wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 Worst Faces of WWE

May 2, 2016 | Posted by Mike Chin
Lex Luger

In the last three years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about the “Face of WWE”—the promotion’s top star and representative to the outside world. The topic received a kayfabe treatment with the rise of Daniel Bryan and then Roman Reigns, and it’s a meta-narrative for sure as WWE transitions out of the decade-plus period when John Cena was the de facto face of the company (despite a few arguable detours to other top stars).

How do we define a face of WWE? It’s tricky business. The immediate, simplest answer would be to equate faces of the company with world champions, but could Randy Savage really be considered the face of the WWF in 1988, when he was more often than not putting on better in-ring performances in the shadow of Hulk Hogan’s superior star power? Similarly, while Yokozuna held the WWF Championship for the better part of a year in the mid-1990s, he was not always the representative the company sent for media appearances or who was responsible for moving merchandise. The Undertaker, for all his longevity, and hovering at or around the main event level was never truly “the guy” in clearly definable fashion. Lastly, in a decision I felt most torn about, I opted not to include The Ultimate Warrior’s 1990 run. Though all indications were that the WWF meant for him to become the face, Hogan never really got out of his way to give him that time on top (I say that not as a dig at Hogan, the person, but moreso the combination of booking and how Hogan’s star power affected the surrounding WWF landscape).

For the purposes of this countdown, I’m counting the face of WWE as individuals kayfabe pushed and real-life marketed as the biggest star for at least a one-month period. World championship recognition is certainly a consideration, but not essential to having been a face of the company.

There are some aspects of being a poor face of the company that are the responsibility of the performer at hand, including in-ring performance, work on the mic, and drawing power. At least equally important for this countdown is the creative output during that face of the company’s time on top. Steve Austin, for example, was a great worker and talker, but got pushed into the stratosphere of arguably being the greatest face of the company ever (or at least a top three finisher) because of how well the Attitude Era booking on the whole came across for its time.

Another consideration: I’m evaluating individual runs at the top of the company rather than overall career-long performance. The Miz, for example, who does show up in this countdown, is evaluated based on the winter-to-spring of 2011 when he was arguably the top guy in the company, without regard for his work as a mid-card act during the rest of his WWE tenure.

As usual, a lot of this countdown boils down to personal opinion as well.

As a final pre-note, I should make mention that I did think about including Roman Reigns in this countdown, and I can certainly see an argument that his current run should qualify, given it’s certainly gone for well over thirty days. I ultimately decided to hold off on considering Reigns because his run as the face of the company is ongoing and could conceivably still turn around—thus, for now, I’m reserving judgment (or, for you cynics, we may not yet have seen the bottom fall out, so I might not yet be able to rank him as high on this list as I ought to).

Without further ado, I give you my picks for the top seven worst faces of WWE.

#7. Randy Savage, 1992

As you’ll see for a few picks on this countdown, some of the least laudable faces of the company are not so much guys who led the company poorly, but rather the de facto top stars out of an underwhelming cast of characters.

In the aftermath of WrestleMania 8, the WWF landscape was a strange one. After years on top, Hulk Hogan was gone. Top villain Sid Justice vanished, too (purportedly on account of failed drug tests). While the remaining cast featured major names like Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, and Ric Flair, it was clear that the WWF was looking to the future and thus didn’t push any of these guys full-tilt, instead laying the groundwork for people like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and Davey Boy Smith, to take over.

Thus, Savage won the title and went on to a lame duck face-face rivalry with The Ultimate Warrior, while Ric Flair and Mr. Perfect lurked and tried to cause mischief between them, before Savage ended up dropping the title back to Flair in the fall anyway, so he could transition the strap to Hart. Savage wasn’t so much bad in his role as face of the WWF in 1992 as he was ineffectual—not quite the performer he had been a few years earlier, and saddled with a total absence of narrative momentum from WWF creative. I suppose you could say he held down the fort, but was little more than a stop-gap between Hulk Hogan as the face of WWF, and Bret Hart getting his first shot on top.

#6. The Miz, 2011

Against all odds, 2010 saw The Miz arrive as a legitimate professional wrestling star. His Show-Miz tag team with the Big Show offered a nice coda to the Jeri-Show run, his work as Daniel Bryan’s mentor/rival was inspired, and when he won the Money in the Bank briefcase, it did not feel out of place. Heck, even his cash-in on Randy Orton that December felt pretty electric in the moment.

It’s debatable whether The Miz was truly the face of the company in early 2011, while John Cena was still an objectively more famous representative of the company. Just the same, given that he got the strap, worked a ton of media, and got to run with the title straight to the WrestleMania main event, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

There was a logic to positioning Miz as the face of WWE. He was an excellent talker who could work the talk show circuit at a similar level to Cena. Just the same, the man’s in-ring performances, persona, and his very name made him an uncomfortable fit for the top spot—he had a credibility gap to fill and in the absence of a clean win over Cena or Orton, he struggled to truly come across as “the guy.”

