From the mid-80s onward, wrestling audiences were aware of the product from a national perspective. Because of this, every angle and character turn was of the utmost importance and could create a spike in ratings at a moment's notice. There were plenty of noteworthy face characters in wrestling during this time period, and we saw a number of them make shocking heel turns. Not all of them did, however, so it's interesting to look back and consider which heel turns could have been game-changers had the booking allowed for it.
The answer is: a lot. Some of the names on this ranking actually did turn heel, but had they done so at an alternative time in their career, it may have had even more impact. Many of them were such big stars as a face, that a heel turn would have been a major shakeup, and threw the fans for a loop. We saw it occur at a maximum level, when the N.W.O. formed in 1996, and Hulk Hogan adopted the "Hollywood" alias. Had these wrestlers turned heel in a similar fashion, the angle would have been just as legendary, because of the shock value involved.
Ranked below are 15 shocking heel turns that could have changed the wrestling industry.
15 Bret Hart (Early 90s)
When he came into WWE during the 80s as a member of The Hart Foundation, Hart was a confirmed heel, and a good one at that. During his tag team days he would shift between heel and face, but during his singles run, he was almost exclusively a fan-favorite. A heel turn in the beginning days of his singles run would have shaken up the foundation of WWE, and been a surprise to most at the time. The prospect of Hart not being a kid-friendly WWE Champion would have been interesting, as he only was ever a heel again during his final days with the company in 1997. Had he done so during the prime of his singles run, Hart's feuds and matches would have been drastically altered.
14 Roman Reigns
As one of the leading poster boys of the New Era, a heel turn for Reigns would be an interesting maneuver. Ideally it would have come several years ago, when he was in the WWE Championship scene, but even now in the U.S. Title ranks it would be a worthwhile investment of time. Sometimes creative is reluctant to have a character do a full-on heel turn, but it's a useful way to expand upon what a face character has done up to that point. Reigns probably fits the bill, and could probably benefit from this sort of thing, considering that he's in a bit of a transition period, with creative not really knowing what exactly to do with him. He still has a lot to gain, and turning heel for Reigns could re-ignite his career in the best possible way.
13 Shawn Michaels (Mid-90s)
HBK entered his solo run as a heel, but quickly gained favor among the fans, and developed into a tried-and-true face character. A quick heel turn around that time would have been out of nowhere, and really thrown the fanbase for a loop. Michaels during that time was the most over wrestler in the company, and nobody would have seen it coming. Of course, his days in D-Generation X had some great heel moments, but in the prime of his career, it would have been one of the most shocking angles of all-time, and definitely in WWE during that era of the New Generation. Michaels could have capitalized on it, but on the whole of it his career still turned out exceptionally well, so it wasn't needed at all.
12 Bruno Sammartino
Prior to the era of Hulkamania, Sammartino was the biggest face in WWE, and the company's top draw, without question. He was the most popular wrestler in the Northeast, and helped break WWE into a major promotion, that eventually became a force to be reckoned with. In that era, turning someone like Sammartino heel would have been the biggest news in wrestling. He was the penultimate "good guy", someone the fans could count on to always be a face. The concept of Sammartino completely going against the grain would have been astounding, and may have drastically altered WWE history in and of itself. It never happened, but it would have been the biggest angle of its day, and set a precedent for shocking angles about 15 years or so before they started becoming the norm.
11 Goldberg (Late-90s)
Much like the Ultimate Warrior, when Goldberg made his debut, it took the wrestling world by storm. The whole concept of "the streak" angle, was deceptively simple, but brilliant all the same. It turned Goldberg into a sensation almost overnight, and put WCW's ratings through the roof. Still, a lack of character development ultimately hurt his career, and it would have been good to give him a look as a heel, about a year or so into his run. He probably could have had an easy adjustment to it, and feuded with a whole new cast of characters. As it stands, Goldberg remained a face for the entirety of his WCW run, and a lack of variety is one of the reasons the company ended up going under. Definitely a missed opportunity that could have helped the ratings when they started going South.
10 Rey Mysterio (In WWE)
In the United States, Mysterio is probably the most over light-heavyweight wrestler of all-time. Whether it was in ECW, WCW or WWE, he's always been a great draw, consistently wowing audiences who may not be used to the Lucha style of wrestling, effectively putting his stamp on that brand of in-ring work. When he had a world title run in WWE, it would have been the perfect time for a change of pace as a heel. It certainly would have been surprising to the WWE fanbase at the time, plus it would add more nuance to Mysterio's career as a whole. There were probably booking concerns regarding this issue, since Mysterio would have been an atypical heel in the world of WWE. It's understandably easier to book him as a face, having him play underdog and whatnot to larger wrestlers, but it's still an interesting scenario to consider.
Along with Ric Flair, the biggest star that WCW ever knew, and one of the hallmark wrestlers of his era, Sting was always over as a face for the entirety of his career. He was certainly suited best to this role, but it's interesting that it never happened once in his entire WCW career. The formation of the nWo. probably had a lot to do with it, but a Sting heel turn would have been unpredictable, and added another layer of depth to WCW at times when they really could have used it. They didn't see the need to, as Sting was usually great at playing any kind of face character they wanted him to. It's interesting to consider, and second to the nWo. would have probably been the biggest angle in WCW's history. It wasn't the face, and Sting remained a fan-favorite until the company closed its doors in 2001.
