WWE: Gorgeous George to John Cena, 24 of Wrestling's Most Effective Heel Runs
Good can exist without evil, whereas evil cannot exist without good. – Thomas Aquinas
Perhaps, but would anyone appreciate goodness in evil's absence?
The debate endures.
At its heart, professional wrestling is a narrative art centered on the perpetual conflict between good and evil. Each side fights for dominance, which is signified (in most cases) by a championship belt.
While wrestling fans have seen hundreds of title feuds over the years, some clearly stand out from the rest.
Some characters have simply been stronger than others. Wrestling fans have seen a number of truly great babyfaces carry world championships over the years, but what is a babyface without the opposition of an equal-or-greater heel?
The best rivalries in professional wrestling require the same two ingredients today as they always have.
The first ingredient is a babyface whom the fans love, adore, and, above all, genuinely support. The second is more important: an exciting heel who makes fans clamor for his demise, however powerful he may be.
The heel must force fans to support the babyface; otherwise, there is little reason to care.
This list chronicles 24 of the most effective periods of heel dominance since pro wrestling first hit the mainstream, in chronological order. In each case, the heel was one of the most important characters in his promotion's literary arsenal, and in many cases even more renowned than the babyface(s) opposing him.
Gorgeous George, 1947-1962: The Spectacle Is Born
George Wagner single-handedly popularized the use of bravado and theatrics in American professional wrestling. He became pro wrestling's first national celebrity following his first television appearance in 1941, which subsequently cast him in league with top-earning Hollywood actors and actresses.
This single event changed the course of professional wrestling forever. Wrestling was no longer strictly a choreographed athletic display, but an exciting narrative art form complete with larger-than-life personalities, dramatic entrances and theatrics, and character conflicts that would endure for months to years.
The undeniable appeal of the Gorgeous George character in American pop culture led Wagner to become the highest paid athlete in the world, a feat indicative of his huge contribution to the growing popularity of pro wrestling.
His mere presence on a wrestling card was enough to generate new stars in professional wrestling, most notably Lou Thesz, who appeared rather plain and old-fashioned compared to Wagner but could still excite crowds with his athleticism.
Despite Thesz's relatively unremarkable character, many fans had the pleasure of witnessing and subsequently appreciating his exceptional wrestling ability because of the attention Wagner brought to the art.
Wagner's last great contribution to professional wrestling was his facilitation in the rise of Bruno Sammartino, the prototypical everyman babyface who defeated Gorgeous George and later went on to be the face of the WWWF for several years.
By that time, an entire generation had grown up enjoying professional wrestling due to Wagner's efforts, and every wrestler who has achieved fame since then is forever in his debt.
For 15 years, George was the premier heel in professional wrestling. Fans' simultaneous disdain and unyielding admiration for the character drove life and purpose into babyface characters who followed for years to come.
Simply put, Gorgeous George gave professional wrestling an identity as a viable form of entertainment in America. His influence is still seen in virtually every facet of the art today.
'Superstar' Billy Graham, 1977-1978: The Heel Evolves
After defeating Buddy Rogers in the spring of 1963, Bruno Sammartino would reign as WWWF Champion for nearly eight years until losing the prestigious title to Ivan Koloff. The belt moved to the waists of Pedro Morales and Stan Stasiak before Sammartino won it for a second time in the winter of 1973.
Such longevity as champion is unheard of to this day; his first world championship reign is still the longest In American pro wrestling history by a wide margin.
Of course, Sammartino was a great titleholder following the surge of popularity sparked by the celebrity of Gorgeous George. He was a hard-nosed, blue-collar hero, someone to whom much of the American audience could relate.
During his first reign as champion, Sammartino engaged in memorable feuds with such names as Killer Kowalski, Johnny Valentine, Giant Baba, Gorilla Monsoon, and George "The Animal" Steele. His matches consistently sold out Madison Square Garden, the mecca of the WWWF's business at the time.
In short, Sammartino was the conquering hero who vanquished a long list of worthy villains.
His run as the star attraction of the WWWF would come to an end in April 1977, when a new sort of enemy emerged to take the wrestling world by storm.
"Superstar" Billy Graham defeated Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Championship in controversial fashion; he managed a three-count with his foot on the ropes, at the time a new heel tactic. Fans were shocked, but not entirely disappointed.
Graham, though a rulebreaker, saw his fanbase grow due to a peacock appearance and arrogant attitude. He was a heel unlike any fans had seen before.
He was larger-than-life both figuratively and literally; his cocky demeanor and outrageous outfits accented his gargantuan, chiseled physique, an uncommon sight for wrestling fans of his day.
The modern stereotypical pro wrestler's body image, that being tall, overly muscled, darkly tanned, and incredibly fit, was first popularized by Billy Graham.
Of course, similar appearances would greatly help the careers of such greats as Hulk Hogan, Paul Orndorff and several others, but Graham was the true pioneer as far as Herculean physiques are concerned.
The physique was just one component of the total package that Graham projected. He was the first wrestler since Gorgeous George to gain mainstream attention and maintain a position as the most popular draw in a major American wrestling promotion despite playing the central role of the villain.
Billy Graham can certainly be considered the precursor to such characters as Hollywood Hogan, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock, all wildly popular as heels.
His successful run as a heel champion proved the term "fan favorite" need not apply only to babyface characters.
Harley Race, 1983: The Game Begins
In the early 1980s, the National Wrestling Alliance was the largest professional wrestling organization in America, with a collection of territories that virtually dominated the art in Southern and Midwestern states.
At the time, the NWA's top heel, and arguably its biggest draw, was Harley Race, who was known for his underhanded tactics and cerebral warfare. His persona was very much the blueprint for the character Triple H became in 1999.
He was a true thinking man's wrestler and played the perfect counterpart to a young Ric Flair, who would lose his first NWA Championship to Race. The two would soon engage in a major title feud that both defined Race's legacy as an all-time great heel and catalyzed Flair's rise to he top of the industry.
