For almost its entire existence, WWE has been a babyface-driven promotion. While every promotion had top babyfaces, most others would rotate in heel champions that the babyfaces would chase. A few, like Detroit Big Time Wrestling with The Sheik, were built around babyfaces trying to knock off a seemingly unbeatable top heel.
Not in WWE. There are a few exceptions (most notably Billy Graham, Yokozuna and Triple H), but the company has been built around unbeatable babyfaces going back to even before they adopted the WWWF name in 1964.
Before we rattle off the list, here are a few notes about honorable mentions and other omissions:
- Andre the Giant was only a full-time babyface in the WWF for a few years in the mid-'80s, as he was a touring attraction before the national expansion.
- Even though it was effectively the same promotion, I'm using the adoption of of the WWWF name in 1963 as the cutoff, so Antonino Rocca and Miguel Perez aren't listed.
- Junkyard Dog was a shell of his former self when he arrived in the WWF in 1984, battling a number of personal problems. He was still an entertaining character, but he had been the most charismatic babyface in the world a few years earlier. JYD was awesome, but not so much in the WWF.
- Similarly, a lot of other major stars ended up in WWE at some point or another but don't belong on a WWE-centric list for a variety of reasons, whether it's Jerry Lawler, Kerry Von Erich, Jimmy Snuka, El Hijo Del Santo, Ricky Morton, Edouard Carpentier or others along those lines. Others, like Ted DiBiase, spent most of their time in WWE as heels.
Many of the above would have spots on business-wide lists but just don't fit on one that's WWE-centric.
Now, let's start the actual countdown.
Pros: Longest reigning WWE Champion not named Bruno Sammartino. Was a great draw as champion and super over at the time.
Cons: How much was him and how much was the machine behind him? If he was so popular, why was he able to disappear so easily and why did no other promoters have any success using him? You can't leave him off a WWE-centric list, but he'd come nowhere close to the top 20 if we were ranking the best babyfaces in the history of pro wrestling.
Bob Backlund is an odd figure in wrestling history. When Vince McMahon Sr. was looking for a replacement for Bruno Sammartino, he wanted to go in a different direction from the ethnic heroes that had dominated the promotion going back to the team of Antonino Rocca and Miguel Perez. Instead, he had a "Jack Brisco type" in mind, an all-American boy with an amateur wrestling pedigree.
Well, he wasn't getting Jack Brisco, so he made some phone calls, and St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick recommended Backlund, who was a relative unknown. He was groomed for about a year before beating "Superstar" Billy Graham to win what is now the WWE Championship in early 1978. He held it for close to six years, lost it to the Iron Sheik in December 1983 so it could be transitioned to Hulk Hogan a month later, and...well, that was about it.
He stayed in the WWF for several months as a mid-carder with no direction and left when he refused to turn heel. He took some dates for Pro Wrestling USA and northeast independent promotions like ICW, but he was done as a full-time wrestler and was out of the business by the end of 1985. He had a handful of matches afterwards, but until his 1992 return to WWE, that was about it.
Pros: He's the most over wrestler in the company right now, a great in-ring babyface and has turned into a very good talker.
Cons: Booking could hold him back. We're still at the point where it's not clear how much the fans who don't go to live events buy him as a top guy.
From an in-ring work perspective, it's hard to argue with him belonging. He's been one of the best wrestlers in the world for most of his career and has adapted to the WWE style brilliantly, with a great frenetic comeback that's the highlight of most WWE shows nowadays. Live crowds are clearly into his wrestling on top of loving his...is it still a catchphrase if it's just one word?
Anyway, it still remains to be seen just how effective he is on the business side, though. After a big bump last year, SummerSlam buys were down in spite of what was arguably a much stronger double main event this year with Bryan in the WWE Championship match. It's certainly not the only measure of how good a babyface is, but it's the only one we have right now that measures paying customers.
He's both gained (usurping John Cena) and lost (constant beat-downs going into Night of Champions) since then, so time will tell.
