Blurring The Lines
A Study of the Evolution of indistinct Face/Heel Definitions within WWE
May 9, 2006 by Lee Cox
Professional wrestling has always had one constant. From the early days of 'Hooking' right through to the domination of 'Sports Entertainment' there has been an essential driving force behind almost every match: The eternal battle between good and evil, heel and face. Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, Bret vs. Owen, Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon, the list goes on and on... but take a look at WWE programming of late and you'll notice a continuing shift in this dynamic.
In order to fully appreciate this gradual alteration we must examine one question:
"What was this dynamic in the first place""
In booking terms the Good vs. Evil conflict has been the basis for some of the most successful and important feuds and characters in the industries' history. All of the pairings noted above stand as testament to this but, as far as characters are concerned, one stands head, shoulders...and pythons above the rest.
If Vince McMahon Jr is the Messiah of Sports Entertainment then Terry Bollea was his first prophet. What is contextually significant about the success of Hulk Hogan is the manner in which it was achieved. Hogan built a long and illustrious career through his role as the epitome of all things good and American. During Hogan's heyday his role as champion was supplementary to his role as hero. His feuds in essence were basic. After every successful defense of his title the Hulkster (and his belt) would be targeted by the next big heel, intent on symbolically overthrowing the American dream. The challenger would typically display some attribute in which he was superior to the champ in order to cast doubt into the mind of the viewer that the 'forces of good' could truly topple such a powerful foe, Inevitably they would and Hogan would take another step on the road to immortality. This formula has repeated through history, with countless variations and nuances added, but always boiling down to the same concept of Good vs. Evil.
Of course, this is not to say that storylines have always been exclusively based around this premise. The Shawn Michaels/Rick Martel feud which culminated at SummerSlam '92 or Hogan/Warrior program leading into WrestleMania VI are examples of heels and faces battling like. It is worth noting, however, that in these matches both Martel and Michaels behaved in a 'heel-like' manner and both Hogan and Warrior equally fulfilled their 'face duties'.
The seeds of change in the formula were planted by the 'MSG Incident' in May 1996 when real-life friends but on-screen enemies Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Diesel (Kevin Nash), Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), and Shawn Michaels embraced in the ring after the main event of a major house show held in Madison Square Garden due to Nash and Hall's imminent departure for WCW. This moment was the most high profile breaking of kayfabe in the company's history and, for the first time, offered an insight into the behind-the-scenes relationships between the wrestlers. This situation would later prove to be instrumental in one of the major face/heel ambiguities in wrestling history at the 1996 King of the Ring.
The original plan had been for Helmsley to win the KOTR tournament as his first step towards superstardom. However as, as punishment for the MSG incident, his push was assigned to a then floundering Steve Austin. The rest is history.
The character of 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin is particularly noteworthy in terms of his becoming a face whose character represented a complete departure from the heroes of the past. Austin's portrayal of a violent, angry redneck who cursed, made obscene gestures and cared for no-one but himself was, for all intents and purposes, a bad guy. A changing fan demographic and a new desire for realism in pro wrestling, however, made Austin the nation's new anti-hero. For the first time within kayfabe the lines between good and bad had been not only crossed but spat on...and the viewing audience couldn't get enough.
Despite this move from American to anti-hero, there was one thing that was always kept in check. Whilst Austin did not behave in the manner of a typical face he did feud with heels and was (after his initial face turn) meant to be cheered. Everything was strictly within kayfabe.
This would all change on November 9th 1997. In this age of 'smarks' and increased fan awareness there are few fans who are not aware of 'The Montreal Screwjob'. What is important is the volume of people who were aware of what had transpired at the time. Even more significant is the fact that those who were not aware wanted to know. Dirtsheets had always been around but the controversy surrounding the 'job truly brought them to prominence. The wrestling world was changing and after March 2001 it would truly never be the same again.