This particular feud was unique because fans generally had trouble discerning fact from fiction. It was the first high-profile, nationally renowned wrestling feud to incorporate backstage politics and a variety of narrative twists, both commonplace in wrestling storylines today.
The storyline centered on Race's desire to keep the NWA Championship at any cost. A first in American professional wrestling, Race placed a $25,000 bounty on the head of former champion Ric Flair, whom Race feared was the biggest threat to his sovereignty in the NWA.
Bob Orton and Dicky Slater, midcard heels who played Race's hired guns, managed to suffer Flair a "career-ending" neck injury.
A narrative twist was in the cards, however, as Flair revealed his retirement was simply a ruse and that he would challenge Race for the NWA Championship at the first ever Starrcade event in November 1983.
The implications of this match were staggering. Starrcade's success would indicate two things: first, that Ric Flair was primed and ready to be the top drawing act in American professional wrestling, and second, that a wrestling supershow was a very lucrative endeavor for the NWA or any other promotion to undertake.
This feud, driven by Harley Race's ability to make fans genuinely despise him, was the reason Ric Flair became an international star. While Flair would likely have ascended to greatness under different circumstances, his success would be slowed without the opposition of a strong heel such as Race.
Most importantly, Race's contribution to the success of the inaugural Starrcade helped to solidify the presence of wrestling supershows as we know them today.
Without Race's stellar work and drawing power, Starrcade may very well have failed. The consequences of such an occurrence could have been devastating for the continued prosperity of professional wrestling.
If Starrcade had failed to generate a profit, would WrestleMania have happened?
Luckily, Harley Race helped to ensure a future home for professional wrestling on pay-per-view.
The Iron Sheik, 1984: The Ultimate Transitional Champion
There have been several transitional champions in professional wrestling over the years. These short, noncommittal title reigns serve a few key purposes: one, they act as bridges between two champions whom promoters would rather not pit against each other for various reasons, and two, they are used to better prepare the next champion to become popular.
The Iron Sheiks's title reign falls into the latter category, and for good reason. After defeating Bob Backlund and holding the WWF Championship for four weeks, Sheik was flattened by the surging Hulk Hogan, whose new "Hulkamania" gimmick was set to sweep the nation and bring professional wrestling to new heights of mainstream popularity.
Hogan's character was American to its core and found a perfect foil in The Iron Sheik, so it was only fitting that Vince McMahon and Co. decided to strap the title around Sheiks's waist in order to successfully launch the Hulkamania brand.
The Iron Sheik would never again win the WWF title, nor would he find his way back to the top of the card.
Regardless, Sheik's contribution to the popularity of professional wrestling cannot be measured. If Hulkamania had failed to catch on, the future of professional wrestling in America would be bleak at best.
"Backlundmania" may have been the backup plan.
No, thank you.
Luckily, nationalist propaganda allowed fans to hate The Iron Sheik enough that they would absolutely love his patriotic, musclebound vanquisher and deem him a national treasure.
'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, 1984-1985: The Heel Fans Love to Hate
Do you think they'd love you, if they hadn't hated me? –"Rowdy" Roddy Piper
Following his 1984 arrival in the WWF, Roddy Piper molded his character into the ultimate instigator. His interview segment, Piper's Pit, allowed him to showcase a ruthless, uncaring personality that fans genuinely despised.
The most famous edition of the Pit saw perennial babyface "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka legitimately knocked unconscious by a coconut which Piper unjustifiably smashed over his head. This one event catalyzed Piper's most effective heel run; it turned him into a man the fans truly hated.
Such a heel is exactly what Vince McMahon needed for his programming at the time. Even casual fans knew that Hulk Hogan was not going to be defeated. Hulkamania was so popular that a clean loss for Hogan would have been bad for business.
The first WrestleMania was in the cards, but it was clear McMahon would not be able to sell the event with the notion that Hogan might lose; there was no WWF heel credible enough to pull it off, and the fans would not have bought into it.
Enter the Rowdy one.
The storyline for the first-ever WrestleMania main event began when Piper attacked Cyndi Lauper, a pop megastar at the time. Hulk Hogan, hero of the day, would naturally get involved to defend Lauper's honor.
He wheels were set in motion to take Hulkamania into the American mainstream, and Roddy Piper was driving the vehicle.
McMahon's logic was plausible: if he could not give Hogan a real challenger, he would instead offer a heel whom the fans would pay good money to see defeated. The ensuing success of the inaugural WrestleMania proved that a top heel of far lesser stature than the top babyface can still draw big revenue.
Though gaining a degree of mainstream success starring in the 1988 cult hit They Live, Piper did not see such success in pro wrestling until much later in his career when he again feuded with Hogan towards WCW Starrcade 1996.
He won several regional wrestling titles throughout his career, but never a major world championship.
Still, Roddy Piper's heel run from 1984-1985 boosted the popularity of professional wrestling to new heights and set the bar very high for every top heel who followed.
Ric Flair, 1981-1986: The Original Franchise Player
The NWA's narrative style was much different from the WWF's; rather than use a dominant babyface as his top-drawing act, NWA promoter Jim Crockett insisted on centering his storylines on a dominant heel.
There was only one man in the NWA who was capable of being the company's standard bearer during the budding war with the WWF, and his name was Ric Flair.
Flair's persona was reminiscent of Gorgeous George; extravagant robes and dramatic theme music were his most readily recognizable features. Such a character fit right into the tradition of southern regional pro wrestling, and the crowds adored this man despite his rule-breaking nature.
He essentially carried the NWA throughout the 1980s on the back of his credibility as a top-drawing heel. For years, Flair took on all challengers and was usually victorious. He did put a few other stars over during this time period (notably Kerry Von Erich, Ricky Steamboat and Magnum T.A.) but always ended up with the 10 pounds of gold around his waist again.