Pros: Became an iconic babyface during his feud with the Iron Sheik in 1984, to the point that the feud was outdrawing shows headline by Hulk Hogan's title defenses at times.
Cons: He left the company after the Iron Sheik feud.
Sgt. Slaughter is one of my favorite pro wrestlers, a fantastic in-ring performer, a great interview, a great character...just awesome. After being a heel since the inception of the gimmick in 1980, he turned babyface in 1984 to defend America against the evil Iron Sheik. Their matches are some of the greatest in WWE history, with the blowoff, a boot camp match at Madison Square Garden, being the very best match the company had in the '80s.
Over the next few months he continued to face Sheik in tag matches, and then, all of a sudden, he was gone. The real reason is likely a mix of various different disputes with the company, usually attributed to Slaughter making his own deal with Hasbro to be part of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon series and toy line.
I'd love to rank Sgt. Slaughter higher, but by the time he was a babyface in WWE again, he was past his expiration date.
Pros: Great in-ring work characterized by theatrical selling. Had a number of great main events in different facets of the WWE style.
Cons: Bad booking and presentation made him alienate teenage and adult male fans. Very hit or miss on promos. Business went down noticeably with him as champion.
Once Shawn Michaels turned babyface in 1995, it was obvious that he was next in line to be long-term babyface champion as the face of the company. Unfortunately for him, it didn't go that way.
Why he flopped as WWE Champion during his initial run in 1996 is actually fairly simple to explain: Vince McMahon had no experience with booking the "heartthrob" type of top babyface, and as a result, he didn't adapt well to Michaels. Sure, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan had large female fan bases, but it wasn't central to their characters like it was with Michaels.
Jerry Jarrett's Memphis-based territory was booked around handsome young men that drew young women to the matches for decades. The key is that you can't turn off male fans with these guys, so you need a way to make them fans of the teenybopper types atop the cards. Jarrett did this with himself, Bill Dundee, Tommy Rich and especially the Fabulous Ones (who were also endorsed by area legend Jackie Fargo) by putting them in bloody brawls where they proved themselves to be more than just pretty faces.
With Michaels, it went too far in the other direction. When he got to go toe to toe with the heels, like in his matches with Mankind and Diesel (the latter is embedded above), it was perfect. The rest of the time (or the vast majority of that title reign), he was doing strip teases (sometimes joined by small children and other times going too far), alleged ex-lovers were talking about how amazing he was in bed, the announcers all fawned over him and his dance moves, etc.
Once he retired and was established as a "legend" for his 2002 return, he was golden, but his legacy as champion was badly damaged.
Pros: Great in-ring wrestler with awesome comebacks. Underrated draw, as his feuds with Greg Valentine and Randy Savage did great business, with the former feud reviving the dead Detroit market.
Cons: Not a great, polished talker, but his natural sincerity shined through. Was never close to being "the guy." Aside from some foreign tours he headlined, he was nothing more than a utility player after mid-1988.
Tito Santana was a great career babyface. At the risk of invoking ethnic stereotypes that were used in commentary on his matches for years, he always had great fire and made awesome comebacks when his temper flared. A great wrestler who was a key part of WWE's national expansion, and for whatever reason, he doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves, even though he's remembered fondly.
If you remember Tito Santana as "just a guy," check out any of his matches against Randy Savage (like the one I embedded), Greg Valentine, Ron Bass, Mr. Perfect or with Rick Martel against The Islanders. WWE definitely should have waited longer to phase him out of a featured position as he still had a lot left to offer.
Pros: The greatest "gimmick" worker in wrestling history and one of the very best big men. Promo and in-ring style are tailor-made for WWE. The WrestleMania streak has taken on a life of its own (especially since the matches have all been great since 2007) to the point he's now the most enduring legend in WWE.
Cons: Not a traditionally great babyface in the sense it was so hard to get the heat in his matches for years. Never an especially strong promo.