8 John Cena
No matter what you may think of him, Cena's on the short list of most popular WWE stars of all-time. He's been one of the biggest draws in the company's history, and has been consistently relevant enough for him to be considered one 0f the best that WWE has had to offer from the standpoint of popularity. The one opportunity he's never been given is to be able to draw legitimate heat as a heel character. I suppose the argument could be made that it's counter-productive for Cena to be a heel, but it still would be interesting to see, or would have when he was at the peak of his powers. It's probably best relegated to a though experiment now, but in his prime, Cena turning heel would have been a huge angle that could have gone in many different directions.
7 Ricky Steamboat
Whether he was in WCW or WWE, Steamboat was always the ultimate face character. Beloved by audiences all over the country, he was one of the most consistent good guys in the history of wrestling. So nobody would have seen a heel turn coming in either promotion, and it could have opened up a ton of new feuds for Steamboat, who could work a great match with just about anybody. It would have been tough to turn him considering his popularity, but if the right angle and booking came along, it could have had the potential as one of the best storylines of all-time. "The Dragon" is a legend either way, but his history could have been drastically different if we given the chance at a heel turn.
6 Ultimate Warrior
When he came on the scene in the late-80s, nobody had ever seen character like the Warrior in a wrestling ring. Pure, unbridled energy, he was an overnight sensation, and was one of the top stars in the company in short order. About a year or so in during his initial WWE run, a heel turn would have been an incredibly smart move to enhance his character further. By keeping him a face, his shtick got stale relatively quickly, and three or four years after his debut, he was gone almost for good. Turning him heel would have paid dividends immediately, especially for someone with such a lack of in-ring ability. WWE management really missed the boat on this one, but that's happened numerous times over the years.
5 Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka
There was a time when Snuka was the most popular wrestler under the WWE banner. His legendary dive off the top of the cage at Madison Square Garden made him a huge hit, and he was a unique character at the time. Having someone like Snuka turn heel in the early-80s would have been way ahead of its time in terms of shock value. In the pre-Hulkamania era there wasn't a more popular face, and he really could have initiated some interesting feuds with the other top stars in the company during that time. It's not a knock on Snuka's wrestling legacy, but rather another interesting "what if?" scenario. It would have turned some heads for sure had it went through.
4 Mick Foley
Foley had been a heel during various times in other promotions, under the Cactus Jack moniker. When he got to WWE however, he was mainly a face, save a short time when he was managed by Paul Bearer. Having had Foley turn heel as the Mankind character during the Attitude Era would have been a major curveball. He was on The Rock and "Stone Cold" level of popularity then, and it definitely would have made waves. The possibilities would have been endless for potential feuds, and it probably would have added some more depth to his character. Not that Foley needed it necessarily, as he's one of the most popular WWE stars in history, but it would have been great all the same.
3 Dusty Rhodes
In the heyday of the NWA, there were few faces that were a bigger draw than Dusty Rhodes. Also charismatic and spirited, Rhodes could cut promos with the best of them, and then put on wildly entertaining, unique matches. A possible heel turn when he was feuding with The Four Horsemen could have paid major dividends. Management at the time probably considered it too much of a risk that would shake up the landscape of the promotion, but it would have been undeniably awesome if it could have been pulled off. A heel stable consisting of Flair, Blanchard, Anderson and Rhodes all under one roof would have been pretty much a dream for NWA programming at the time. It's all a would-be scenario, but Rhodes probably would have made a great rule-breaker, and would have drawn major heat if he was booked correctly as one.
2 "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Let's forget about the failed heel turn at WrestleMania X-Seven. That was at the end of the Attitude Era, we're talking about during the height of his popularity. While being one of the biggest faces of all time certainly meant that he should remain a fan favorite for a long time, it would have been interesting to have involved him in more angles that would have gotten heat. Austin was a heel when he first entered the promotion however, under the terrible Ringmaster gimmick, but having him play the part with the "Stone Cold" persona would have been much better. It would have taken a lot to sell him as a legitimate heel, given his popularity with the fans, but in the right situation it could have worked to perfection, and been a legendary angle in WWE history.
1 Hulk Hogan (80s)
So we all know that Hogan turning heel with the nWo was probably the single biggest angle in the history of wrestling. It shook the industry, and turned it upside down for a few years, while the product in just about every promotions instantly became edgier, and less of a "PG" style. But Hogan was out of his prime when the angle took off in 1996, and wasn't at his peak popularity. Had he turned heel during Hulkamania's initial run in the mid-80s, the effect of Hogan as a heel would have been amplified ten times over. He was the single biggest face of all-time, and had crossed over into pop culture, so he was seen by everyone as a default good guy. A heel turn at that time would have been absolutely insane, and the business probably would have changed a decade or so ahead of schedule. As it stands, Hogan's only heel turn came in '96, and throughout his best years in the 80s, he was strictly a fan-favorite. Had it happened though, the possibilities would have been endless.