The state of pro wrestling today is two-fold. On one hand it’s the greatest time to be a wrestling fan. There are so many wrestling promotions in the world today that there’s a little bit of something for everyone. At the same time, some of the most accessible wrestling out there is putting on the worst product possible. There’s many factors that go into this, but it all boils down to what brought wrestling to success to begin with.
Pro wrestling started in the carnivals. The wrestling business still uses carny talk, too. Yeah, that’s right you dirty mark. As Al Snow explains it, a mark is not good or bad, it’s just a term used. It’s how someone was marked at the carnival to let the other workers know who had money. Why would that be important? Wrestling itself is a con. That’s not a bad thing. Everyone knows wrestling is fake, but the idea is to get the audience to suspend disbelief.
To do that requires a lot of work. It’s all about storytelling. Every good story has protagonists and antagonists. As we all know those are the faces and heels in wrestling. Most recently there’s been some confusion over what all this means. Especially when it comes to entertainers like Roman Reigns. In his most recent interview with UK Daily Express he asks “…aren’t I already a heel? If I garnered that reaction, what’s the point?” So what is the point?
The point is making money. A novel or movie can tell a story and be philosophical and experimental in regard to protagonists and antagonists. Wrestling can’t, or at least it shouldn’t. There are certain formulas in wrestling that work and are followed. They’re followed the same way other forms of storytelling are followed; they work. Disney follows the Hero’s Journey style of storytelling because it works. Movies have plot points and midpoints at certain time frames because it works. Matches follow a formula; baby face shine, heel heat, baby face comeback, because it works.
So why does there need to be a good guy and a bad guy? As Raven says, a wrestler has to be “loved or hated” and they have to “tug on heart strings.” There has to be an emotional response. Roman definitely gets an emotional response and he recognizes that. He is booed out of every building. So if Roman is a heel then why does he wrestle a face’s match?
When a face is wrestling a match their number one priority is to get sympathy. If we look at the most recent Samoa Joe versus Reigns match at Backlash, Joe is attempting to get Reigns sympathy by beating the dog piss out of him. The problem is that the fans despise Roman Reigns. Roman can’t get sympathy in any arena in the world. If Reigns can’t get sympathy then there’s no fiery comeback. Instead, he’s just going through the stages without any fan emotional attachment.
Part of this issue is that Roman exhibits qualities that aren’t becoming of a face. As Jim Cornette says, “What characteristics in a human being would be disliked? Be that.” Roman Reigns comes out and he’s cocky. He says the ring is “his yard”, but the fans feels he hasn’t proved it. He beat the Undertaker, one of the biggest face legends possible today, and rubs it in the fans faces. He’s even guilty of not following through on his promises, as Samoa Joe reminded fans.
Demolition’s Ax, Bill Eadie, has said, “I got some advice from not only Boris Malenko, but early in my career, Wahoo MacDaniel, who was a big baby face at the time, said “Be careful what you say, because people are listening. If you’re a baby face you can’t make outlandish statements and not them up. You’ll lose face.”
In writing this would be called an unreliable narrator. It’s used to mislead the audience intentionally and can be a great tool, but it’s hard to apply it to wrestling in this manner. A face needs to be trusted by the audience. There needs to be an emotional attachment so the audience is sympathetic towards them. Faces do not need heel heat. So if, from a match perspective, you’re despised, you can’t get sympathy from the audience. It’s sad that WWE is pushing this mentality with Roman. Maybe it’s being used as an excuse because they don’t want to change plans. But, from my perspective, it’s not a vocal minority booing when every Monday and every Sunday the fans erupt at the mere mention of his name.
Heels are hated. There’s a massive emotional attachment to hating heels. In the territory days, promoters either wanted a beloved baby face or a heel so hated that people would pay to see them beat up. This is beyond lacking in WWE today. Especially when the fans hate most is booked as a top baby face, but believes himself heel. And it’s not just Roman Reigns WWE is doing this with. They want Rusev to be heel very, very bad, despite Rusev Day being so over. The rumored plans to break up Rusev Day may blow up in their face and we’ll have just the opposite of the Reigns problem, a cheered heel no matter what.
The biggest issue with the modern product, of WWE at least, is that the audience isn’t seen as part of the product. They are fundamentally still seen as marks. Vince believes he can con a modern, smarter audience. And sure, some of the audience will buy the snake oil. There are many people that will always go the route for the miracle fix. This All Natural Herb Heals Cancer! Eventually, every snake oil selling con man is exposed. As Kevin Sullivan said, “Now everybody is a connoisseur of wrestling and they’re not going to take you shoving people down their throat.”
At the end of the day it shouldn’t matter if someone is face or heel as long as they sell tickets. I would pay more to see a heel Reigns get his ass beat than what’s currently dished out. And today’s real marks are the “hardcore fans”, that vocal minority, that pays $9.99 a month to watch every pay per view, NXT, 205 Live, and the vast library of wrestling shows. You know, the fans WWE says doesn’t matter. After all, would a carny go after the Wal-Mart average shopper with $30 bucks in their wallet or the guy that can afford to pay ten dollars for a subscription, sixty dollars for two shirts, ten dollars for a toy, fifteen dollars for a AJ Styles cup, and another five bucks for Superstar Ice Cream? I know I’d mark the guy with one-hundred plus dollars in his wallet.
But maybe that’s the biggest con, making the marks think their opinions don’t matter.
Tags: AJ Styles, all in, balor, Brock Lesnar, Cena, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, faces, Flair, heels, Hogan, Jericho, John Cena, Raw, Rollins, Roman Reigns, smackdown, wrestling, WWE