Face turns are not nearly as dramatic as heels turns, but they can be equally shocking and significant. WWE has certainly seen its fair share of face turns over the years. Which ones have stood out as changing WWE history?
This article will only cover the best face turns by WWE superstars over the last twenty years that have changed WWE history. (This excludes divas, announcers, referees, etc.)
The criteria for ranking the face turns include accomplishments achieved after the turn in comparison to before the turn, the shock value of the turn, the ability to change one's character accordingly and finally, the impact the turn had on the WWE product.
Before we countdown the ten best face turns (of the last twenty years) that changed WWE history, let's take a look at the honorable mentions.
Virgil was the bodyguard of the evil Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase in the late 1980s. However, at Royal Rumble 1991, Virgil turned on DiBiase and became a fan favorite. However, this was not shocking due to DiBiase’s poor treatment of Virgil. In addition to the turn being more than twenty years ago, Virgil accomplished nothing after the face turn, and his lack of impact on the WWE keeps him out of the top ten.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage (1991)
The late, great Macho Man Randy Savage has played both face and heel during his illustrious career in WWE, but at WrestleMania VII, we all shared a moment with Savage. After he lost a career-ending match to the Ultimate Warrior, Queen Sheri attacked the Macho Man. The beautiful Elizabeth came to Savage’s aid, which resulted in a huge pop from the audience. Although this moment will go down as one of the best face turns, it occurred more than twenty years ago and therefore, does not make the top ten.
"Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig (1992)
The former Intercontinental Champion spent the majority of his WWE career as a heel until an edition of Prime Time Wrestling when he agreed to replace the Ultimate Warrior as Macho Man Randy Savage’s tag team partner against Razor Ramon and Ric Flair. However, Mr. Perfect aka Curt Hennig would not find much success after the turn and as a result does not make it into the top ten.
When Hulk Hogan returned to WWE in 2002 as a member of the NWO, he was not the ultimate hero he was decades before. That is until his Wrestlemania showdown with the Rock.
At the beginning of the match, you could hear the audience chanting for Hogan, which caused the fans to turn Hogan. Most of Hogan’s accomplishments came during his WWE runs in the 1980s and '90s. However, in addition to holding the WWF/WWE Undisputed Championship for his sixth World Title, Hogan teamed with Edge for his first WWE Tag Team Championship reign.
I never thought of Hulk Hogan as a tag team wrestler, and since this was his only tag team reign, it proves it was not meant for him. I don’t necessarily think the fans were shocked by Hogan’s face turn since it was mainly their doing, but perhaps the shock came from WWE management.
Hogan displayed his Hollywood Hogan character and the red-and-yellow-wearing Hulk Hogan. However, he also disguised himself as Mr. America after his face turn. This was a ridiculous idea as it was obviously Hogan. Even Hogan didn’t like the idea as the gimmick was dropped due to Hulk quitting the company. Hulk Hogan’s biggest impact in WWE did not come in 2002, but rather in the 1980s and early '90s. All in all, Hogan’s face turn in 2002 brought me back to the days of my childhood, but it was not the most significant face turn in WWE history.
Before his memorable face turn in 2005, the man who had debuted as Deacon Batista had not accomplished much. Batista had won the World Tag Team Championship with Ric Flair and won Royal Rumble 2005.
However, it was winning the Royal Rumble match that began the road to fan favorite for Batista. With then World Heavyweight Champion Triple H trying to convince Batista to challenge for the WWE Championship instead of him, Batista gave us one of the most exciting face turns in WWE. Batista pretended to sign with Smackdown at first, giving Triple H a thumbs up but turned it into the most memorable thumbs down I have ever seen before attacking Triple H and fellow Evolution member Ric Flair.
Batista would go on to become a four time World Heavyweight Champion, two time WWE Champion and a WWE Tag Team Champion with friend Rey Mysterio. Batista’s face turn was not necessarily surprising but very exciting, as most people were hoping for it to happen.
Batista’s character did not change much after the turn. In terms of impact, Batista certainly became a top star in the WWE until he left because he was unhappy with the PG era. However, Batista will be remembered most for putting on some phenomenal matches including his WrestleMania match with Triple H. Nevertheless, the longest reigning World Heavyweight Champion’s face turn was not the most impactful in WWE history.
After a less than memorable time as the heel Narcissist in the WWF, Lex Luger made a big surprise with a new character on July 4th, 1993.
On the USS Intrepid, WWF had a contest to see if anyone could lift and body slam the 600 pound Yokozuna. After a number of people from WWF and outside WWF failed, a helicopter arrived. Speaking from someone who was there, I had no idea who might be in the helicopter and was completely shocked to see who it was. It turned out to be Luger who entered the ring and slammed Yokozuna to the entire crowd’s pleasure.