The Undertaker was designed as a scary, nightmarish heel, but he was such a force of nature that it was only natural for him to be turned babyface after less than a year and a half, and he didn't look back for close to a decade. That heel run was fairly short, and he's had another decade as a top babyface.
It sounds completely insane, but when WWE's popularity exploded in Europe in the early '90s, the two wrestlers who got the most ink in the Germany teeny-bopper magazines (similar to Tiger Beat in the USA) were Bret Hart and The Undertaker. Bret Hart made sense, as that was a big part of his appeal. The zombified funeral director who was painted an artificial shade of pale being a teen idol wasn't, isn't and probably never will be something that human beings who aren't teenage girls will be able to reconcile.
Anyway...yes, he was that popular, and that was also on top of not exactly being a traditional babyface in terms of his ring-work, either. It was only once he finally started being treated like more of a serious wrestler around 1997 that he was able to pull that off. Still, outside of WrestleMania, his finest in-ring moment is the Hell in a Cell match with Shawn Michaels, where he embraced the gimmick and stalked his prey for an amazing half hour.
Pros: Great in-ring performer. Weird charisma and unconventional looks that make him maybe the most popular modern babyface among female fans. Devoted fanbase adores him and is very willing to pay to see him main event, both on WWE PPV events and at TNA house shows.
Cons: Never a good interview. Can be inconsistent in the ring, especially if he's having personal problems. Sometimes alienates male fans.
It's easy to see why Jeff Hardy is popular. It's impossible to describe why he's as popular as he is.
He just has "it." He's super charismatic, but in a weird way. He's one of the least likely legitimate WWE main-eventers in company history, but he totally earned it.
Pros: Great promos and ring psychology. Transitioned well from using his bumping as being something that made his character a masochist to it being something that made him sympathetic. Great everyman quality.
Cons: Wild brawling style could get repetitive, he had mixed luck working a more confined match.
He went from being a disfigured psychopath to a lovable Muppet type character and somehow made it work. Think about that for a second.
Mick Foley's greatest gift was just getting fans to adore him. He was not a traditional babyface in looks or in-ring style, but he had an amazing ability to get sympathy, although he often went too far. Still, it wasn't all big bumps, his selling in the ring, his promos and character work outside of it...all of it crafted a weirdly lovable brute.
Pros: Acerbic promo style makes him a breath of fresh air in a place where John Cena has been the face of the company for eight years. Expressive face, great theatrical selling. Could probably run for mayor in Chicago.
Cons: Better and more interesting as a heel.
Unlike with Savage, Piper and Undertaker, CM Punk is clearly a better heel than a babyface. He just happens to be, at least in the ring, more of a great traditional babyface when he's in that role. His sarcastic promos are the least patterned or monotonous of any modern WWE babyface, and he's a much more "modern" top star than John Cena is, especially since Cena often comes off phony. For all of his faults, Punk always comes off as genuine, and if he's a crabby babyface as a result, so be it.
Pros: Amazing promos. Incredible worker who could sell better than the vast majority of pro wrestlers, period.
Cons: Arguably even better as a heel. There was enough implied domestic abuse in his heel character to make him vaguely creepy as a babyface, even if nobody seemed to care at the time.
Randy Savage became a babyface for the same reasons as The Undertaker: He was too awesome for the fans not to cheer him. Just watch any of his interviews or even his appearances on The Arsenio Hall Show. He was a force of nature who became his character like no wrestler before or since.
Even better, he was incredible at the type of dramatic selling that makes a good babyface a great one. Check out the above match with Bret Hart: He does such a great job of selling that he broke his ankle, even taking his boot off, that the match becomes uncomfortable to watch even knowing it's a work.
Pros: One of the greatest talkers in wrestling history. Criminally underrated in-ring worker.
Cons: He was even better as a heel, at least in WWE.
Like Randy Savage and The Undertaker, he was too good to stay a heel forever, and I don't want to keep repeating myself. Unlike them, he never turned back, and I think he suffered for it. As good as Piper was during his late '80s runs, he was clearly better as a heel in his first few years of his WWE run, and he was sad to watch as a babyface when he got older.