The Miz’s limitations came through all the more clearly upon the return of The Rock—when Rock could hardly be bothered to properly insult Miz, in favor of targeting Cena. Though Miz did, technically, pull off the upset win and retain his title over Cena in the main event of WrestleMania 27, the victory was all but forgettable relative to The Rock hitting the Rock Bottom on Cena to set up their match for a year down the road.

A month later, Cena won the title to officially put an end to the experiment of The Miz as world champion. Though Miz would hover around the main event scene for much of 2011 in world title rematches, half of The Awesome Truth, and in one last stab at world title glory at that year’s TLC, his time had passed, and he settled back into the mid-card role he was probably always meant to thrive in.

#5. Goldberg, 2003

In late-1990s WCW, Goldberg was the man. A badass fresh face who stormed his way into the main event scene, assembling what may have been the greatest undefeated streak in pro wrestling history (not counting The Undertaker’s ‘Mania-specific streak), en route to one of the single biggest TV wins of the Monday Night War when took the strap off of Hollywood Hogan.

In 2003, WWE gave Goldberg a whirl—a one-year tour that saw him debut shortly after WrestleMania 19, defeat The Rock and Chris Jericho, and then move on to feud with Triple H over the World Heavyweight Championship.

For everything WCW had managed to accomplish with Goldberg as a dominant force, WWE floundered with the character—portrayed as an underdog opposite the Evolution stable. The character failed to develop momentum or meaningfully connect with the WWE audience, before the promotion hit the reset button, taking the strap off of Goldberg and putting him into a program with Brock Lesnar that seemed bound for an hoss showdown, only to culminate in a completely underwhelming stall-fest at WrestleMania 20.

Goldberg was never a stand-out worker per se, but rather thrived as a monster face when he could use high-impact, power offense to dominate the opposition quickly. In failing to capitalize on that dynamic, or to do much of anything else creative with the Goldberg character, he was an unsuccessful face of the promotion.

#4. Randy Orton, 2004

Post-Attitude Era, Randy Orton was on the short list, probably second only to Brock Lesnar, as the top young break out star of the company. Though John Cena and Batista would eclipse him by spring 2005, there was a brief period when Orton was positioned as the new face of WWE, and interestingly enough, he seemed like the right choice on his way up.

After middling success as a mid-carder upon his debut, when Orton got injured it facilitated a high profile return as part of the new Evolution stable. His Legend Killer gimmick got some traction, and a spring feud with Mick Foley did wonders for pushing Orton to fringe-main event status. At SummerSlam 2004, WWE pulled the trigger on its hottest young act when Orton used his explosively over RKO finisher to cleanly defeat Christ Benoit for the World Heavyweight Championship.

One night later, Orton’s Evolution stable mates would celebrate his success—only to end up turning on him in a truly magnificent moment of heel dickery. Orton would spend the rest of the year feuding with Triple H and chasing the title in a program one can only assume WWE meant to pay off with Orton assuming the throne for a more extended run starting at WrestleMania 21.

The trouble is that when Orton was booked as WWE’s top face—and, indeed, the face of the company—he lost his swagger. The brash dick-ish mannerisms and promos were gone in favor of an entirely vanilla character who happened to have the same cool finisher as the electric villain that he had originally ascended as.

Not so surprisingly, Orton the face garnered lukewarm reactions the WWE audience, until WWE ended up eschewing his run as top face in favor of the surging Batista who more or less took Orton’s spot. Orton would regain some ground—mercifully turning heel again to challenge The Undertaker in the months ahead, and he would hover in or around the main event scene for years to follow. Just the same Orton’s initial run at the tip-top of the card was a complete failure that squandered so much of his momentum from the year leading up to his anointment.

#3. Diesel, 1995

The WWF landscape in the mid-1990s was largely confused . Hulk Hogan was not only out of the mix, but had become the enemy as he plied his trade for WCW. While Bret Hart had delivered in-ring as a world champion, his drawing power never made him the star the powers that be were looking for.

So began the Diesel experiment.

After a series of bad gimmicks, Kevin Nash defected from WCW to the WWF to play Shawn Michaels’s bodyguard. The big guy was getting over by late 1994 when Vince McMahon decided to roll the dice on a radical idea—using Bob Backlund’s surprisingly successful crazy heel character to transition the world title from Hart to Diesel, even going so far as to have Diesel squash Backlund at a Madison Square Garden house show, not altogether different from Hulk Hogan crushing The Iron Sheik at the Garden to kick start his first world title reign.

But Diesel was no Hulk Hogan.

Not unlike Randy Orton a decade later, a lot of Diesel’s appeal related directly to his cool guy heel schtick. As a face, he became a vanilla good guy. Though Michaels was an ideal arch-rival—a kayfabe former friend, an excellent heel, and a masterful worker, the two had just one match. Otherwise, Diesel was stuck feuding with Bret Hart, who was generally more over than him; Mabel, who was in no way ready for the main event; and different permutations of Davey Boy Smith, Owen Hart, and Yokozuna none of whom the WWF audience was really prepared to take seriously as a world title threat at that point, and the tag team situations that followed only facilitated Michaels outshining Diesel’s performances time and again.