This incident helped Luger’s career take off as he would begin the “Lex Express” tour, traveling in a patriotic colored bus campaigning for a shot at the WWF Championship. Despite co-winning the Royal Rumble match in 1994 (with Bret Hart), Luger would not hold any titles in WWF. Luger’s tenure in WWF declined after failing to capture the WWF Championship, though his face turn certainly changed WWE history. At least in the short term.
At the end of July 2011, Sheamus made a big impact on WWE when he was the only one who would voluntarily step in the ring with the monster heel Mark Henry. It was somewhat surprising and intriguing, but I remember thinking that this could the start of an impressive run by a new up-and-coming superstar.
In terms of accomplishments, Sheamus held the WWE Championship and United States Championship during his heel run. He was also King of the Ring.
However, Sheamus’ current streak as World Heavyweight Champion the past sixth months has been less rushed and more impressive than his previous accomplishments.
In terms of his character, Sheamus has certainly changed...into a goofy, corny Super Cena-type character, and I am just not a fan of it. I give him credit for being able to change his character, but I find the new Sheamus annoying and stale.
Finally, Sheamus’ impact on the WWE goes a number of ways. Sheamus has become at least the number two face (pun intended) of the blue brand (aka SmackDown). However, I still consider Randy Orton to be number one on SmackDown, especially since Orton has been in more SmackDown main events than Sheamus recently. Sheamus has also been a big part of WWE outside the ring with their Be a Star campaign.
Sheamus has come a long way, but it was his face turn that began his rise to the very top of WWE.
CM Punk had already been in the WWE for five years and became a triple crown winner before his impactful face turn that changed WWE history.
Prior to his famous pipebomb promo, Punk was also a two-time Money in the Bank winner. Since his most recent face turn, Punk has only achieved becoming WWE Champion.
However, he has been champion for over 300 days and counting.
In terms of shock value, Punk's turn began with the most shocking promo heard since the attitude era. Those fans who knew Punk from ROH days may have not been as surprised, since he was involved in a similar storyline there, but many people were certainly shocked.
After becoming a Stone Cold-type tweener leaning towards a face, CM Punk did not emphasize his straight edge lifestyle character as much. More recently, Punk is stressing the overplayed disrespect storyline.
CM Punk has had a huge impact on WWE since his pipebomb promo. He has now become a top star in WWE who is advertised on merchandise more than before. In addition, Punk certainly tries to bring as much attitude-era style back to WWE as he can. He has been involved in controversial situations such as bleeding during his match with Jerry Lawler and more recently hitting a fan while in the crowd.
It will take some more time to truly understand the impact Punk has on WWE, but his face turn in 2011 was certainly memorable.
Although Dwayne Johnson became the Rock a few years prior, WWE fans began pushing for him to turn face in 1999.
The night after losing the WWE Championship to Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shane McMahon and the Corporation turned on the Rock, making him face.
The Rock held both the Intercontinental Championship and WWE Championship prior to his face turn, but he would hold multiple championships and win the Royal Rumble match in 2000 after. This includes a Tag Team Championship reign as part of the Rock and Sock Connection.
Calling Mick Foley and the Rock’s partnership entertaining is an understatement. Mick Foley’s quirkiness and The Rock’s bashing of Foley was beyond hilarious. Their “This Is Your Life” segment was one of the highest-rated segments in Raw history.
The Rock’s character had already begun his memorable promos as a heel, so his face turn did not change his character so much.
The Rock certainly had a big impact on the WWE product. The Rock’s catchphrase involving “laying the smackdown” lead to WWE naming its secondary television program after him. The term smackdown can even be found in a dictionary today. The Rock’s transition to movies has also played a part in WWE being able to cross sports with entertainment. All of these credentials came from one of the most impactful face turns in WWE history.
The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels became a singles competitor as a heel after the famous Barber Shop segment when he threw his former partner Marty Jannetty out of the window.
However, he became a World Champion and icon after turning face again. Prior to turning face in 1995, after an attack from former bodyguard Sid, Michaels was Intercontinental Champion, Tag Team Champion with Diesel and winner of the Royal Rumble match earlier that year.
After the face turn, Michaels would go on to become the first grand slam champion, winner of his second consecutive Royal Rumble match and a WWE Hall of Famer. With many fans by his side, including myself, it made the most sense for Michaels to become a fan favorite.
HBK's character did not change much over the years, but he would go on to be part of one of the most famous, controversial and in my opinion best stables in WWE history in D-Generation X. As one of the founding fathers of DX, Michaels helped usher in the attitude era.
Obviously, we know he was involved in another famous and (once again) controversial storylines in WWE history when he faced Bret Hart in what would go on to be known as the Montreal Screwjob. HBK would alternate between face and heel during the rest of his career in WWE, which ended at WrestleMania XXVI.
