of the all-time great heels from wrestling history, why they were so effective, and why the business of the promotions they were working did so well. Additionally, the focus of this article will be on heels at a main event level that are in a position to make a difference to business.
(1) Not All Heat Is Good Heat
Heel heat is only a good thing if it’s going to draw money for the promotion. A lot of times people incorrectly label the job of a heel as being “to be disliked by the fans,” and while that’s partly correct, it’s utterly meaningless if it doesn’t draw money. I could go out into a wrestling ring, be ultra annoying, insult everyone, and have them hating my very existence. Virtually anyone could do that. But if the promotion then tried to push me as a featured part of the show, how many people do you think would keep coming back? Being annoying and insulting people don’t draw money.
If people genuinely dislike you, then which scenario do you think is more likely: People make sure that they tune into the TV show and attend the live show to watch you perform? Or people just tune out and go away. Imagine you’re going to a party at somebody’s house and you know attending will be this guy that you just cannot stand to even be in the same room as. They’re obnoxious, loud, gross, and just flat out insulting. If it’s a very large party and you figure at worst you might bump into each other and they try to start talking to you but it’s so busy you can easily come up with an excuse to get away from them and then probably avoid them for the rest of the night, you’ll probably still go. But if it’s a smaller gathering and you know it will be impossible to avoid them and, even when you’re not being hounded by them, you’ll still be able to hear all of their garbage from across the room because they’re SO. F—ING. LOUD. That’s when it becomes too much and you just avoid the party all together, even though a lot of the people there are your friends that you really enjoy socializing with.
I assume the comparison to a wrestling show is obvious, but here you go anyway. The person attending the party is you. The friends who you like and want to see are the wrestlers you enjoy watching perform. You go to the party to see the friends, you go to the show or watch the TV to see the wrestlers. The loud obnoxious moron is the heel in the promotion who doesn’t understand how to be an effective heel. If they’re only a minor part of the show in a sub-five minute segment, then they’re unlikely to have a massively damaging effect. But if they cause people to tune out of the show, there’s never any guarantee that they’ll just tune back in. They start flicking through other channels and maybe they find something on another channel that they watch for a bit, start to enjoy, and just keep watching that for the rest of the night. If you’re that heel, then don’t build up any hopes of making it far up the card or having much longevity with the promotion. But our focus here is on heels at the top of the card that are a key featured part of the show and, the more prominently featured that type of act is on a show, the harder it becomes to bear and the greater the damage becomes.
Annoying is never a good character trait in any form of entertainment. We don’t watch TV to be entertained by characters who annoy us. We don’t watch TV to be entertained by characters that make us angry. We don’t watch TV to be entertained by characters who make us feel deflated and meaningless. Not without there being instant comeuppance for that character and, if you’re a heel at the top of a card, then that’s just not a possibility. That type of character just can’t get the last laugh in a segment.
So sure, go ahead and use Stephanie McMahon as the template for your heel character. Go out there on every show and annoy all your viewers, belittle and insult them, and never let anyone get one over on you. Good luck making it to the top of the card because, unless you’re related to the boss, you won’t get there. And if you do, you definitely won’t stay there because you won’t be drawing money. And if you’re not effectively contributing towards the promotion drawing money, then you have no value and you’ll be replaced by someone else.
(2) The Art of the Stooge
Jim Cornette comes to the ring with his combination of “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton alongside “Lover Boy” Dennis Condrey or “Sweet” Stan Lane to go into battle once again against Ricky & Robert of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express. The match starts, and what’s the first part of the match? It’s the Midnight’s bumping around off of the Rock ‘n’ Rolls. It’s Ricky Morton having an answer for everything Bobby Eaton tries to throw at him. It’s Jim Cornette throwing a fit at ringside because the good guys are winning. And the most important part, it’s the fans going crazy for every single bump. Every. Single. Time.
