The heel turn is an important thing in the wrestling business. If it’s done correctly, it can elevate a guy big time; it can shift him to huge fame and help both the wrestler and the company do great business. The Hulk Hogan heel turn was the move that transformed WCW into a powerhouse and truly kicked up the Monday Night War of the late 1990s. Numerous turns have followed; unfortunately, some of them have been damaging. The attempt to turn Goldberg heel in 2000 just served to hurt WCW majorly at a bad time and many is the case of a guy just not suited to be a heel, either at the time or ever. But for the most part, turns have served great to boost a guy and by extension his company, and that narrative continues today.
WWE has done heel turns a lot over the years and sometimes, they have failed to truly and fully connect with their audience. The constant shifts of Big Show, Kane and others can be annoying and overplayed, while a variety of fans are pushing for John Cena to be turned heel, something that has been wanted for nearly a decade. While those turns and ideas are both up in the air and yet to do the trick, the WWE has done several key heel turns that have transformed the business forever. These are turns that have boosted the business up in a big way and transformed careers for many talents. One key is for the turns to not just be random, but expertly done; when that’s the case, it’s a great sight to see.
Here are the top 15 heel turns that changed the course of WWE.
15. Larry Zbyszko
Long before Hulk Hogan stepped into a ring, Bruno Sammartino was the heart and soul of WWE. His seven year reign as champion remains a record and a further three year reign just pushed him more with constant sellouts and huge adulation. In 1980, Bruno took Larry Zbyzsko under his wing, a promising rookie and they soon had a good mentor/protege relationship going to push them more.
Zbyszko wanted to show his stuff and asked a match with Bruno, the bout going clean until Zbyszko suddenly attacked his mentor and smashed a chair right over his head. This set up a wild feud of Bruno going at it against Zbyzsko who clicked as a heel and did fantastic business. The highlight was their encounter in a steel cage at Shea Stadium, a massive sellout and a terrific match with Bruno winning. It launched Zbyzsko’s career, gave Bruno another major run at the top and proved WWE had a great base in the Northeast that Vince would use to build his future.
14. Owen Hart
Many claim Owen was truly the most talented worker of the Harts, even Bret. While he’d had a few decent runs, he just wasn’t the guy seemingly ready to push hard despite his amazing skill. But Bret was always backing him and soon got Vince to agree to a storyline of Owen feeling jealous of being in Bret’s shadow. It built up to them losing a tag title match and in anger, Owen kicked Bret’s “injured” leg out from under him and blasted his brother as scum. This set up their WrestleMania match with Owen winning clean before Bret won the title later in the evening.
Their epic feud led to great success for WWE in 1994. Owen’s run would continue with runs as tag team and IC champion. His fame sadly has a different layer with his tragic death that changed a lot of how wrestling was perceived but this heel turn gave the company a great heel star and one of its most beloved workers ever.
13. Sgt. Slaughter
To cut Vince some slack, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, few really thought it would lead to war with the U.S. So, Vince was just taking advantage of the press when he came up with the idea of Sgt. Slaughter, longtime “Mr. USA” coming out to claim he was now an Iraqi sympathizer. The former Marine was harsh in promos bad-mouthing the U.S. as weak and setting himself up as a major heel, rougher in the ring and trashing the fans constantly.
It actually led to him winning the WWE title over The Warrior as the Gulf War began but the lack of major fan heat meant ‘Mania wasn’t a sell out and had to be moved to a smaller arena. Still, Slaughter oversaw a time that Warrior’s star faded and Hogan rose again, making his turn an important backdrop to the first year of the ‘90s and the ups and downs WWE would have.
12. Steve Austin
In many ways, it was a moment that signaled the end of the Attitude Era. At WrestleMania X-Seven, Austin and The Rock went at it for the WWE title in a brutal fight, going all over the place, interference, chair shots and more, with Austin still getting huge pops from the crowd. When Vince McMahon came out, many thought it was to help The Rock but instead he gave a chair to Austin who accepted it, wailing on The Rock to set up the pin. Austin then shook hands with the evil owner he’d long feuded with, showing he was willing to deal with Vince to get the belt back.
His work afterward was rough, more of a comedy guy and Austin has said if he had to do it over, he’d have called an audible, hit a Stunner on Vince and left still the hero. However, it’s a turn that shifted so much for WWE in this time and capped a major era in wrestling history.
11. Seth Rollins
The most recent entry and among the biggest. The Shield had been taking off for a while with Ambrose as US Champ and Rollins and Reigns tag team champs, the trio heels for some time beating the crap out of anyone in their path. They were still hot as faces facing Evolution and it looked like they would continue for a while when Rollins suddenly turned on his partners to join the Authority. It turned out he was a natural for the main event, quite skilled, great on the mic and soon winning major attention. It led to his run as champion that did fine business and it was only a brutal injury that cut it short for the Reigns run that’s been highly debated. Thus, the effects of Rollins’ turn are still being felt and his return should offer even more twists to come.
10. John Cena
You have to wonder what the current landscape of WWE would be if things had gone a bit differently. Entering as a fresh-cut babyface, Cena had skill but not too much else, hard for fans to get behind him yet WWE kept pushing him as a generic hero. Cena and Bill Kidman were paired in a tournament for the tag team titles, losing in the first round and Cena then attacked Kidman, blaming him for the loss. Even then, he seemed to not be that big a deal until that fateful Halloween “SmackDown” where he dressed as Vanilla Ice to do some rapping.
Instantly, Cena found the character he needed to take off as a heel but soon won folks over majorly to become a face and launch his career as the face of the company today. One turn and makeover was all it took to turn Cena from so-so to icon for WWE.
