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Posted in: Doctor's Orders
Doctor's Orders: The Lost Art of the Babyface
By The Doc
Sep 6, 2012 - 10:16:59 PM

Working on a not yet titled monster of a writing project, I sat down today to watch The Rock vs. Kurt Angle from No Way Out eleven years ago. To put the match into proper context and to set the tone for the point that I wish to make today, I want you to keep in mind that Rock-Angle was the main-event on the same card as the classic Triple H vs. Steve Austin 3 Stages of Hell match that many feel was the best match of the Attitude era. Austin-Trips was the last match in a rivalry with a lot of heated history and the fans responded accordingly. Rock-Angle was forced to follow it, both in quality and crowd response. It accomplished each of its pursuits, drawing every bit of life left in the Las Vegas crowd and delivering an excellent match in its own right. Subtract one botched kick out, either by referee Hebner or our Olympic Hero, and Rock-Angle was nearly as good as the all-time classic in a completely different way.

So, my point in discussing this match is to indicate just how over The Rock was as the top babyface. When he won back the title that he’d lost to Angle several months prior, the people went wild. They seemed downright elated that the Great One had emerged victorious, placing him on a collision course with the Texas Rattlesnake at Wrestlemania X-Seven. You know, in the eleven years since, I cannot recall the crowd being that invested in a “good guy” character. During my first decade and a half of watching wrestling, I can recall numerous beloved babyfaces. From Hulk to Sting to Macho Man to Bret to Austin to Rock, there were a lot of top notch heroes back in the day. We’ve seen crowds go bananas for someone winning a match in the last ten years, but I am struggling to recall an instance where that happened outside of said superstar’s hometown (i.e. CM Punk in Chicago, The Rock in Miami). I’m talking about a crowd that is so universally excited about a protagonist winning a title (or just a match) from (or against) an antagonist that they can hardly stand it; where there’s that buzz in the air – that electricity that you can cut with a figurative knife.

When I think back to all the nights I’ve spent in the last eleven years watching live events on PPV, I cannot think of a time where there has been a babyface personality – someone that I was supposed to like by design – that I sat there on pins and needles desperate to see grab that brass ring. Eddie Guerrero and persona non grata were the two closest examples, but that had less to do with them and more to do with what they stood for. I certainly cannot compare them to what I witnessed with The Rock in Las Vegas in 2001 or the others prior to. Every superstar that I’ve wanted to see take a World Championship has been a heel. It was Edge or Randy Orton or CM Punk or, now, Dolph Ziggler.

Let’s dive deeper…

The Rock had periods where everyone loved him, but he also had the same number of periods where he got the Attitude era equivalent of Cena’s reactions. When the latter happened, the WWE turned him heel. Around and around they’d go with Rock’s character, dependent upon what the crowd had to say. Nowadays, the crowd being vocal against a top star is not taken into consideration. Cena gets the loudest heel reaction of anyone in the business, but they refuse to turn him. They don’t have a Steve Austin to play the white knight role, so Cena can’t go dark like they could with Rock. Or I guess that’s the line of thinking. Unfortunately, I think that this has virtually taken away the long held tradition in wrestling of hero vs. villain or some variable take on it.

Since 2006, the vocal minority (and sometimes majority) of the fans have wanted Cena to embrace his evil side, whether he has one in real life or not. The reluctance to turn him has had a trickledown effect. Now, it doesn’t really matter that much if a guy plays a heel or babyface character. CM Punk is the top heel in the WWE right now, but still routinely gets massive babyface reactions from the adult males. Conversely, John Cena is the top babyface, but has gotten booed like crazy around the country for over half a decade. Because of that, I’ve written about doing away with the concept of good vs. bad altogether and just make everyone “real.” If the WWE isn’t going to let the people dictate the direction of its characters and is intent on ignoring what the people want, in that regard, then who cares? Just let everyone be themselves, allow survival of the fittest take over, and those that get over stay and the ones that don’t go away, with a focus on ensuring that the guys that audiences cheer be painted in a favorable shade.

But is that really what is best for the wrestling business?

