The pro wrestling anti-hero, once a staple of every major wrestling promotion, is fading from WWE as the company appears to be circling back to a time before attitude was king.
Heroes of the squared circles were once patriots and trustworthy athletes with great heart. Eventually, that dynamic wasn't satisfying enough. Wrestling, like comic books and movies, began to see the benefit of heroes who weren't upstanding citizens.
Flawed heroes came into vogue. Men whose morals were loose were among the most popular wrestlers in the business.
WWE has taken steps away from that movement recently.
In a cyclical journey, wrestling's heroes are becoming more respectable again. Steve Austin and The Sandman followed Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan, but John Cena and Big E Langston are replacing the anti-heroes of the ring.
CM Punk, often compared to Austin, is still pushing buttons and caring little about upsetting authority figures. One has to wonder if he will be followed by more men like himself or if cleaner, less complicated heroes like Cena and Langston are what WWE will be presenting next.
In the early days of pro wrestling, the storytelling was often simple. The good American battling the evil foreigner was a common narrative.
Lou Thesz, for example, was a clean-cut, rule-abiding wrestler. Baron Von Raschke, on the other side of the equation, was a goose-stepping Nazi character who growled at children and took liberties with the rule book whenever possible.
It was easy to point out heroes and villains.
The Attitude Era didn't invent babyfaces with edge to them, though. A veteran of the '50s and '60s, Dick the Bruiser could work as a face despite coming across like some caged animal tearing through the ropes. He was unruly, unstable and gritty, but a hero nonetheless.
Bruiser Brody often played a heel, but, depending on the territory, was a face as well.
The chain-swinging wild man wasn't wrestling's typical hero. His charisma was magnetic enough to get people to root for him, though. He was one of the more prominent examples of a lovable monster in wrestling.
Despite having qualities best suited for a villain opposite the all-American hero, Brody thrived as either a face or a heel.
He and Bruiser were certainly not the only examples of anti-heroes in the time before Austin and Punk, but men like these were often outnumbered by babyfaces more in the wholesome vein.
The Von Erichs, Bruno Sammartino and Bobo Brazil were the kind of more pure heroes that populated the business, but change was coming. In the '80s, that change came in the form of the Road Warriors.
Wearing spiked shoulder pads and face paint while tearing through their opposition, Hawk and Animal looked like they belonged in some horror movie chasing teenagers. They were booked as the good guys eventually, though.
Their popularity demanded it.
Against The Russians and The Four Horsemen, the Road Warriors brawled to the sound of roaring cheers. There was a darkness about them not often associated with heroes of the past. In the following decade, an emerging wrestling company borrowed that element from them.
ECW: Blurred Lines, Pushed Envelopes
When fans think of ECW, they so often think of cracked tables, leaps from balconies and sexy, violent content. That revolutionary company also changed the way we see wrestling characters as well.
There was no Hogan equivalent on the roster.
The babyfaces were edgier than fans had seen before. Take The Sandman, for example.
Here was a snarling, beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking warrior whose weapon of choice was a Kendo stick (known then as the "Singapore cane"). He was as ruthless and merciless as a villain, but the ECW fans cheered for him.
If Hogan was wrestling's version of Superman, righteous, pure and just, then Sandman was The Punisher, a man for whom his own moral code trumped the law.
What ECW seemed to do was tap into the ideas that the bad guys are cool and make many of their heroes hard to distinguish from the bad guys.
Fans rooted for rule breakers and foul-mouthed rebels, for whoever earned their respect regardless of their scruples. When the ass-kicker Taz battled the fearless maniac Sabu, it wasn't the classic battle of good versus evil—it was a showcase of two gladiators.
Other companies, namely WCW and WWE, took notice.
A shift was in the works, one where a black and white world wasn't entertaining enough, where the audience leaned toward darker heroes.
WWE shot Austin to the center of the spotlight, creating wrestling's most famous anti-hero.
Austin began as a heel. Based on his anti-authority attitude and his coarse ways, that's not surprising. The fans, though, began to root for him.
Rather than fight his rising popularity, WWE made him a babyface without taking away an ounce of his hardness.
After showing the extent of his grit by refusing to tap out to Bret Hart's Sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13, "Stone Cold" soon became the face of the company. That role had previously been occupied by Sammartino, Backlund, Hogan and Hart himself. All those men were the pure kind of hero, the kind of man kids and grandmas could get behind.
Austin was different.
He chugged beer in the ring, liberally used his middle fingers and showed no respect for the man who signed his checks, Vince McMahon. Instead, McMahon became his archenemy and the audience could live out the fantasy of telling their boss to go to hell through Austin's actions.
