Man, it’s rough being a sonofabitch these days. No, seriously! I really do feel bad for the guys and gals trying to make it as heels in the modern era, cause it’s a tough row to hoe. Between the paradigm shift of the mid-90s giving way to the rise of “cool heels” and antiheroes and the digital age hammering the final nail into Kayfabe’s coffin, being an authentic villain has become…I wouldn’t quite say a lost art. But it requires a combination of dedication and a very specific sort of charisma that makes a genuinely hateable heel a rare thing nowadays.
But that isn’t the actual problem here. The REAL issue at hand is a lot more insidious, and instead of spelling it out, let me use an example (the one that inspired this article, in fact)!
The Jinder Problem
Yeah, we all knew where I was going with this.
For the uninitiated, on September 19th, Jinder Mahal, the rags-to-riches WWE champion, cut a promo on Shinsuke Nakamura that could be described as distasteful at best. After making fun of his facial expressions, he capped it off with the line “You always rook the same!”, then proceeded to make an even less funny Mr. Miyagi joke. Not only was it racist, it wasn’t even clever. Cheap heat at its absolute lamest, and the crowd let him know right away. “That’s too far” chants grew louder and louder, and the next day, the PG, anti-bullying WWE had a bit of a PR issue on its hands. Needless to say, this is a perfect example of piss-poor heeling. If this exact segment had happened 20-30 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have caused too much of a fuss, but at this point there are several reasons why, in addition to being a stupid segment to run on what’s supposed to be a family-friendly product, it is an outdated, useless approach for generating useful outrage from your audience.
1. Your top heel looks childish
Making the end boss of your brand a severely flawed character is essential, but you still need to present him as a threat. Having him toss out cheesy jokes about his opponent’s ethnicity, especially when he’s already working a hackneyed Evil Foreign Guy gimmick? Counterproductive.
2. The heat is completely misplaced
At this point, nearly every WWE fan has enough understanding of the product to realize that every promo that makes its way on TV is completely scripted (with the exception of veterans like Cena being given plenty of wiggle room). We know that the words coming out of a wrestler’s mouth aren’t coming off the top of their heads, they were handed to them by a writer and rehearsed prior to the show. As a result, when there is a considerable backlash on a segment like this one, it doesn’t fall on the performer, it falls on the creative team.
Admittedly, if they were to throw out the scripts tomorrow and go back to letting talent cut promos on the fly, it would be a different story. What Jinder said still wouldn’t have been well-received, but it might have at least fueled some extra network subscriptions from people who want to see Nakamura Kinshasa him into another dimension. But as it stands, this was a waste of time.
3. You have three heel-driven programs of much higher quality going on simultaneously
This is actually the main reason I feel there’s no excuse for this. I know this company can do better because THEY’RE DOING BETTER RIGHT NOW. So let’s break down where these guys are succeeding where Jinder is failing.
KO KOs The Boss
Kevin Owens has jumped back and forth between great feuds and spinning his wheels in crappy angles ever since his main roster debut, but thankfully he’s in the middle of something excellent right now. A lot of people started groaning when it became obvious that his (surprisingly meh) US title feud with AJ Styles was about to transition into a conflict with Shane O’Mac, but this storyline has been great from the moment Owens pushed Shane over the edge. Kev is always fantastic on the mic, but after he told McMahon that his kids would be better off if he had died in the legit helicopter crash he had been in a few months back, the angle and Shane’s entrance theme had something in common: money.
The following week was even better. Vince is a hell of a performer when he turns it on, and he really went above-and-beyond to cement Owens as the most vicious heel on Smackdown. And come to think of it, maybe in the entire company. Kevin carefully wording his request as “I need you to give me your word that if provoked, I can beat a McMahon senseless” was a brilliant little bit of writing that added so much to his subsequent assault on Vince. And I think my favorite thing about it is that to my memory, this is the first time anyone has attacked Vincent K. McMahon and gotten roundly booed for it. Which had to happen eventually, right? Regardless of the fact that Vince has done some pretty awful things in both storyline and real life, it’s hard to get past the fact that he’s also a 72-year-old man. As Chris Rock once said, “There’s a reason to kick an old man down a flight of stairs, just don’t do it.”