Flair was, as Triple H would call him, the measuring stick in professional wrestling. His long reign as NWA Champion helped usher several new stars to the forefront of professional wrestling and lent instant credibility to the future WCW Championship, into which the NWA title was jettisoned while around Flair's waist.
To be the man, you've got to beat the man.
"The Nature Boy" also proved that to be the man, you do not need to be a babyface.
Andre the Giant, 1987: The Monster Heel Rises
In 1986, the WWF experimented with the "monster heel" character archetype, an overpowering, unstoppable villain meant to convincingly challenge the top babyface. Unfortunately, this particular experiment failed.
The main event of WrestleMania 2 pitted WWF Champion Hulk Hogan against a monster heel named King Kong Bundy. The match itself was passable, but the buildup was lackluster. Very few fans believed Bundy might win the match, for he did not seem an insurmountable threat, nor was his track record nearly as impressive as Hogan's.
Vince McMahon realized that he needed to bolster Hulk Hogan's status as WWF Champion by having him convincingly defeat a credible monster heel, a need Bundy could not satisfy.
McMahon had to think bigger.
Until 1987, Hulk Hogan's opponents posed little threat to his sovereignty atop the WWF. Throughout his early run of success, though, many fans were left with one giant question:
Could Hulk beat Andre?
For 15 years, Andre the Giant was undefeated in the squared circle. Vince McMahon had kept Andre out of conversation regarding the Hulkamania craze until he had no choice but to address the situation.
The truth was apparent: the irresistible force needed to collide with the immovable object.
By 1987, Andre was nearing the twilight of his career. Longstanding health issues would eventually shorten his career, and, sadly, his life. McMahon needed to utilize the Giant's credibility while he still could, and doing so would turn out to be one of the best business decisions of his life.
The ensuing hype for WrestleMania III was absolutely incredible; the WWF was able to sell out the Pontiac Silverdome, setting a world indoor attendance record of 93,173 which then stood for nearly 23 years.
While McMahon knew all along that Hogan needed to win the match, the presence of Andre instilled doubt in the viewing audience.
Hulk is great, but nobody can beat Andre.
This single, widely prevailing opinion is the reason that WrestleMania III is revered as one of the most successful pro wrestling events to this day.
It also proves that monster heels cannot be manufactured. Such a role is daunting for any heel and requires a very special talent to fill.
'The Million Dollar Man' Ted DiBiase, 1987-1988: The Weaselly Placeholder
Towards the end of 1987, the WWF was facing a major narrative issue: the company needed to generate new major characters. While Hulk Hogan was still in his prime, his supporting cast was beginning to show its age.
At the time, the main event for WrestleMania was shaping up to be a rematch between Hogan and Andre. This main event was no longer viable, however; another Hogan win would be pointless and certainly could not generate the same buzz as its predecessor, and a win for Andre was not an option.
Basically, a fresh main event for WrestleMania IV was required, or else fans may have begun to lose interest in the WWF product. However, it was nearly impossible to place Hogan into a new main-event program; he had unfortunately run out of viable challengers.
A solution was in the works.
Ted DiBiase was highly esteemed within the WWF's inner circle for a few reasons. He played a dastardly heel in the vein of Roddy Piper and could could sell a match with a microphone.
His superb in-ring work greatly complemented and compensated for that of lesser skilled babyfaces. Most importantly, he was fully willing to play a temporary role at the top of the card.
At the time, the WWF's goal was to have two new faces in the main event of WrestleMania IV. In order to lend an air of credibility to this main event, the match itself was presented as the final contest in a tournament to crown a new WWF Champion.
This was a very clever narrative decision. The tournament was justified after the WWF Championship was vacated following DiBiase's attempt to illegally purchase it from Andre, who had just defeated Hogan in controversial fashion.
The finalists in the tournament were DiBiase and "Macho Man" Randy Savage. Hogan's absence from the main event made it possible for Savage to become the new WWF Champion in a believable manner; the title vacancy Savage could win the title without defeating Hogan, which would have been too damaging to the company. Savage also was not yet an equal to Hogan in terms of renown, deeming the match unpreferrable anyhow.
Following his loss to Savage at WresleMania IV, DiBiase would never again touch a main-event program in the WWF, save for maybe his 1993 tag team title feud with Hogan and Brutus Beefcake.
Still, Ted DiBiase's contribution to the WWE canon cannot be denied. His role in the success of WrestleMania IV allowed Randy Savage to become one of the biggest stars in wrestling history, rivaling even the great Hulk Hogan.
DiBiase was a believable top heel when the company desperately needed a short bridge to its next big program, and he played his role as placeholder very well.
'Macho Man' Randy Savage, 1989: A Personal Affair
For most of 1988, "Macho Man" Randy Savage reigned as WWF Champion but was the No. 2 babyface in the company behind perennial protagonist Hulk Hogan. The two formed a tag team and competed against heel teams for months, dubbing themselves "The Mega Powers."
Of course, placing Savage into a tag team alongside Hogan was probably the best way to present the two as equals, and Savage desperately needed to be booked for every main event, as his star was still growing.
By the end of 1988, the fans had come to truly believe in Savage as a top draw. It was clear that the Mega Powers team was used to create a narrative history between the company's top two faces, which would make it difficult for fans to choose a side when it came time for them to feud.
In early 1989, tension mounted between Hogan and Savage. The beautiful Miss Elizabeth, Savage's longtime manager and love interest, was injected into the narrative as a way to open a rift between the two superstars. Overcome with jealousy of Hogan's increasing involvement with his lady, Savage became a full-blown heel as the buildup for WrestleMania V progressed.
The match was, essentially, a year in the making. Prior to his title tournament win at WrestleMania IV, Savage had very little involvement in the WWF's central title arc. His lengthy program with Hogan made him a central figure in the WWF's character universe, and the main event of WrestleMania V would be an emotional affair for both the characters and the viewers who had become emotionally invested in the drama brewing between them.
