The Anti-Antagonist: Loving To Hate

Nick Paglino

The RockA running theme of this column for quite some time has been a recognition of the power of the fans to dictate the in-ring product and the direction of a character. It’s safe to say that I am on record as holding the position that the cut and dry face/heel dynamic is a relic of the past…that pops and heat are a product of talent and individual likeability rather than an on-screen persona.

As a result, I reflect the sentiment of many of my colleagues and readers alike in expressing concern regarding this reality and its effect on the attempts to turn CM Punk heel. As I wrote a few weeks ago, in order to create a universally booed Punk, you have to tie one of his arms around his back…to avoid the split reaction, he can’t shoot and he can’t belittle John Cena…In essence, he can’t do many of the things that placed him in the spotlight in the first place.

It certainly begs the question as to why this solid turn is necessary in the first place. My gut feeling is that WWE is attempting to set up a true face vs. heel match between Punk and the Rock. If this is the case, it is somewhat understandable that WWE would wish to create the heel persona in advance of this feud.

Nevertheless, a feud with the Rock once again cries out for the type of unrelenting mic work that has characterized both of their careers. In this sense, even if this feud is the endgame, I fear that a handicapped Punk provides the only means of accomplishing this black and white goal.

Believe it or not though, this column is not meant to be about CM Punk. As much as I love him as an entertainer, the fact remains that he has yet to reach a happy medium between the character that generates an overwhelming reaction and the character that tows the line as a heel.

It’s hard…no question about that. He may accomplish this feat in the near future, but for now he represents the difficulties associated with such a task in this modern age. However, this struggle engaged in by one of the best in the business has highlighted the pure brilliance of a fellow superstar who seems to have mastered this difficult concept.

It has become easy to be enamored with Daniel Bryan. Although his development came as no surprise to fans who had followed him on his arduous path to the WWE, there is little question that Wrestlemania 28 and the subsequent fall-out made him a household name….well, at least in households that actually watch wrestling.

As YES! chants swept through the WWE Universe faster than his WM 28 match, the ultimate question of how to treat Daniel’s heel persona loomed large. On one hand, crowds reacted with pure unadulterated emotion in a manner that hadn’t been seen in quite some time….On the other hand, in an era devoid of significant heel characters, a knee-jerk face turn would have felt like a bit of a cop-out.

Building this character without stifling the immense crowd reaction felt like a catch-22. You can only chant YES! so many times when the recipient of such chants is insulting you at every turn…or so I thought.

In a subtle, yet immensely impressive fashion, Daniel Bryan has managed to maintain the infectious support with two simple letters….NO…This minor tweak did more than prevent a growing fad from becoming stale…It provided a means to maintain a universal level of enthusiasm among fans of all walks of life and levels of wrestling “intelligence.”

For the “smart” fans, chanting YES! continues to be a show of respect for an underdog who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become one of the most entertaining wrestlers in the world…. Likewise, for those fans beholden to kayfabe, chanting YES! is the equivalent of booing…It rattles the onscreen character and provides an irresistible means of vocalization for those willing and able to suspend reality.

In short, the advent of the YES/NO dynamic has ensured that a heel Daniel Bryan leaves nothing to be desired…that nobody in the crowd is sitting on their hands. As has been made evident by the somewhat awkward transition for CM Punk, this accomplishment is not to be taken lightly.

While the catchphrase may get the focus, the simple fact is that it takes a special performer to execute to this level…to invoke the same intense response from smarks, marks, and casuals alike, while maintaining an old-school heel persona.

Every week, Daniel Bryan is taking giant leaps toward establishing the reality that he’s a cut above the rest. Best in the world currently may be reserved for CM Punk, but Daniel Bryan also may have called ahead for a seat at that table.

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