In my last column, I took a look at how the WWE roster is divided into its individual spots and who is best served to star in those roles. Assembling the wrestlers for the various lists I couldn’t help but notice that every heel I named seemed to be currently exhibiting a similar character trait and one that is not a good sign for the future of WWE writing. Before I start to foam, here’s a brief reminder of the male rotten apples as posted on wwe.com on 5th January 2006.
Antonio, Carlito, Masters, Daivari, Danny Basham, Edge, Snitsky, Helms, Parisi, Angle, Cade, Striker, Dupree, Conway, Romeo, Rosey, Murdoch, HHH, Tomko, Mercury, Nitro, Booker T, Doug Basham, JBL, Kennedy, Kash, Jordan, Burchill, Orton, Dean, Richards, Sylvan, Regal, Henry.
Firstly, a few casual observations:
Only HALF are (now or recently) outside of the cruiserweight or tag team divisions.
Only ELEVEN are currently in receipt of a mid-card or higher push.
Only FOUR have been main event players over the last five years.
NINETEEN out of THIRTY-FIVE are predominantly wrestling on Heat or Velocity.
The statistic that bothers me most is the one concerning the number of main event players currently performing as heels. HHH answered the wishes of many fans when he returned from injury in 2005 and took a position under the main event circle but above the mid-card. Not in the role of elevating young talent (which I would have preferred), seeing as Flair is neither young nor being pushed to the world title, but you can’t argue with a feud that produces two PPV matches of the night and worked from both a wrestling and a storyline point of view. I’ll reserve judgement on HHH’s active war with Big Show until it’s near a conclusion but the battles have been good and it shows that someone behind the scenes is putting some thought into it. JBL was lucky to get the calibre of title reign that he did last year but you can’t argue with the effort the man gave. His promos improved immeasurably and, although he never expanded his wrestling repertoire, his matches were miles better than any of his previous ones purely for being more important and with better opponents. After a successful stint as leader of team Smackdown against Raw he seemed to slip back into the mid-card with Rey Mysterio, a feud that would always benefit Rey more than JBL, and a tentative prodding towards the human worm-blender that is the Boogeyman. Kurt Angle’s issues are well documented. Concerns about his health, frustration that he’s almost redundant within his own feud with John Cena, multiple character mutations make him seem confused and directionless and the inability to take the title leaves him looking weak at a time when his heelish pride should stem from victory. It’s not too late to wipe Kurt’s slate clean and give him the blank canvas on which a title reign can be painted but it would be such a gimmick jolt that he would lose any heat he’s built up over the last six months. As for Randy Orton, I bet he really does have nightmares about being buried by the Undertaker. Vince is relying on the notion that fans retain the meaning of a feud but disregard the results. In other words, audiences will forget that Randy numerically and emotionally lost the feud but remember that he was a serious challenger to an established legend and monster face. My primary annoyance is that with only three months to go until Wrestlemania Orton is required to still show the twitching after-effects of a feud with Taker while Batista is waggling his belt out of reach of Mark Henry for fear of him eating it.
In short (yeah right) four main event heels in WWE and only one of them is going after a world title right now. True, both Orton and HHH are number one contenders in waiting but it’s not a good sign when the main underlying problem in the WWE right now is star-power and two of the three heels in this week’s elimination chamber main event can still be considered rookies.
Even though Disraeli’s famous quote about the reliability of statistics doesn’t rely on my endorsement, the problem with WWE’s heels runs deeper than mere numbers. The very foundation of what makes a traditional heel has been undermined so badly that it may be too late to correct it, especially considering the reciprocal changes that would need to happen to the faces at the same time. To first identify the issue, you need to go back twenty years to when Hulk Hogan was in his prime. He was WWF Champion and all the other faces on the roster slotted in behind him so as not to distract his typically dumb 80’s following from worshipping him and only him. In order to feed the frenzy, evil opponents were brought in from various backgrounds to try to kill Hulkamania and it was a very successful formula. The heel was introduced, normally under the management of a former challenger so no new storyline was needed, and they would immediately get the upper-hand over Hogan with a beat-down or a show a superior strength. From then on, the basic drive of the feud would be that, even though Hogan had overcome every other previous obstacle, THIS was the one that might just kill Hulkamania and his fans would have to consider the very real possibility that their hero might not win this time. To his credit, Hogan made damn sure that everyone saw how concerned he was about the new challenger and the fear in his expression would sell the story far more than the drugged-up, monosyllabic bozos in opposition could ever do. The only time the monster heels were expected to take a backward step to Hogan was right at the end of their PPV contest when he kicked out, hulked up and sodded off with the adulation and the bigger half of the takings. Hogan wasn’t putting them over, he was putting the story over and, seeing as he would ultimately emerge victorious, he knew that any heat he created would end up as another page in his WWF legacy.
