A Wrestling Fan

"Wrestling fans want to watch a wrestling program with wrestlers who wrestle."
— Jim Cornette

Talking about wrestling to non-wrestling fans is tough. Trying to do so makes you realize exactly how "niche" wrestling really is. But I'll try my best to convey my thoughts about the last few months of watching professional wrestling and I'll do it as succinctly and as coherently as I can.


The Heel Turn

(A section from the forthcoming The Name of the Game is Wrestling. Part of The Big Book of Little Games, The Name of the Game is Wrestling is a professional wrestling roleplaying game (for smarks). Written by myself and Dan "The Polish Powerhouse" Waszkiewicz and will be released in September.)

(For those not in the know, in wrestling, "babyfaces" are the good wrestlers and "heels" are the evil wrestlers. This chapter deals with the psychology of "the turn," which is how you transform a fan favorite into someone the fans absolutely hate.)

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Turning a babyface into a heel is a lot easier than turning a heel into a babyface. All you have to do is find another babyface in the company—someone the fans absolutely love—and have the guy you want to turn betray him and beat the crap out of him. Nobody likes a bully and nobody likes a traitor. That’s why you make our new heel betray his friends and bully the audience.

But if you really want to get a heel over with the crowd, you have to set it up right. If you spend months setting it up, if you treat the turn like a real story. Let me give you a couple of real examples.

Zbyszko vs. Samartino
Larry Zbyszko was a young babyface who was trained by “the living legend of wrestling,” Bruno Samartino. And that wasn’t any hype, either. Bruno was beloved by fans. He was a solid worker and keen on wrestling psychology. Zbyszko was promoted as “the only wrestler ever trained by Samartino,” but despite that, or perhaps because of it, Zbyszko could never get out of Samartino’s shadow. For months, he tried, but Samartino’s legend was too great. So, the pupil challenged the teacher to a match, going so far to even threaten to retire if his mentor did not accept the challenge. Samartino accepted and the match was on.

During the match, everything Zbyszco tried was countered by his mentor. And when Samartino got an advantage, he quit it. When he put Zbyszco into a armbar, he broke the hold. When he caught Zbyszco in a bear hug, he released it. When he met Zbyszco in a test of strength, he stepped back, breaking the grasp.

As the match progressed, Zbyszco became more and more frustrated. When he put Samartino in his finisher, the abdominal stretch, it looked like the student may beat the master… but Samartino broke the hold, frustrating his student even more.

Finally, Samartino broke a hold and Zbyszco fell through the ropes to the floor. Zbyszco was hot. And when Samartino held the ropes open for him, Zbyszco took a cheap shot and downed his mentor. Then, the punches started throwing. Cheap shot after cheap shot. That’s when Zbyszco got a chair…

Zbyszco left Samartino in the middle of the ring in a pool of his own blood. And Larry Zbyszco, in one match, became the hottest heel in the territory. Zbyszko was so hated by the territories fans, his car was vandalized multiple times, his taxis were overturned, he was assaulted by fans and, one night, was even stabbed.

The program went on to culminate in Madison Square Garden with a classic match that had the audience cheering and booing for a straight twenty minutes.

The Big Turn of 1980

The same year Bruno and Larry started their feud, a little further down south, another classic program was about to pay off. A year before, one of the hottest feuds in the Georgia territory was Ole Anderson (the heel) and Dusty Rhodes (the biggest face). The feud ended with a match that left Dusty bloody and beaten. He cut a promo promising, “This will never be over! It will never be over!”

Over the course of the year, Anderson made a face turn. He was such a hated villain that nobody trusted him, but he ran in to help faces in peril, fought old allies in brutal matches and did his best to prove that he had changed his ways. For a year, Anderson was a face.

A year into Anderson’s face turn, he and Rhodes became a tag team against the Masked Assassins. A special referee, Anderson’s old tag team partner Ivan Koloff, was put in place. It seemed the odds were against Ole and Dusty. But that’s exactly how Anderson and Rhodes wanted it. The match was in a cage—to keep any outside interference. And it was inside that cage that Anderson’s revenge finally came to fruition.

