How are we supposed to care about the battle between good and evil that plays out in the wrestling ring if we can't tell which is which?
This weekend’s “Clash of Champions” pay-per-view highlighted the fluidity of face/heel designations in the WWE this year. The A.J. Styles/Jinder Mahal match was one of the strongest because the face/heel roles were clearest, while the Shane McMahon/Daniel Bryan match that took place while Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura battled Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn was the hardest to parse because the roles are so unstable. Owens and Zayn are heels, but good guy GM and referee McMahon was clearly, obviously screwing them. Daniel Bryan’s quick count at the end of the match was a heel thing to do, but it and all of his actions in the ring including putting himself in the match earlier in the week were proved to be the right thing to do when McMahon stopped a three count at two to protect Orton and Nakamura.
When Charlotte Flair defended her women’s title against Natalya, the ring was surrounded by the Riott Squad, Tamina, Lana, Carmella and Naomi, only one of which was a face. Everybody fought everybody anyway, and it wasn’t clear that anyone in the four-team tag team match was a heel. Technically, the Usos and Rusev and Aiden English were heels against faces The New Day and Chad Gable and Sheldon Benjamin, but the Usos wrestle as faces, and Rusev was among the most over wrestlers of the night as people sang along to English’s “12 Days of Rusev.” When Big E of The New Day put Rusev in The Accolade, the crowd booed. A month or so ago, the WWE appeared to flirt with a heel turn for Gable, but Sunday night he was a suplex machine, one of the most dynamic forces in the ring, and the audience loved him.
The heel/face issues were underlined by videos last weekend of Chris Jericho destroying Kenny Omega after a New Japan match as a set-up to their upcoming match. In his case, there was confusion. Jericho talked tough but more importantly, he acted tough. He cheated. He was ruthless. He was merciless. He snuck up on Omega, laid him out, took his championship belt, used it to bust Omega open, then hammered the bloody wound. After leaving the ring, Jericho thought again and came back to beat on Omega some more. Nothing he did was clever, athletic or show-stopping. Jericho was simply punishing, and that’s key to being a heel. The Usos are always faces because they don’t take shortcuts in the ring, they don’t stall, and they’re not brutal. They remain as athletic and dynamic as heels as they were as faces, and because their boasts are witty, they’re not obnoxious or irritating either. On the other hand, The Miz is always a heel. His attitude is always harsh and insulting, and he never wrestles in a way that looks like he deserves the win. There was a time when only heels used submission holds because they are fundamentally humiliating. They force opponents to give up, but on Sunday night Charlotte Flair won with a Figure Eight on Natalya.
I assume the Bludgeon Brothers are supposed to be heels because Rowan cut a promo after they beat Breezango Sunday that promised pain and suffering, but they’re over with audiences because of their exaggerated wrestling style. The creativity that comes up with the idea for one brother to use the other as a weapon against opponents is face creativity.
Right now, Raw and Smackdown Live have far too many guys who rely on their promo work to define them, and the WWE creative team feed the confusion. Braun Strowman wrestles as a heel, but in a feud with Kane, he’s the face because he’s less brutal. Strowman probably would have been a heel for most of the year if Roman Reigns could get more over as a face, but the WWE made that harder by having Reigns retire The Undertaker last year at Wrestlemania. It’s only been in the last month that the anti-Roman chants have come to seem playful instead of genuine as he finally found a way to do promos that sounds genuine and likable.
The Jericho attack on Omega and press conference the next day illustrates a second point. Often the WWE works way too hard to find overly clever ways to get characters over as heels. The company tried to get Dolph Ziggler heat as the old school guy who believes in classic values instead of silly showmanship, but instead of sending him into the ring to decimate opponents like an old school badass, he spent almost a month mocking other wrestlers’ ring introductions in a way that left audiences quiet and confused.
Jericho’s rage at the press conference worked because he didn’t have a script. He had a character and one or two points to get across, and because he knew the character, he could credibly harangue reporters and seethe at Omega. If promos are skits are going to carry weight, they need to sound real, and real people don’t talk the way wrestlers do in the WWE.