By April 2001 the three major wrestling promotions in North America had been united under Vince McMahon and the banner of the WWF. The sudden influx of former WCW and ECW talent eventually led to a surplus. This was addressed in early 2002 when the now-WWE announced that the company was to be split into two rival brands: RAW and SmackDown! Over the following years this rivalry would lead to several SmackDown! Vs. RAW matches, notably at Survivor Series 2005. Team SmackDown! consisting of faces Batista, Rey Mysterio and Bobby Lashley and heels JBL and Randy Orton took on team RAW consisting of Shawn Michaels, Big Show and Kane and Chris Masters and Carlito as faces and heels respectively. The brands' feud seemed to transcend heel or face disposition with both good guys and bad guys teaming together in defense of their brand. What is interesting is that faces were often portrayed as bad guys during the frequent 'invasions' of the other brand's syndicated TV shows. This was a major development in the blurring of face/heel lines in that top faces such as Shawn Michaels were presented as 'part-time heels' whilst on the opposing show and top heels such as JBL did the opposite.
With fans becoming more and more aware of what constitutes a 'good' wrestler in terms of in-ring abilities the wrestling world was about to be rocked by one of the most fascinating series' of events in the history of the industry.
John Cena began his career in UPW where he developed his 'Prototype' character. WWE saw his potential there and signed him to a developmental contract. After a period in OVW and a stint in the main roster as a typical underdog face, he underwent a heel turn and soon took on the white rapper persona which, to some degree, he currently retains. The gimmick initially garnered him a huge amount of heel heat which soon transferred into a cult following. In reaction to this he was turned again and by 2004 he was riding a huge wave of momentum. On June 6th 2005 Cena was drafted to RAW and everything began to change.
The new breed of 'smart' WWE fans were growing tired of Cena's 'freestyle' rap promos, clean cut looks and his increasingly sloppy in-ring work. Before long arenas began to echo with boos directed at the supposedly face WWE champ. The echoes soon become a roar. A similar situation had arisen some years before with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson but was easily counteracted by a swift heel turn. McMahon refused to do this with Cena as it would mean a significant dent in merchandising revenue from Cena's young fans.
In February 2006 Triple H walked away from a "Road to WrestleMania" tournament the winner and next in line for a shot at Cena's title. Could a top heel opponent transfer the anti-Cena chants to himself" At WrestleMania XXII, the WWE fans voiced their opinion...
...every action undertaken by the supposedly evil heel was greeted with deafening cheers and every punch or kick thrown by the all-American champ charged headlong into a wall of thunderous boos. The rules of the Good vs. Evil conflict had been shattered like never before.
It cannot be denied that, with every passing year, the WWE writers step further and further away from the traditional formula but one question still remains:
"Is that such a bad thing""
The meteoric rise in popularity, over the last few years, of promotions such as Ring of Honor has proven that there is a market for pro wrestling focussed almost exclusively on work rate, disregarding the laws of the face/heel conflict. Is this a path that the McMahons should be leading sports entertainment along" The blurring of the distinction between good and evil is continuing in the current Carlito/Chris Masters feud. Neither is technically a face but Masters is the recipient of many heel-like actions and reacts to them more like a face than a heel. Add to the mix that Carlito receives vastly more positive crowd reactions due to his superior technical wrestling abilities and where does that leave Hogan vs. The Iron Sheik"
Perhaps WWE are striding boldly into a new age of professional wrestling. Perhaps the new heights of fan awareness leave them no choice. Either way the world of sports entertainment is changing and whether or not it's for the better is a matter of personal preference.
Kayfabe or not kayfabe... ...That is the question
by Lee Cox ..
I don't really think that you can narrow down the fans turning on John Cena to being smarks or smart fans. I think it is a broader problem that the WWE is refusing to deal with, that is the fans are sick of what WWE is forcing down thier throat each week. Wrestling fans between the ages of 17 - 25 grew up watching Triple H dominate everyone and now some young guy has come along and knocked him off twice, to us its was unbelieveable and after a while we got over it. Same goes for the Cena feud with Angle. Whislt all wrestling fans know that it is fake, we all like to tune out with the program is on and get into our own world where it is real and John Cena walking over the two greatest wrestlers in the WWE pulls us out of this world and we resent that.