When the moment was right, when an injured Rhodes finally got the “hot tag,” and Anderson stepped into the ring… Anderson started stomping on Rhodes.

When the Masked Assassins and Koloff saw what was happening, they both stood back in shock. And then, they joined in. Wrestlers tried to run in to help Rhodes, climbing the cage, but the Assassins knocked them all back down to the floor while Koloff and Anderson worked over the American Dream. Eventually, the faces broke through the cage, but the damage had already been done.

The next episode of Georgia Championship Wrestling was devoted entirely to the turn. Anderson sold it like prime real estate. Whenever a wrestler entered the interview area (with the legendary Gordon Solie), they had something to say about it.

The turn was one of the most memorable wrestling moments in my memory. I remember going to school on Monday and every single boy in the sixth grade was talking about it. We talked about it all week. We couldn’t wait until Saturday to find out what would happen next.

As a side note, I have to admit, I was bullied a lot while I was in Georgia. I was small. I was from a state above the Mason Dixon line. I was incredibly shy. And watching someone from my own home state, Ole Anderson, the leader of “the Minnesota Wrecking Crew,” get the better of the Southern hero, Dusty Rhodes, was more than a little cathartic. While the other kids talked about how Anderson was going to get what he deserved, I was secretly cheering for him. It was the first time I ever found myself rooting for a heel. It was an important part of my childhood that stuck with me for the rest of my life.

From “Squared Circle” (from The Big Book of Little Games)

Booking a Program
Wrestling promotions in the current era (right around 1980) stay in business with a standard model. Each promotion has an hour or two of television on a local channel. During that time, they promote a large show at the local sports arena at the end of the month. Each week, fans watch as the heroes and villains of the show build tension in their rivalries while the announcer reminds the viewers that all of this tension will eventually come to a head at the sports arena. Buy a ticket and see what happens next!

To ensure fans buy tickets, wrestlers work together in programs. Every program has a good guy—“the babyface,” or just “face”—and a bad guy, otherwise known as “the heel.” To illustrate how a program works, here’s a typical example.

The television opens with our babyface is in the middle of a match. The heel comes out to make commentary while the face wrestles. He talks about how the face is lazy and sloppy and how he could take out the face in one minute. When the face’s match is over, he walks over to the interview area and says that he heard what the heel said. Now confronted with the face, the heel denies what he said or talks around it or repeats it (depending on the character of your heel). The language between the two wrestlers gets heated. The announcer tries to calm them down. No good. Sooner than you can say “pier six brawl,” the face and heel have drug each other over to the ring and start pounding on each other. Wrestlers pour out of the back to separate them. They both swear to get the other. You’ve just started your first program.

The program continues the next week when the face is in another match. In the middle of it, the heel steps out and stands by the ring, jeering the face and drawing the ire of the crowd. At an important moment, the heel interferes in the match (when the referee isn’t looking, of course) and his interference costs the face a victory. The face goes over to the interviewer and says that he’s going to get that heel. Later in the TV show, when the heel is wrestling, the babyface comes out to watch. The heel sees him and exits the ring. He walks over to the announcer and says that he isn’t going to wrestle unless the face is removed from the ring area. The referee starts a ten count. If the heel doesn’t get back in the ring by the count of ten, he loses the match. At the count of nine, the heel sneaks back into the ring just as his opponent has his back turned. He gets a sneak victory despite the babyface being at ringside. The heel strides over to the announcer and tells the face and the audience that he’s too smart to fall for such simple tricks. The face tells the heel that he’s going to get what’s coming to him. The heel laughs in the hero’s face and smacks him. Once again, for the second week, the hero and the villain drag each other into the ring, only to be divided by the other wrestlers.

On the third week, the Promoter comes out to announce that the heel and face will have a match at the local sports arena to settle this issue once and for all. The heel comes out to complain. The face comes out to promise the fans he will punish the heel for his cheating ways. Each of the wrestlers have a match that night. The heel starts with his match against some ham ‘n egger. It is quick and brutal. He beats the living hell out of his opponent. When the bell rings, he beats his fallen foe even more. Then, he goes to the announcer and promises the fans that he’ll do the same thing to the face at the sports arena. During the babyface’s match, the heel comes out again. He tries to interfere, but his interference backfires and the hero wins the match. The hero goes to the announcer and tells the fans that he will beat the villain at the sports arena.