Of course, Hogan would go on to win he match, thus beginning his second campaign as WWF Champion. Savage, however, was still a main attraction following the event due to the fans' unyielding interest in his character and torrid relationship with Elizabeth.
His feud with Hogan continued after WrestleMania IV and culminated in a tag team match at SummerSlam 1989, that mainly served as a marketing vehicle for Hogan's new film, No Holds Barred.
Shortly thereafter, Savage's time in the WWF title scene came to a temporary close. He would naturally regain the title in the future, but his role as a heel meant great business for the WWF at the time. Savage's work helped to greatly extend the lifespan of the Hogan character.
Most importantly, Savage proved that soap opera-styled drama can exist in the WWF, and in fact could be a key drawing point. The presence of females and relationships in the main event scene also offered interesting new methods for directing crowd reaction towards major characters. The usual heel conventions were greatly expanded after this particular feud.
The Undertaker, 1990-1991: The Monster Heel Prevails
The Undertaker became the first viable monster heel since Andre the Giant. His rise to prominence was unique, though, as he was a credible main-event threat threat from his very first televised appearance onward as opposed to Andre's first main-event run coming after 15 years of dominance.
He was introduced as Ted DiBiase's mystery partner at Survivor Series 1990 and eliminated half of Dusty Rhodes' "Dream Team."
Fans knew they were witnessing he start of something important when he first emerged through the curtain. Black burial garments hanging from his massive 6'10", 328-pound frame, he was surely a sight to behold and genuinely frightened the younger fans filling the Hartford Civic Center that night.
Following the event, The Undertaker was untouchable. He destroyed every opponent put in front of him. The gradual build towards a WWF Championship match with Hulk Hogan had begun, and fans around the world were anxious to see the inevitable collision.
One year after his debut, The Undertaker was the favorite going into his first-ever WWF Championship contest against Hulk Hogan. The WWF had led fans to doubt that even Hogan could stop him; a Hogan loss seemed possible for the first time since WrestleMania III.
This time, Hogan did lose the WWF Championship, albeit in controversial fashion. Ric Flair, the WWF's new dastardly top heel, aided The Undertaker to victory following his interference with a metal folding chair.
Sure, The Undertaker's title win was tainted and short-lived (having dropped the title back to Hogan a mere two days later) but the match was a major victory for the WWF. It proved that The Undertaker could be successful as a top-drawing act moving forward.
Of course, the company was not ready to place the title on him for the long term.
WWF officials knew they had a bona fide future main-event player in The Undertaker, and that was really all they needed at the time.
Big Van Vader, 1992-1994: A Major Step Forward for Wrestling
In the early days of WCW, Ric Flair ruled the top of the card consistently for years. He took on all comers and had several high-profile feuds with opponents of equal skill and credibility.
At the time, though, the company had not yet seen a dominant titleholder whom fans could view as an unstoppable force.
In 1992, WCW began pushing Big Van Vader as a monster heel, and he immediately made a huge splash in the promotion's storylines. Vader was quite believable and ruled over WCW's main-event scene for some time.
The ultimate goal in pushing a monster heel as champion is to generate a new babyface star, which WCW would accomplish.
In 1992, Vader shelved top babyface Sting with an injury and eventually won the WCW Championship from him at the Great American Bash. He was soon injured himself, though, and had to drop the title three weeks later.
This was a golden opportunity for WCW to crown a brand-new world champion. At the time, Ron Simmons was seeing a degree of success as a singles competitor. With Sting out of action, WCW saw a chance to do something that had never been done before in pro wrestling.
Ron Simmons defeated Vader for the WCW Championship, thus becoming the first ever African-American World heavyweight champion. To win the title from such a formidable opponent as Vader made the achievement much more meaningful.
Simmons' reign was short, but its implications were permanent. Professional wrestling had finally broken the color barrier in America.
Of course, Vader would regain the title after recuperating from his injury and would go on to be dominant until 1994, but his single greatest contribution to professional wrestling is his loss to Simmons.
This was a crowning achievement for WCW in its early days.
Yokozuna, 1992-1994: The Foreign Monster
At WrestleMania VII in 1991, Hulk Hogan won the WWF Championship from Sgt. Slaughter, a culmination of months of nationalist propaganda dictating the WWF's creative direction.
The match was a direct result of the Gulf War, as the company tried to capitalize on the patriotic American consciousness of the time. To an extent, it worked; the WWF main-event scene centered on American wrestlers battling foreign heels until the end of summer.
The "foreign threat" angle would resurface again towards the end of 1992, only this time there was an added element: the presence of a foreign monster heel.
Yokozuna debuted on PPV at Survivor Series in 1992, squashing undercard talent Virgil in short order. This was the beginning of a successful heel run that would next lead him to a dominant Royal Rumble victory in early 1993.
Fans truly believed that Yokozuna could not be stopped. He was characterized similarly to how The Undertaker was circa 1991; though the Japanese monster had not yet won the WWF Championship, there was little doubt that he would in the near future.
To the surprise of very few, Yokozuna did indeed defeat Bret Hart for the title in the main event of WrestleMania IX. He lost the title to Hogan moments later due to failed interference from manager Mr. Fuji, but there was a future payoff set in place.
Yokozuna defeated Hogan for his second WWF Championship at the King of the Ring event the following June, solidifying his status as a successful monster heel.
Hogan departed the WWF following this loss, and the company was in immediate need of a believable title challenger its upcoming SummerSlam pay-per-view.
Lex Luger was tapped to replace Hogan as the company's top babyface throughout the summer. His body slam of Yokozuna aboard the USS Intrepid on July 5, 1993, kickstarted his new persona as the ultimate American babyface. He went from being "The Narcissist" to the "Man Made in the USA" literally overnight.