Diesel was an especially poor face of WWF because in the grand scheme of drawing money, assembling memorable programs, putting on great matches, and delivering great promos, he pretty much failed on every front. Ironically, on his way out the door, the WWF turned him heel again for a run that was wildly more entertaining, though he’d never capture the WWF Championship again, and was really only being set up for far greater success when he bounced back to WCW.

#2. Lex Luger, 1993

You may notice a pattern developing, because part of the core of why Randy Orton, Diesel, and Lex Luger each failed in their bids as the face of WWF is how suddenly each one of them was thrust into the role, jumping from good-to-great upper card heel to top face.

Luger worked under The Narcissist gimmick—a fairly vanilla, but decent heel character obsessed with his own physical perfection, who engaged with most of the top faces of the day, and most prominently Mr. Perfect. But when there was a hole at the top of the card, the WWF needed someone to work as a foil for new heel kingpin Yokozuna. Without rhyme, reason, or foreshadowing they turned to Luger, choppering him onto the USS Intrepid to succeed where half the other faces on the roster had failed—bodyslamming Yokozuna on the Fourth of July.

The WWF pushed Luger hard, sending him on the Lex Express promotional bus tour, dressing him up in red-white-and-blue ring gear, commissioning the schmaltzy “I’ll Be Your Hero” song and music video. Luger would pick up a count out win in his main event match with Yokozuna at SummerSlam 1993, and wind up the sole survivor at Survivor Series main event. The prevailing belief is that the WWF meant for Luger to pin the champ and win he title at WrestleMania 10, until it became increasingly clear that he was not the most over face in the company—a point crystallized once and for all when Bret Hart garnered a better reaction when the two co-won The Royal Rumble.

Luger was the face of WWF starting in July 1993 and held on through December 1993 for sure, though it gets much murkier whether Hart or Luger (or conceivably Yokozuna himself) were really the face of the company for the months to follow, before Hart shored up his spot with the main event at ‘Mania, after which point Luger would never really be a WWF main eventer again.

I tend to look more kindly upon Orton’s first run as the face of the company for having a logical and hot start, and Diesel’s for at least delivering a very good title match at WrestleMania 11. Luger’s run as the face of the company was highlighted by the electricity of that first bodyslam (tempered by storyline inconsistencies) and never really enjoyed any positive momentum from there, instead exposing Luger’s OK charisma and that he wasn’t a particularly special in-ring worker. Luger was always far better cast as one of the top stars among top-heavy rosters, as he would be upon his return to WCW where he found a perfectly reasonable niche—and even got a short, enjoyable world title win—amidst the crowd of Hulk Hogan, Sting, Randy Savage, Ric Flair, The Giant, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and the Steiners.

#1. Hulk Hogan, 1993

I should preface this selection by saying that I’m actually a Hulk Hogan mark. In evaluating the best runs atop the company, I’d give Hogan’s initial run the edge over Steve Austin’s Attitude Era run for best of all time. Similarly, once he turned heel (and despite his behind-the-scenes politicking) I’d contend there’s a very real argument for Hogan as the best face of WCW for the period from mid-1996 to late-1997. I dug his nostalgia runs in 2002 and 2003 WWE, and his part-time runs opposite Shawn Michaels and Randy Orton in the years to follow. Heck, I’m even a bit of an apologist for his on-screen work with TNA.

When Hogan returned to the WWF in 1993 after a year-long absence, my nine-year-old, Bret-Hart-loving self was cautiously optimistic about him as an upper-mid-card act, and about his new tag team with Brutus Beefcake.

Then he charged the ring and beat Yokozuna in an impromptu world title match at the end of WrestleMania 9, and the bloom was off the rose.

In putting Hogan back on top, all indications were that WWF was trying to recapture the magic of years past. The act had grown stale, though, and the Hogan-hate was only exacerbated by the part-time schedule that scarcely saw him appear in the arena on TV, let alone actually defend the world title for his entire two months back on top. The run suggested that the WWF was tone-deaf to what its audience wanted. Worse yet, of Hogan’s two televised world title matches, the first was only seconds long, the second slow and unentertaining. Perhaps worst of all, the experiment of putting Hogan back on top left the WWF main event scene directionless in its aftermath, after not only subjugating Bret Hart, but also breaking Yokozuna’s aura of invincibility. Hogan’s failure directly paved the way for Lex Luger’s blah run as the face of the company, en route to a generic-place-holder program with The Undertaker, before the WWF hit the reset button and gave the title back to Hart to resume his run on top at WrestleMania 10. Hart never arrived as the explosively over face of the company that Hogan had previously been, or that Steve Austin would be, but he was a solid enough choice to, along with Shawn Michaels, weather the storm before the WWF’s next boom period.

Who would you add to the list of the worst faces of WWE? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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The Magnificent Seven, WWE, Mike Chin