Today's topic is in a roundabout way related to Halloween, in that it involves the darker angels of our nature, as it were. I'm talking about one of the great plot devices in the pro wrestling universe, The Heel Turn. In the world of pretend fighting a character will suddenly decide he doesn't like one of his friends, or the fans, or the world, and go bad. This generally reframes his whole persona and sets off a major feud or angle of some kind.
The best heel turns usually happen suddenly, so there's a feeling of shock and betrayal from the fans, but it's also important that the turn doesn't feel like a cheat or a contrivance. It has to make sense within the context of the story being told. There has to have been some kind of foreshadowing or tension between the betrayer and his victim(s), thus when the turn happens it's appalling but also satisfying. You've invested in this ongoing story and here's a major inciting incident. Also the subsequent heel run generally needs to last a while and have some kind of long-term impact on the overall product. So often these days a wrestler will turn heel just so he can be repositioned to feud with whomever the writers want him to feud with. And then three months later he's back to being a babyface (Big Show, I'm looking in your general direction). When this kinda thing happens too often, not only does each character turn lose meaning, but the fans cease to invest in said wrestler because he changes his stripes constantly. Sadly in recent years the effective heel turn has become something of a lost art, as today's wrestling bookers don't seem to have the discipline to properly execute it.
The other kind of heel turn that can be effective is the gradual variety, where a wrestler will start to show a mean streak but it's amplified over several months, and eventually before you know it, the guy's fighting babyfaces (see Punk, CM; Jericho, Chris; *surname omitted*, Edge). I find those don't work as well, although gradual turns have produced some great heel characters (such as the aforementioned three). That's not to say I don't like the gradual ones, I just find it more fun when a guy turns heel sort of all at once but it still makes perfect sense in context.
Here now are my ten favorite heel turns in wrestling history...
10. The Road Warriors (1988)
1988 was a year of multiple heel and babyface turns in the NWA, and one of the last ones to take place was when the almighty Road Warriors betrayed Sting during a six-man tag match. Sting was a last-minute substitute for the Roadies' longtime partner Dusty Rhodes, and Hawk & Animal were none too pleased that a) Dusty wasn't present as scheduled, and b) the Johnny-come-lately Stinger was selected as a replacement. This kicked off an uber-mean streak from the Legion of Doom that included a gruesome incident where they tried to poke Dusty's eye out with a shoulderpad spike. As a 13-year-old fan I felt horribly wronged by my favorite badass team, and initially found them pretty scary as bad guys (Another hallmark of a great heel turn), but after a couple weeks I came back around and actually liked them even more with their newfound lust for brutality. Sadly the Road Warriors' heel run was short-lived, since the fans never really wanted to boo them. But this was a quite effective angle at the time.
9. Lex Luger (1989)
Another NWA mainstay who always seemed more comfortable wearing the black hat was Lex Luger. Luger had made a name for himself as the "young lion" of the 1987 Four Horsemen lineup before tiring of their antics and turning babyface. In mid 1989 though some tension began to build between Luger and the returning Ricky Steamboat, over the new Top Ten ratings system. Being the former NWA World Champ, Steamboat was named the #1 Contender, even though traditionally the US Championship (which Luger held at the time) guaranteed its wearer the top spot. At Clash of the Champions VII Steamboat defeated Terry Funk by DQ but was attacked by Funk's cohorts after the match. Luger came to the rescue, chasing off Team Funk, and helped Steamboat to his feet, only to level the former Champ with a ferocious clothesline. Luger vs. Steamboat was a brief feud due to Steamboat's departure from the promotion, but he spent the remainder of 1989 as a dominant heel US Champion, turning in some of his best in-ring work and seemingly poised to challenge the babyface Ric Flair for the Big Gold Belt. Flair's heel turn and a sudden injury to Sting in early '90 left a top babyface void, and Luger was inexplicably made a good guy once again. Early 1990 always struck me as a reset period in the NWA, but I did truly enjoy Luger's late-89 heel run.
8. Barry Windham (1988)
Of course Mr. Luger was no stranger to having a friend double-cross him. In 1988 after leaving the Four Horsemen Luger teamed up with fellow Flair enemy Barry Windham, and the two unexpectedly defeated Anderson & Blanchard for the NWA Tag belts. Fans everywhere rejoiced at the success of The Twin Towers (a name the WWF ripped off a few months later for Akeem and The Big Bossman), but only three weeks on during a rematch, Windham screwed Luger over, allowing Arn & Tully to regain the straps, and joined The Horsemen. And fans everywhere (including this guy) were outraged. Windham had been a career white-meat babyface, and the idea of him aligning himself with the company's top heel faction was unfathomable. As it turned out Windham fit the Horsemen like a glove, rounding out the lineup better than either of his two predecessors. Windham went on to capture the vacant US Title, giving this Horsemen team the top three championships in the company. Barry would eventually drop the US Title to his former teammate Luger in early '89 before a brief WWF run, but returned in 1990 and got back to what he did best, helping the Horsemen kick babyface ass.