Luger would prove a poor replacement for Hogan, however; he simply did not have nearly the same amount of support as his predecessor. Thus, Yokozuna survived this feud with his WWF Championship intact.
He would eventually foster Bret Hart's reemergence as the top babyface in the company with a loss to the Hitman at Wrestlemania X the following year. Yokozuna's extended reign as champion allowed for Hart to inherit the role of conquering hero that Hogan had vacated upon his exit.
Yokozuna will forever be remembered as a strong monster heel who allowed Bret Hart's to rise to superstardom despite not having a chance to receive the proverbial torch from the departed Hulk Hogan.
'Hollywood' Hulk Hogan, 1996-1998: The Biggest Heel Ever
Hulk Hogan had been the most important character in the history of the American professional wrestling canon since his first WWF Championship win in 1984. He came to define the art; even non-wrestling fans knew what Hogan's role was atop the wrestling industry.
He was a pop culture icon, a legitimate moneymaker in any entertainment medium in which he participated.
When WCW decided to turn the biggest babyface of all time into the biggest heel ever, its business soared to a previously unimaginable high. The introduction of the New World Order, the dominant heel group which Hogan led, generated millions of new wrestling fans. At the time, it was the single most important advancement for the wrestling industry to date.
With Hogan's monumental heel turn came a completely new creative direction for WCW. Its flagship television program, Monday Nitro, began featuring conflict-heavy, intertwining storylines and often hosted important matches previously reserved for pay-per-view events.
The show's central narrative arc, that being the war between WCW and the nWo, influenced virtually every other storyline in some way. It was unavoidable. For the first time, professional wrestling had a weekly television program largely based around one major concept, and the fans could not get enough.
Hogan dominated the WCW ranks for quite some time. Sting, once the company's top babyface, morphed into an entirely new character in response to the creative shift caused by Hogan's turn; he went from a non-controversial, fan-friendly babyface to a brooding, vengeful silent hero reminiscent of Brandon Lee's character from the hit 1994 film The Crow, complete with black attire and monochrome face paint.
Hogan and Sting would have a memorable feud which resulted in a WCW Championship victory for the Stinger at Starrcade 1997. This was the first big payoff for the nWo angle, as WCW was able to successfully create a new babyface character for Sting, whose popularity rose to a level it had not previously reached.
The ultimate payoff for the Hollywood Hogan character would come in 1998, however. It was likely decided early on in the nWo's dominant run that a new babyface would spring from this angle and become the top star for the ensuing generation of professional wrestlers.
This new character did indeed come to fruition.
His name was Bill Goldberg.
By the time Goldberg made his Nitro debut on Sept. 22, 1997, Hogan's character was already established as an empirical figure in the company, and the nWo was his shield, a protective army against uprisings from his WCW adversaries.
Hogan was simply untouchable, but a storm was brewing in the form of a mounting winning streak, along with a growing legion of fans, for the relatively unknown phenom, Goldberg.
After squashing undercard wrestlers for some time, Goldberg breached the nWo's defenses, winning short feuds with some its supporting characters such as Konnan and Curt Hennig.
At this point, it was clear that Hogan and Goldberg were on a collision course.
The undefeated Goldberg eventually received a title match against Hogan on the July 6, 1998 edition of Nitro. The venue was perfect for this match; 40,000 attended the event in Goldberg's hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.
The crowd reaction to Goldberg's title win was deafening. It was the ultimate payoff to the most significant heel run in history.
Hollywood Hogan was the most powerful and vile heel the wrestling industry had ever seen. His presence as head of the nWo put WCW on top of the wrestling world for 84 consecutive weeks and created a legitimate new draw in Bill Goldberg.
Since then, no period of heel dominance has matched the success the Hollywood Hogan character produced in its day.
'Stone Cold' Steve Austin, 1996-1997: The Heel Fans Loved to Love
Beginning with the heel Diesel's obscene finger gesture to The Undertaker at the 1996 Royal Rumble, the WWF's creative direction began veering towards a more mature audience. Adult themes and profanity were growing increasingly apparent at the time, but one particular incident stands as a real turning point for the tone of the WWF's canon.
After "Stone Cold" Steve Austin defeated the religious Jake Roberts in the finals of the 1996 WWF King of the Ring, he unleashed a career-defining promo on Roberts and wrestling fans around the world:
You sit there and thump your bible, you say your prayers, and it didn't get you anywhere. You talk about your psalms, you talk about John 3:16. Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!
This iconic promo ignited an interest in wrestling fans that would continue to grow despite Austin's ruthless heel persona. Austin really challenged the public perception of a heel. He was cheered and supported despite playing the role of antagonist.
Bret Hart was Austin's first major opponent after winning King of he Ring. Austin began antagonizing Hart in late 1996 and was able to lure the Hitman from his post-WrestleMania sabbatical with a series of slanderous, profanity-laced vignettes.
Hart defeated Austin at Survivor Series 1996, but Austin's stardom was only beginning to grow. Austin was declared the winner of the 1997 Royal Rumble, last eliminating the Hitman, but the decision was later overturned because the win came illegally.
The feud between Hart and Austin climaxed at WrestleMania 13. Austin, wearing a crimson mask, would lose consciousness while locked in Hart's sharpshooter, thus resulting in a referee stoppage. Hart continued his assault on the unconscious Austin after the match had ended and was stopped by guest referee, former UFC star Ken Shamrock.
Austin won the respect of the crowd after this match, while Hart drew their ire. This was the first time a double turn had occurred between major characters in the WWF. From that point onward, Austin played the role of face, and Hart became a major heel.
One year later, Hart would be working for rival WCW as Austin was celebrating his first WWF Championship victory, having defeated Shawn Michaels in the main event of WrestleMania XIV.
Austin's face turn proved that the opinions of wrestling fans are very much factors in how a character will be presented. Austin's appeal was undeniable even as a heel, and he would successfully leverage this popularity into the single most effective face run in wrestling history.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin became the pivotal figure of the Attitude Era and will live on as a character that truly transcended the boundaries of traditional narrative conventions.
