Gone Are The Days Superheroes Are Loved By The People.


 **Edited On October 1st 2018**

Today I am taking a break from the series of articles I usually write, to bring you a subject I have thought about for a long time. I only started paying attention to wrestling in my teen years, so the “Attitude Era” was what I considered wrestling. I won’t go into what made the era special, because that would be insulting to your intelligence, everyone knows what made the era successful. Needless to say, it was “cool”, it suited the times, and it broke the mold formed over the previous decades.

A long time ago, back in the olden days, Bruno Sammartino was a superhero who sold out Madison Square Garden countless times. Back then, wrestling strictly adhered to kayfabe, so many of the fans believed in everything Sammrtino did. They believed Sammartino was a real champion, someone who you could respect, someone you could look up too. He was like Superman, a man with super powers, and yet, he continuously sold out Madison Square Garden, the fans wanted to see him win, the fans paid to see him defeat whichever heel stood in his way. The fans knew he was the number one guy, they accepted it, they relished it, they were happy for it, and they never got sick of him.

Bruno Sammartino is the last true babyface World Champion (in WWE/F) not to be ridiculed, or end up signing with another company. He’s the only former WWE/F Champion to be champion for several years. It sounds unimaginable today, for a babyface wrestler to hold the title for over seven years, until his loss to Ivan Koloff; shocking the crowd into unimaginable silence. Granted, it was a different time, and wrestling was nowhere near the global phenomenon it became. There was no internet, no PPVs, no grand entrances, no celebrities, no pyro, no gimmicks .. just two guys in a ring wrestling each other for a championship, and the only way you could sell tickets was by word of mouth, you had to know how to sell tickets, and then it was down to the men in the ring to keep the fans coming back.

When you think of it that way, Sammartino was an excellent superhero. He was able to sell out Madison Square Garden countless times just because of his wrestling, and his natural charisma, he didn’t have all the little things which are taken for granted in society today. Also, it was impossible for anyone to get sick of Bruno, as live events didn’t happen every day, or even every week, you could wait a month or two before you could see another show, and television was still in its infancy, so if you wanted to see Bruno you had to get out of the house, buy a ticket, and find a way to get there to see him in person.

Imagine how many wrestling fans would have just stayed home and “watched a stream” if the internet existed in those days? Would Bruno had sold out MSG if the fans could switch the TV on and watch it from home? It’s impossible to say, but what can be said, is that by having no way of seeing Bruno other than seeing him for real, those fans were immediately connected to him, and I bet it was an experience they never forgot. They worked hard to get enough money to see the champ, and after a great show, they would have returned home and told their family and friends about the experience.

Fast forward to Bob Backlund, and it became clear that you needed something extra to be like Sammartino or Ric Flair. He lacked connection with the fans, there was nothing to get overly excited for, and eventually the fans turned on him and wanted a new champion. The tide of time was against Backlund, who probably would have been loved in the 60’s, but in the late 70’s/early 80’s, the fans were looking for something “cool”. Flair was innovating the way heel World Champions act in the NWA, while Backlund was stuck in the old ways of wrestling, and by the end of his reign, the WWF needed a new face, someone the fans could really get behind.

Enter Hulk Hogan, the biggest superhero in wrestling history. Hogan was so supremely charismatic, patriotic, and colourful compared to other wrestlers. He stood out like a giant in Japan, he was impossible to miss, a larger-than-life character, and his merchandise sold like hot cakes. Wrestling had evolved out of its niche market into something global, and (almost) everyone loved Hogan. Despite Hogan being champion for four years in the 80’s, the fans never turned on him, he was the superhero of the age, the ultimate babyface wrestler. We know how Hogan’s career ended up, he failed to evolve with the times, and nowadays he can be considered a mere shadow of his former self; his real-life situations often overshadow all the hard work he put in during the 80’s.

And then came the last true babyface WWF Champion Bret Hart, a man who got over simply by being an exceptional technical wrestler with a “cool” look fitting of the 90’s. Although not a champion anyway near as long as Hogan or Bruno, Bret was loved and rarely criticized by fans, at least until the true innovator stormed on to the scene. Just like Hogan did with Backlund, Stone Cold Steve Austin reinvented what it meant to be champion by acting like a heel, but doing it in an entertaining and relatable way, Bret Hart suddenly became the old-fashioned babyface champion and had to turn heel as a result.

The WWF was no longer about superheroes, it was about anti-heroes, as the Attitude Era did away with the old formula. Cheering the anti-hero became cool, and Austin 3:16 had the right opponents to create many exciting moments still cherished today. The Austin character never fully recovered after turning heel and doing away with being the anti-hero fighting the system, the fans wanted to cheer him and didn’t want to buy into the heel turn; they wanted Austin to be the man they could get behind like no one else in wrestling history.

