I like to think that there exists a place, located somewhere outside of our realm of understanding, where things run counter to the way that they have been presented through the booking of the WWE. Where different Superstars have risen up to win titles, where feuds have played out with a different victor and where angles like GTV, Mr. McMahon’s illegitimate son and The Gobbledy Gooker can culminate in satisfying conclusions. Let’s call it the parallel WWE Universe.
It is only through this imaginary parallel universe that we can explore alternative narratives to the one force-fed by the WWE. In an era where the audience is more in the driver’s seat in terms of storylines and creative directions than ever before, John Cena and Roman Reigns remain the two babyface wrestlers most heavily pushed despite – or maybe because of – being lightning rods for both fan support and discontent. Where once it was only a rebellious, trouble-making minority of wrestling fans who would dare disrupt the ethos of the story that WWE was trying to tell by booing babyfaces and cheering heels, now the vast majority of the audience has far more access to the inside business, remaining intrinsically aware of the booking-driven intents of management and literally making their voices heard, accordingly.
Today, it remains more obvious than ever before when WWE gets it wrong. That’s not to say that they can’t run counter to popular opinion and still generate the desired response, but as Triple H likes to say, they have a large focus group every night who is more than happy to express satisfaction, or a lack thereof. When things go right, the good guy gets cheered, the bad guy gets booed and the fans are invested in seeing WWE’s brand of justice prevail. When things go sour, the boos being levied at a tepid babyface or an undeservedly pushed main eventer are really being directed towards the writers and executives that enabled it to happen.
And make no mistake, it’s gone bad more than a few times in recent WWE history. In fact, it isn’t hard to navigate through years of WWE booking and find instances where, in hindsight, poor decisions probably left some money on the table. From tabbing Sgt. Slaughter as an Iraqi sympathizer and most recently, AJ Styles turning on Cena to join The Club, here are the 15 examples of heel turns that WWE got wrong.
15. Mick Foley (Tommy Dreamer)
Current wrestling fans know Mick Foley as an endearing wrestling legend whose image has softened considerably from the fearlessly hardcore grappler of his prime. But even in his later years, WWE and TNA both tried fruitlessly to turn Foley heel on occasion. One such attempt came in WWE’s ECW restart, where Foley was aligned with a heel Edge against some of ECW’s old guard. Not only did the turn fail to make sense given his recent blood feud with Edge, but fans didn’t want to boo Foley and had little rooting interest in his poorly defined opposition. Turning Tommy Dreamer would have still offered legitimacy without robbing fans of someone they wanted to cheer for.
14. Christian (Randy Orton)
Coming off of a serious pectoral injury in early 2011, Christian began to gain some serious momentum with fans happy to see the personable Superstar back in action. His return even culminated in his first World Heavyweight Championship victory, a nice reward for a long-serving WWE star. Then, he promptly lost it to Randy Orton six days later. While this would seem to point to Orton going the heel route after killing Christian’s dream, WWE opted to turn the embittered former champion. It made for a strong feud, but didn’t offer much satisfaction for Christian’s “peeps” who had so recently followed him on his heroic run.
13. Sable (Tori)
The late-90s WWE run of Sable was driven by a groundswell of popularity she enjoyed from her predominantly male fan base. This popularity reached a fever pitch when the future Mrs. Brock Lesnar competed in a bikini contest wearing just the impression of hands painted on her breasts. Less than a year later, however, WWE had Sable turn heel by “going Hollywood” and developing an egotistical persona. The problem was that fans cared far more about her than they did her foil, the babyface newcomer Tori who was introduced as Sable’s biggest fan. Why not, then, go the creepy stalker route with Tori and turn her heel? Oh, hindsight.
12. Jeff Hardy (Matt Hardy)
After working his way up the ladder in WWE alongside his brother Matt as a tag team wrestler, Jeff Hardy began a singles run in an eye-opening ladder match against The Undertaker for the World Title. Hardy lost, but gained momentum from added exposure and earning The Undertaker’s on-screen respect. While many fans recall that match, few remember his brief heel turn soon thereafter in which he would be a sore loser and attack babyface opponents, including Rob Van Dam, Booker T and Shawn Michaels, after losses. The gimmick was dropped within weeks and would have been better suited for his brother, who was more of a natural heel, anyway.
11. Tatanka (Lex Luger)
Tatanka clearly held the favor of someone with serious backstage power during his early 90s WWE run. The Native American warrior was gifted with a lengthy undefeated streak angle upon his debut, moving up the card very quickly. He turned heel in 1993 when, after accusing Lex Luger of selling out to “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, he was revealed as the actual sellout and attacked Luger. The problem was that few fans cared enough about Tatanka to make the angle particularly meaningful. Had they turned Luger instead, who was fresh off his super-push as an American hero, it would have carried far more impact.
10. Daniel Bryan (Big Show)
The narrative of the diminutive Daniel Bryan overcoming hulking opposition in Mark Henry and Big Show to win his first World Heavyweight Championship seems pulled from the pages of the babyface handbook. Strangely, though, Bryan was booked to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase at the expense of his friend, Big Show, after the big man’s match with Henry, thereby engineering a slow burn heel turn. While the turn did produce some amusing cowardly heel shtick from Bryan, he would later prove how natural he is in the underdog hero role.
