The Vin Sanity of Wrestling – Conversion…

Since the very first staged wrestling matches, the concept of a “bad guy” battling a “good guy” has been the cornerstone of the genre. Although in the past 10 years or so the anti-hero has been a popular figure, with shades of gray replacing the black and white of traditional roles, heels and babyfaces anchored pro wrestling for decades and continue to do so. That said, once a character has been established on one side of the fence, how do promoters execute a shift in his/her fundamental behavior?



TODAY’S ISSUE: Face-turns for heels.

Throughout a career as a professional wrestler, most performers get the opportunity to portray both the beloved babyface and the hated heel. Actually, several grapplers have made multiple forays into each camp. A common observation of the career of the legendary Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat, in fact, is that he never worked as a heel, which is quite rare for a performer with a long, successful, respected career like his. Just think of the impact a properly executed and well-timed Steamboat heel-turn could have made. Under the right set of circumstances it would have rivaled the 1996 Hogan heel-turn that signaled the beginning of the nWo. And that’s a key point; there’s no storyline value in just changing somebody for the sake of change. But if a switch of allegiances is well planned and delivered with meaning and logic, it can drive a brand new chapter in the same old story and breathe new life into familiar characters.

Converting a babyface to a heel is the easier task. Take the WWF’s beloved Hitman from around 1996. After being frustrated at several turns over the course of a relatively short period, Bret Hart’s character was growing increasingly short-tempered and hostile, with good reason; it did seem as though events were conspiring against him. Then McMahon added the element of a hateful, venomous antagonist in the person of Stone Cold Steve Austin, and after months of taunts, insults, and attempts to tarnish the Hitman’s legacy by Austin, Hart snapped and started acting like a heel. That was easy from an execution standpoint.

Going the other direction can be tougher, but as long as the promoter has the patience to stick with the angle and allow it to play out at the right pace, there’s a gold mine of opportunity if they repaint characters and give them entirely new motivations, which of course are accompanied by new rivalries against different opponents or fresh match-ups against familiar foes, especially if these foes also switch sides. For example, heading into WrestleMania X8 in March of 2002, Hollywood Hogan was clearly a heel, representing the nineteenth coming of the nWo and assigned by a psychotic a Vince McMahon to destroy his creation lest co-owner Ric Flair take over. The Rock was the beloved babyface hero representing the company and its fans against the invaders. But fast-forward less than a year to No Way Out ‘03 and the same exact match had entirely different overtones as Rock was now a movie star, returning to his wrestling roots but acting like he was above it all in a highly effective heel persona, while Hogan had returned to his red and yellow attire and his sickening love-fest with fans who buy anything he sells. But I digress; the point is that effective turns can make the old seem new quite seamlessly.

Convincing fans to trust, love, and respect a noted cheater, coward or evil son-of-a-bitch requires a bit more creativity than turning a good buy into an evil character, but there are a few time-tested methods for accomplishing a successful face-turn of an established heel. One way is to have him overcome a horrible injury or perform another act of bravery that simply demands respect, which Eddie Edwards recently did. As one half of the ROH world tag champs with Davey Richards in the heel American Wolves team, Edwards legitimately broke his arm during an anything goes match in late September against Kevin Steen (the Wolves were feuding with Steenerico at the time) but he went on to defend the tag straps the very next night in a known dangerous environment, a ladder match. Then to top it off, after successful surgery in early October, medical updates indicate he might rehab and come back to active competition in half the doctor’s recommended recuperation time. When Edwards returns, fans will cheer the man for his heart, guts, determination, pride, and bravery, regardless of what the character has done in the past. If they wish, ROH can smoothly transition that real appreciation of the performer into a face-turn for the wrestling character he portrays.

Speaking of the Wolves, another tried-and-true method for turning a villain into a fan-favorite is to have him double-crossed by an even more treacherous, villainous, cowardly, arrogant heel than himself. Davey Richards earned himself an ROH world title match against reigning champion Austin Aries, but well aware of the roll Richards has been on of late and having no desire to face him, Aries manipulated Davey into teaming with him against the very dangerous Briscoe Brothers since Edwards was out of action and Richards was all alone. Aries fed Richards a line about how “now more than ever you need friends, not enemies”, so Richards agreed to put his title shot on the back burner and work together with Aries against the Briscoes.

