An Ode to the Heel Turn

Yes, we know wrestling is predetermined.  No, the moves are not fake. Friend of The Geek Mark Poa has been watching wrestling since the 80s and has admitted he prefers watching people fake fight each other than hurt each other for real ("Sorry, MMA and boxing!").  As a wrestling mark (oooh, insider lingo!), he likes to over-analyze these fake battles for their theatrics and performance aspects. He also loves reading and listening to wrestlers' travel stories.  The only place he attempted wrestling moves, though, is through computer games.


A general rule of pro wrestling is to cheer for the good guys beating up the bad guys. We should cheer when Hulk Hogan defeats Andre the Giant with a bodyslam, or give support to the Ultimate Warrior to survive his encounter with the diabolical Undertaker.  But there’s something to be said about how the "heels" (wrestling lingo for the 'bad guys') can entertain you and make you hate them. 

Some of the greatest heels have made it an art form:  Ravishing Rick Rude can make you so disgusted that you wish the good guy punches him in the balls for real, The Undertaker makes kids hide behind their sofas, and devious managers like Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and Mr. Fuji can event transfer your hatred to their wards.  Great heels help elevate a matchup by raising the stakes and making you pay to see the good guys beat them up.

But ever so often, a good guy cheats to win, or betrays a friend, and what we get is the classic example of a heel turn. A well-done heel turn is pretty rare, but there were a few individuals who managed to pull off heel turns I would consider works of art.

Bret “The Hitman” Hart
Bret Hart billed himself as “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.” As the main champion during WWE’s New Generation era, The Hitman was a friend to everyone, especially to kids.  Who didn’t want a pair of those Hitman shades he gave out in his entrance?  But when he came back in 1996 after an eight-month hiatus, an amazing feud happened between Bret and the up-and-coming "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

It started as a standard good vs evil feud, but the crowd started to cheer the anti-hero Steve Austin!  Bret started to show he was personally affected by this, like getting mad, complaining, whining about fairness...culminating in Wrestlemania 13, where the two amazing wrestlers executed a double-turn:  Steve Austin became the guy who did not quit, Bret became the guy who bitterly tried to break his opponent’s legs.

Bret continued to rant about the win, insulting the Americans who cheered for Austin, saying the fans that used to support him now turned on him.  Bret’s turn to the dark side was amazing because he showed how he can use his character’s background and history and, without changing a lot of what was fundamental about his persona, became the hated heel of the time.  He was able to say “I didn’t change, it was you people who changed!” with firm conviction.   It was amazing to watch him ride the wave of fans’ love for antiheroes and use that to cement his heel persona.

Bonus Points: This storyline even resulted in the reunion of the Hart Foundation, who became heels in the United States, but heroes in other countries. To my knowledge, this was the only wrestling faction that was able to do this.  

Sami Zayn
Sami Zayn had a plucky, underdog persona that made him likeable.  As the heart and guts of NXT, he remained a proud good guy well into his WWE main roster run.

But in the 2017 Hell in the Cell, Sami Zayn helped his long-time friend and arch-nemesis Kevin Owens to defeat Shane McMahon.  Sami justified the act as an act of justice against the corrupt administration.  The most annoying thing?  A lot of times he complained, Sami was right: he’s been overlooked for opportunities, given unfair challenges to surmount, and been singled out by the managers.  He also slowly retired his crowd-pleasing moves... transforming into a more cowardly, “safe” persona.  The turn was so effective that Sami, despite being a humble human being in real life, is more readily remembered as a heel nowadays.

Backstage news and interviews with Sami seem to point to Vince McMahon as the one who pushed for his heel turn, after allegedly finding him annoying.  Who knew the man was a genius?

Bonus Points:  Sami Zayn was able to use his upbeat theme song in both his face and heel personas.  Seeing it in person live, I wondered why they didn’t change this to match his heel persona. But the same dance moves, mannerisms, and facial expressions he had (now exaggerated to an annoying degree) added to the heel look even more.

The NEW Daniel Bryan
Daniel Bryan came back in 2018 from a near career ending injury to a hero’s welcome, with crowds of fans eagerly supporting one of the most inspiring returns in the past decade. And rather than ride the wave of goodwill, he went and did a perfect reinvention of his persona. 

After Daniel Bryan shocked everyone by winning the WWE title from AJ Styles by cheating, the NEW Daniel Bryan further cemented his heel persona by ramping up his own environmental and anti-consumerism beliefs to rile up the crowd.  The extra touch here is that people who’ve seen Daniel Bryan in the reality shows Total Divas and Total Bellas know that this reflected his real-life beliefs.  It was a great blending of multiple levels of reality. 

Daniel also kept adding new things to his heel persona:  an enforcer in Eric Rowan, switching to black trunks (because he’s EVIL now), and heel promos against consumerism and big burgers.  Also, he emphasized that he’s the NEW Daniel Bryan;  the name change is the icing on the cake.  The arrogant NEW Daniel Bryan thus became the perfect heel foil for the KofiMania story:  with Kofi Kingston being under-estimated and held down, the NEW Daniel Bryan started referring to Kofi as a “B-plus player,” calling back to when he received those criticisms during his Wrestlemania 30 championship run, further establishing the hypocrisy of the character.

While his run was short, the NEW Daniel Bryan was an amazing example of how reinvention is key to wrestlers’ longevity:  rather than be satisfied with the hero’s welcome, Daniel Bryan challenged himself and helped elevate several of his peers.

Bonus Points:  That short-lived custom belt that was made from natural eco-friendly materials… simply beautiful!  I still want one.

As seemingly the female equivalent of the child-friendly John Cena, Bayley was another wrestler I thought would never turn heel, but she surprised a lot of people.

Starting with her 2019 Money in the Bank win over Charlotte for the Smackdown Women’s title, Bayley started to show signs of being more brutal.  Over the next few weeks, when she defended her title from Ember Moon and helped Sasha Banks beat down Becky Lynch, she started to exhibit more anger and ruthlessness.

Bayley then made significant changes to her hair, her gear, her entrance, her promo style, even her manner of speaking, turning from a kid-friendly, “aw shucks” ring persona into the physical manifestation of the “I want to see your manager!” annoying Karen meme.  When she partnered with prominent and long-time heel “The Boss” Sasha Banks, many expected her to be the "sidekick" to Sasha.  Instead, Bayley continued to take the lead and proved to be annoying and effective heel, leading to her regaining both the Smackdown titles and the tag title belts.  #BayleyDosStraps

Bayley’s heel turn is a great example of a complete reinvention of a character.  Sometimes, it takes a full change and complete commitment to the wrestler’s new persona to make sure the heel turn sticks and becomes successful.

Bonus Points:  You would think Bayley murdering her inflatable buddies would look cheesy. But it was so surreal and funny that it cemented her heel turn further!

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