What I love most about the angle as a whole is the way we saw Owens flip the switch from greedy coward to vengeful sadist in just a week’s time. When he makes that switch, I really think he’s the best heel in the business today. His facial expressions, body language, timing, everything is just spot-on. He’s excellent doing comedy too, but vicious KO is best KO.
Enzo Dethrones King, Drags Ass On Entire Division
This angle is still really fresh, so I reserve my right to take back the following praise later. And I’ll also come right out and say that when Enzo Amore beat Neville for the Cruiserweight title at No Mercy, I hated it. HAAAAAAAAAAAATED it. But the next night on Raw, the events that unfolded were perfect. I actually skipped most of Raw (because really, who still watches all 3 hours of Raw these days?) and just happened to tune in for the last 10 minutes.
Christ, am I glad I did.
It’s pretty common knowledge at this point that in real life, Enzo is not well-liked backstage. Has a major attitude, was thrown off of a tour bus by Roman Reigns for disrespecting the business, has strippers going on Twitter and relaying stories about what a jackass he was when he came into their club, basically the most annoying, deluded jamoke you could possibly imagine. Kudos to the company for taking all of that smarmy, slimy behavior and just making that his onscreen persona as well, because the entire time he was talking down to the entire Cruiserweight division, I was hoping, PRAYING someone would knock the taste out of his mouth. Thankfully, I was obliged. And then some! Braun Strowman coming down to lay him out before the Cruiserweights put the boots to him was a nice touch, even if it did happen after Raw went off the air.
Again, we’re only in the first week of Enzo turning full-blown heel, but it was welcome. His run as a babyface needed to die, both because of his real-life conduct and the staleness of his shtick, especially without Cass as his muscle now. He’s incredibly believable in this role, as he should be because by all accounts, this is legitimately who he is: an entitled, loudmouthed punk who talks the talk but can’t walk the walk. They always said the best gimmicks are the actual personalities of the people playing them turned up to 11, but I’m not convinced Enzo even had to turn anything up. I might hate the guy, but dammit, he’s genuine!
It’s Rusev Day!
Yet another angle that started questionably and could still easily be a total disappointment going forward, but its most recent development was comedy gold. Rusev’s over-the-top celebration of his tainted 10-second win over Randy Orton was delusional heeling at its finest, complete with a lavish ceremony and Aiden English as MC.
(Quick aside: Aiden’s gimmick is fantastic. Singing entrance themes a cappella instead of music hitting? Now THAT’S heat.)
What really got me about this was the way Rusev’s face lit up every time Aiden started singing in his honor. Also the fact that he got the mayor of his hometown to fly all the way from Bulgaria to Arizona just for a brief ceremony where he declared that September 26th would henceforth be known as Rusev Day. Over one win! That wasn’t even fairly earned! The cherry on top of it all was Randy Orton finishing up a quick interview with Renee Young backstage with “…oh! And happy Rusev Day.” I died.
Every time they let Rusev run with something, he shows great range, which makes it all the more confusing that he’s been mired in mid card hell for so long. Like Jinder, he’s saddled with the outdated Evil Foreign Guy gimmick, but unlike Jinder, he’s bursting with talent. If he had been the one boosted to a world title reign out of nowhere, I think we’d all be having less of a moan right now.
So What Did We Learn?
Mostly that being a great heel in this day and age takes a metric ton of talent and creativity. I was stretching a bit with my Rusev example, mostly just to point out the difference between a well-done foreign heel presentation and a poor one (even if I do wish that the archetype would just die out entirely). My overarching point in all of this is that in addition to good creative, getting over as a heel is all about the little things. The annoying mannerisms, the constant pettiness, and not just what you say, but how you say it. What definitely isn’t effective is this forced approach of “I’m foreign, America is bad, now boo me.” It leads to things like people booing a woman just for singing the Indian national anthem. It leads to racial commentary from a company that has a track record of atrocious racial commentary. And most bafflingly of all, it leads to the same company shooting itself in the foot. If you want to branch out and cater more to an international market, stop forcing American nationalism into your storylines. Stop trying to present being from a different country as a negative trait. And most of all…
Can somebody PLEASE hinder Jinder already?
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