Corey Genest wrote:
This was a interesting article, and Tristagi's comments were quite true, but I have to add something here. It seems to me that the one thing everyone seems to overlook with this whole Cena thing is that he is not the same on screen persona that fans (and I'm not talking about only 12 year olds and women) really began to cheer for in 2003/2004. People were really into John Cena when he was attacking wrestlers with his verbal assaults. They were funny, edgy, and reminiscent of some of the Rock's greatest promos - Cena was a heel/face. Cena was a punk who didn't care about rules; a repackaged Stone Cold (people went nuts when he FU'd GM Teddy Long (a face) after Orlando Jordan stole the US title from him). Where has this edginess gone" Who knows! He's booked as this hard working, under dog champion. It doesn't work for him. He never should have been booked against Kurt Angle, who is undoubtedly one of the most respected (if not the most respected) wrestlers in the WWE. Angle made Cena look terrible during their feud. The WWE might as well have written Cena off then. The bottom line is that Cena does not get the fans respect as is. He needs to go back to that edgy, "I don't care" attitude - at least a legitimate one, the current "I don't care" attitude he has is so translucent Stevie Wonder could see through it. This does not need to involve his going heel either, he can do it on his own. I once read an article on this website about what makes HHH the greatest ever: the look, the in-ring ability, and the mic skills. In that article, the Rock and Hogan were lumped together as back seat to HHH because while their look and mic skills were great, their in-ring ability was so-so. I place John Cena (who is only in the early stages of his career) in the same category as the Rock and Hogan because of this. Are face/heel lines blurred" Absolutely.
Jon Rosaler wrote:
Enough is Enough. I am sick of self-proclaimed "Real Fans" or "Smart Fans". I am sick of cheap storylines that should have went another way. Wrestling was never always about gimmicks. We have wrestling gimmicks because of one thing:Money. We haven't always had overly cost promos or Barbed Wire matches, we didn't even always have heel or babyfaces. These things all started in the 70's where gimmicks were getting born.
Now for gimmicks and sloppy main eventers
Hulk Hogan: He was once good, nobody cared about talent, they just wanted to spend money on ridiculous things. We went from admiring talent to watching real live comic book characters. Hogan was a money making machine, I bet the Hulkster always cared about money. Example: his reality show.
Steve Austin: He is good. He is one of very few that admire both his talent and his gimmick. He was never booed for "doing his job".
The Rock: Wrote a column on the guy, he has been dubbed a "sell-out" to the society of sports entertainment. If The Rock ever wrestled in ECW, I can gurantee as a fact, his gimmick would not work there. Rob Van Dam or Chris Benoit's gimmick was able to work anywhere including Japan.
Randy Savage: He took on the gimmick too strong. So strong he has nothing but an extra spot in his jail cell.
Goldberg: Amazing how this past week Booker T beat the crap out of Batista, the same way Chris Jericho beat up a guy who had muscles twice the size of him. Bill Goldberg was trying to be a fake somebody than a real nobody (Line from my favorite Matt Damon/Jude Law movie, Talented Mr.Rippley), so in that case, be an under dog himself
John Cena: This guy I admire, he probably only cares about money, too, but where in the rulebook does it say you have to love your fans" If our entertainers respect us the way we respect them, it would be a good sign to stop all the stupid booing over Cena. I don't mark for Cena, but he's not what the so-called "Smarks" take for granted.
Batista: See Goldberg.
Sting & Buff Bagwell: I read a column in Sting where it said he had no in-ring ability half the time and for buff it's a bonus 50%. Comparing these to WCW admiritions would be set for the departure of wrestling.
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