7. Seth Rollins (2014)
The only recent heel turn to make this list, Seth's turncoat moment was the first time in a very long while that a heel turn genuinely shocked and upset me as a fan. I fell in love with The Shield immediately upon their 2012 debut and saw huge things for all three members. In a WWE where young talent is so seldomly pushed effectively, the company had gotten virtually everything right when it came to Ambrose, Reigns & Rollins. They ran roughshod over the entire roster and suffered nary a major defeat for nearly a year. In early 2014 WWE teased dissension among the Shield members and it seemed a breakup was imminent. But the trio got their shit together and turned babyface, backing up Daniel Bryan in his war with The Authority. A fantastic feud with the reformed Evolution followed, and The Shield even dominated that feud. And then the hammer fell one night later, when Rollins bashed Reigns with a chair and joined Triple H's side. First off, despite knowing that a Shield breakup was on the horizon, I didn't expect it to happen so suddenly, after vanquishing Triple H's supergroup. Second, if anyone was going to turn heel I figured it would be the loose cannon Dean Ambrose, not the flashy, athletic Rollins, who had evolved into a Shawn Michaels-style competitor. But it was Rollins who ended The Shield's reign of terror, selling out to The Authority and paving the way for the WWE Title run he's currently experiencing. In the wake of this upsetting turn of events, Rollins became the MVP of the company and an amazing top heel who, despite boasting an arsenal of crowd-pleasing moves, played such a good a-hole the crowd still booed him.
6. The Rock (1998)
The Rock actually had two heel turns in his first two years, and while the first created the character with which Dwayne Johnson became a megastar, I'm actually including the second because of how well it was executed. Debuting in 1996, Rocky Maivia was packaged as a smiling, happy-go-lucky athlete with a multi-generational pedigree, who was so stoked to be living his dream nothing could bring him down. Unfortunately the fans in 1996 wanted zero to do with such a toolbag character, and he was booed relentlessly until the company saw the light and had him join Faarooq's Nation of Domination. Rocky had a built-in reason to turn on the fans, and he used it brilliantly in weaving a new, edgier character truer to his own personality, The Rock. For the next year and a half The Rock was the coolest heel in the company, and thanks to his natural charisma and a bevy of fun catchphrases (not to mention his considerable athleticism) he got so over the fans began cheering him again. After dropping the I-C Title at SummerSlam '98, The Rock started feuding with heels like Ken Shamrock and his former Nation buddies Mark Henry and D-Lo Brown. That September the WWF Title was vacated, and a tournament was set up for Survivor Series, in which the red-hot Rock was one of the favorites. The evil Mr. McMahon however made it clear his handpicked Champion was the now-corporatized Mankind, who had shaved his beard, shortened his hair, and worn a tuxedo for the event. In The Rock, Vince saw another Steve Austin-esque corporate nightmare of a star who couldn't be controlled, and he stacked the deck against the WWF's newest anti-hero. After Austin was unceremoniously eliminated from the tourney, the finals were set; Mankind vs. The Rock. And then the other shoe dropped. The Rock hooked Mankind in a sharpshooter, and Vince ordered the timekeeper to ring the bell (shades of Montreal one year earlier). The Rock was awarded the vacant WWF Title and he and Vince revealed they were in cahoots the whole time while Mankind was just a patsy. This was an absolutely brilliant swerve and it led to The Rock becoming the #2 guy in the company. While Survivor Series '98 earns very few points for wrestling quality, it was one of the most creative single-show angles in history.
5. Andre the Giant (1987)
The first major heel turn I was privy to as a wrestling fan was also one of the most significant in the history of the business. Beloved special attraction Andre the Giant, who for years was Hulk Hogan's right-hand man, apparently felt overshadowed and slighted by his friend (or was corrupted by Bobby Heenan) and confronted Hogan on an episode of Piper's Pit, demanding a WWF Title match. Being a young Hulk Hogan fanatic I was so upset by this but at the same time couldn't wait to see their epic encounter at WrestleMania III. A bad Andre presented such an overwhelmingly imposing threat to Hogan's Title reign I was quite genuinely scared he'd win. Their match went down as a star rating-proof spectacle (terrible workrate but still highly entertaining), and the Hogan-Andre feud would last a full year. Andre himself would remain one of the company's top heels until his retirement in 1990. Turning such a universally loved star into the scariest villain in the company was certainly a ballsy move, but it paid off massively.