The art of the heel stooge has become almost extinct in the modern era and I’m really struggling to think of one good reason why. Heels stooging all over the ring and making the babyface look like a million bucks is very possibly my favorite aspect of professional wrestling. It’s definitely the most fun aspect. Think about the current landscape of pro wrestling heels and try to come up with heels who are great stooges. Hard, isn’t it? Maybe someone will play the stooge for a spot or two, but it’s not part of what makes them who they are in the vast majority of cases. Yet think back to the ’80s and it was the case for pretty much every significant heel. Whether they be in the main event or the opening bout, the heel would stooge around at some point during the match and be willing to make an ass out of themselves so that the crowd laughs at them and the babyface gets one over on them. And it all plays into getting the babyface over which is the role of the heel.
When was the last WWE match to start off with the heel doing stooge spots? Instead they now just start off and go almost straight into the heel cutting the babyface off and working them over. A lot of the time they don’t even cheat to begin the heat segment. It’s just how the match gets going. Maybe if it’s a babyface of significance in a match of significance, there’ll be some lame technical wrestling to start with, but that’s usually dull and performed as a show of parity between the two wrestlers. So over time we’ve essentially lost the beginning chapter of a match where the babyface looks like a kick ass rockstar and the crowd get to laugh at the heel being upstaged as the heel reacts disapprovingly to egg the crowd on even further. The first part of the classic wrestling formula, Babyface Shine ==> Heat Segment ==> Finish has just been totally scrapped. Some may say that’s too pantomimey, but look around; we’re talking about a pro wrestling match, not a UFC fight. Wrestling IS a pantomime.
The other argument against stooging, I suppose, would be that it hurts the credibility of the heel. And if any heel has that mentality, then they have a lot of learning to do about the business. Unless you’re an anomaly like a Brock Lesnar who should be protected at every single point, then you’re job isn’t to worry about making yourself look good; your job is making sure the babyface looks good and draws the money in. And the reality is that stooging doesn’t stop your ability to be taken seriously and draw heat working over the babyface. Ric Flair stooged around for the babyface at the start of every match; that never hurt him. Randy Savage stooged. The Freebirds stooged. The Midnight Express stooged. All of them stooged. Buddy Rose was arguably the greatest stooge ever and was still able to be one of the biggest regional draws of the territories era. As long as you’re not just a stooge, you’re only gaining from it as a heel by getting the crowd more involved in the match and helping the promotion to make more money by giving the babyface a better platform to get over.
Heels stooge around some more! Let the babyface foil your ridiculous plans to cheat. Let the babyface run wild on you at a point other than the end of the match. Let the babyface get in the smartest lines during a promo to embarrass you. Let the babyface walk away from a match or a promo with you sitting in the ring throwing a temper tantrum. Let us laugh at you. Let us have some god damn fun!
(3) The Babyface Is The Star, Not You
As I’ve already alluded to, if you’re a heel and you think that your job is to get yourself over, then you’re mistaken. The job of the heel is to get the babyface over. You know why? Because that’s who the crowds come to see. That’s who ultimately goes over in the end. As the heel, you’re the antagonist, not the protagonist. The show is about the protagonist and how they overcome you, the antagonist.
If you’re a heel, stop trying to be smarter than the babyface. The person who gets the biggest laugh or the biggest cheer should the babyface, not you. Your job as the heel is to be the brunt of the joke. Your job is to react appalled that you’ve just been embarrassed by the smarter and funnier hero of the show. Your job is to leave yourself open for spots where the babyface clowns you and thus looks cooler than you. Your job is to have this over-the-top reaction when the babyface clowns you that eggs the crowd on to cheer for the babyface and laugh at you even harder than they already were doing.
If you’re a heel, stop trying to be cooler than the babyface. The babyface is the person that we want the crowd to admire and aspire to be like. Your job as the heel is to ensure that nobody wants to be you. Your job is to make the viewers grateful they don’t have your outlook on life. Your job is to be the perfect contrast to the character traits of the babyface that amplifies them, traits to make them more appealing to the crowd. Your job is to make the babyface the person that viewers want to go for a drink with because they’ll make them laugh and won’t be a jackass to them. It’s not your job as the heel to be that person I want to hang out with at the bar because you’ll tell the cooler jokes and rip on things that I also don’t like.
