“He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” – Edmund Burke
There are two types of people in the world…no really. Okay, that may be a little cliche, but there are those that love antagonists and those that love to hate antagonists. There’s nothing like a villain that’s just so dastardly, so evil, so manipulative, so….good. Antagonists thrive across our media whether in television, books, movies, and even professional wrestling. But just what is an antagonist? A simple google reveals “a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.” In the wrestling world the adversary is often the bad guy, or the heel.
The antagonist brings conflict to the protagonist and conflict is the basis for every plot. Without a heel persona in wrestling a match is pointless. The heel is meant to help the fans rally behind the face and bring about a story to the match and feud. One of the greatest heels in WWE has always been the authority (no, not the Authority), but Vince McMahon, the CEO and owner of the company. His classic feud with Steve Austin is regarded as one of the biggest feuds of all time and rides heavily on the emotional aspect of the boss versus the employee. That’s a feud everyone has felt and has an emotional connection to right off the bat. Watching Austin beat McMahon from pillar to post gave the viewer a fulfillment they always dreamed of doing themselves. Heels allow this emotional connection to take place.
But antagonists aren’t just heels and villanous enemies. They can come in many forms; friends, parents, nature, or even a person’s own self. So many of wrestlling’s feuds have started between tag partners or friends. They often give an invested emotional response from the start. How many people, if old enough, remember the Barbershop episode where Shawn Michaels put Marty Janetty through the glass? They were long time tag partners, not just in the WWE but prior. Partners who had come oh-so-close to winning the world tag titles back when titles didn’t change hands every other pay-per-view, back when pay-per-views weren’t every month even. It was a betrayal not only of a tag partner, but to loyal fans.
The most current iteration of that betrayal was Y2AJ. Although it wasn’t a long standing relationship, fans were invested after years of fantasy booking and dream teams of the two wrestlers. Even consider Seth Rollins betraying fellow SHIELD members Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose. The SHIELD feud alone has blistered the main event scene on many pay-per-views and Monday nights. And who could forget the classic Mega Powers, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, and the inevitable explosion and Wrestlemania V main event.
Man versus Nature is more relevant to novels and movies than wrestling typically, but it could be considered the nature of the business as an element. The idea of the Authority as a natural element is a physical emobidment of reality’s glass ceiling, in many instances. So many wrestlers battle against and attempt to break the glass ceiling, and the fans know the likelihood is minimum. The Damien Sandows and Zack Ryders who, even with fan support, just can’t seem to catch a break even when being pushed. It is the reality versus kayfabe narrative between wrestling and the fans that even transcends beyond entertainment. In literature the protagonist often battles the environment in a more direct manner, like in Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. (Spoiler alert) The Old Man battles a sword fish day and night out in the depths of the ocean alone and even after defeating the great fish he battles nature on his way home, only to arrive empty handed in his success. Compare that to the Yes Movement and Daniel Bryans run at the big leagues. A bitter sweet ending to a long journey.
There are still yet many other qualities to antagonist vs protagonist that I’ll save for future endeavors, like face versus face feuds and man versus self. All of these variations of the antagonist plays to the ultimate goal of fan appeal and draw. If we look back on such stellar wrestlers or groups like The Four Horsemen, The Fabulous Freebirds, Degeneration X, or the nWo, they were the business’s top antagonists. They made the faces better. The antagonists were so hated or held to such a high standard that the protagonists could only be heightened by defeating them. The Horsemen versus Sting. The nWo versus Sting and Goldberg, and even DDP. Degeneration X versus the Rock and Steve Austin. It has often been said by many, the greater the heel (the antagonist) the better the face (protagonist). And that is the pay off. Great antagonists in wrestling put asses in seats and they make the show worth watching because if it is one thing people love to do it is that they love to hate somebody worth hating.
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