Heels and Faces. Bad guys and good guys. The villain and the hero. They are the opposite ends of the wrestling character landscape. As far back as anyone can remember, in professional wrestling there has always been someone fans cheered for and someone they booed. As wrestling has evolved, heels and faces have taken on a very different perception from the audience. When we consider for a second that the guys that were often jeered are now being cheered, we have to reassess why that may be. What caused it? Who caused it? And, will it ever return to their roles being very distinct?
Wrestling as early as the 1940s and 1950s, if not earlier, used a pretty simply formula. The heels were meant to be ferocious, and growl a lot; in fact they would intimidate the audience with their presence. The faces were cheered because, well, they were relatable. If fans feel that you represent them, and were closely connected to them and their interests, then you will get cheered. As time passed, heels took on various looks and styles. From the Gorgeous George’s that believed they were better than anyone in the ring or the arena, to Bruno Sammartino, who represented an entire influx of immigrants to the United States and Canada. Heels and faces had very distinct roles. Bruno represented an entire generation of Europeans that came to North America looking for a better life for themselves and their families. It was this type of honesty that made faces so clearly beloved at the time.
Often times, heels would have the nickname of ‘killer’ or ‘strangler’ to truly create fear. Fans would watch them and honestly feel that they would cause some type of actual dismemberment and damage to their opponent. It was a smart tactic, and certainly stood the test of time. In fact, any form of alliteration that plays on a wrestler’s first name also is intended to create that same illusion of bad or villain. “Mean Mark” or “Dangerous Dan” are but two examples where fans were led to believe that trouble was coming, in the form of these competitors.
Heels differ from place to place. For example, in lucha libre wrestling, they are predominately known for being brawlers, and use moves that demonstrate strength and force, emphasizing strength or size. The manner in which they dress evoke dark and cryptic figures that create fear or intimidation. This is unlike the faces, who use high flying moves and technical skill. Their roles are clearly defined. In Japan, they often have characters who are larger than life, in order to create that aura of good or bad.
So why the blurring of heels and faces in the American style of wrestling? It’s been very skewed, as the division of roles and tactics aren’t as clear. During the 1970s and 1980s, fans would often jeer a ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham because he walked with such confidence that it could be considered arrogance. When he defeated Bruno Sammartino, it was meant to challenge the norm, and that good doesn’t always prevail over evil. When The Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund, it once again meant that evil would get the better of good. Heels represented all that was wrong with the world. And, fans wanted to have someone come along and make things right.
The difference with some heels was their ability to show personality and make you laugh. Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan is regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time. He is also one of the greatest heels of all time. He would scheme and plot against Hulk Hogan, only to have his efforts thwarted. He would always come back, and fans knew that wherever The Brain was, trouble was sure to follow. It didn’t matter who he represented, Heenan could captivate a crowd with physical comedy and clever one-liners that would be lost on the youth during that time, but are what makes Paul Heyman so beloved by many today. Heenan was clearly bad in everything he said and did, much like Heyman.Heyman doesn’t look to get cheered; he remains himself and doesn’t come off the script. Heyman doesn’t want to be the good guy. While at times fans believe he will get what is coming to him, it doesn’t always work out that way.
It has become more popular today to be a ‘cool’ heel then a ‘happy’ face. The reasons for this are quite simple. Society has changed, to reflect the complex world we live in. In today’s wrestling, the overly happy and positive are, more often than not, jeered. Bo Dallas, or even Diamond Dallas ‘Positively’ Page, are examples where their over the top positivity was nauseating. It wasn’t realistic to believe that hope was this easy to come by. Heels today reflect what is more relevant to today’s world. Hard work alone for many isn’t enough. From the perspective of today’s heel, they need to do whatever possible to ensure they win, even if that means that means to break a rule. While that belief isn’t new for heels, the idea of working hard is. Promos aren’t built around tearing someone apart, but rather making comments that get a reaction from the crowd. Fans often hear something immature followed by a smart ass comment.
The modern day heel feels at times it is better to be liked and bad than to be good and be disliked. Wrestlers will often say that there needs to be a connection with the audience. That connection from a heel years ago was built around having a different outlook and belief system. They used fear and intimidation, as mentioned, earlier to create a reaction. That isn’t the case now. Heels want to be bad, but have fans understand where they are coming from.
The “Stone Cold” Steve Austin character without question blazed a trail. While it represented what everyone wanted to do to their boss, the tactics were without question heelish. As we look back on it. Everything he said and did wasn’t that of a protagonist, but rather an antagonist. While the reaction of Vince McMahon and was at times antagonistic, it didn’t begin that way. Austin was a face doing very heel like things and being cheered for it in the process. It was remarkable. In fact, the entire Attitude Era was about defying authority rather than following the rules. The Rock, Stone Cold and Triple H were all examples of taking traditional characteristics of bad guys and making them good. The characters were cheered because they represented what people wanted to be like in this day and age, rather than something that was unrealistic.
It was also during this time that the Monday Night Wars were thriving. The Hulk Hogan-led nWo faction were unquestionably the villains, but fans would still cheer for them. It had little to do with being ‘heels,’ but rather how what the collection of talent represented themselves. They were anti-establishment and anti-authority, they didn’t follow the beaten path and follow the rules like faces tended to do. In fact, the nWo was much like Raven’s Flock, a collection of talent that would march to their own beat and defy rules pre-set for them to follow. They would travel together, sit together and intentionally keep their distance from others because the idea of them ‘belonging’ went against what they were intended to represent.
So if it’s popular to be the heel, why would anyone ever want to be a face? It’s an interesting question. Often when talent are asked about preferred roles, they generally enjoy their time as a heel rather than a face. A face is limited in what they say and how they say it. This is partly why fans grow so tired of the John Cena character today. The promos rarely are seething and insulting, but rather filled with what he will do at a given time and why he will do it. Faces today are rarely cheered because of their character, and more so because of what they can do in the ring; whereas heels are cheered because of how they are able to cut into another character, as well as what they can do in the ring. Fans today are torn about a wrestler such as Roman Reigns. While he may be cheered for what he does in the ring, they cringe because of his promos. Inevitably, faces are limited with what they can say, so they don’t blur the lines between being a heel or a face. This brings us to the ‘tweener’. It’s a more modern term that represents a character who isn’t exactly bad, but not necessarily good. They are the type of guy or girl that walks the line with no set allegiances. This may very well be the way they like it as well.
Where does this leave us today? It leaves us with the notion that heels are in fact faces. They have developed over time, and become what they never had intended on being in the first place: liked. Are all heels, faces? No, but that’s because of a whole number of different reasons. It could be that there isn’t a redeeming quality about them and the very sight of them on television annoys fans. That’s a special kind of talent: to be disliked regardless of what you say or do, to be a heel where the lines of what you do aren’t blurred. Heels today such as King Barrett, Kevin Owens and Rusev offer something more that makes disliking them rather difficult. They are smarmy, and clever. They are talented in the ring and convey a message on the microphone that their face counter parts simply cannot do. Some walk that line between face and heel because they offer something special. It’s that uncanny ability to be as good as they are bad. They can be as arrogant as they are confident. So when looking at today’s faces and heels, ask yourselves, who are we really cheering if really they are all two sides of the same coin?
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