I’m not a bad guy. I’m not a good guy. I’m just the guy.
Those lines send a shudder of nausea through the throats of most wrestling fans. When current WWE Champion Roman Reigns utters those words there is a universal groan of disgusted smarks. Interestingly, Roman’s words may be part of the very reason people hate him and, for the most part, have hated John Cena for the last half decade.
I think we can all agree the phrase is stupid and yet another glaring failure of WWE “creative” (a term I use loosely) to invigorate. Still, the words have impact, at least below the surface of yet another catchphrase for a champion who actually said “sufferin’ succotash” without a hint of irony. What do I mean by impact? How does this line have any relevance to the current status and possibly future of professional wrestling?
Look at the audience reaction in professional wrestling, both in the indie scene and on the WWE stage. Popular wrestlers? For WWE it’s Seth Rollins. Dean Ambrose. Wyatt Family (despite WWE’s best efforts to bury them), AJ Styles, Kevin Owens.
On the indie scene you have Chris Hero, Tommy End, Zack Sabre JR, Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Naito, The Briscoes, Jay Lethal, and so on. What’s the common thread here? When it comes to popularity, the heels and the anti-heroes have it.
Now before anyone gasps in horror at the prospect of changing the time honored tradition of the face/heel, let me explain what I mean. I’m not saying that the good vs. evil aspect of wrestling should be vanquished, nor am I saying it would be more entertaining to watch two assholes fight all the time.
What I am saying is that faces---and hold on for the best pun ever----need a facelift! BAM! Two points. Nothing but net. In other words, the concept of the face needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Bringing it back to Roman Reigns’ vomitus one liner. I’m not a bad guy. I’m not a good guy. I’m just the guy. Faces need not be bad nor good, they need only be the ones that the fans chant for. If faces play a more anti-hero part in wrestling, then the heels can actually be hated and the entirety of wrestling will so much more entertaining.
Look at the Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins feud. Everybody wants Reigns to lose, and lose permanently. If left up to the WWE Universe, Seth Rollins would capture the title and stay champion for the foreseeable future. If Rollins was to lose, the fans want him to lose to AJ Styles. Rollins losing the title to Reigns? Not so much.
At this point the fans would push Reigns back down to mid-card. Wanting him to get swallowed up by the same hole that cost us Damien Sandow & Cody Rhodes. The only difference is the fans would be happy to see Reigns go.
Interestingly, when Reigns was the muscle for The Shield, he was adored. Why? He was a heel and when you’re a heel, for some reason, you get to play to your strengths. Reigns was the large, silent, bruiting crusher and people loved it.
When he turned face, he became this squeaky clean Cena-style character and people hated him. Granted fans were also pissed that he was being crammed down their throats even though nobody wanted him as champion, but a large part of that was who he became when he turned face.
Imagine if Reigns turned “face” but stayed who he was. Quiet, not a lot of mic work, and he just came out and crushed opponents. Give him a cool one liner like “You lose” after he hits his spear, or beats an opponent, but let him stay a bit dark.
He doesn’t have to full cheat, but if the heel takes short cuts Reigns is not opposed to striking back with them. Anti-hero Reigns gives savage beat downs and isn’t always right, in fact he often just does what needs to be done. That Reigns might have stayed over with fans and been…GASP….fun to watch.
You can apply the same idea to John Cena. Once he turned squeaky clean his persona become boring. Five years later you have “Cena Sucks” chants. The main difference here is that Cena can work the mic and makes it somewhat enjoyable. Reigns can’t do that and as my kind of face, he wouldn’t have to.
This is already happening in the indie scene and has been for a while. Tommy End from Progress is a prime example. Not a heel per say but far from face. End’s imagery is taken from black magic and black metal. His bouts are vicious and violent and he’s not above cutting some corners if his opponent starts it.
Chris Hero is another full on badass who plays it cool until he gets pissed. Then all bets are off and elbows start flying. Even longtime good guys Ricochet & Matt Sydal got tired of getting the short end of the stick and used a low blow on the Young Bucks during PWG’s All Star Weekend 12.
All of these wrestlers are hugely popular and, when faced with a true heel, the crowd is fully behind the anti-hero “face”. The stories they tell have a lot more impact because we believe them and, more importantly, we believe in them. If a face is going to be cheered for then we have to believe in who they are and their struggle, without that there’s nothing but rehearsed moves in a squared ring.
The problem facing the old school idea of the heel is that kayfabe is dead. When wrestling was thought of as real sport, the face had to be one hundred percent squeaky clean. The heel was the monster because he had no sense of sportsmanship, was a cheater, someone to be loathed.