Still, it was his face turn in 1995 that ultimately gave Shawn Michaels the boost he needed to become a WWE legend and Hall of Famer, making the turn one of the best that changed WWE history forever.
The current longest tenured superstar in WWE, the Undertaker debuted in 1990 as a heel under the name Kane the Undertaker. The Undertaker was an intimidating, scary-looking character, which made his face turn in February 1992 that much more interesting.
At the time, Jake “The Snake” Roberts was an ally of the Undertaker’s who tried to attack Macho Man Randy Savage’s manager Miss Elizabeth with a steel chair. However, the Undertaker stopped Roberts, turning him into a fan favorite for the first time.
Throughout the rest of his career, the Undertaker would switch between face and heel, but spending the majority of time as a fan favorite. The Undertaker would go on to become WWE Champion, World Heavyweight Champion, WWE Tag Team Champion and WCW Tag Team Champion. The Undertaker won the Royal Rumble match in 2007 when he entered last, becoming the very first person to win the match when entering last.
The Undertaker’s character has changed both slightly and drastically at times. In addition to his dead man character, the Undertaker also portrayed the leader of the Ministry of Darkness and more radically, an American biker.
To say the Undertaker had an impact on the WWE product is an understatement. His 20-0 WrestleMania record will most likely never be broken. In addition to his WrestleMania record, a number of matches have been created in relation to the Undertaker and his gimmick. These matches include the casket, buried alive, hell in a cell, last right and inferno matches. No one will ever forget the Undertaker and his face turn in early 1992 was just the start of the future Hall of Famer’s legacy and one of the biggest and most significant face turns that certainly changed WWE history.
One of the best face turns in the last twenty years that changed WWE history occurred during the WrestleMania 13 match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bret the Hitman Hart.
At the conclusion of the match, Hart held Austin in his signature submission move, the sharpshooter, until Austin passed out from bleeding so much. After the match, Hart continued to assault Austin in what turned out to be a double turn. Austin became a fan favorite, while Hart became a villain.
Prior to the turn, Austin had been million-dollar champion, King of the Ring and cheated his way to a Royal Rumble match win. After the turn, Austin became a triple crown winner, winning the WWE Championship, Intercontinental Championship and World Tag Team Championship in addition to two more Royal Rumble match wins.
Austin’s turn was not a huge shock, with fans cheering for him ever since his famous Austin 3:16 speech. Austin’s character changed from when he was the Ringmaster in WWE, however just based on from the time of his face turn, his character did not change all that much.
Austin had one of the biggest impacts on WWE due to becoming a face. Everyone wanted some sort of Stone Cold Steve Austin merchandise.
This slide would not be complete without mentioning the impact Austin had on WWE’s flagship show, Raw, ushering in the attitude era and one of the best feuds in WWE history–versus Mr. McMahon. All of these attributes lead to Stone Cold Steve Austin’s face turn changing WWE history forever.
For the current face of WWE, John Cena actually did not accomplish much before his face turn in 2003. John Cena did not hold a championship or any other sort of accomplishment until he defeated the Big Show for the United States Championship at WrestleMania XX.
Cena certainly had the look to be a top star and WWE was in need of a new superstar, so it came as very little shock when Cena became a fan favorite for the second time in his WWE career.
John Cena’s character did change over the years. When Cena turned heel, he developed a rapper gimmick. However, as we see these days, Cena’s character is different. Cena emphasizes hustle, loyalty and respect. Even more recently, Cena promotes rising above hate as well as cancer.
This brings me to my final point—John Cena’s impact on the WWE product. There is no one in WWE whose merchandise sells more than John Cena's and there is no one else in WWE who the fans want to see more.
Don’t get me wrong—I am not a John Cena guy. However, I will not deny the existence of the huge fan base John Cena has. Also, don’t forget the amount of time and effort Cena puts in outside of WWE TV, such as starring in films, appearing on talk shows and, of course, the Make-A-Wish foundation. John Cena’s face turn in 2003 has led to one of the biggest impacts, if not the biggest impact, in WWE history.
Many people may criticize me for giving the number one to Cena over Austin, but I decided to do this based on the criteria of the ranking. In terms of accomplishments and character, Cena changed much more as a result of his face turn than Austin. Stone Cold Steve Austin certainly changed WWE history during the time and era he was in. The same can be said for John Cena. Cena is part of a completely different era through no fault of his own. It is just the way the business has gone.
With that said, what do you think of my list of the 10 best face turns that changed WWE history? What would your list look like? What are some other memorable face turns in WWE history?
Seth Guttenplan is a teacher by day, writer by night. In addition to being a Bleacher Report writer, Seth is the Monday Night Raw reviewer for CamelClutchBlog.com, and a host for ProWrestlingPowerhouse.com Radio. To read more from Seth, follow him on Twitter (@sethgutt) and visit http://guttwrenchpowerblog.com