Personally, I blame Steve Austin. Or at least the Stone Cold gimmick. Ever since then, a face can lie, cheat, steal, attack women, be violent without provocation and still be adored by his fans, as long as you don’t take a backward step. As faces became the monsters and the unafraid, so the heels had to be the antithesis and reflect cowardice and uncertainty. Look at JBL. As a member of APA he was a confident brawler who loved a fight. Now as a heel he makes lame excuses like eye and leg injuries to leave tag matches early and runs away from the Boogeyman just because he’s ‘scary’. Randy Orton is reduced to tears when confronted with the Undertaker. HHH dropping the ‘cerebral assassin’ gimmick to play the submissive half in a feud with Batista and again more recently with Big Show. Edge constantly running from Flair, Antonio and Romeo losing to Kane in seconds, MNM trying to avoid rematches with Animal and Heidenreich, Jordan repeatedly being squashed by Benoit, the constant whining of wrestlers like Angle, Snitsky, Tomko, Masters when they should be killer heels, the list goes on and on. The next time you watch a major WWE tv or PPV show, keep an eye out for a backward step. I’ll bet good money it doesn’t come from Kane, Show, Lashley, Batista, Boogeyman or Cena. In fact, right now there is only one face performer above mid-card that shows character vulnerability as a way of getting themselves over and that’s HBK. And he knows it.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as turning back the clock. Modern audiences just wouldn’t accept the overtly simplistic format that Hogan used for so many years. Mostly because it sucked, it’s just that fans back then didn’t know shit from Shinola. Pandora’s box is well and truly open and it’ll require something new to cure the ill.
Here’s an interesting, if slightly debatable, thought. In a column I wrote early last year, I suggested that the breaking of the code of wrestling and its stars being presented as performers rather than fighters would hurt the heels much more than it would the faces. Primarily because once they’ve appeared out of character on talk shows or in comedy sketches then it’s difficult for the mask of malignancy to be replaced without losing some of its impact. One solution has been to have ‘tweeners’, characters neither heel nor face. But like I’ve said before, in an era where the WWE is telling us that the lines of good and bad are almost invisible, in truth they couldn’t be more clearly defined. But with everyone on the roster required to be entertaining thesedays, we spend far more time laughing with guys like Carlito or at guys like Angle and no one seems to be trembling at the sight of the heels anymore. There is a sign that Vince is trying to undo this problem by attacking the source. Stay with me here. What are the two most high profile recent instances of heels breaking character to reveal the real human being underneath? The Eddie Guerrero tribute shows and the show for the troops in Afghanistan. You think it’s a coincidence that two of the most prominent and controversial angles to put over top line heels since then have involved those two very same issues (Orton destroying Eddie’s car and Angle’s anti-troop rant). WWE writing has lost so much faith in heels being heels because they turn on the faces or break the rules that they’re being turned on the very reality that exposed wrestling for what it is. More proof? If making a wrestler a heel because of their reality is an experiment then Edge is the biggest rat in the laboratory. Not content with bastardising every aspect of Edge’s real life drama with Matt Hardy and Lita, he is now feuding not with Ric Flair the wrestler, but with Ric Flair the news story. Pretty soon, WWE wrestlers will be given nothing to do unless they can come up with a situation in their real lives that hits the headlines on tv or on the Internet which can be used as a catalyst for an angle. Maybe the orderly queue of semi-erect wrestlers that follows Lita around has the right idea after all?
Like Sinatra said, finish with a statistic (or was it a song?). Excluding the four that have been main event players over the last five years, only ONE of the remaining heels strikes me as a possible company-carrying champion in the near future. And that wrestler is … actually, doesn’t matter. You’ll see.