Pros: Witty with an amazing command of promos, had great matches, sold very theatrically.
Cons: Not really a traditional babyface in any way other than his in-ring style, didn't cut money promos.
More than anyone else, The Rock turned babyface because he was cool, and he didn't really change anything: He was still kind of an ass. Aside from his in-ring work, where he had great timing and fire on his comebacks, you can't point to anything other than being charismatic and cool that made fans want to cheer him.
It didn't really matter in the end, but strictly on "merit," I don't know if he'd belong on a list like this.
Pros: Incredibly charismatic. Great delivery on promos. Hero to women and children. Gets a passionate reaction from everyone. Long resume of great, dramatic main event matches.
Cons: The adult male fans despise him. Content of his promos is usually awful. Still awkward in the ring after over eight years on top.
Cue divisive comments.
Yeah, he's physically awkward in the ring in spite of his athleticism and experience. Sure, half of the audience hates him. And of course, his promos seem designed to only appeal to his youngest fans.
Both in spite of and because of all this, he's been the biggest star in pro wrestling for the last several years. The adult male audience turning on him made him a bigger star, while kowtowing to children is the best way to sell his merchandise.
As for why he's still so mechanically iffy in the ring when he's had so many great matches while working on top with great wrestlers for eight years? I honestly have no idea.
Pros: Legendary high flyer who adjusted his style perfectly to fit into WWE and eased the wear and tear on his knees. Incredible at selling a beating. WWE's key star in Hispanic markets.
Cons: Weak interviews. Any flaw in booking undermines him due to his size.
I know that some fans have turned on Rey Mysterio. They hate the 619 and how contrived it often looks when he gets opponents into position for it.
Get over it. He's one of the best babyface wrestlers of all time, one of the best high flyers and one of the best workers period. Nobody else in modern WWE is on his level when it comes to eliciting sympathy. While he toned down his style from what he did in WCW and Mexico, he's an even better all-around performer. He was always well-rounded (to the point he was underrated), but he took his selling and ring psychology to another level in WWE. Aside from Ricky Steamboat and Ricky Morton, I can't think of a better in-ring babyface.
WWE didn't even want him that badly when they signed him in 2002, to the point that even with Eddie Guerrero and others giving glowing recommendations, he was signed to an entry level guarantee along the lines of what a Zack Ryder would get now. He got over instantly and was soon one of the most popular wrestlers in the company, especially since WWE at least undid WCW's mistakes and put him back under a mask, which would be the key to how he was merchandised.
While he's cooled off in recent years due to injury layoffs, it needs to be made clear just how much he's meant to WWE. His feud with Eddie Guerrero on SmackDown in 2005 gained viewers to the degree that Austin-McMahon segments did during the height of the Attitude Era. He's consistently been one of the biggest merchandise sellers in the company since his arrival, which is as good a barometer as any of who's an individual draw when the WWE brand itself is so big.
Perhaps most importantly, he's their key into Latin America, and they haven't come close to finding a replacement. His injuries coincided with WWE cooling off significantly in Mexico.
Pros: Great worker and a solid, believable interview who helped WWE expand internationally while getting away from the steroid scandals. Popular enough internationally to turn heel in the USA while still being a babyface everywhere else. Was popular before he had a push.
Cons: Nothing glaring.
Without Bret Hart ready to get the WWE Championship in 1992, I have no idea what happens to WWE. They wanted a babyface champion. Randy Savage had recently flopped as champion. The most pushed babyfaces at the moment, Davey Boy Smith and Ultimate Warrior, were too jacked up for the image the company wanted to project. If Hart wasn't there, who would have been the next best choice?
- Mr. Perfect was brought back at the last minute a few weeks later when Smith and Warrior were fired. Besides, he was coming back from a terrible back injury and turned out to not be the same.