If you’re a heel, stop trying to outshine the babyface in the ring. Your job as the heel is to make the babyface look like the more impressive wrestler that the fans want to root for. Your job is to make the babyface look like the badass, not you. Your job is to make the fans want to see the babyface kicking ass, not you. Your job is to make the babyface’s offence look a million bucks. Your job is to make sure that the fans are raving about the big spot that the babyface did. Your job is to help shine the spotlight on the babyface. Your job as the heel isn’t to ensure that you look like the superior wrestler over the babyface. It isn’t to hit the coolest looking moves. It isn’t to hit the biggest spot in the match that everyone is talking about the following day. It isn’t to work the most entertaining style. You’re there to make the babyface the one everyone watching loves, not yourself.
But why? Why should the role of the heel be full of sacrifices to allow the babyface to get all the spotlight? Because the babyface is the star of the show! That’s the person that you’re building the show around. That’s the person you ultimately build to coming out victorious at the end of your story. That’s the person that you want your audience to admire, to root for, to want to live vicariously through. You want them thinking, “Wow, this guy is amazing, I want that guy to be the world champion, I’m gonna go to shows and cheer on that guy and buy his t-shirt so everyone knows I’m a fan of that guy.”
And I get why heels are protectful of their spot. It’s a cutthroat business and everyone wants to be that top babyface star. That’s the guy who wins the most, the guy who looks the best, the guy who gets the most and the best opportunities, the guy whose merch is promoted the hardest, the guy who makes the most money. Everyone wants to be a star themselves, make money off their own merchandise sales and hear crowds cheering for them. But a wrestling promotion should be a team, not a group of individuals selfishly putting themselves before the best interests of the team. Yes, the top babyface is the biggest star and will make the most money, but here’s the thing. Everybody on the team makes more money the hotter the star of the team gets. Sacrificing some of your own cool factor to make the babyface’s star shine brighter doesn’t cut into your purse; it allows the promotion to draw more money and that means you making more money. And not just you, but everyone on the team.
Or you can keep undermining the babyface, making yourself look good at their expense, and then go on to moan about how you’re not making as much money as guys from a previous era, moan about how guys from a previous era are still more popular than you and get to take your spots, moan about how it’s not fair to blame you for the fading popularity of the show, and moan about how your co-workers don’t bust their gut to make you look like a star when the shoe is on the other foot.
(4) Put Over The Rules
Heels aren’t cheaters anymore. Sure, they might cheat if that’s how the finish of their match has been booked, but during and throughout the match? That doesn’t happen anymore. Wrestling is supposed to be all about engaging the live audience and garnering reactions from them. You know one of the easiest ways to do that? You put a guy in a headlock, you position yourself within touching distance of the ropes, and while the referee is busy looking at you squeezing the life out of them, you reach your feet back and push down on the rope for “leverage.” Or better yet, you reach your feet back onto the ropes and then your manager pushes down on them before letting go at the exact moment the referee suspects foul play and walks over to the ropes looking puzzled at why the ropes are shaking while your manager turns his back to the ring and pretends to be focused on something else.
That’s the wrestling equivalent of the “He’s behind you!” in a pantomime. Imagine going to a pantomime and there not being a “He’s behind you!” spot! Nobody does anything like that anymore. Instead, we’ll just get the same headlock spot but without the entertainment aspect of the spot. Which sounds absolutely ridiculous, but that’s exactly what happens nowadays. Wrestlers do the same spots as in the older days except they take the crowd participation part out of them.
