The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Look, I get it. The art of being a heel is dead. Gone are the days when bad guys would have to fight their way back to the locker room after a match; or when heels were beaten, had objects thrown at them, stabbed or shot at, or any other crazy tale you can find in the wrestling history books. The glory days of a bad guy generating enough hate to force fans into violent revolt are gone.
Wrestling is more sophisticated now; and since the average fan has so much more access to information about the wrestling industry, kayfabe is dead. By that standard, you simply aren't going to have the kind of heel you would have in prior generations; fans are more knowledgeable and they are never going to be worked into a frenzy like they were in the past.
This has created the belief that wrestlers can no longer be effective heels; because they can't get that kind of reaction anymore. Heels that are really talented at their craft, whether it is Chris Jericho, Triple H, The Rock, Kevin Owens, Paul Heyman, etc. usually end up getting cheered, because fans will recognize when someone is doing a good job and end up supporting that person, even if the morality of their actions is poor.
That psychology has unfortunately led to another belief. When fans begin to show general dislike for a heel, a kind of dislike that is rare in WWE today, it is believed that the heel is getting good heat, and that is really valuable to wrestling today, because few heels are able to generate that dislike.
This has become very prevalent in WWE today; with Baron Corbin acting as a lightning rod for the issue, but other wrestlers, including Lacey Evans and Shane McMahon, also falling into that category. The frustration fans have with Corbin consistently occupying a main event position is obvious after a quick glance at social media; a lot of fans resent Corbin for being pushed to a level they don't feel he deserves. The same can be said for Evans and McMahon.
This has led to some people, not just fans but veterans of the industry that should really know better, to argue that Corbin and Co. are extremely effective heels, because they cause frustration and anger. In fact, wrestlers like Corbin aren't just effective heels, they are the ONLY true heels left in wrestling! The proponents of Corbin as a heel will argue that because so few wrestlers get that kind of reaction in contemporary wrestling, modern fans don't understand what being a heel really is. It is Corbin's job to get people to hate him, and that is what he has done.
Ironically, the opposite is true. There are not as many heels today that generate a lot of heat from fans as there were in the past; which has led to a misinterpretation of what being a heel is really supposed to accomplish. The people who are proponents of Corbin as a heel are actually the people who have forgotten what being an effective heel really means.
To explain, let me lay some basic fundamental rules that nearly every effective heel in wrestling history has followed.
1. The top priority for a heel is to get the babyface over. An effective heel will be so disliked by the audience, that when the good guy makes his or her comeback, the audience will naturally rally to the side of the babyface, even if that babyface isn't very talented or popular.
2. People will want to see the heel get beaten. Fans will invest their time and money in a program that indicates that the heel will potentially lose. By fans rooting for a heel to lose, it helps follow Rule #1, because if fans are rooting for a heel to lose, they are also rooting for the babyface to win.
3. Heels have to develop some level of respect with the audience. Even if fans desperately want to see the heel lose, they still have to have some form of competitive respect for the heel. If they don't care, or don't believe that the heel can win, they will never be able to draw effectively with that heel on top. Without that competitive element, fans might as well watch a scripted drama and not professional wrestling.
Just a quick note before I get any further, this is not meant as an attack on Corbin the person, or even really Corbin the performer, because he is really just a victim of being pushed too hard and probably beyond his ability, something that has derailed the careers of countless wrestlers in the past. Realistically Corbin is just the flavor of the month for this exercise; in the past it was Jinder Mahal, or Dixie Carter, or numerous other people.
That being said, let us look at how Corbin has fared following those three rules.
With Rule #1, he has failed to have an exciting match with Seth Rollins at two different PPV events; and did not successfully build his heat during those matches to spark Rollins comebacks. It should be noted that before working with Corbin, Rollins was a legitimately over top babyface who enjoyed almost universal support from the fans, and almost always had exciting matches.
With Rule #2, Corbin has failed to generate interest in his programs, as evidenced by the low ticket sales, declining television viewership, and other business elements that have been trending downward during his run as a top heel. If Corbin was a rare commodity generating this great, old-school heat, wouldn't that be reflected in a positive impact for WWE business?
With Rule #3, Corbin has not been able to generate a competitive respect from the fans. None of that is really his fault, WWE hasn't booked him as a legitimate tough guy despite his size and athletic background, so fans don't buy him as a legitimate threat to win anything. That naturally hampers the psychology of his matches, and has contributed to his failures at adhering to Rule #1 and Rule #2.
The overall point I'm trying to make here is that there is a difference between fans disliking a wrestler, and generating HEAT from the audience. I think because there are not as many wrestlers getting that HEAT, people have become confused and don't always properly identify it.
Merely generating dislike from the audience does not inherently lead to any positives in the wrestling business. Unless wrestlers are generating the kind of HEAT that contributes to business success, all of that booing, or whining on social media, doesn't mean a damn thing.
Hypothetically; let's say a WWE wrestler was charged with a very serious criminal act; one that should eventually lead to a lengthy prison sentence. All of the fans knew this person was charged with the criminal act and more so, on social media this person was very unrepentant of their criminal behavior. If WWE then put that person out on RAW and gave them a huge push, it would obviously be very bad for business, and I'm sure the live crowd would boo them out of the building. Undoubtedly though, some fans would sit back and claim that the wrestler was the best heel in the business and this was just old school heat.
Getting a reaction in wrestling means nothing if it doesn't eventually lead to drawing money. A wrestler that gets HEAT engages the audience in their matches; a wrestler that is merely disliked causes fans to tune out of their matches. A wrestler that gets HEAT helps their babyface opponent get over; a wrestler that is merely disliked causes the babyface to lose momentum. A wrestler that gets HEAT elevates business by getting people to invest their time and money in seeing their demise; a wrestler that is merely disliked causes fans to lose interest and they end up no longer spending money or time on the product.
I know some people are going to try to tell me that nobody gets that kind of HEAT anymore, and that the Corbins of the world are the best we have today. The modern wrestling fan has made that impossible. That of course, isn't true. There are less people getting that kind of HEAT today, but they do exist.
A few weeks ago, I was watching a CMLL match between Mistico and El Barbaro Cavernario. When it comes to heels in 2019, few are better than Cavernario. Working a traditional 2-out-of-3 falls match; Cavernario started the match by immediately attacking Misitco and dominating him; easily earning the first pinfall. For the second fall, Cavernario continued his assault, actually getting himself disqualified by unmasking Mistico in a classic heel move.
When the score 1-1; Mistico finally made his comeback in the third fall, and because Cavernario had done such an excellent job building his heat, the crowd was ecstatic for it. When Mistico finally got Cavernario to submit to his finishing move, La Mistica, Arena Mexico was on its feet and popped huge for the babyface going over the heel. That kind of psychology is very simple; but it is also what wrestling is supposed to be about.
There are others of course, there is no way that Johnny Gargano gets over as big as a babyface in NXT if he didn't have such a sublime heel in Tomasso Ciampa to work with. I actually thought that at Stomping Grounds, Samoa Joe did an awesome job working as a heel to help get Ricochet over for his United States Championship match. It is certainly harder to get that kind of HEAT than it was in the past, but it exists if you properly understand what being a heel really means.
Must Watch Matches
Kota Ibushi vs KENTA: **** - NJPW G1 Climax 29 Tag 1
Lance Archer vs Will Ospreay: ****1/2 - NJPW G1 Climax 29 Tag 1
Will Ospreay vs Robbie Eagles: **** 1/2 - NJPW Super Showdown