Top-Down Smackdown: Heel-ing Hands



“Audiences are getting more educated all the time and many seem to truly enjoy cheering for the talents cast as villains. That’s largely a product of knowing that the genre is a show biz entity and not allowing one’s self to be caught up in the moment and suspending one’s disbelief. The composition and demeanor of today’s pro wrestling fan is more unique than it ever has been in my 40 year career.” – Jim Ross

So I guess the question, then, is: what’s the problem with that?

I’ve been rooting for the bad guys since shortly before Randy Savage turned on Hulk Hogan. In the ’80s, with the good guys representing essentially conservative, traditional values and me being an adamant nonconformist, I always thought the heels represented me better.

But let’s take a look at why fans do cheer the heels today – and by the way, they do not universally do so.

The most obvious is when the heel is portrayed, as successful, strong and talented. See: the Shield, Cesaro, Wade Barrett. And this has always been the case – throughout wrestling history, anybody booked as an indestructible villain eventually gets cheers, from the Road Warriors to the Undertaker. The most successful at getting booed are those who cheat despite the fact that they don’t need to. It used to be that any time a good guy turned bad, they’d immediately start using shortcuts, getting themselves disqualified, and so on.

The current-day iteration of this requires a bit more skill to pull off – it’s the role of someone who is talented, but is perceived as being someone who is using shortcuts in real life. For this to work, they have to make you believe that they are not just their character on the show, but that they are genuinely bad/greedy/selfish people in real life. This is why Brock Lesnar and Triple H, despite being great in-ring workers, are consistently hated, and successful in their villain roles. Batista took a while, but he seems to have figured out how to work that angle too.

Another rule that has always somewhat held true is that if the heel is especially entertaining, they will be cheered. The best example of that in history is a guy named Rocky Maivia, though it’s also been true of mid-carders like Doink the Clown. In today’s world, I think Bobby Heenan would have a tough time being hated as he was consistently hilarious as a TV host – notably, he became less heelish as a commentator in WCW. Paul Heyman is getting damn close to being too much fun for the fans to hate, but I think he’ll figure something out.

But then we get to the most traditional heel tactics of all – cheap heat. The obvious version of this is to have a guy come out and insult the local sports team, or tell the audience they’re a bunch of illiterate rednecks. Anyone can do this…but it generally works, especially if you have a Damien Sandow who can do it with flair.

An older form of cheap heat is the nationalistic gimmick, and WWE is bringing that back now in the form of having Bulgarian wrestler Rusev pledge his allegiance to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Sadly, predictably, this move seems to have confused some people who think WWE is somehow endorsing Putin with this gimmick, as opposed to offering a catharsis. Global politics are tense and complicated where we’d like them to be simple – WWE dealt with this during the late ’70s by creating The Iron Sheik and having him pledge his loyalty to Tehran. Fans promptly went bananas when all-American Hulk Hogan clobbered him for the title.

Putin, who looks like he wants to bring back a Cold War we’d all much rather see the end of, may ratchet up global tensions in a way we can’t easily stop – but we can root for somebody like Daniel Bryan to smack the shit out of his duly designated supporter. Frankly, I was surprised they didn’t go this direction with Vladimir Kozlov back when Putin invaded Georgia. Yes, this gimmick becomes more controversial if the fans begin to respect Rusev and cheer him despite the Putin thing (if a miracle happened and The Iron Sheik were healthy enough to compete again, he’d have a hard time getting boos today), but right now it feels like a good old-fashioned way to blow off steam.

None of these arguments explains the fan hate for John Cena, who is pretty obviously well-liked in real life and known for the kind of charity work nobody could be mad at. And as a TV character, he’s not particularly outrageously awful – we can sum up his gimmick as “a white guy who likes rap and has a hard-on for the military,” a description that also probably sums up a significant percentage of WWE fans.

No, what people hate about Cena is the staleness of his character – and I’d argue that’s more a product of modern TV schedules than anything. Hulk Hogan was just as predictably stale as Cena in his day, but we only saw him defend the title on TV once every six weeks or so; Cena, we see every week. It’s the difference between hearing a band play the hits only when they come to town, and a radio station that plays those hits so incessantly that you’re sick of them. In that sense it’s a product of the modern era, but people don’t boo good guys who have more varied offenses and/or personas, like Daniel Bryan or Kofi Kingston.

In the Attitude Era, when fans started cheering the bad guys, WWE made them the heroes without changing their personas, and both Steve Austin and The Rock went on to become the biggest moneymakers in the company’s history. It’s maybe time to do that again.

Talk back about Raw below – or tell me how you’d handle fans cheering the bad guys if it were up to you.