Rules are there for a reason. In society, it’s to maintain law and order but in entertainment mediums it’s to prompt viewers to root for and against a pair of characters. You have a babyface who is the good guy that we as viewers (theoretically) want to root for and see come out victorious. They play by the rules and want to win fair and square because that’s an honorable character trait. Then the heel refuses to battle the babyface with an even hand, breaks the rules, and thus makes the babyface the underdog having to fight from behind overcoming adversity. Outcome of this formula? You root even harder for the babyface to win and the crowds are engaged and participating during the match by reacting to the heel’s chicanery. Or, in other words, I’m a happier viewer watching a more engaged and lively product and I’m more likely to spend more money on the promotion.
And there’s all sorts of ways that heels can cheat and make themselves unlikeable that aren’t limited to putting your feet on the ropes or grabbing the trunks for the finish. Use the ropes for leverage, milk the five count before you release (how has nobody stolen Danielson’s I HAVE TILL FIVE REFEREE shtick yet?), be a dick to the referee, trash talk your opponent, mock and goad the crowd, use a manager as a distraction, double team behind the referee’s back – and they’ll all get a reaction out of the live crowd (assuming you’re not a dead on arrival act) as evident by decades of wrestling history.
But the rules have to be respected in order for any of the heels to get any heat by breaking them. If a heel cheats to screw the babyface out of a victory, then the babyface has to be mad about it. If they just brush it off or shift the blame onto themselves then after seeing that, I’m going to be less inclined to get angry at the heel breaking the rules in a match against you because, well, if you don’t care then why should I? The heel also needs to milk their cheating for all it’s worth. Come out the following show and act like you didn’t cheat at all, proclaim yourself to be the better wrestler, be full of shit!
And the most important one, the announcers have GOT TO put over breaking the rules as a villainous thing to do. No more Michael Cole describing Gallows & Anderson cheating to retain the titles as “now that was teamwork!” or Booker T proclaiming as a babyface “you gotta do what ya gotta do.” If I’m Gallows & Anderson and I watch that match at Fastlane back and hear Cole calling putting over their cheating as smart tag team work, I’m blowing a gasket at him after the show for completely undermining their work. It’s essentially a massive show of disrespect for the babyface commentator to compliment the performance of the heel when they’re trying to get people to dislike them. It’d be like watching a performance of a great tragedy story at the theatre and laughing your way through it.
And if I’m Enzo Amore, I’m fuming with Cole as well for making him look worse by shitting all over his out for losing the match. The heels cheating to get the win is (a) to try and get heat on the heels and (b) to protect the babyface in defeat by not proving that they’re a lesser competitor than the heel. In one sentence Michael Cole at Fastlane undercut both of those objectives and helped ensure that no viewer became emotionally invested in the story those two teams were trying to tell.
Cheating to win and breaking rules isn’t a huge heat magnet in the modern era, in my opinion, but it is something that will enhance the value of the heat a heel has if all the other chips are in place. Just cheating alone isn’t going to heat up a cold heel, but a really effective heel cheating to screw the babyface hero we all want to see win out of victory, that builds up added heat and adds an extra layer to the story being told. If I was to rank the importance of each of these five lessons, then this would definitely be the least important, but that said, not respecting the rules and not putting over cheating in the appropriate manner only does damage to the emotional attachment you’re trying to create with viewers and I’m pretty sure that’s not a great thing to be doing.
(5) You Have To Show Ass
Heels have to build up heat on themselves. You have to want to see the heel lose and get theirs, but if that happens all the time then there’s no desire to see it and thus no reward when it does happen. But there’s a point of diminishing returns and WWE, especially in this current era, go past that point way too far and way too often.
The crowd doesn’t have to feel as though they’re constantly winning the fight to overcome the heel that they’re living vicariously through the babyface. However, there always has to at least be hope. And hope needs to be around the corner. Otherwise it just gets depressing. That point of diminishing returns is a very fine point and the art of building heel heat up to the optimum point before viewers lose hope is a difficult one to master. But it’s best to lean on the side of heels showing too much ass rather than not enough.
