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The hardest thing to do in professional wrestling right now is to be a successful babyfabe. Unlike being a heel, the standard for what gets it done as a babyface has changed so much over the last few decades that to be a major success, a performer must be almost completely unique to the fans in order to gain success.
For example, let's take what made Hulk Hogan, arguably one of the best babyfaces of all-time, did and see how it translated to such success. Hogan had a great look and physique, he said all of the right things, preaching hard work and dedication, and he was booked as being nearly invincible. If that same character came along today, would the fans accept it the way the fans of the 1980s accepted Hogan? Absolutely not. We would call him boring, repetitive and vanilla. The standards for what got Hogan over three decades ago are just so vastly different than what they are today.
The standard for heels, on the other hand, hasn't changed nearly as much. Let's take someone like Ted Dibiase, a heel colleague of Hogan, and how he was successful. Dibiase as an arrogant, conniving, cheater who used his wealth to scheme his way to many a victory. His character of a rich aristocrat would be a little cheesy now, but overall, his actions would still make him a successful heel.
In modern times, the wrestling fan has become so much more sophisticated that we can longer just accept a guy as a favorite because he doesn't cheat and he says all the right things. No, we need someone that is wildly entertaining on the microphone, with a great catchphrase, and someone that can walk the fine line between comedy and drama that gives us everything we desire when it comes to watching wrestling. If a heel is charismatic enough, he can just cheat, insult his opponents and the fans, and he will get over enough to be in the main event. It takes someone truly special to be a face.
Something that is very important in wrestling today, and sometimes I don't think promoters and booker realize this, is the best faces become popular organically, and not because they are pushed as being these great good guys right from the get-go. The two biggest success for WWE over the last few years have been CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. What do those two have in common? They were both heels right before they became big-time faces. Bryan and especially Punk were so popular as heels, and fans were rooting for them more than they were cheering for the so-called faces, that it only made sense to turn them storyline-wise, into faces.
Contrary to Daniel Bryan and CM Punk, there are the faces that WWE basically tells us that these guys are going to be faces, and they then proceed to shove them down our throats. Sheamus is a perfect example of this. Sheamus is a decent talent, but so far, within his character, there is not a lot for fans to really support. He is simply just an Irish guy that likes to fight, and since he beats up heels and high-fives fans on the way to the ring, we are supposed to accept him as being a face.
A problem WWE has had is that they fail to let their characters grow organically sometimes. Sheamus is someone that WWE most likely believes that if they show him enough, have him do all these promotions and advertisements, and have him beat enough heels, that eventually he will get over with all of the fans. Sheamus has his group of fans, but I hardly think that he is over as much as they would like him to be. He reminds me a lot of Lex Luger, who WWF really wanted to be a top star in the company, but his character was just so shallow that no matter how hard they tried to push him, he was never going to get over as a face.
The future of babyface wrestling is going to come from guys like Punk and Bryan, guys whose popularity stems outward from their personalities and not just because they beat on heels and because they always say the right thing. The era of the anti-hero created a greater parameter for what a babyface can do, and that is what is needed in today's wrestling culture.
Right now, within WWE, there a few stars who are destined to be big faces. In addition to Bryan and Punk (whenever he comes back), there are two guys who I fine to be future faces, who are currently not at the main event level. The first guy is Cesaro. Similar to Punk and Bryan, Cesaro is a heel who is getting a lot of positive reactions from the crowd. Cesaro is arguably one of the five most popular wrestlers in WWE, and they have only begun to reach his potential. Cesaro broke up with Colter and Swagger, and aligned himself with Paul Heyman, who is by far the most natural heat seeker in the company. Cesaro is still going to be a heel, but his relationship with Heyman can only last so long, as his popularity is going to continue to climb now that it appears that WWE is behind him again. Eventually, WWE will have no choice but to turn him face, and away he will go.
The other star is actually Cody Rhodes. Going back to when he was still heel at Money in the Bank 2013, Rhodes, for some reason showed why he can be a major player in WWE. The match was a seven-way ladder match, and every single wrestler in the match, Rhodes, Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, Fandango, Jack Swagger and Wade Barrett, were all heels at the time. The match was pretty much open for anyone, yet it was Rhodes who became the crowd favorite. Rhodes was so over that it would end up launching his face run with his brother Goldust. At Money in the Bank, Rhodes got the most organic of face reactions from the crowd, and with his ability at his age, the sky is the limit for him.
Finding a face to get over in wrestling today is so difficult, that when someone shows up that gets such a natural reaction from the crowd, that it is inexcusable for a company not to capitalize on it. Something promoters need to learn is that, whether they want to admit it or not, they actually have very little control over who ends up being the top guys in the company. The roar of the crowd is what decides who is over and who isn't, and who is going to do business for the company and who is going to flop at the box office. Booking and promotion can certainly help (or hurt) a faces popularity, but the major factor in deciding who is going to be a top face is how they connect with the crowd, and some guys naturally have that while others do not.