Missing the Marks: WWE and the Death of the Dominant Heel

I was going to write this piece before Extreme Rules, but thought I would wait to see how the event turned out. I needn’t have bothered. Although it did give me another five examples of how the dominant heel is all but dead in the WWE. Barrett, Harper, Seamus, Rusev and Big Show all went down to their face counterparts. Worse is how they all went down in a show built around the extreme, featuring matches that were at one point supposed to showcase their volatility.

I define a dominant heel as one that holds true fear over the WWE roster and their audience. He is ruthless, aggressive, sadistic, and dangerous. Perhaps you think Brock Lesnar to fit that description? I don’t think he does. Brock was mean, certainly, and very sadistic. But his dominance came from his ability. And while the danger of his presence was always a factor, he never had enough TV time to ever make it count. A dominant heel must be a threat to a wrestler’s career, and he must want to make good on that threat. Yes, Lesnar dominated Cena at Summerslam, but it was Cena who was standing up on TV every week, bouncing around like he always does. He must also be able to strike at any moment, which we know Brock would never do, unless on a well promoted television appearance.

And I don’t have to tell you that, obviously, Rollins is not a dominant heel. He is a sneaky heel, and one of the best we’ve had since Jericho won the Undisputed Championship. But he is only allowed to be a heel and win if he does so by cheating in a cowardly fashion. This is because heels don’t make much merchandising money. Ask any wrestler who has been forced to do a heel turn after a run as a face and you’ll hear that they did so under duress, knowing that their income would take a hell of a cut.

Faces make the money. Faces appeal to the kids who get wrestling T-Shirts for birthdays and Christmas. Heels go against every moral lesson their parents ever taught them, so even if they want to buy heel merchandise they will probably have to do so behind their parents backs. This culture has become such a strong truism in WWE that it even applies to mid card faces like Ziggler and Ambrose.  This is why WWE can’t have their good guys looking weak in the face of the adversity. It would cost far too much revenue and make the shareholders very unhappy.

But the fans don’t care about the shareholders. They care about a quality product, and adhering so strictly to shielding the face, as it were, is creating a stale and monotonous show. It’s been a source of fan derision for a while now, mainly manifesting itself in the chorus of boos that faces Cena, the second most protected face in history, whenever he hits a town with a huge internet fan base who would rather see someone else on top for a change. But it’s had its other side effects too.

Wrestling needs heels. It needs its bad guys to be credible threats, otherwise the storylines of major matches will be devoid of drama. But how can any threat be credible if they never win, and if the good guys always come out on top? Extreme Rules 2015 was a prime example of this.

Both Barrett and Seamus have been built up recently to be “real men”; muscle bound brawlers here to punish the weak. But at Extreme Rules WWE made mockeries out of both of them. Bad News Barrett was beaten by Neville, who only has one month’s experience on the main roster. Seamus, in his first PPV fight since his much hyped comeback, was defeated by Ziggler, who he’s been beating from pillar to post since his return, and had to resort to a low blow to salvage some dignity.

Their “real men” angle was a direction for them which was just getting started. But instead of using this PPV to legitimise the threat posed by both men, WWE has booked them to fall at the first hurdle, destroying whatever menace they could have possessed.

Fear is a commodity that the WWE sorely lacks. Earlier this year and at the end of last, Kane and Big Show were being used left, right and centre by The Authority as enforcers. If you came foul of the authority, a match with either of them was the worst punishment they could dole out. But week after week produced loss after loss. Yet the wrestlers still reacted to a match with them with that same level of trepidation.

The WWE Universe however, seems to have a better memory than most of its superstars. Interest levels in these matches have been waning in a big way and neither Big Show nor Kane are the athletes they used to be, and let’s face it, they weren’t great athletes to begin with. Hell, Big Show got more knockouts when he was a good guy and Kane is starting to show his monstrous side again, but only because he can use it to kick around Seth Rollins.

Bray Wyatt has been another casualty of this trend. Every time Bray Wyatt talks into the microphone it is a symphony of destruction. Yet, it is because his promos are so good that his legitimacy has been lost. Because of WWE and its rules about face protection, he can never make good on his threats of chaos and devastation. There is a cavernous separation between his bark and his bite. After his losses to Cena and Taker in the last twelve months, his stock as a heel has taken a massive hit. Even his wins against Ambrose made Ambrose look crazier and more dangerous than him.

Occasionally, these guys get their moment, but only when necessity dictates. Daniel Bryan got injured and needed time off, so Kane got put the mask on one more time. Wyatt got to unleash his sadistic side inside a steel cage, but only after Jericho’s contract came to an end. But moments like these happen once in a blue moon. Obviously they can’t happen every week, but we must be reminded of the destructive capabilities of their bad guys on a more regular basis. Or else their power diminishes and their effectiveness to create fear in the ring dies with their reputation.

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