Turning heel doesn’t always work. Tiffany takes a look at some times it did, and other times where it hasn’t.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself diving into the archives of the WWE Network and watching shows from the Territory days, back when faces were faces, heels were heels, kayfabe was alive and well, and the marks were in the majority. One thing I noticed was that when a top babyface turned heel or vice versa, it was usually for a reason and something usually came out of it, if not a title reign, then a run at the title. It was also used to refresh a character that seemed to be going nowhere. There was USU+ALLY a purpose and plan behind those changes…usually being the operative word.
Has that changed since those golden days?
Nowadays, any time a wrestler is perceived as getting stale, or just doesn’t seem to be doing anything, the IWC wants them to turn heel because heels get the best promos, and seem to be cooler, but I would argue that unless whoever is booking/writing has a definite plan for how they want things to go, and is willing to stick to it, turning a wrestler heel is basically pointless and the same can be said for turning a heel face.
Let’s look at some heel turns that worked and some that didn’t.
Why It Was Needed: By 1996, Hogan’s uber-good guy gimmick had pretty much run its course and his sports-entertainment style of performing was not working in WCW, which still retained its NWA/Southern-style wrestling way of performing. Plus, WCW was Ric Flair’s yard, and even though Hogan did win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, he was not the beloved Face That Runs The Place that he’d been in WWF.
Did It Work?: I would say it did. Hogan was in DESPERATE need of a new gimmick and embracing the dark side, after teasing it in 95, probably saved his career. It allowed the fans, who had gotten tired of Hogan’s gimmick, to openly boo him. In 1999, he would return to being the red and yellow babyface, and the fans loved it.
Why It Was Needed: To put it bluntly, the Rocky Maivia gimmick had fallen as flat as cheap champagne. In 1996, wrestling fans had seen Hulk Hogan turn heel, and wrestling was starting to get edgier, even if we weren’t fully into the Attitude Era just yet, so an 80s throwback was not going to work with 90s wrestling fans.
Did It Work?: Well, saying yes, would be a HUGE understatement. Rock’s career was made by ditching Rocky Maivia and becoming The Rock and the fans loved it because he could talk trash with the best of them and was more entertaining as a heel. Of course, Rock would turn face after about a year, but he was more of a tweener and his status with the fans meant that the fans still embraced him.
Stone Cold Steve Austin
Why It Was Needed: In my opinion, this wasn’t needed. Even after losing a year of his career to health problems, Austin was every bit as over as he’d been in 1999. I can see the argument that the Austin vs McMahon feud had run its course, but it seemed to be done more for shock value than a genuine plan.
Did It Work?: No. The fans didn’t want to boo Stone Cold Steve Austin, and even when he formed the Two Man Power Trip with Triple H, and it got over, the fans never really embraced it, even when Austin seemed to have been driven insane by his need to keep the WWF Championship.
Why It Was Needed: It’s hard to say. I wasn’t familiar with Guevara before AEW, but the promos he cut about being tired of hearing how full of potential he was, made him seem like the best kind of heel: A heel with an ax to grind. He was hungry and eager to prove himself and Cody being condescending, even if he didn’t mean to be, and getting the win, only seemed to fuel him.
Did It Work?: I would say so. Before audio of him saying some really appalling things about Sasha Banks, Guevara was easily one of the most entertaining parts of Inner Circle, and he and Jericho were a great tag team.
Why It Was Needed: Dean Ambrose had returned from a nearly nine month absence due to a torn triceps injury that lead to a bout with MRSA that nearly killed him with a new look and a more hard-nosed attitude, which caused clashes with Rollins and Reigns, who wanted their goofy Lunatic Fringe back. Plus, it could be argued that the funny, goofy Dean Ambrose had run its course.
Did It Work?: No, for several reasons. 1. Fans still loved Ambrose and had cheered the new attitude he’d come back with in July 2018. 2. The timing of the turn was TERRIBLE, Roman Reigns had just announced that he was taking a leave of absence due to a recurrence of the leukemia he’d fought in his twenties. Fans didn’t want to see the Shield completely shatter, but the higher ups in WWE decided to go ahead with it anyway. 3. No one seemed to have figured out how to do this turn right. Instead of Ambrose just being a badass, he was turned into a fussy germaphobe that got a shot in his ass on national TV and wore a gas mask to the ring.
Why It Was Needed: I can’t say that the turn was NEEDED, but it was clear that someone had decided that it was better to end the Shield right after their huge win over Evolution rather than let them risk going stale and left the fans wanting to see the Shield reunite.
His most recent heel turn was needed because the face run had gotten stale, and being a heel seems to suit Rollins more.
Did It Work?: Yes, in both cases. Seth Rollins was easily the most hated heel during both his heel runs. In 2014/15 and 2016, seeing the former rebel turn sell-out fighting against his rebellious former friend, made for great TV.
In his current run, Rollins has been able to show how much he’s grown as a character and embracing the fans’ dislike of him due to his opinions and almost constant push.
