World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly known as WWF) has quite a storied history. The champions over the years have usually kept some balance of heel and face alignments. Basically if the WWE champion and Tag Team Champions were face, then the Intercontinental champion and Women’s champion would be heel. It was a way to ensure that even if the babyfaces weren’t triumphing in one area at a given time then there was someone else on the roster that people could cheer for who was also champion. More and more, WWE seems to be moving away from that balance and towards a heel-heavy show. 2017 is indeed the year of the heel.
In all fairness, I was reading an article on another wrestling website and they were discussing the current champions and they made the statement that out of all WWE’s current champions, only one is a true babyface – Naomi, Smackdown Women’s Champion. I pondered for a moment and then realized this was true. Just a quick rundown so you know I am talking sense.
Universal Champion – Brock Lesnar, unaligned badass force of nature bordering on face
Women’s Champion – Alexa Bliss, heel
Intercontinental Champion – The Miz, heel
Tag Team Champions – Sheamus and Cesaro, heel
Cruiserweight Champion – Neville, heel (even if TJP wins tonight, he is also heel)
WWE Champion – Jinder Mahal, heel
Women’s Champion – Naomi, true face
United States Champion – Kevin Owens, heel
Tag Team Champions – Usos, heel
Men’s Champion – Bobby Roode, heel
Women’s Champion – Asuka, unaligned badass force of nature bordering on heel
Tag Team Champions – Authors of Pain, heel
UK Champion – Pete Dunne, (I honestly don’t know)
Just take a look at that list. Even if you argue that Brock is a face, that is still 11 of the 13 champions in today’s WWE that are heel. When you consider that Brock Lesnar and Asuka are so monstrous that they are without alignment, you are basically looking at one, all of one, pure babyface champion in Naomi.
(I will be honest with you, I totally wrote that list and first paragraph thinking Randy was still WWE champion and forgetting there was a UK champion. I don’t know if that is a failure on my part or on WWE’s, but since I’m the one writing this, I blame WWE.)
Now, I have been watching wrestling for a long time and outside of a few times when heel stables took over the roster for brief periods, there has never been this kind of disparity in the alignments of champions on the roster. So while there may be times when factions like D-Generation X held most of the titles at the same time, these runs were usually short-lived and they served a greater purpose of creating massive heat for the group and making way for babyfaces to get that heat upon taking some of the gold away. In other words, in the brief moments then there was such a disparity it had a purpose. In looking at today’s situation though, it seems to lack the same purpose.
How did we get here?
Let’s rewind to December 2016. Smackdown Live held TLC 2016. I remember as me and my buddies watched the show making note that it seemed that a heel won every match. At the end of the night it proved true, a heel won every single match but one that night. Don’t believe me? Here are the match results from December 4, 2016:
Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton defeated Heath Slater and Rhyno for the SmackDown Tag Team Championship
Nikki Bella defeated Carmella in a No DQ match
The Miz retained the Intercontinental Championship against Dolph Ziggler in a ladder match
Baron Corbin defeated Kalisto in a Chairs match
Alexa Bliss defeated Becky Lynch for the SmackDown Women’s Championship in a Tables match
AJ Styles defeated Dean Ambrose in TLC match to retain the WWE World Championship
So on a card that had seven matches, six of them were won by heels. Going further, if you eliminate John Cena’s and Goldberg’s equally brief last title runs, and Bayley’s title run, all of the titles in WWE have been held primarily by heels for the better part of the last year. Yes, you had Slater and Rhyno here and Sasha there, but KO, Charlotte, Jericho (Fall 2016) , Styles, Bray Wyatt, Alexa Bliss, the Wyatt Family, New Day, Sheamus and Cesaro, The Club, Seth Rollins (summer 2016), HHH (Mania 2016) – the last calendar year has been littered with more heel champions, and more extended heel champion runs than at any point in recent memory.
When you look at TLC 2016 in particular, however, you can see a clear marker of a time in WWE where there is an increasing number of heel champions and lack of balance in the alignment of its champions. This presents a very interesting case study.