- Bob Backlund had just come back, but he was being used as a prelim wrestler and his only qualifications were being the most clean-living man in wrestling and a former champion a decade earlier when the company was completely different.
- Tito Santana had been repackaged as El Matador with the idea he'd be a bigger draw in Spain and Mexico, but, like Backlund, he was being used underneath.
Hart had just main evented a PPV event, had proven himself to be popular overseas and was easily the best and most relevant candidate at the time. From there, his popularity only went up.
He just had a different type of appeal than all of his peers: The reason for his original babyface turn and aborted singles push in 1988 was that he got more fan mail than Hulk Hogan.
Pros: One of the most talented and versatile wrestlers of his generation. Turned into an incredible all-around performer who was one of the best and most charismatic talkers in pro wrestling. Fans cheered at least two of his heel turns.
Cons: Personal and medical issues, as well as extenuating circumstances, kept him from reaching his true potential.
In 2004, Eddie Guerrero was poised to become the biggest star in pro wrestling. In terms of segment to segment shifts, he was a ratings draw on the level of Steve Austin. In markets with heavy Hispanic populations, which SmackDown was specializing in, he had turned into a major draw. He dethroned Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and was constantly referred to by the WWE office as "the Latino Steve Austin."
The amazing thing about Eddie Guerrero was that it was all genuine. He was almost universally referred to as the nicest man in wrestling: As much as other wrestlers would get out of their Make a Wish Foundation appearances, Eddie would give the kids his phone number and stay in touch with them.
Unfortunately for his career, reality intervened. Lesnar quit the company. Kurt Angle had to take months off to repair his neck. The remaining potentially marketable heels were drafted to Raw. John Layfield was repackaged as top heel, and while his performances were great, most fans weren't ready for him and SmackDown business tanked.
A recovering addict who was always on edge, Eddie took responsibility for the decline, and it ate at him to the point the decision was made to take the title off of him. He spent the next several months as a midcarder, reinvented himself as a heel, did a "fake" babyface turn where he was as over as ever and declared he was ready to be champion again. Batista was injured, so it looked like it would happen.
He died the day of that TV taping, his heart damaged from years of abuse.
Pros: The best in-ring babyface in WWE history and probably No. 2 in all of pro wrestling after Ricky Morton. Very effective in angles even if he wasn't a great promo.
Cons: Issues with Vince McMahon cut off what was to be his greatest run before it really got started.
Nobody could sell like Ricky Steamboat. Even if you think Ricky Morton was better at it, they had their own styles. Morton was better at facial expressions, while Steamboat was a master at using body language to sell his injuries to the back row of the arena.
He was an absolute master in the ring, and while he had his shortcomings (the failed "family man" gimmick that alienated adult fans and some spotty periods as a draw), they happened outside of WWE. He wasn't an especially dynamic talker, but he was solid and serious enough to sell tickets, and his work brought the fans back.
His WWE career is a "what if," though. In 1987 at WrestleMania 3, he beat Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship in the greatest match of the early WrestleManias. He was poised for a long run when he asked for a small amount of time off coinciding with the birth of his son. Instead, he dropped the title quickly to the Honky Tonk Man and soon took months off. When he returned, his spot was gone.
If he didn't have his issues with management, he could have made a case to be at the very top of this list.
Pros: One of the five biggest stars in wrestling history. Was a great interview and a very good brawler in his prime.
Cons: Booking/presentation, promos and ring work all got steadily worse. Character started to turn into a selfish primadonna as early as 1986 in the Paul Orndorff feud and was off the rails by 1993.
There's no denying that Hulk Hogan in the early to mid-80s deserved to be the biggest star in pro wrestling. His charisma was a level above everyone else, his interviews were great and he had reliably good bloody brawl main events. There was nobody else that Vince McMahon could have built around as top star while being nearly as successful.
His image started to crack in 1986 when Paul Orndorff turned on him. The angle was basically that Hogan had been dodging his calls, so he got really angry. Wouldn't you be? It started the slow fall into the image of a gladhanding phony, which got worse as the announcers defended his cheating in matches and reached the point of no return when he appeared to bogart the WWE Championship from Bret Hart in 1993. It got even worse in WCW.
