Why It's Harder Than Ever for Heels to Get Heat in Modern-Day WWE and AEW

Philip LindseyContributor IAugust 12, 2021

Photo credit: All Elite Wrestling

It's hard to create believable and likable good guys in professional wrestling because some fans are so cynical.

However, one could argue it's even more difficult to produce a consistent villain who viewers don't eventually grow to love. This is an issue that has forced some savvy performers to push the envelope as much as possible to get a negative reaction.

After all, some people subscribe to the school of thought that there is no such thing as a bad response when crowd participation is key. By extension, many wrestlers have expressed their belief that they're not doing well if their live audience doesn't react at all. But even some of the most masterful storytellers can't justify some tactics to generate heat in this time when moments can live on forever on the internet.

Even more, fans are much smarter today. They understand when someone is just doing something in character to encourage them to jeer. As a result, enthusiasts won't accept attempts that appear contrived.

For example, no one bought it when Becky Lynch transformed into The Man and cut a cookie-cutter promo stating, "You people never believed in me." The former Raw women's champion was just too popular at that point.


The Case Against AEW's Max Caster

This raises the question: Where does the line stop when wrestlers are trying to push fans' buttons? It's a relevant query as Max Caster recently sparked outrage online after he delivered a handful of distasteful rap lyrics on the Aug. 3 episode of AEW Dark.

During his routine performance as he headed to the ring, the 32-year-old referenced Simone Biles' struggles with her mental health and a widely reported rape case surrounding the Duke lacrosse team from 2006, in which three players were charged with raping Crystal Mangum before being found not guilty. Mangum maintained she was sexually assaulted in a memoir published after the charges were dropped (h/t Boston.com).

Caster is no stranger to controversy, as his character and edgy freestyle bars have offended viewers in the past. Yes, one could argue that's the point of his shtick. However, mentioning the U.S. Olympic gold medalist and making light of sexual assault was a step too far, and the consequences were swift. As a result, AEW removed every trace of the segment from YouTube and Twitter, and other indie promotions have removed him from upcoming shows.

It's unclear how The Acclaimed will proceed as a tag team, which is a shame because it seemed like the duo had loads of potential. Nevertheless, one would have to imagine they won't be able to continue without some checks and balances. 

It opens up a constructive dialogue about whether it's possible to toe the line and still be an effective heel today.

Many proponents of Caster's most recent freestyle would argue we saw much worse during The Attitude Era. Additionally, many diehard hip-hop listeners can attest that his punchlines were tame in comparison to real rap lyrics. Moreover, battle rappers focus on outrageous jabs to elicit a response, so this all fits his established character.

Although those points are valid, it would be foolish to ignore just how much the world has changed. Rappers and stand-up comedians have all felt the ire of the viewing audience that isn't as entertained by some low-brow material or offensive humor.

To that end, everyone has to adapt to the times. What worked in the early 1990s just won't work today, and that's not a bad thing.


Wrestling Must Evolve with the Times

A vocal section of pop culture may maintain that everyone is getting too sensitive, but all things change for the better in time. We live in a world where people can be more outspoken about racism and stand up to sexism and misogyny. That's an advancement. So, performers should be willing to be more empathetic.

If being more cognizant of how your words affect someone else hinders your ability to entertain a larger crowd, then aren't you selling yourself short? Truly great comedians and artists will always rise to the top because talent can't be denied. Cheap heat and grasping for low-hanging fruit is lazy because, frankly, anyone can produce that kind of material. In that regard, innovative wrestlers will always find a creative way to reach a crowd because that's part of the job.

Roman Reigns is currently one of the best villains in the industry and doesn't have to resort to crass subject matter. He knows how to work within the confines of modern-day wrestling.

MJF can, arguably, cross the line on occasion, but he isn't merely revered because of his unflinching approach. On the contrary, he is also one of the most compelling and convincing talkers on the AEW roster.  

Sami Zayn is one of the most socially conscious and outspoken advocates for human rights in WWE, but he found a way to be an interesting heel. Jay White is another great example of a wrestler whose expertise is to get under the skin of fans without using dated references.

That doesn't mean all wrestlers should bow to the whims of the online community, but there is a way to maneuver in the current landscape. The Acclaimed are a funny act, and to minimize their ability to connect with fans as just edgy humor does them a disservice.

If Caster can't find a way to grow, that doesn't say anything about the state of wrestling; it says everything about him and some of the stubborn performers and historians lingering in the past.

Wrestling can progress beyond the problematic elements in its past, and the best entertainers will be able to do so as well.