The face was the honorable competitor, the man in the arena who stood for the crowd. Heels only had to be a certain level of vicious because the crowd already hated them and the cleaner the face, the more the crowd identified with them.
Now, in the age of After ‘Fabe, we all know the show is fake. Everybody knows the outcome is predetermined. Nobody looks at this as an athletic competition outside of the moves in the ring. With that curtain pulled back, the crowd expects something more than just good guy vs. bad guy. Secondly, we live in an age where people hate squeaky clean; it’s just not what the world wants to see. People love a bad guy, or at least a bad ass.
When the heels cheat and the faces do nothing, the crowd looks at them like they’re weak. After a few of those spineless face reactions, the crowd begins to hate them. It’s akin to trying to like somebody you don’t respect. It doesn’t work.
Beyond that nobody buys it. You push somebody and they will eventually push back. When they don’t it takes us all out of the reality the promotion is trying to create. The crowd’s only reaction is to stop believing in the face and that’s when the boos begin. If the face seems more like a real person we can also do away with kayfabe staples that no longer work, like the face falling for the same trick every time or, in the case of tag wrestling, the face falling yet again for the taunt which brings the ref over and allows the heels to double team the other face. That personally drives me fucking crazy.
Creating a face that is more realistic is paramount to the survival of professional wrestling. I’m not implying they make the face into a heel, just more of a 21st century good guy. Tough. Sarcastic. Somebody you get pissed when he/she gets cheated because he reacts like we would. Somebody who is not afraid to strike back hardcore when the heel raises the stakes, that’s who the people respond to. It’s not that these are bad guys they just aren’t suckers.
On the flipside, a more modern face will also allow the heel character to evolve. As of right now, especially in WWE and the bigger Indies, the heels usually cheat the same way over and over or, more importantly, they have to be bitches that run away instead of fight. Why? Well, if the face just stands there and accepts his fate, the only way the heel can continue to goad him is to hit and run away or use interference or play on the never-ending stupidity of the ref. It not only becomes boring but it wastes talent.
Take Kevin Owens for example. In his other life as Kevin Steen ee was almost always a heel and was always a vicious sonofabitch. This was before ROH began tipping towards a more WWE ways of doing things. When Steen became Owens and transferred to NXT, he kept that air of heartless bastard tough guy. Then, as soon as he got to WWE, Owens had to whine, bitch, run away and pull all the lame heel tricks because the faces he went after were squeaky clean good guys. It was hard to watch.
If a heel has to go up against an unpredictable anti-hero face, then he has to raise his game. His tricks have to become better, his assaults more vicious and his game more devious. With that the heel can become truly evil and we can really, really hate them. That makes it all more compelling, which makes for a better product and better TV.
The updated face might also put and end to the flippy floppy heel/face turn that seems to plague many promotions. When the face is just a pure clean ideal, there is little you can do with him/her. Take Cena. How could you ever turn that guy heel? Same with Reigns, give it a little time and he’ll be unable to turn and will be locked in the same repetitive character cycle that Cena is.
The problem is the turn itself. When somebody is squeaky clean, their sudden turn to evil makes no sense and when they have spent a lot of time being a dick, it’s hard to accept them as a good guy. Now take that and add the ridiculous amount of times wrestlers are asked to turn and what you get is bad TV that nobody believes. Not to mention the constant turn cycle all but destroys any impact the turn might have.
A face that is more like an anti-hero, or at the very least reacts like a normal person would in those circumstances might be more believable if he does give up on the highroad and turns heel. It’s also more believable that a heel might ease up on his dickish ways to become more of an anti-hero face. Both of these scenarios depend greatly on a solid writing staff, but this would give them more to work with.
Finally, the new face/heel dynamic would also bolster the concept of letting the crowd decide whom they like. Without a rigid line in the sand, a promotion might not feel they have to cram somebody down our throats as the new “face” of the company. With the wrestlers allowed more humanity, the promotion can leave the decisions to the crowd. Who gets over and who gets a push can be something earned through great matches and character development as it leads to a better response from fans. It would be better than the current style of pushing who ever the company wants as opposed to the fans.
There will always be exceptions to the rule. Ricky Steamboat was just naturally always a face. Sami Zayn seems to be headed down an identical path. The details of all this can be banged out by a creative staff but the need is there. Faces in the 21st century can’t be marks for a heel. That style just doesn’t work with the modern wrestling fans.
In other words don’t be a good. Don’t be a bad guy. Just be the guy and allow better stories, and happier fans, to lead the way.