It is a certainty in the wrestling business that as long as there are crowds attending live shows, there will always be fan favourites, and there will always be the bad guys. With the exception of very few, most professional wrestlers to ever lace their boots have switched from one role to the other during their wrestling career. It is almost inevitable that they will be asked to make the switch at some point. Besides a complete gimmick overhaul, the most obvious reason for change in a wrestler’s character and attitude is when an athlete is turned from babyface to heel, or vice versa. However, just how much does this actually change their persona? Perhaps a lot less than you think. The change from babyface to heel does not seem to bring about the complete character transformation that one might expect.
Steve Austin’s loud and foul-mouthed domineer was present in both his successful heel and babyface runs. Fans began to like the rebellious nature of “the Rattlesnake” and, thus, began cheering for him. These pops got louder and louder until the inevitable face turn came about. Ultimately, it was the rebellious and heel-like tendencies of Austin than made the fans love him.
Besides the initial transformation from Rocky Maivia to The Rock, Dwayne Johnson used the same catchphrases and egotistical and cocky domineer as both a heel and a babyface. Again, it was mannerisms which traditionally used to be associated with a heel that began garnering cheers. This meant little to nothing had to be changed in order to market The Rock once he had changed alignment.
Bret Hart certainly didn’t under-go a complete make-over when he turned heel. In fact, he didn’t change much at all outside of America during his 1997 run as a heel; he was still a super babyface on other shores! Chris Benoit’s tough and aggressive attitude has served him well both as a fan favourite and as a heel. RVD’s laid back and self-confident domineer didn’t change when he turned switched from heel to babyface. The Undertaker came to the WWF in 1990 as a man of very few words who buried opponent after opponent in true walking zombie-like fashion. When he was switched to a babyface, little changed. He still had the walk, he still had the (not much) talk, and he was still an undead zombie. John Cena burst on the scene in his current gimmick as a rap-loving, street thug. When he turned babyface he was … a rap-loving street thug.
The Nasty Boys, Demolition, the Acolytes, Goldust, Raven, Samoa Joe. There are many, many examples. All of these athletes were essentially the same people whether they were heel or babyface. If you loved to hate them, you eventually loved to love them. A rue smile turned in to a giant smile. If you grew tired of the things that you initially liked about them, you eventually grew to dislike them.
Perhaps the reason that so little essentially changes about these men when transforming from face to heel and heel to face is because the progression is natural. What made you love this wrestler, eventually makes you hate them, and what made you hate them, eventually makes you love them. Edge turned heel back in late 2004 because fans began to boo him as a face. It only seemed logical that a slow heel transformation would take place.
It seems that gone are the days of the swerve heel turns for the top athletes in our business. The most prominent heel and face turns in recent years have come about through transitional changes that have slowly but surely taken place. The Rock, John Cena, Randy Orton, Edge, Batista, Ric Flair – all of which have switched alignment through a gradual and logical process based on fan reactions at arenas more than a decision to swerve the audiences with a sudden and abrupt change.
All of which meant they didn’t essentially change anything about their character and domineer once officially changing alignment. Perhaps the only notable difference once the turn had occurred is that they simply began to wrestle guys of the opposite alignment.
Of course, there are exceptions. Kurt Angle’s character has changed significantly in recent times. A year ago Angle was playing a sexual predator who spoke of bestiality. Nowadays, he has almost become the new Mr. Roboto. A man who has no emotion, but simply a penchant for kicking ass. He’s seemingly perfected that growl and snarl which is usually associated with monsters who don’t really have a charisma, as such, but rely on their dominance in the ring. Goldberg comes to mind. Now Kurt is seemingly ‘all business’, no frills and just about beating people up. It’s a far cry from his days as ‘goofy Kurt’.
When HHH turned heel and joined The Corporation in 1999 he changed drastically from the man who was telling fans to “Suck It”. Suddenly there were no jokes coming from the newly dubbed ‘Cerebral Assassin’, who would begin carrying a sledgehammer to the ring. (Of course, there’s been a more drastic change than that in Hunter’s character but that, of course, did not initially involve an alignment change).
Hulk Hogan became a completely different person when he turned his back on Hulkamania and became “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan. Hogan, essentially, did not under-go any gimmick change as such, but perpetuated a metamorphosis in his character that saw him go from receiving fan adulation to fan angst.
Despite these exceptions, however, a switch from heel to face, or vice versa, requires little change in a character’s domineer and what makes them of one alignment, ultimately leads to their eventual switch. The major alignment changes stem from the bookers using fan reactions as a barometer to determine the switches as opposed to any ontological shock/swerve. The characters stay the same, but the reactions may change. If the fans began cheering a heel due to seeing things in their character which they liked, then there is no need to alter their persona once they make the alignment switch.
While on the surface one may think that changing from ‘goodie’ to ‘baddie’, or vice versa, may result in a major change in the persona of a wrestler, on closer inspection the changes are minimal at best. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not a new phenomenon either. It seems, ultimately, fans are the ones that dictate the alignment changes and, despite instances of digging heels in (i.e. John Cena’s current predicament), fans will not stop until they force the writers’ hands. The fickle nature of fans has meant that they do not tolerate staleness and repetitiveness. A ‘cool’ or rebellious heel will get cheered; a tiresome and sickly face will get booed. The alignment may switch, but the character need not change. What essentially makes you love them, could ultimately make you hate them. What defines them as a heel, will eventually make you cheer and revere them. So, I ask you, besides the feuds and opponents, how much does a wrestler’s persona actually change when switching from heel to face and face to heel? Perhaps not as much as you would think…
Until next time,