After rising to stardom and runs as IC and tag team champion, Edge seemed to be a pretty content face for WWE. However, returning from injury in 2004, he started to show some harder traits, wanting to get more success. He and Chris Benoit were tag team champions but clashing a few times over how to pull off a win. In November, the duo lost the belts with Edge laying out Benoit, becoming a heel for the first time in several years. It suited him better with his arrogant persona and charisma and seemed to up his game in the ring as well. Of course, the real kicker was when his affair with Lita became public knowledge and Edge reveled in the fan hate to finally become a main event star and champion. Truly a case of a guy who used his heel turn for much bigger fame.
8. Triple H
While a heel when DX began, HHH soon began winning folks over with the team’s wild antics and comic relief. He also got respect winning the IC belt despite a leg injury and bouncing back from it quickly. As 1999 began, HHH was set up to feud with the McMahon team despite Chyna defecting to the Corporation and at WrestleMania, they appeared to reunite.
Thus, it was shocking when HHH suddenly cost X-Pac a match and joined the Corporation himself. It was a harsh turn but it worked out as HHH was soon on the path to becoming WWE champion and then one of the company’s biggest stars ever, a trait he carries to this day, making this the turn that pushed him to that major level and the company’s future.
7. Andre The Giant
Long one of the most popular wrestlers in the world, Andre was known as a traveling act with his huge size and fan love. In 1987, he was recovering from back surgery but was enticed by Vince McMahon’s talk of using him for a huge program. After teasing it for a bit, Andre showed up on “Piper’s Pit” to confront Hogan with Bobby Heenan at his side.
Andre tore into Hogan for always ducking him and demanded a title match, tearing the cross off of Hogan’s neck and cutting him. The formerly gentle giant soon was pushed as a monster and it built to the WrestleMania III battle that set new attendance records. Andre would falter afterward but this turn set up one of the biggest paydays in WWE’s history and gave Andre a big main event run.
6. Randy Savage
Savage’s turn was basically planned from the start. After taking off amazingly as a face, Savage won the WWE title and did good business as champion but still in the shadow of Hulk Hogan in fans’ eyes. It was built up wonderfully with Savage upset about Hogan and Elizabeth seeming too close and finally snapped in a huge fight with Savage attacking Hogan with the title belt. This set up their WrestleMania battle with Hogan regaining the title and Savage soon going to the “Macho King” gimmick and partnership with Sherri that kept him hot. It was a terrific turn that led to a great new Hogan era and Savage at his wild best to enjoy the payoff to a great build.
5. Stephanie McMahon
It’s hard to remember but when Stephanie first showed up on TV, she was presented as an innocent girl, quiet and pulled into stuff like the Undertaker stalking her and later a relationship with Test. Their wedding was interrupted by HHH showing video of him and an unconscious Stephanie getting married. This set up a wild battle with Vince McMahon on PPV where Stephanie got involved, HHH using her interference to hit Vince and get the win.
He stared down Stephanie…who then broke into a smile and hugged HHH, revealing they were together all along. It was astounding how her entire character changed from innocent to conniving vixen as they were soon the power couple dominating things. The fact their relationship became real just helped things out as it gave us the domination of HHH that’s occurred since, still a major star and Stephanie doing great work as well.
4. The Rock
It’s a famous story but still worth mentioning. When Rocky Maivia debuted in 1996, WWE pushed him hard as a smiling babyface and “blue chipper” that the fans hated. Even giving him the IC belt didn’t do anything for him, fans booed mercilessly with the chants of “Rocky Sucks!” forming constantly. Forced to take time off due to injury, he returned to turn heel and join the Nation of Domination. Soon, he was referring to himself as “The Rock” and taking on an arrogant persona that led to major success.
After a brief face run, he turned heel again to join the McMahons as champion but his great promos and charisma soon had fans cheering for him as he went face. Soon, The Rock was the biggest act in the company as well as a movie star and it was this turn that helped him take off so well.
3. Bret Hart
It’s one of the more unique turns in the company’s history. After so long as a top face, Bret began to show a harsher attitude in early 1997, like bashing Shawn Michaels for ducking him in a title rematch and constantly whining when losing big matches. At WrestleMania 13, Bret and Austin went at it in a classic battle with Bret winning after Austin passed out but the fans were totally behind Austin. Bret thus remade himself into a heel in America but a face in Canada, pushing his country’s values as superior.
Reuniting the Hart Foundation, Bret kept it up, getting over majorly as a hated heel and was pushed back to the title picture. It also set up the path to Montreal, the moment that would transform all of WWE and Bret’s career.
2. Shawn Michaels
The kick heard around the world. For years, Michaels and Marty Jannetty were partners as The Rockers, wowing fans with their amazing ring work and very popular although politics prevented a title run. In late 1991, tensions grew with Shawn showboating more and costing them a match against the Legion of Doom. On “The Barber Shop,” they finally talked it out, Marty offering his back and Shawn hugging him. Then, Shawn backed up and hit Jannetty with what would become known as “Sweet Chin Music” then tossed him through a glass window. It instantly elevated Michaels and boosted one of the greatest careers WWE could ever have, all starting with a turn to an arrogant jerk that kicked off a great star.
1. Vince McMahon
For years, it was an unspoken agreement: Vince McMahon pretended he was just an announcer and the fans pretended they bought it. However, as 1997 went on, Vince began to be pushed more in the limelight, taking a Stunner from Steve Austin that got major attention. The big one was the Montreal Screwjob over Bret that had the locker room up in arms against Vince. Showing his brilliance, McMahon played into it with interviews acting like the arrogant jerk and laying in the hate fans had for him.
It came at last to him going against Austin, taking on the role of “Mr. McMahon” and boosting the company to massive levels of success. Vince basically played up what people thought about him anyway, a wicked evil boss. The turn transformed the company and led to the biggest era in WWE history.
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