On the fourth week, the heel has another brutal match with another jabroni. He beats his opponent and pins him, but pulls him up at the count of two. Then, he beats his opponent even more, pins him but pulls him up at the count of two. He does this a third time, but the face runs out to save the heel’s fallen opponent. The babyface and heel get at each other for just a moment, but then the heel hits the babyface with a “foreign object.” He hits the face in the knee. The face grabs his knee and screams in pain. The heel stomps on the face’s knee again and again. Finally, referees and other wrestlers come out to break up the fight. The heel goes to the announcer—still holding the foreign object—and tells the fans that their hero has no chance of winning now. The hero gets taken away from the ring area, limping on his wounded leg.

Later in the show, the babyface comes back out and talks to the announcer. He tells the announcer the doctor in the back told him he shouldn’t wrestle at the sports arena. He says that he could permanently injure his leg. But the face looks at the audience and he says, “I made you a promise. I promised I would beat that man. And I’m not one who goes back on promises.” He says he will be at the arena and he’ll beat the villain one way or another.

That’s how you build a program. That’s how you get fans to buy tickets. And that’s how you keep your wrestling promotion from going under.

Return of the Babyface

The WWE defined itself in the ’90’s with it’s "Attitude" re-adjustment. Wrestlers were no longer supermen. They didn’t wear colorful costumes, they didn’t look like they stepped out of comic books. Guys like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake had all run down south (to WCW), leaving behind guys like Steve Austin and The Rock. The philosophy was simple: just take the wrestler’s real personality and turn it up to 11. Work rate (what the wrestler actually does in the ring–other than pose and throw punches) became a matter of pride for most top-notch workers. Usually, that sort of thing was reserved for second tier guys: just on the edge of fame, still breaking their asses to get noticed by the crowd.

Stone Cold Steve Austin was the poster boy for the Attitude Era and at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he made it very clear he would never come back to the ring. Perhaps the WWE should retire the Attitude Era with him, because what I saw and heard at Wrestlemania XXV was something I did not expect to see.

I saw the return of Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat.

Steamboat was always a unique case in the world of wrestling. While most perfomers switch between heel and face (bad guy and good guy), he was always a white hat. With his good looks, charisma and work rate, it didn’t make any sense to turn him heel. And did I mention his work rate? You look up any list of the Greatest Matches of All Time and you’ll see his name on at least two of them. Rick Flair called him "the best wrestler I ever worked with." He and Randy Savage stole the show at Wrestlemania III.

And last night, he nearly stole Wrestlemania XXV.

At fiftysomething years old, he walked out into the ring and had an amazing four minutes with Chris Jericho. The crowd was chanting, on their feet. The loudest pops of the night came from those four minutes. He did steal the show… until Michaels and Undertaker stole it from him.

The following night, on Raw (I just watched it on Youtube), in a ten man tag match, the crowd was chanting his name. With guys like Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho and Kane and all the other "superstars" in the ring, the fans wanted Steamboat. They chanted for him. "You’ve still got it," the crowd told him. And "This is awesome!" when he was in the ring, working just a step slower than the Steamboat of the ’80’s, but still working.

This wasn’t just a nostalgia thing. It was watching a guy who knows how to capture a crowd’s attention and hold on to it. A guy who knows how to sell his opponent’s moves. A guy who knows that it takes two to make a match work. The back and forth of the battle.

Damn, he looked fantastic.

Now, I’m not so much of a mark that I don’t know Steamboat probably couldn’t do a full match. But using Steamboat as an on-screen mentor for other wrestlers would be fantastic.

Imagine this. (Fantasy booker time.) Imagine two stables of wrestlers. One managed by Steamboat and the other managed by Flair. Put those two stables against each other. Now, you’ve got what the fans want to see.

Vince McMahon says he listens to the fans. I hope he heard what I heard.