All heels/faces are not created equal
One might argue, that even though there are so many heel champions right now, some of them are more “heel” than heel. What do I mean by that? Take Kevin Owens for example. Kevin Owens is nominally a heel – meaning WWE has positioned him in a manner that makes him an antagonist. He bears all of the traits of a heel – cheats to win, executes massive beatdowns on babyface stars, fights against nominally and genuine babyface characters (Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, Chris Jericho and other), and is generally an egotistical guy. But, and this is a big one, Kevin Owens is cheered vociferously in a manner that would make one think he is actually a babyface. Listen to this reaction:
You might say that things like this have been happening in wrestling since the Attitude Era, but there has never been such a tremendous amount of love shown to such a wide number of heels in WWE. When AJ Styles was in the height of his heel run last year, he was cheered. When Bray won the WWE championship earlier this year as a heel, the crowd chanted “You deserve it.” When HHH beat the holy hell out of Roman Reigns last year on Raw, fans cheered. Clearly, we live in a time where the fans have decided to flip the bird at WWE’s desired alignments and cheer and boo as they see fit.
Roman Reigns is the prime example on the face side of the coin. Roman Reigns has been aligned as a face since the SHIELD split in the summer of 2014. He received the appropriate reactions as a face for the first few months after the split, but right around Royal Rumble 2015 was when the shift happened. WWE foolishly kept Daniel Bryan out of the Rumble that year and Roman Reigns won to setup the much expected (though not wanted after this point) match with Brock Lesnar. Combine the fact that everyone wanted to see Daniel Bryan back in the main event after injury derailed his 2014 title run with the fact that WWE did not serve Roman well in the build to the match with Lesnar and the WWE Universe all but turned heel on Roman Reigns. From that point until now, barring a few weeks respite here and there, Roman Reigns has been public enemy number one to the WWE Universe while still being nominally a “babyface”. He has feuded with heels, played the face in peril in both singles and tag matches, and taken a whole lot of cut hip while still winning most of his matches – which only enraged fans more. This all culminated with the fans at the post-Mania Raw literally cussing out Reigns and demanding that he, in their own words, “go away.” This was one year removed from a chorus of boos after he beat HHH for the WWE title at last year’s Mania. There aren’t many other faces, if any, in WWE that get that type of opposite reaction – even Cena hate has thawed in recent years. So where does that leave the WWE?
WWE truly wants to be Post-Heel/Face
As you navigate the wrestling internet, you may have seen more and more comments in the past year or two about Vince saying that the WWE exists in a post-face/heel world. One can imagine that due to the boom in the Attitude Era that was led and guided by two guys who were either anti-hero (Steve Austin) or awesome on either side of the fence (The Rock) Vince is convinced that those alignments aren’t necessary and the product needs more gray instead of black and white. The challenge that arises out of this particular viewpoint, is that these blurred lines often lead to confusion for some fans – and confusion ain’t good. Granted, while WWE has tried to still somewhat align characters to one dynamic or the other in a lot of cases, their lack of heeding fan responses has led to some awkward situations. See Roman Reigns winning the WWE championship last year.
WWE, as I have outlined recently, has been hesitant to the point of abject stupidity in turning Reigns heel. They have likewise hesitated in turning KO face. Both guys have done all they can at this juncture in their current alignments and could both benefit from realignment. Most fans want desperately to cheer KO, the same way that they wanted to cheer AJ and he eventually returned to playing a face. In much the same way, most of the audience wants to boo Roman now, as a proper heel, so that they can get back around to cheering for him in another few months when the stench of WWE’s force-fed machine wears off.
WWE will continue to offer their position because they believe the rhetoric that any reaction is good. So as long as fans keep booing Roman and cheering KO, regardless of their storyline alignment, WWE is happy. It will only be when the crowd goes silent to Roman that a shift may even be considered. WWE may still follow the tried and true formula of waiting for a heel to get so undeniably popular that they are forced to turn them face in certain scenarios – see Alexa Bliss in a few months – but it is their stubbornness in regards to certain characters and this almost unbelievable shift towards heel champions that will remain puzzling in the interim.