Why It Was Needed: After being a middle/low card character best known for being able to count to ten, Spears really needed a new gimmick to make people forget about the Perfect 10 and get to show his real in-ring abilities.
Did It Work?: Yes and no. Yes, Spears got a LOT of heat for attacking Cody, who had brought him in, though it could be said that Cody referring to Spears as a ‘good hand’, which is the wrestling equivalent of saying ‘he’s got a great personality’, was a good catalyst for turning a new leaf. However, Spears hasn’t been interesting enough, even with the legendary Tully Blanchard as his manager, to really go far with it.
Johnny Gargano and Candice LeRae
Why It Was Needed: I can’t say Gargano’s turn was needed, but LeRae had been suffering of a lack of direction, basically being relegated to the Big Sister of the NXT Women’s Division, while finding herself abandoned when she needed help.
Did It Work?: These two are an example of a heel turn not accomplishing much. After an initial hot moment, Gargano and LeRae are basically still where they were when they were both faces: Mid-Card and nowhere near the title picture. LeRae has managed to keep some of her heat, but it’s clear that there really are no plans to really use the turn to put her in line for a title shot.
Why It was Needed: Kai may have been a fan favorite, but she’s an immensely talented performer in a promotion full of them and she definitely could’ve used a fresher gimmick after being gone for so long and a run at the title.
Did It Work?: Much like LeRae, this heel run hasn’t done a lot for Kai. She’s got more heat, and is helping get Raquel Gonzalez over, but she’s basically still where she was as a babyface, which is very disappointing.
Why It Was Needed: While Baker was great as a babyface, the gimmick didn’t seem to suit her, especially after the LIT promo she cut on Bea Priestley after a botch by Priestley caused a concussion and complications that nearly cost Baker her wrestling and dental careers and seeing her get more and more annoyed at others getting title shots instead of her was fun.
Did It Work?: I would definitely say so. Baker has embraced being a heel and is clearly having a blast doing it. Even a leg injury hasn’t kept her from wreaking havoc on TV. Her feud with Big Swole, that was sidelined due to the Coronavirus outbreak, is a highlight of Dynamite.
Shawn Michaels (Rockers)
Why It Was Needed: It had been clear for awhile that HBK was the breakout star of the Rockers and it was time for him to go off on his own since it had become clear that WWF had no intention of putting the WWF Tag Team Championship Belts on the Rockers in a way that counted.
Did It Work?: Well, HBK is a two-time Hall of Famer, a multi-time champion, Mr. WrestleMania, and an inspiration to generations of fans, so…yeah, you could say that it worked.
Why It Was Needed: Despite easily being the most over babyface in the SmackDown Women’s Division, Lynch just couldn’t seem to get to the next level, mostly because WWE didn’t really seem to want to do anything with her over Charlotte Flair.
Did It Work?: Honestly, this is a tough one to call. Lynch turning on Charlotte Flair at SummerSlam 2018 actually made her even MORE popular than she had been before. So, in terms of a successful heel turn, the answer is ‘no’, in my opinion. However, in terms of reviving her career and making her into a STAR, the answer is a DEFINITE ‘yes’ as she was the face of WWE before taking time off to have her baby.
Why It Was Needed: Bayley was always really popular in NXT, where her kid-friendly gimmick was a huge hit, but it had fallen flat on the main roster where tweeners/heels like Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss were more popular.
Did It Work?: Oh yeah. It can’t be argued that heel!Bayley is WAY more interesting to watch than face!Bayley was, add in heel!Sasha Banks and you have the most entertaining pair on SmackDown right now.
Why It Was Needed: Even though Sasha is over no matter what she does, she seemed to struggle as a babyface before going back to being a heel, which she always excelled at.
Did It Work?: Hell yeah. Banks came back from her sabbatical last year, fully embracing her true form as a heel and getting Bayley to turn heel too has made them the highlight of Smackdown.
Why It Was Needed: In NXT, Alexa Bliss’ face character, sparkly, cute, fairy-ish, wasn’t getting her anywhere. She was in the mid-card and losing to any one of the Horsewomen.
Did It Work?: Bliss is definitely an example of someone really finding their stride as a heel character. As the vicious Goddess of WWE, she won both the SmackDown and RAW Women’s Titles multiple times and helped get Nia Jax and Ronda Rousey over as babyfaces. However, her more tweener run with Nikki Cross has been very entertaining.
These aren’t the only ones, of course, there have been TONS of turns over the years, many of them just by Big Show, but the one factor all the successful ones had, as I stated before, there was a plan in place for how it was going to go and the person doing the turning got something out of it. Just turning someone to refresh a stale gimmick isn’t enough, there needs to be a reason and there has to be a plan. This isn’t a strictly WWE thing, AEW has had some turns that really didn’t work out. The person turning also needs to FEEL it. If a wrestler is having fun being a heel, the audience will come around if they weren’t into it at first.
It can also be said that the same holds true for turning a heel face: there needs to be a plan in place or the fans will get bored of it and you’ll be right back where you started. Also, the wrestler needs to feel it or the fans won’t buy it. Just turning isn’t enough, for the wrestler or the fan.