4. Bret Hart (1997)
The one gradual heel turn I'm including on this list was one of the most creative ever executed. In 1996 the heroic Bret Hart had taken a hiatus after losing the WWF Title to Shawn Michaels. Upon his return later that year he found the WWF landscape much different. The fans, whose adulation Bret had become so accustomed to, now seemed bored with Bret's straight-laced style and persona in favor of edgier, less honorable types like Steve Austin. Bret's bewilderment quickly evolved into resentment, and as the WWF's rules became increasingly ignored, Bret became a very outspoken critic of this new lawlessness. It all came to a head at WrestleMania 13, when Bret faced Austin in a submission match. The two men beat the snot out of each other for over twenty minutes, and Austin showed such resiliency and defiance the fans seemingly switched allegiance mid-match. The bout's climax involved a bloodied Austin being locked in the sharpshooter and refusing to submit, until finally he passed out and the match was stopped. Bret then continued attacking Austin after the bell, drawing the crowd's wrath, and solidifying his status as the WWF's new top heel. The Bret-Austin feud progressed into a full-blown US vs. Canada war, which made for some of the most compelling WWF television ever produced. Another added wrinkle was the fact that Bret and his newly formed Hart Foundation stable were cheered everywhere except the United States, making this feud and Bret's heel turn truly unique. Leave it to Bret Hart to pioneer the art of going bad.
3. Randy Savage (1989)
In terms of hitting a raw nerve, Randy Savage's heel turn in 1989 might be the most visceral I've ever seen. The Savage-Hogan storyline was an amazingly executed long-term deal that began 18 months earlier on a Saturday Night's Main Event episode. Former I-C Champion Savage had just turned babyface after the reviled Honky Tonk Man captured said belt and proclaimed himself the greatest of all time. The two met for the Title, Savage had the match won but for Hart Foundation interference, and Honky Tonk and his pals punished Savage with a beatdown, followed by a guitar shot to the skull. Savage's manager Elizabeth promptly ran to the back for help, and emerged through the curtain moments later with Hulk Hogan in tow. Hogan and Savage cleared the ring and after a few tense moments became supreme allies. Thus was born The MegaPowers. For the duration of 1988 the MegaPowers reigned as the WWF's conquering heroes, but late in the year tension began building over Savage's jealousy for Elizabeth. Then on a special Main Event episode, Savage turned on Hogan during their match, abandoning him and later smashing him with the Title belt. This deeply resentful side of Savage was pretty terrifying to me as a kid. I feared what he'd do to Hogan, and moreso what he'd do to Elizabeth. Sadly Savage came out of this feud looking ineffectual, but during the buildup to WrestleMania V he was as deadly a villain as I could remember. There's something about a top hero going rogue and unleashing venom on all his friends that makes for enormously compelling drama, and in wrestling this was captured perfectly by Randy Savage.
2. Hulk Hogan (1996)
While we're on the subject of top heroes going rogue, the one heel turn that truly galvanized the wrestling industry occurred at Bash at the Beach 1996. WCW had been invaded by two former WWF stars, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall. Hall & Nash challenged any three WCW stars to a match at the PPV and promised to reveal their third man. After several minutes of chaotic action, Hulk Hogan entered the ring, apparently to restore order. But suddenly Hogan turned his fury on a prone Randy Savage (payback's a bitch as they say), revealing himself to be the third Outsider! Hogan cut a hateful promo on the fans and declared the group's intention to take over the wrestling business, and from then on Hogan was a changed man. The newly formed nWo wreaked havoc on the WCW roster for years to come and helped WCW surge past the WWF to become the top wrestling promotion in the world for two full years. The followup to this initial burst of creativity may have been poor, but there's no denying how effective Hogan's heel turn was in rejuvenating both his career and the WCW product.
1. Shawn Michaels (1992)
For me the greatest all-time heel turn had both incredible execution and everlasting consequences for its subject. Shawn Michaels had been known as one half of heartthrob babyface team The Rockers. Modeled after The Rock n' Roll Express, The Rockers took Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson's aerial tactics to a new level, inventing some of the most breathtaking tandem moves ever seen in the late 80s. They seemed destined to be a perennial backbone to the WWF tag division and little more. But then one Saturday morning in early 1992 everything changed. After several months of teased tension, Michaels and his partner Marty Jannetty appeared on Brutus Beefcake's Barber Shop segment and seemingly put their differences aside. Then the boom was lowered. Michaels swiftly and viciously superkicked Jannetty in the face, picked him up, and rammed him face-first through a plate glass window. The WWF had never before presented such a violent, malicious betrayal, and they followed it up superbly by keeping Jannetty off TV for an entire year. Michaels on the other hand quickly developed into one of the most accomplished wrestlers in the world, toning down his high flying in favor of a more measured, malevolent ground attack. He also tossed aside his Rocker gimmick and adopted one of a self-obsessed playboy who talked trash better than anyone in the company. Shawn eventually became so cool and athletic that the fans once again embraced him, and his Heartbreak Kid persona turned out to be just as effective as a cocky babyface. Aside from a few tweaks during his Degeneration X run, Shawn would embody this in-ring identity for the rest of his remarkable career and build a tremendous legacy as one of the all-time greats.
That'll do it for this edition of Top Ten Things. Comment below with some of your favorite heel turns!