If they’re showing ass too often then, hey, at least the guys we’re rooting for are winning a lot and we get to cheer for that more often than not. Compare that to the heel coming out on top without getting theirs more often than not and we’re left with a scenario where we’re just left constantly deflated and depressed at seeing the people we want to see come out on top come up short. And that’s not an emotion that wrestling promotions should want their viewers feeling on a regular basis from watching their show.
Go back through history and look at the babyfaces who drew really big money. It was rare for them to not constantly have the upper hand and be getting the last laugh in over the heel to end the show. More often than not, it was Steve Austin getting the last laugh over Vince McMahon. It wasn’t Vince talking down Austin and leaving him lying at the end of every Raw and then justifying twelve months of having the upper hand by putting the face over in the blow-off match at the big show. Hulk Hogan very rarely wasn’t on top in a feud. Dusty Rhodes more often than not was the one standing tall at the end of the show. And that meant that when our hero didn’t have the upper hand, it was a big deal that you stood up and took notice of because that wasn’t something that happened very often.
And it also meant more to the perception of the heel who got one over on our hero because not every heel they feuded with was given that sort of a rub. If Roman Reigns gets taken out by the heel and has to overcome adversity in every single program four times a year then how is it supposed to be special when Braun Strowman takes him out and seems to have the better of him? Whereas if a heel got the better of Jerry Lawler in Memphis, Carlos Colon in Puerto Rico, or even Antonio Inoki in New Japan, it was a really big event that everyone fell silent for and took notice of. And because it wasn’t something that happened every week, we as viewers were eager to see how our hero would respond, eager to see the heel get what’s coming to them.
The most obvious comparison to make to illustrate this point is Vince McMahon vs. Stephanie McMahon. Two characters who are great at putting on performances as a heel that make us loathe their very existence, but only one of them is an effective heel and that’s the one who was actually putting the babyface over and not themselves. Stephanie doesn’t put people over. I mean, I’m sure she’d claim that she’s put over Roman Reigns by letting her spear her and that she put over Vickie Guerrero on her way out by letting her embarrass her and that she put over Mick Foley by providing him the platform to be a featured character on TV again and that she and Hunter are putting over Seth Rollins by letting him win a single wrestling match which apparently undoes being presented as the inferior act every week. But all of that is bullshit. Putting the babyface over is what Vince did with Austin. It’s getting riled up at the babyface having an answer for every one of your dastardly plans until finally one of your evil plans comes off only for the babyface to come back and kick your ass even harder the next time. THAT is how you play an effective heel. How popular do you think the Road Runner cartoon would be if the Coyote came out on top all the time?
And guess which created the hotter babyface. Okay, comparing Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin may be a tad unfair, so instead go back and watch the Roman Reigns segments on Raw from the end of 2015 when Vince put himself back on TV to help get THE BIG DOG over. For a second or two right there Roman Reigns was actually getting over as a babyface. Why? Because Vince McMahon and Sheamus as heels were out there making sure they weren’t acting cooler than him, saying smarter lines than him, or constantly getting the upper hand over him. Then Stephanie and Hunter come back and Hunter throws him out of the Rumble complete with easy pop crotch chop spot and the fans are back to pushing back against the babyface and cheering for the bad guy. (I know there were a lot of reasons that Rumble match damaged Reigns, but the point is you would never see Vince doing something like the crotch chop spot knowing it would get him cheered over the babyface he was trying to put over.)
Building up the appropriate level of heat to get fans angry at the heel and want to see the babyface whoop their ass and put them back in their place is by no means an easy task. But the worst thing you can do as a heel is to build up too much heat without showing ass for the babyface. By doing that, you become totally ineffective at drawing any money for the promotion. Whereas worst case scenario by not showing enough ass, the babyface whoops too much ass and going to the shows and cheering for the babyface kicking ass becomes a tad too predictable. At least we’re coming to the shows.
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(“Five Count” is a Specialist column by PWTorch Specialist Matt Seabridge who presents a list of five lessons to be learned from various categories, theme, shows, eras, or events in pro wrestling.)