Effective and dynamic faces and heels have always been a vital part in the success of the wrestling business. The criteria for what makes these characters successful are always changing and that’s part of the beauty in wrestling. You have to always be able to adapt or be ahead by a step or two. In wrestling, faces are the “good guys” scripted to portray a heroic role and get the fans invested in cheering for them to win their matches and prevail in the story. Money is typically made due to the work of the most popular faces, as they typically sell the most tickets and merchandise.
Heels are the evil villains made to oppose the faces because what is a hero without someone to challenge them? More often than not, it’s the dastardly and devious work of a heel that drives the fan to care about the face getting revenge or vengeance for the heel’s actions. Not everyone can play both roles well, as it takes an art to excel on both sides of the fence.
Just look at two of the better performers of the last 15 years, Edge and Jeff Hardy. Edge was a surefire WWE Hall of Famer because he was tremendous as a heel. Whenever WWE tried to turn him into a main event face, the crowd would either reject it or become apathetic. Jeff Hardy was adored by fans creating a powerful connection between him and the fan base falling in love with his work. TNA tried to turn Hardy heel in hopes of creating a new top villain but he just couldn’t figure it out no matter what he tried. It’s not a slight to either man, as they were superb talents but it shows not everyone can play both roles like these 15 talents.
15 Daniel Bryan
The story of WrestleMania XXX was WWE being forced to put Daniel Bryan into the main event because the fans literally demanded him over anyone else. Bryan connects to the hearts of WWE fans because he personifies everything they love about wrestling and they relate to him. During his only tenure as a heel in WWE, Bryan played the emotionally abusive boyfriend of AJ Lee. No one on the roster was as entertaining or compelling as Bryan during his peak runs as face and heel respectively and his in-ring work was pristine working both styles.
14 Shawn Michaels
Everyone’s favorite “Sexy Boy” was one of the most loved WWE superstars of all time due to his unmatched in-ring skills. Whether it was his Rockers days, his ‘90s championship run or his return in the 2000s, Shawn Michaels knew how to make an audience love him by hanging on his every move. The creation of D-Generation X provided Michaels best body of work as a heel because he tapped into his real persona, which actually caused many of his coworkers to despise him back in 1997. He was a natural heel and it gave WWE a refreshing top act.
13 Trish Stratus
In WWE, it’s difficult for female talent to get fans to invest in them emotionally. Due to a systematic form of booking, women on WWE TV have been typically used as eye candy with very little chance of getting over based on their work. In spite of that, Trish Stratus becane the only WWE Diva to truly excel as both as a face and a heel in her career. Stratus was the female face of the company for most of her tenure, winning over all sects of the fan base. When Trish turned heel on Chris Jericho at WrestleMania XX to join Christian, it launched the best heel run by a female WWE performer not named Stephanie McMahon.
12 The Undertaker
Every year at WrestleMania, you get to see just how much the WWE fans love and, more importantly, respect The Undertaker. With one of the most bizarre successful characters, ‘Taker made it work by putting his all into the gimmick and making you believe. During his times as a face, fans soaked in the experience of seeing The Undertaker deliver an ass kicking like no one else in the industry. The Undertaker’s best heel run was when he formed The Ministry with a new demonic look that terrified many children watching WWE in the ‘90s.
11 Eddie Guerrero
The Hall of Famer who was taken away from us far too early has one of the richest legacies in professional wrestling and fans will never forget Eddie Guerrero. “Latino Heat” worked primarily as a heel embodying a perfect mix of talent, intelligence and humor. Guerrero gave you the depth a great heel needs to have without sacrificing anything. As a face, one of the most heartwarming moments in WWE history saw Guerrero defeat Brock Lesnar to win the WWE Championship in 2004. Not a single person was in their seat, as it felt like a giant party of fans celebrating their hero finally achieving the dream of being champ.
10 Stone Cold Steve Austin
Wrestling was at its most relevant and coolest when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was the face of the WWE. Austin was the no-nonsense, ass kicking, beer drinking, foul mouthed Texan who became the anti-hero the industry needed at the time. Any time you watch a show from The Attitude Era, just listen to the crowd when Austin’s music would hit, as it became insane in every arena. When playing a heel, Stone Cold would raise his intensity levels to a peak that few in wrestling could dream of. Regardless of his role, Austin easily made you believe everything he did or said.
