wrestling / Columns

WWE And The Unlikely Heels

March 25, 2020 | Posted by Rob Stewart
Daniel Bryan Smackdown 2-5-19

WWE is never going to turn Roman Reigns heel.

This feels like something we should–and to a degree, do–accept by now. The calls online for turning Roman heel have died down dramatically from where they were two or three years ago. Between the mixture of the good will that Roman received from his leukemia diagnosis and upper mid-card role in which he has resided since his return, the demand for a villainous Reigns has become substantially less palpable. People are currently just happy he is healthy and not ending every show.

But with Roman’s reinsertment as a Wrestlemania main eventer and mainstay in the world title picture imminent, how long will it be before we start hearing “You know what would make Roman interesting? If he turned heel!” again. It is inevitable. After all, think back to John Cena’s era as the main man in WWE. Did the murmuring that he should go bad ever really subside? With each new feud, it was postulated that THIS was finally the time to pull that trigger.

But it doesn’t matter because, as with Cena from 2005 to the end of his full-time run, WWE will never do it with Reigns. They just don’t see any value in having the face of their company go to the dark side. Maybe they are still snake-bitten that WCW had enormous success with turning Hulk Hogan heel, but their own attempt to shock the world by turning Steve Austin was ultimately so flat in comparison.

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The odd thing is, despite the fact that they won’t turn Roman heel, they have no such misgivings about other stars on their roster in recent years. You can take the most obvious babyface on the roster–the characters who are born to connect positively with the crowd–and WWE will give them a go as an antagonist.

To that point, in recent years, WWE has seemingly taken great glee in taking some of the most honorable and beloved stars they have and trying to force them into villainy. Whether this is done out of a perpetual desire to shock for the sake of shocking or because they genuinely thought it was the best story to tell is hard to say, but the efforts have been a very mixed bag. In some cases, due to a combination of storytelling and the talent involved, it has worked, but in others, it’s been a flop.

So let’s take a look at how some of these unexpected heel turns have shaped up in recent years!


SAMI ZAYN

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Sami Zayn was about as pure of a “good guy” as you can get. He excels in an underdog role, has a great positive and relatable energy that so many failed “white meat babyfaces” don’t exude, and has a physique I would most generously describe as “non-threatning”. His two biggest stories in NXT were centered around how he overcame the perceived weakness of his own altruism to win the NXT Title and then how he fought back against his best-friend-turned-bully.

He was a babyface’s babyface.

And then WWE turned him heel, having him align with frequent nemesis Kevin Owens.

Sami has never really experienced a massive push as heel, but let’s be honest… he was never going to get one as a hero, either. Despite recently winning the Intercontinental Title from Braun Strowman, most of Zayn’s time as a villain has been low-key.

But I still consider Zayn as one of the best examples on this list because he has been a phenomenal heel. I never would have thought he had it in him, but Sami as an antagonist is smarmy, cowardly, cocky, funny… the superlatives could go on and on. He is able to generate real heat, and he gets powerful reactions from the crowd. And, honestly, being a heel just fits him like a worn-in sock.

How weird is it that we’ve gotten to the point where it’s unbelievable to picture Zayn as a babyface?


DANIEL BRYAN

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It’s not that we didn’t know Bryan could be a heel. We’ve seen a heel Daniel Bryan. It’s great. Because everything Daniel Bryan does, he succeeds at. Bryan can do whatever he wants, and he will excel.

This heel turn was shocking because Bryan is beloved and relentlessly sympathetic. The guy had to turn away from his passion at the height of his powers, lost several years of his prime due to terrifying injuries, and then came back in one of the most long-awaited moments in WWE history.

And WITHIN HALF A YEAR’S TIME, WWE turned him heel. It shouldn’t have worked. The fans should have crapped on the very idea of being expected to boo this man. But, as noted above, Bryan succeeds at everything. And so Mr. Sympathy garnered actual heel heat and reigned as an obnoxious champion for many months through the winter of 2018 and 2019 until Kofimania.