Shawn Michaels, 1997-1998: The Showstopper's Show Stops
When Shawn Michaels returned to active competition in late 1997, he became the opposite of the fan-friendly babyface he portrayed during his WWF Championship reign in 1996. A heel Shawn Michaels was exactly what the WWF needed at the time; the company's top heel, Bret Hart, would soon be out the door following the infamous "Montreal Screwjob."
This incident, while widely considered a notorious blight in the WWF's history, only added to the dastardly heel persona Michaels was trying to cultivate.
At the time, Michaels was the head of a wildly popular group of rebellious heels known as D-Generation X. Skits in which the group was featured were highly rated; fans generally enjoyed watching the charismatic Michaels and company perform, even though they would degrade their babyface opponents.
After Steve Austin won the 1998 Royal Rumble, the main event for WrestleMania XIV was set in stone. The two most entertaining characters in the WWF were set to square off for the first time, with the championship on the line.
The result of the match was a foregone conclusion. Fans everywhere were privy to a back injury that would end up sidelining Michaels for over four years following his loss to Austin at WrestleMania. It was clear that Austin was going to win the WWF Championship, yet fan interest in the upcoming contest did not waver.
Michaels and Austin were just so entertaining that fans couldn't help but watch. The inclusion of Mike Tyson certainly helped draw interest to the big show that year, also.
Without another top heel of similar stature to Michaels, there really was nobody else from whom Austin could win the WWF Championship. Despite a serious back injury, Michaels still competed at WrestleMania XIV in order to pass the torch to the Rattlesnake.
Had Michaels been unable to participate, the only option would have been to temporarily jettison the title to The Undertaker, who, besides Michaels, was the only character who had been champion previously.
This would have caused several problems: Undertaker's planned WresleMania match with Kane would have to be delayed, thus slowing Kane's progression as a major character; the WrestleMania main event would have had very little buildup and would be a waste of a match the company was saving for a later date; and most significant, the match would have pitted two faces against each other, which is not something WWF would want to launch Austin's first title run.
Shawn Michaels heel run going into 1998 was effective because it was entirely necessary. The future prosperity of he WWF literally rested on Michaels' back, and luckily, he was able to finish the match without further injuring himself.
Mr. McMahon, 1998-1999: The Boss as Top Heel
In 1998, the WWF was in the process of replacing its top two heels of 1997: Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. New WWF Champion "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was in need of a credible opponent.
The WWF creative team tapped Mick Foley for the main event of WWF Unforgiven in April 1998. After appearing as Cactus Jack and cutting an effective heel promo, Foley reprised his role as Dude Love, a previously babyface character which had first appeared on WWF television the summer prior.
Dude Love failed to capture the title from Austin after two attempts and was "fired" from the WWF by Vince McMahon. It was then clear that the major conflict in the WWF was between McMahon and Austin. This was the first time that the company's top heel had been a non-wrestler.
This would not hold true for long, though. McMahon won the 1999 Royal Rumble, last eliminating Austin. This set up a steel cage match between the two at the following months's pay-per-view, St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the winner of which receiving the WWF Championship opportunity in the main event of WrestleMania XV.
Despite interference from the debuting Paul Wight, formerly The Giant in WCW, Austin was able to win the match.
McMahon's heel persona going into WrestleMania XV elevated the crowd's interest in WWF Champion The Rock, with whom McMahon was aligned. In a physical sense, the major feud in the WWF was between Austin and Rock, but in such larger sense the real conflict was still between McMahon's disciplinarian authority and Austin's desire to rebel.
The Rock's loss at WrestleMania was also a loss for Mr. McMahon. The feud would naturally evolve from that point, but Austin's victory at WrestleMania, with an assist from the previously exiled Mankind, was celebrated by fans everywhere, a satisfying end to one significant chapter of Austin's storied career.
The Rock, 1998-1999: The Corporate Champion
As a heel, The Rock was much more popular than most of the WWF's babyfaces. It was only fitting that he would be granted the role of Mr. McMahon's corporate champion after winning the "Deadly Game" WWF Championship tournament at the 1998 Survivor Series.
The Rock served as the perfect nemesis for "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who was trying to regain the WWF Championship. The two were incredibly entertaining together and were able to generate the WWF's highest television ratings to date.
Similarly to how Austin's character organically evolved from heel to face in 1997, The Rock was beginning to elicit more cheers than boos during the buildup for WrestleMania. This resulted in a perfect mix of personalities for the upcoming main event.
Austin was the overwhelmingly supported babyface.
McMahon was despised and generally reviled by most fans.
The Rock sat surely between the two in terms of fan reaction. It was quite clear that Rock would eventually morph into a full-fledged babyface due to his growing popularity, so fans were assured a highly entertaining WrestleMania feud.
Brock Lesnar, 2002: The Monster Heel Prevails Again
Brock Lesnar did not become a main-event heel because there was a pressing need for one in 2002; rather, he became a major villain because he was simply too talented to be anything less.
He made an immediate impact in his first television appearance by destroying three undercard wrestlers simultaneously and in highly impressive fashion.
Essentially, Brock Lesnar was a main-event threat the second he appeared on television, much like The Undertaker in 1990. The difference, though, is that Lesnar stayed on top once he got there and remained a main-event talent until his departure from WWE.
By winning the 2003 King of the Ring tournament, Lesnar earned a shot at the WWE Undisputed Championship in the main event of SummerSlam. His opponent would be The Rock, already a multiple-time champion by that point.
Despite Lesnar's relatively short stint of about four months on WWE television, he was actually portrayed as the heavy favorite going into this match with The Rock, and for good reason.
Lesnar made all of his opponents look weak since his debut, with no exceptions. Though The Rock had been a top star for years, Lesnar was unlike any wrestler fans had ever seen.