9 Big Show
In no way is Big Show nearly as great as anyone else on this list, but this is a Lifetime Achievement Award for him. No one has turned from face to heel and back as many times in a career as the big man. It’s become a running joke that no one knows if he’s a heel or a face anymore because of how frequently he changes. A recent research shows Big Show has alternated between the face and heel roles over 30 times during his 20 years in the wrestling business.
8 Kurt Angle
Has there ever been anyone more versatile in the wrestling business than Kurt Angle? As a face, Angle has been both the intense ass kicker and the over the top comedic character. As a heel, he’s been the evil villain stopping at nothing to get his way or the silly humorous goof that we all poke fun at. Most wrestlers are quite lucky to be very good at any of those roles, but Angle was flawless at all of them. It didn’t matter what you asked of Kurt Angle because you knew he would deliver in any scenario and get the results you need.
7 CM Punk
CM Punk’s “Straight Edge Society” was one of the best and most original heel runs we’ve seen on WWE TV in recent memory. When in that character, you’d be hard pressed to find a wrestler at any point in time as condescending and smug as Punk. During the “Summer of Punk” that started with the infamous “Pipebomb” promo, the WWE fan base fell absolutely in love with him. For a few months, the comparisons to Steve Austin grew because it had been that long since anyone would get crowd responses that massive. CM Punk was so special, fans still can't get over him leaving pro wrestling.
6 Bret Hart
The New Generation in WWE was led by Bret Hart becoming champion and leading the promotion through its darkest days. Hart was the classic face to embody hard work and the fight to be the best and make his fans proud. One of the best touches for any face in wrestling was Bret always giving away his trademark pink “Hitman” shades to a young fan before every match. Despite a great run as a face, Hart is perhaps most celebrated for his short heel run. The Hitman turned on the fans and the entire country of America in 1997, leading to one of the WWE’s best storylines and giving us compelling television weekly with the villainous faction of The Hart Foundation.
5 Chris Jericho
A select few special wrestlers can pull off serious or comedic characters on both face and heel sides. Jericho has been doing it for over 20 years and never fails to deliver. Many love Y2J most for his early 2000s work as one of the greatest comedic faces due to his perfect timing and witty one-liners. When he returned in 2009, Jericho wanted to completely transition his style into a serious, methodical heel. Jericho changed his gear, grew a beard, talked in a completely different tone of voice, added to his vocabulary and completely turned into the most despicable character in wrestling.
4 Randy Savage
If you’re lucky enough to be a long time fan, you know Randy Savage was beloved as a face with Miss Elizabeth and despised as a heel with Sherri Martel. Any fan from the Golden Era ranks Savage among their favorite wrestlers because of how dynamic a performer he was, making every movement in the ring and every mannerism on the mic count. During his King Macho phase as a heel, Savage developed the perfect mix of being a pompous character that still would terrify you at any given second. Unfortunately, his move to WCW didn’t showcase his best work, but you would still get glimpses every now and then at how unique Randy Savage was.
3 The Rock
WWE tried to force fans to love The Rock when he originally debuted but the fans weren’t having it and reacted by rebelling against the young star. The Rock responded by embracing the hate in a heel role with The Nation of Domination that would help shape his career into the legendary one it would become. After a few years, the fans couldn’t help but love The Rock’s charismatic personality. With the acting chops that landed him in numerous Hollywood box office hits, The Rock’s wrestling career took off due to his comedic promos, whether he was performing concerts embarrassing the hometown fans or making the crowd laugh with pie puns.
2 Hulk Hogan
As the first superstar face in WWE, Hulk Hogan was loved as much as any entertainer in America and the first household wrestling name. After accomplishing all he could in WWE, Hogan jumped ship to WCW but fans weren't as welcoming to "Hulkamania," so they did the unthinkable and turned the face of pro wrestling into a heel. Acclimating well to new grounds, “Hollywood” Hogan would go on to become one of wrestling’s greatest villains, leading to fans throwing garbage in the ring every week and rallying behind anyone facing him. Hogan could be argued as the greatest face and greatest heel of all time respectively.
1 John Cena
John Cena is the most fascinating and complex story WWE has ever produced in a top act. For the past decade, one man has been both the most loved and most hated wrestler at the same time. Cena’s supporters spend more money on his merchandise than anyone else in the promotion and it's not even close. There’s an almost equally large group of fans who despise Cena and love booing him, but it’s productive for WWE as they support his opponent. You can put anyone in a match with Cena and you’ll have everyone emotionally invested. The last 10 years in WWE has been the “Let’s Go Cena/Cena Sucks” Era because John Cena has been both your top face and your top heel.