The entire Attitude Era borrowed ECW's blurred lines.
Mankind, a demented man who smiled through his own pain, became a fan favorite. D-Generation X would have been seen as despicable by other generations for their vulgar jokes, crotch chops and disrespectful attitude, but fans in the late '90s adored them.
WWE wasn't the only company replacing the squeaky clean hero with a new model. WCW continued the trend as well.
The Man in the Rafters
Describe the version of Sting that battled the nWo and it sounds like one is talking about a villain. He lurked in the shadows, carried around a baseball bat and had no issue working outside the rules if necessary.
The shift from the blonde, exuberant Sting to this one inspired by the movie The Crow is a microcosm of the changes in wrestling at the time.
WCW realized that the bad boys of nWo were the hottest thing going and so fresh-faced, grinning babyfaces went the way of the dodo bird. Leather jackets and bad attitudes become commonplace for both heroes and villains.
Sting was the fitting rival for the lawless thugs that comprised the nWo. It wouldn't have felt right to send the old Sting or some other traditional babyface after them. A tougher, edgier foe required a tougher, edger hero.
One of WCW's workhorses carried on the anti-hero tradition once he made it to WWE.
Lying, Cheating, Stealing
Wrestling by the book says that babyfaces play by the rules and heels resort to cheating, but Eddie Guerrero never read the book apparently.
Guerrero used steel chairs when the referee wasn't looking, held onto tights for leverage and had no issues with stealing in order to better his position.
His infectious charisma had him get away that behavior and still get cheered. He made his actions seem playful rather than immoral.
That wouldn't have worked in the '50s. Fans would have howled at him for breaking rules so blatantly. The crowds watching wrestling in the '00s, though, were used to heroes with flaws and babyfaces who borrowed from the heel playbook.
WWE has since tried to have Sheamus portray a similar character. The Irish powerhouse stole Alberto Del Rio's car and tried to play it off as a prank and not a felony.
The difference between Guerrero and Sheamus' anti-hero antics is that the latter is more goofy. Guerrero, despite all the smiling and joking, came off as a dangerous man with loose morals and a big heart. Sheamus has morphed too far into comic relief (as showcased in the series of 1-800-Fella segments).
While Cena is the kind of character to color within the lines, Punk has shown himself to be the kind of babyface character to scribble wherever he chooses.
Although he opposed Cena, WWE's top face, in 2011, Punk wasn't a villain. He was just a man tired of waiting around for opportunity. He was defiant and outspoken.
The fans clung to him that summer.
When he spoke ill of the company he worked for and the man who ran that company live on the air, fans were whisked back to memories of Austin barking at Mr. McMahon. Punk said and did whatever he wanted and that spoke to the audience.
While Austin had an archenemy worthy of his ire, Punk had to settle for the ineffectual John Laurinaitis, Kevin Nash and a smattering of other opposition. The fire of his anti-establishment momentum faded.
A heel turn was the only option.
Punk has since gone from villainy back to his version of heroism, but one has to wonder if edgy men like him are soon to be a rarity in favor of more Cena-type characters.
Today and Tomorrow
ECW's prime, The Attitude Era, the Monday Night Wars and the Ruthless Aggression Era all featured raunchiness, darkness and a distaste for all things politically correct.
WWE is a different beast now. It's programming is rated PG and is as family friendly as the days of Hogan's time on top. There isn't a true rival to test the sports entertainment giant either.
TNA is essentially a collection of anti-heroes. That company has toyed with the concept of faces and heels and instead presented characters who don't fit comfortably in either category.
AJ Styles, for example, was recently playing the kind of unprincipled, rugged character one might find in the pages of Sin City. He was a dark lone wolf and he wasn't alone.
TNA serves as a contrast to the glossier product WWE is putting out, even if its ratings and attendance aren't high enough to keep up with its competitor financially. It's just not successful enough right now to push WWE to doing anything differently.
WWE is moving away from the darkness of the late '90s and early '00s and adding more lightheartedness than some fans can stand.
The current roster of heroes includes the Superman-like Cena, Langston (who has so far been a straightforward good guy), the crowd-pleasing Usos and Kofi Kingston, the kind of guy one takes home to dinner.
Unless WWE faces more serious competition from a company filled with anti-heroes, it has little incentive to stray away from Boy Scouts in wrestling boots. Enough of the paying audience is rooting for guys like Cena that the next Sandman, the next Austin or the next Sting isn't likely to appear for a long while.