But at the match on October 10th between the Briscoes and Aries/Richards, the ROH world champ walked out on Davey, leaving him to the “wolves” so to speak, and it was evident that Aries’ gambit was nothing more than a plan to soften Richards up before he could claim his title match, or maybe he hoped the Briscoes would injure Davey badly enough that he wouldn’t be able to face Aries at all. Either way, Richards trusted somebody and got screwed, and most fans can identify with that. If we feel empathy for a wrestler and understand his plight, we will usually get behind him. We already want to support Richards because he’s an ass-kicking winner, so if ROH plays up the angle of how Aries is a conniving, backstabbing weasel who screwed Richards over, Davey could easily come out of the exchange as a babyface. And with his partner soon to return from the broken arm and the valiant effort in the ladder war with Steen and Generico, the Wolves might just turn babyface together.

As long as we’re talking about Austin Aries, let’s look at another way to turn a heel into a babyface. One word: talent. Wrestling fans appreciate talent, and as I said above, we love a winner. If a performer like Aries consistently wrestles quality matches with an exciting move-set and flashy, aggressive, intelligent offense, fans will want to support him. Or, if his heel persona is entertaining and fun like the Rock’s was before he turned face in 1998, we will begin treating him like a face even if he isn’t booked accordingly. If our cheers are loud enough and we speak with our wallets (buying the heels’ merchandise and paying to watch him on ppv) the promoter may eventually listen to us and turn the heel babyface. It’s difficult for a salesman to continue fighting against his own customers, and if he can’t get us to boo the guys he want to have as villains, why bother? For years, crowds resisted Ric Flair’s heel booking and cheered him out of respect for his contributions to the industry and his decades of sacrifice in the name of entertaining us. Although he loves working heel, we just don’t want to hate him anymore. Our respect for Richard Fliehr transcends pro wrestling storylines, and we instinctively cheer him whenever we see him.

In much the same way that a worse heel can turn another heel face by treating him badly or dragging him into something, Brent Albright was pushed away from the heel side by two worse heels than he, Scrap Iron Adam Pearce and Larry Sweeney. Pearce “sold” the HANGM3N heel stable to Sweeney’s Sweet & Sour, Inc. without consulting members BJ Whitmer and Brent Albright, which didn’t sit right with them. Shortly after at the Injustice event, Albright defeated Delirious and was happy with that. But Sweeney demanded Albright break Delirious’ arm, and when Daizee Haze showed up to defend the Lizard Man, Sweeney ordered Albright to break her arm as well. But Albright refused to injure either of them and walked away, clearly unhappy with his new group. This disobedience and unwillingness towards unnecessary violence showed us that Albright’s in-ring killer instinct didn’t translate to unwarranted violence, and allowed us to see what sort of man he is. Less than a month later, Albright rebelled against his new team for the last time, suplexing everyone and turning babyface for good, earning our respect in the process.

That respect is a key component in heel/face alignments. Take Tyler Black, who debuted at the Man Up pay-per-view as part of the new, mystery heel stable known as the Age of the Fall. According to the angle, the leader of the AoTF, Jimmy Jacobs, brought Black to Ring of Honor so Tyler was obliged to do Jacobs’ bidding and follow him. It was evident that he wasn’t the evil mastermind behind the heel faction, but simply following orders. Perhaps it was his plan all along to ride Jacobs’ ideology into the ROH locker room and then break away when the time was right, or he might have been a true believer in Jacobs’ message, but soon enough he decided he wanted to earn victories for himself whether it was in Jimmy’s grand plan or not.