BAYLEY

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Sami and Daniel definitely worked as heels. We’ll get to some talent who definitely didn’t. But then there is Bayley, whose heel role can best be described as “I mean… okay, I guess? Sure”.

One thing is for certain, and it is that Bayley needed a change. Her feud with Alexa Bliss over the Raw Women’s Title was one of the right and true BURIALS we have seen in wrestling. Fans overuse the idea that a talent is “buried” any time something happens that they don’t like, but Bayley was dead in the water for a full two years following that feud. So when she joined forces with Sasha Banks to go evil, it was refreshing to see.

From there… I don’t know; as I noted, she has been fine. She was better as a heroic figure, but she hasn’t been a flop, either. She has reigned as a decent cowardly heel champion and has had some good enough matches, but I do tend to forget who the Smackdown Women’s champ is when she isn’t on screen. She just hasn’t been immensely memorable. I’d err on the side of calling this a net positive turn overall, and I look forward to her eventual redemption arc.


DAKOTA KAI

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It’s too soon to judge Kai’s heel turn because, even though it happened several months ago at this point, it still feels like she’s not really moving forward in the role. She is floating around the same place on the card that she was before.

Kai was a lovable underdog babyface with a lot of heart and some great tenacity. She was bubbly but had a fire inside her. As a heel, she… has a henchman?

Like I said: too soon to judge, but it hasn’t been an auspicious start to her run (aside from the fantastic actual turn moment).


JOHNNY GARGANO

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NXT, the WWE brand that rarely makes a misstep, has turned Johnny Gargano heel twice now. The current turn is still extremely fresh, but I have a feeling it will be similar to his initial turn: detrimental and unbelievable.

There was nothing quite like seeing Johnny Gargano–Mr. Never-Say-Die, The guy you can knock down 9 times and he will get up 10–begging off from Aleister Black. And then teaming up with an unrepentant Tommaso Ciampa?  Come on. It never came across as genuine or believable. He wore villainy about as well as he would Andre The Giant’s pants.

Gargano recently went to the dark side again because he felt compelled to stop Ciampa from winning back Goldie. Historically it makes some sense, and a role reversal could be the change-up their feud needs, but Johnny has to feel more at home in the role. Last time, he claimed good motivations, but just went full evil inexpicably; it didn’t make sense. He has motivations that seem noble to him this time, too. Will his turn follow suit?


BECKY LYNCH

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This is a weird one.

Depending on who you ask, WWE’s heel turn of Becky Lynch in 2018 was either a miserable failure because it absolutely refused to take… or it was a rousing success because it turned her into the hottest act in the company.

Prior to 2018, Becky had been a plucky, cheerful protagonist for her entire WWE run, excepting a brief bit as Sasha Banks’ heavy in the very early NXT Takeover days. When she erupted in rage at Charlotte Flair after losing a chance to win the Smackdown Title, though, everything changed. WWE tried making her a coward. They tried having her run down the fans. It didn’t matter. The crowds were so happy to see a change in her, they were going to cheer no matter what. WWE fought upstream against this for months before finally saying “screw it” and making Becky the conquering hero she was meant to be.

So without the heel turn, we might not have had The Man. But Becky was only ever marginally a heel, if even that. Soooo… was this a success or a failure?


So who am I missing? I had considered some others, like Finn Balor and Seth Rollins, but Finn was known to have a nasty streak from his Bullet Club days in Japan, and Rollins always worked best as a heel. Maybe Kairi Sane in her partnership with Asuka? But she feels more like a henchman than a fully-developed heel; she merely turned bad by association when Asuka suddenly wouldn’t stop spitting on people.

So where do you stand? Who have been the best and worst heel turns from wrestlers you would never have expected?

And if you want to check out more stuff, I talk wrestling, comic books, food, movies and more over at my website and podcast Ghosts of the Stratosphere. Is white chocolate better than dark chocolate? Is Bloodshot a better movie than Aquaman or Birds of Prey? Check it out and find out for yourself!