If Hogan was (both in real life and in character) more self-aware, I think fans wouldn't be nearly as negative on him as they are, and the amazing thing is they were harder on him before his WWE return in 2002. More people would remember the charismatic force of nature and not the goofy cartoon character.
Pros: Was WWE Champion twice for a combined 12 years. Beloved like few other wrestlers. A legitimate class act in real life whose sincerity carried his promos.
Cons: In-ring work was dumbed down compared to what he did outside of the northeast. Hard to directly compare him to modern national stars since it's hard to imagine someone being so beloved on that scale.
For all intents and purposes, Bruno Sammartino was the WWWF and the WWWF was Bruno Sammartino. He won the title weeks after the name was adopted and the territory's success was tied to him. He was so big that he set box office records against Crusher Verdu, an legendarily awful wrestler who basically did nothing else of note in the business.
While the WWWF's location meant he wasn't a mainstream local celebrity on the level of some of the top stars in the south, he had an incredible connection with the fans. Some of it was being Italian in New York, Philadelphia, etc, but that wasn't close to all of it. He was a humble, real life superhero who slayed giants and monsters every month.
I just wish he got a better opportunity to show how good he was. The standard of WWWF wrestling in the '60s and '70s was abysmal, and that's putting it nicely. Bruno had pull, and he specifically requested a match with his successor Pedro Morales to show Vince McMahon Sr. that a technical babyface match full of high spots could draw, but he didn't really get to take his ideals further. The best indication of what he was actually capable of is from when he'd go to Japan.
Younger fans who know he's a legend acknowledge he's a legend, but I wonder if he'd fare better among them if there was more to his matches that exist on videotape. He doesn't translate as well as say, a Jerry Lawler, Mr. Wrestling II, Dusty Rhodes, Eddie Graham, Dory Funk Jr. or other relative contemporaries, but it doesn't have anything to do with how good he was.
Pros: Great wrestler, by many standards he's the most popular wrestler in the history of the business.
Cons: Terrible role model, but that was the point. His peak as a star coincided with his body falling apart.
Steve Austin is simultaneously a wrestler whose work ages great and a wrestler who's very much of his time. While he'd get over no matter what, I'm not sure he'd become a giant crossover star a few years earlier or later.
He was a heel who didn't just turn babyface because he was great, but turned babyface because he was a great heel. Everything he did as a heel was just amplified even more once he turned. Whether it was swearing, drinking, attacking wrestlers and announcers or other misdeeds, he did it all a lot more once he became the fans' hero. Well, and he also started driving a lot of wacky vehicles like zamboni machines and monster trucks.
A few years earlier, and I think he'd just be a heel. A great heel who would elevate his opponents, and maybe even a heel who would noticeably affect business, but still a heel. Five or six years later, while the fans would be more welcoming, he'd need some adjustments to avoid coming off like a Texan pro wrestler version of Fred Durst.
I know people complain about WWE being too tame, but I'm not sure how well an ungrateful, binge-drinking, anti-social babyface would come off nowadays if he wasn't an established legend. CM Punk may be anti-social, but he's a relatable kind of anti-social. Daniel Bryan is a hard-working everyman. John Cena is a superhero. Austin would be too harsh the same way The Rock started to come off a bit dated as he appeared more regularly this year.
But enough with the negativity. Steve Austin was an amazing professional wrestler, and if you didn't see him live at the peak of his powers, you missed out. Right as he was breaking out, I saw him stun Chyna at Madison Square Garden to one of the loudest pops I've ever heard. Less than a year later at SummerSlam '98 in the same building, his entrance along got an even louder reaction.
A lot of wrestlers were incredibly popular on the national level, but few were beloved, and none more than Steve Austin. There was an investment in him that wasn't there for Hulk Hogan and The Rock, an electricity I've rarely felt at a wrestling event since.