Like Aries, Black is a good-looking young athlete who wrestles a flashy, exciting, high-energy style that’s sure to entertain fans, which in and of itself plants the seed of a babyface turn. As I mentioned about Davey Richards, we wrestling fans tend to respect guys who look, act, and perform like winners, and Black was a hot young prospect who was taking pro wrestling by storm. The catalyst for his face turn was the Take No Prisoners ppv, recorded in March of 2008 and airing in May. Early on the card, Black scored an upset victory in a four-corners match against Go Shiozaki, Delirious, and Claudio Castagnoli to earn an ROH world title shot against Nigel McGuinness, who openly mocked him on commentary during his victory, setting the stage for their battle in the main event.

Without the other members of the AoTF in attendance, Black was very much alone that night and an underdog facing the well-rested, dominant McGuinness. However, he put up a brave fight against the champ, who pummeled and punished Black for the majority of the contest, earning Black the respect and admiration of the crowd as he continued to battle back against insurmountable odds, putting on a hell of a performance in the process. He not only gave an inspired effort, but nearly pulled out a shocking victory, displaying heart, guts, and determination not normally seen in a heel wrestler. As the contest wore on the audience reacted in the same way as the rent-a-crowd of Russian military personnel did during the climax of Rocky IV; they developed such an admiration for Black’s will to survive and to win that they started cheering him and chanting for him to become the champion.

The storyline didn’t allow this moment to cement a face-turn for Black, but the match certainly demonstrated to ROH fans, who tend to chose their favorites based on in-ring quality and effort, that Black was a guy they could truly get behind. He was unofficially a babyface then and there.

One more way to turn a villain into a hero is to tell the story of enemies banding together against a common foe. Another Rocky analogy: when did Apollo Creed become a good guy? Before Balboa’s title defense against Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, Creed wished Rocky well, and later, after the champ got knocked out by the upstart load-mouth, Creed reached out to Balboa with an offer to teach him a better way to tackle the much bigger, stronger Lang. Apollo and Rocky had earned each other’s respect during their two ring wars, and they felt like kindred spirits who didn’t appreciate Lang’s disrespectful attitude. They wanted to shut him up and restore some honor to the championship title they both held with dignity in the past. When the two former foes banded together to face a worse villain than Apollo ever was, Creed’s “face-turn” was etched in stone. In wrestling, this “banding together against a common foe” angle always turns heels face, at least temporarily. While one promotion stands together against an unwelcome force like during the CZW invasion of ROH or perhaps more famously, the WCW/ECW Alliance InVasion of the WWF, all bets are off and old rivalries make way until the greater threat has been extinguished. Fans of the local promotion support anyone sporting their colors and fighting under the promotion’s banner against the would-be usurpers. Some heels who turned de facto face might go back to their heelish ways when the war is over, but others will remain fan favorites due to the bravery they showed in defending their home turf.

In a creative environment there are countless ways to shift a character’s allegiances, and as long as their motivation is just, their cause seems reasonable, and their journey is organic, making a new hero out of a former villain is a great way to shake up the status quo and invigorate the vibe in a wrestling promotion.

Vin Sanity is not categorized as a psychological disorder… yet.

p.s. – “Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind.” – Walter Bagehot


The original version of this syndicated column, titled Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic, appears Fridays at midnight on Pulse Wrestling.

Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

Daniel Douglas once again stirs emotions with a controversial topic in a column called Vince McMahon Doesn’t Care About Black People.

Ace Glazer wrote A Modest Response to DD’s piece as well.

Michael O’Mahony returns with another unique Poll Position about what makes a heavyweight champion.

Andy Wheeler talks RAW and Shane-O-Mac’s departure in this week’s For Your Consideration.

Jon Bandit reviews TNA’s Victory Road 2009 pay-per-view.

David Brashear continues his exploration of the good old days as One Year in Memphis continues.

Brian Eison recaps WWE Superstars, and Tess Nolde offers her Ten Thoughts on the show.

Finally this week, Chris Morgado does a Three Way Dance in his Column With No Name, covering Shane McMahon, Nigel “Desmond Wolfe” McGuinness in TNA, and WWE’s upcoming Bragging Rights show.

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