9. Edge (John Morrison)
Edge’s return from a torn Achilles tendon at the 2010 Royal Rumble practically wrote itself. He came back as a popular babyface and targeted former friend Chris Jericho, who had openly mocked the injured Edge and just happened to be World Heavyweight Champion in time for a WrestleMania match. After losing, he was quickly shuffled off into a feud with Randy Orton, where he returned to playing heel despite the sense that his story as a face hadn’t been told yet. The feud with Orton could have easily been filled by John Morrison, a young star with a smug persona who seemed miscast as a babyface at the time.
8. CM Punk (Tazz or Joey Styles)
Many missteps were taken in the WWE’s attempted ECW rebrand on SyFy, but the general idea of a feud built around ECW legends against a “New Breed” of young talent wasn’t a bad idea. Sure, the roles were horribly miscast (Kevin Thorn, anyone?), but it was at least a way to get everyone involved in something meaningful. The mistake was shifting CM Punk, then a rising star with surging popularity from those who knew him from his indy days, to the heel new breed, a role better suited for a heel announcer mouthpiece like Tazz or Joey Styles. Instead, fans still cheered for Punk and he was turned back within weeks.
7. Sgt. Slaughter (“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan)
WWE’s central focus in the late-80s and early-90s was Hulkamania and finding suitable opponents for Hulk Hogan to feud with and ultimately conquer. One particularly ambitious attempt came during the Gulf War, as WWE fed into the fervent American patriotism sweeping the country by positioning Sgt. Slaughter as a dastardly Iraqi sympathizer. The character, which reportedly generated death threats for Slaughter, generated massive heat, but Slaughter was a fairly minor presence in WWE before the run. Turning a known and beloved US patriot such as “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan would have been one of the most intense programs in WWE history.
6. Rikishi (Triple H)
“I did it for… The Rock.” This comically melodramatic reveal of Rikishi as the mysterious person responsible for running down Stone Cold Steve Austin with a car has grown infamous as the recognizably unsatisfying end to a big storyline. In booking terms, the decision to turn Rikishi made sense as a means of elevating the former mid-card babyface and swerving fans who were led to believe it was Triple H’s doing. But in storyline terms, it made no sense for Rikishi to take Austin out on behalf of someone he had never been connected to on-screen and with a common Samoan heritage that had never been discussed. Sure, it would have been predictable but Triple H was the only choice that made sense. Heck, he ended up being outed as the mastermind anyway.
5. Vince McMahon (Linda McMahon)
The Corporate Ministry, the evil alliance of The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness and the Shane McMahon-led Corporation, served as a major force in WWE over the summer of 1999. Its primary opposition came in the form of Steve Austin and, for once, a babyface Vince McMahon. When the group began discussing the existence of a “higher power” leading them, fan speculation simmered, particularly at the thought of The Undertaker possibly having to answer to someone. On an episode of Raw, Vince was anti-climatically revealed as the higher power, which felt like a rehashing of old Austin/McMahon storylines and seemed implausible given how much torment Vince had suffered at the hands of the group. His wife, Linda, would have been a truly shocking choice.
4. Stone Cold Steve Austin (Chris Jericho)
Long before the WWE Universe vocally rejected the presented booking of Batista and Roman Reigns, they were unwillingly force-fed a Steve Austin heel turn at WrestleMania X-Seven that saw him align with long-time nemesis Vince McMahon in front of Austin’s hometown crowd. After he was still cheered by fans and as the Invasion storyline was introduced, Austin returned to valiantly save WWE – before turning again and aligning with WCW and ECW forces. Once again, it was a turn that no one wanted, made largely to give the Invasion a headline Superstar with connections to the brands. Couldn’t they have used former ECW and WCW star Chris Jericho, who would go on to turn heel soon thereafter anyway?
3. AJ Styles (John Cena)
The most recent heel turn served up by WWE also happens to be one of the more misguided. Sure, the turn of AJ Styles on John Cena on Raw last month was surprising and set up an interesting feud of Cena vs The Club, not to mention giving Styles a new sense of purpose and direction. But it seems to be a strange fit amidst what WWE is selling as a new era and one that has already been referenced in the feud. Putting aside the fact that Cena is a little more than a month older than supposed ‘new era’ member Styles, the new era that has been presented as a positive movement is now anchored by a heel against a long-standing babyface. This was the time to turn Cena.
2. The Rock (Triple H)
The early stages of The Rock’s career in the WWE saw him guided by some organic, audience-driven direction. Rejected as a clean-cut babyface character known as Rocky Maivia, he later joined The Nation of Domination as an edgy heel. When that character grew popular, he developed into the babyface “People’s Champion” to feud against Vince McMahon while still keeping an edge to him. For some reason, he was then turned heel again to align with McMahon and be the “crown jewel” of the heel Corporation stable. While it wouldn’t hurt him in the long run, the turn did kill plenty of momentum with The Rock well on the path to superstardom. The role also could have been handed to Triple H, who had already demonstrated the mannerisms of a pretentious heel as the blue blood Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
1. Seth Rollins (Roman Reigns)
Just like The Rock, Triple H and others before him, Seth Rollins has already demonstrated a knack for drawing the proper fan response on either side of the heel/face ledger. When many projected the inevitable break-up of The Shield, it was Rollins who was seen as the logical babyface and Dean Ambrose the well-suited heel. Instead, Rollins thrived as the hated face of The Authority and eventual World Champion while Ambrose grew popular as a manic, risk-taking babyface. The heel position has worked just fine for Rollins, but it is Roman Reigns who has responded poorly to being presented as a largely unlikable babyface, with the perception being that he has been gift-wrapped the “face of WWE” role. Rollins probably would’ve fared just as well as a fan favorite, while Reigns may well have found some much-needed fire as a rule breaker.
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