After watching The Rock vs. Angle and seeing how great it was to sit back and watch a match with clearly defined roles, perhaps the traditional way just needs to find a new take on the hero character. Clearly, people that watch wrestling do not want to fully get behind a guy like John Cena. As good as he is, he’s too good. Plus, he’s past the point of no return. He gets a mixed reaction now as much because it’s the trendy thing to do at wrestling shows as it is that people genuinely dislike him. Frankly, there’s not much to genuinely dislike. He’s like Rock, in that regard…or at least Attitude era Rock that was a super nice guy that made the wrestling business look good with his combination of GQ looks and every skill one could ask for from a professional wrestler. Cena has those same qualities, but wrestling tends to attract a class of people that views those qualities as unrelatable. That’s why so many flocked to Austin, who was conceivably the most relatable character to the average wrestling fan that has ever lived.

A study of Wrestlemania era history shows that the babyfaces that almost universally connected with audiences either embody the qualities of their society or just have a likeable quality about them that’s magnetic. Hulk Hogan nicely fit the eighties. The adults were baby boomers who grew up in the post-war society where clear lines were drawn between good and evil, right and wrong and that’s what they taught their kids. Hulkamania ran wild on that. Macho Man was crazy charismatic and unique. Stone Cold in the nineties fit the changes in society that saw kids of the hippies follow the lead of their parents and question everything that had once been considered normal and conventional. The Rock was crazy charismatic and unique.

I don’t think that there is a guy like Austin on the current roster. CM Punk has often drawn comparisons, but a closer look at the two of them makes one ponder why that would be. As much as I like Punk, that guy is not relatable but to the whiny folks that think everyone owes them something. Rather than work to get what they want, many would rather complain about how things are set up for them to be unable to achieve. A guy like Punk resonates with that crowd, but he’s not everybody. He’s not capable of striking it huge as a babyface. He is different than what we’re used to seeing on WWE TV, but that’s not most of us. That’s not an “every” man. Punk is a natural antagonist. His very belief system is wildly unpopular, especially amongst the general wrestling fan population above the age of 16.

I can think of a current star or two that fit the mold of having a likeable magnetism about them. Cena certainly fits that mold, but he’ll never have a chance to win over those that have turned away from him until he tries and/or they let him try.

What would a babyface have to do, today, to repeat the success of what Hogan and Austin once did in their day? What is it, then, that would be reflective of today’s society?

I’m not sure that there’s a definitive answer. When I think of our society, what immediately jumps to mind is the word “polarized.” We’re entering into the big political season here in the States and every electoral season is a reminder of the ridiculous split between the left wing and the right wing. Liberal vs. Conservative. Lost amidst it all is truth, glossed over by talking heads who seem unaware that their words are mostly bullshit and live and die by the passion with which they say them. Life isn’t black and white, but that’s the way the left-right battle portrays it.

I’m convinced that the real person to lead our country out of its current state will be the one that finally breaks through that monotony and represents the shades of gray that are reflective of reality. That’s why I think that wrestling is ripe for a “reality era.” It's time to embrace the many intricate wrinkles that life offers. Hulkamania and Austin 3:16 each banked on opposite ends of the spectrum. Pop culture in the eighties demanded heroism, morals, and idealism, so Hogan provided it. The nineties made it cool to be bad. Austin was perfect heel for the 80s, but was the great anti-hero of the nineties. Today, it’s neither cool to be bad nor is society demanding heroics. Somewhere in the broad spectrum of what lies in between all of that sits wrestling’s next great babyface. It will be someone that is neither too good nor too bad. It will be someone that has good looks but doesn’t necessarily have “the look.” It cannot be someone that is too polarizing in their general outlook on life.

I envision someone who is authentic, creative, a great wrestler, an engaging talker, well-built but not massive, and with business smarts and a good work ethic. Imagine a late 80s Ric Flair combined with an early 2000s Triple H. I think Punk is destined to be that guy’s greatest rival.

It’s too exceptional a situation to properly gauge how such a superstar will emerge, but I do hope that some wildly popular, indisputable good guy will come about someday soon. I miss nights like that one in February 2001.

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