There was simply no way Lesnar could believably lose this match. Of course, WWE had planned to put the title around Lesnar's waist all along, but they certainly did not have to try very hard to convince the fans that he would be a worthy champion.
Brock Lesnar reeked of credibility from the moment he showed his face, and with a manager like Paul Heyman, his success was all but assured. "The Next Big Thing" was also the next sure thing for the WWE creative team, who have not had easier days at the office since then.
Triple H, 2002-2005: The King of Kings Reigns Supreme
Following Brock Lesnar's exodus to the SmackDown roster while reigning as WWE Undisputed Champion in 2002, The Raw roster was left without a world champion. Eric Bischoff, on-air general manager of the red show at the time, resurrected the World Heavyweight Championship and named its first holder, Triple H.
The Game's subsequent reign would dominate Raw's main-event scene for nearly three years. He led a powerful stable consisting of newcomers Batista and Randy Orton as well as 16-time world champion Ric Flair. The group as a whole was much more powerful than any babyface threat on Raw during this period. In essence, the title was secure around Triple H's waist, for the most part.
The character of Triple H drew from multiple sources; the persona was a hybrid mix of Ric Flair, Harley Race, and Hollywood Hogan, all added to the unique traits Helmsley had already established for himself.
Like Flair circa the early 1980s, Triple H engaged in several feuds with evenly matched superstars and usually came out on top.
Like Harley Race in 1983, he resorted to trickery and politicking to subdue his opponents, even placing a $100,000 bounty on the head of Goldberg in late 2003 in order to protect his title.
Like Hollywood Hogan in 1997, he surrounded himself with powerful comrades in order to create a barrier between himself and opponents.
Triple H was the perfect heel; he was credible, entertaining, and most importantly a significant stepping stone for one of the company's future babyfaces.
In late 2004, WWE had boiled the search for its next big babyfaces to two candidates: John Cena and Triple H's stablemate, Batista. These two were the final two participants in the 2005 Royal Rumble, and fans really could not predict who would win until the finish arrived.
In the end, it was Batista who won the nod and the right to face Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship. Cena would go on to challenge the WWE Champion, JBL.
The storyline for the match was already in place. Randy Orton had gone over Triple H's head and won the title from Chris Benoit the previous summer and was consequently beaten and exiled by Triple H. Fearing the same fate, Batista defected from the group and chose to battle Triple H at WrestleMania 21.
This was the most significant title feud that WWE had run since Brock Lesnar became champion in 2002. Following WrestleMania, Triple H disappeared from television for months while Batista rose to greatness. The Animal would eventually succumb to a string of injuries, but there is no debating the significance of his title win.
Of course, Batista owes his fame to the prestige Triple H had previously brought to the World Heavyweight Championship. The success of a heel's run as champion is ultimately measured by the strength of the next babyface champion's reign, so in this sense, Triple H's lengthy heel run was one of the most effective ever.
JBL, 2004-2005: The Longest Reigning Transitional Champion
In 2004, following a serious injury to top heel Kurt Angle and the sudden departure of Brock Lesnar, there was a serious lack of heels on the SmackDown brand. The company needed a strong, reliable heel immediately, so it had no choice but to quickly move an experienced wrestler up from the midcard.
John Bradshaw Layfield, until that point a career tag team wrestler, was appointed for the role. He was repackaged as a displaced Texan who had made a fortune on Wall Street and was now gunning for a WWE Championship.
JBL was rejected by fans initially, as his transformation from midcard tag team specialist to main-event heel was rather sudden. Following a series of quality promos and matches with Eddie Guerrero, this perception would change in time.
After winning the WWE Championship from Guerrero in July 2004, JBL would hold the title for an astounding 280 days.
How could a reign of 280 days be seen as a transitional reign?
It was never WWE's intention to keep JBL at the top of the card following his eventual title loss. The ultimate purpose of the JBL character was to create a long-reigning, credible heel champion from whom John Cena could win his first major championship.
Cena was already penciled into WWE's long term plans when JBL first won the WWE Championship, and the creative team focused on building up both men separately and keeping them apart until their eventual clash at WrestleMania 21.
JBL was limited to one WWE Championship reign by design, and he performed his job admirably for nearly a year.
Edge, 2007-2009: Champion by Committee
By 2007, Edge was already a multiple-time world champion, having first won the WWE Championship from John Cena in January 2006. His most effective heel run would come later, though, while a member of the SmackDown roster.
Edge cashed in his second "Money in the Bank" briefcase against The Undertaker to win his first World Heavyweight Championship on May 11, 2007, thus becoming a member of SmackDown. He would soon suffer a torn pectoral muscle and was shelved for several months after relinquishing the championship.
He returned towards the end of the year and aligned himself with Vickie Guerrero, with whom he engaged in an on-air relationship. He eventually regained the World Heavyweight Championship at Armageddon 2007, winning a triple threat match against Batista and The Undertaker with the assistance of two new henchmen, Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins.
At this point, the WWE creative team decided to surround Edge with several supporting characters in order to present his as a bigger obstacle for his eventual WrestleMania XXIV opponent, The Undertaker.
"La Familia" was formed, an Edge-led stable consisting of Vickie and Chavo Guerrero, Ryder and Hawkins. This was the first heel faction that Edge had ever controlled.
With members of La Familia surrounding him at all times, Edge was able to play the cowardly heel without having to express a fear of his opponents. This made him seem like more of an intelligent, opportunistic heel, which is exactly the character WWE was trying onto convey. This translated well during his program with The Undertaker leading up to WrestleMania XXIV.
Alone, Edge was not a believable threat to The Undertaker despite multiple championship reigns. With the possibility of help from several others, though, Edge appeared a crafty foe who may actually pull out a victory.
Of course, Edge did not end The Undertaker's undefeated streak at WrestleMania, but the match was hyped enough to be slotted as the main event of the big show in 2008. The match was the highest point of Edge's career, and although he lost, the match received positive reviews and solidified Edge as a solid main event player for the rest of his career.
Edge's time as he head of La Familia really highlighted the significance that a surrounding committee can have towards the the audience's perception of a top heel.
Chris Jericho, 2008: The Heartless, Honest Heel
Chris Jericho's 2008 program with Shawn Michaels would generate his finest work as a heel as well as the hottest feud of the year.
The feud really gained momentum when, in a fit of jealous rage, Jericho shoved Michaels' head through a television screen, severely damaging his eye. In storyline, Michaels then contemplated retirement until goaded into a fight with Jericho, who ended up punching out Michaels' wife, Rebecca, during the scuffle.
Jericho showed no remorse for his actions and soon stripped away all the fan-friendly facets of his character that once made him popular. He began wearing dark suits and spoke slowly, in prophetic terms.
He became a thoroughly heartless heel, which only made fans support his opponents even more. His infamy grew to the point where he was granted a run with the World Heavyweight Championship by winning a scramble match at Unforgiven 2008.
Jericho eventually won his feud with Michaels, defeating him first in a ladder match at No Mercy and again in a Last Man Standing match on the November 10th edition of Raw.
After this feud, the crowd hated Jericho with a passion, and for good reason. He had successfully cut down one of the company's most beloved babyfaces and had done so without a shred of respect or remorse for his fallen opponent.
This was a prime example of an evil character unshackled by the weight of human emotion, and Jericho was the perfect man for the role.
Randy Orton, 2008-2009: The Loose Cannon
After returning from a collarbone injury in late 2009, Randy Orton's character was more sadistic than ever. He began frequently using a vicious running punt on opponents, often putting them out of action for extended periods. His crazed actions became a focal point of Raw each week, and he was quickly becoming the brand's top heel.
This was soon affirmed a Royal Rumble victory in 2009.
While Orton was a multiple-time world champion at this point, he was never a top draw until placed into a WWE Championship program with Triple H in early 2009. Orton upstaged all of his previous heel runs with this particular program, and for the first time in his career became the company's top heel as an overly violent borderline psychopath.
The storyline became very personal when Triple H's wife, Stephanie McMahon, appeared on Raw to add drama to the feud. Orton would ruthlessly assault her, causing Triple H to later retaliate by breaking into Orton's home and assaulting him in front of his own wife.
Orton's heel persona was so hated that fans actually began to empathize with and support Triple H as a face despite several years as a top villain previously.
This is, of course, the true purpose of any good heel, and Orton was the very best heel in the business at the time.
Randy Orton would lose to Triple H at WrestleMania XXV, but the storyline was definitely a success and stands as Orton's best work to date.
This heel run showed that a little chaos can do wonders for a stagnating villain.
John Cena, 2011-Present: The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
John Cena is WWE's top babyface and has been for several years. At least, that is what the WWE creative team would like fans to believe.
WWE has previously faced the possibility of a top babyface becoming stagnant.
It happened to Hulk Hogan in 1987 following his victory over Andre the Giant. Rather than featuring Hogan in the main event again the following year, WWE opted to limit him a reduced main event while Randy Savage ascended to the top of the WrestleMania card.
The focus, at that point, was to direct fans' attention to Savage as the company built him up to Hogan's level.
There was an evident fear that the fans may begin to get bored with Hogan if left overexposed for too long without a break. The WWF reacted accordingly in order to extend the life of Hogan's character, and the plan certainly worked.
The company removed Hogan from the main event again following his loss to The Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VI for this same reason.
In contrast, John Cena has not held the WWE Championship in nearly a year yet has headlined nearly every pay-per-view event in that time span.
Not only is WWE aware that a sizable portion of its fanbase is tired of Cena's act, but the company is actually banking on this fact. They are consciously pushing Cena down older fans' throats in order to pacify and retain the younger audience.
WWE wants to instill a hatred in older fans' minds. The company has held pro wrestling captive and repurposed it to fit its own needs. This could possibly be the most profound heel action in the history of pro wrestling.
Cena is a heel masquerading under the guise of a babyface. Unsurprisingly, it is WWE that promotes Cena as a babyface, casting itself as an accomplice to John Cena's heel persona.
Let's look at the facts. Every week, John Cena is booed by the majority of adult wrestling fans. Many of these fans lament Cena victories and wish to see him lose.
CM Punk, now portrayed as a heel on WWE programming, is adored and supported by the majority of these fans.
These two facts together, when looking at the all conventions of characterization in pro wrestling, would suggest that Punk plays the face to Cena's heel.
Ultimately, the fans distinguish heel from face, regardless of what WWE says. The distinction lies in he eye of the beholder; children likely see Cena as a face because they are told that he is, while older fans are able to think more independently.
What if, beneath all the propaganda and influence the WWE spits at viewers, the real heel is he company itself? What if, the WWE marketing machine is meant to play a heel for the older portion of the audience that is loyal to pro wrestling as an art form first and to WWE as a company second?
Case in point: older, diehard wrestling fans love Bryan Danielson for his stellar work in other promotions. They chant "yes" at him as a sign of support, despite WWE's insistence that he is being mocked.
Daniel Bryan, as a character, is simply Bryan Danielson being held hostage and forced to play a novelty act by the evil WWE empire, outside of which pro wrestling does not exist.
Was CM Punk's attack on Jerry Lawler a terrorist act or a liberating action? It all depends on how the viewer perceives the WWE Universe. Is Lawler truly meant to be a babyface or is he really the "Minister of Propaganda" for an evil, brainwashing company as CM Punk has suggested?
Will either Cena or WWE itself ever be revealed as true heels? Only time will tell. Until then, there exists a certain wonder in the subtlety of it all.
As fans, we may think we know better, but what if we are actually behind the curve? WWE was not born yesterday, nor is it going away anytime soon.
Thank you for reading.