So what does the history lesson have to do with today’s landscape? Sadly, it has everything to do with it. Not only has WWE failed to surpass the mainstream popularity garnered in the 90’s, they have devolved, and its partly down to society, and wrestling’s biggest mistakes. The controversies surrounding steroids, the treatment and early deaths of wrestlers, the Benoit family tragedy, the loss of direct competition (WCW/ECW), many combined circumstances forced the WWE down the “PG” path, and having the monopoly meant they no longer needed to evolve and innovate to be better than their competition. Vince turned the company into a money-making machine, one which continues to grow and flourish today, and in the future; no other companies can compete as WWE has the brand recognition and rich history to go with the millions of dollars.

John Cena was supposed to be the superhero of the 21st century, Vince needed someone to step up and be “the man”, and Cena embraced the challenge. The problem was (and continues to be), Cena became old-fashioned quickly, he was not the anti-hero fans wanted, he was another Hogan. To make matters worse, Cena’s original “rapper” gimmick was phased out into something barely resembling what got him over to begin with. He became the superhero to the kids, while at the same time, alienating many long-time wrestling fans who preferred their babyface champions to be rough around the edges like Austin, or supremely magical on the microphone like The Rock. Vince refused to change Cena, refused to evolve his character, all he wanted was a cash-cow, someone who could sell to kids, and as Vince does, he succeeds.

Despite many stories of Cena’s good will, a decent amount of fans continue to hate Cena’s wrestling character, they still think “Cena Sucks!”, and the kids continue to chant “Let’s Go Cena!”, as the superhero stays true to himself, never-changing to satisfy the majority, as long as the kids look up to him. I always say that fans can’t hate Cena (the man), the creative direction of his character has been set in stone by Vince since 2005, and it seems clear it will never change, but the fact is, wrestling fans have every right to boo Cena AKA Superman. Those fans want something new, something fresh, something cool and creative, they have Cena’Nuff, and ironically, Cena isn’t to blame, Vince McMahon is. Vince is stuck in the old ways in terms of creative; WWE is often criticized for repeating angles and storylines with new faces.

Stone Cold Steve Austin changed what it meant to be a babyface champion, the old superhero babyface died the minute Austin 3:16 gave Vince a stunner, there was no going back from that. Nowadays you will find many heels trying to be “cool” to get themselves over, trying to emulate Steve Austin, but it’s been done before, and I have read/heard comments from wrestling legends who criticize the “cool heels”, as they are supposed to draw heat, not fish for pops. Ironically, I’m sure Steve Austin himself has criticized some of the heels in the business today, as he wants to see true heels like there used to be in the old days. You need the bad guys to be bad so the crowd can cheer the good guy, but Austin changed the dynamic, his character was neither superhero or villain, Austin 3:16 was truly selfish, which the fans loved because it was reminiscent of themselves; everyone has their good side and bad side, and having both meant more creative possibilities for the Austin character.

Then there’s the subjects of the internet, all the shows WWE produce, the live events, the PPVs, the movies, everything combined means you see guys like John Cena several times a week. It’s so easy for fans to become disenchanted as you watch the same product every week, the same faces, doing the same things, wrestling the same guys for the same championships; fans grow tired of seeing it, so they move on, or complain online every week. Fans think that by complaining online about a product WWE pushes on everyone almost every day, of every week of the year, that something will change .. but it won’t. Vince tells us what to like, and his mind (when he’s set on someone being “the man”) is rarely changed by fan response.

The most recent example of the fans changing Vince’s mind was Daniel Bryan getting into the Wrestlemania XXX main event. Daniel Bryan could have been the superhero WWE desperately needed, but his injuries robbed wrestling fans of a champion they could be proud of cheering, and proud to tell their friends and family about. Despite Bryan’s humble personality, amazing technical wrestling ability, and being able to get full arenas to chant “YES!” or “NO!”, he’s still criticized (by some fans) for not having the look or size of a champion, and some don’t believe Bryan was a credible champion. They don’t believe he could carry the company forward into a new age, and they’re probably right! It would only be a matter of time until fans would grow tired of Daniel Bryan winning all the time, as it would be seen several times a week, 52 weeks a year through the WWE Network, social media, YouTube, streams, torrents, whichever way it can be seen without a fan buying a ticket and seeing the show.

With everything that has been said, it becomes clear how difficult it is to book a superhero-like babyface character as WWE World Heavyweight Champion for an extended time. Have you noticed who the champions are lately? Not just in WWE, but in other promotions as well? WWE has Seth Rollins, TNA has Ethan Carter III (EC3), ROH has Jay Lethal, and do you know why? Heels are easier to book, and heels are more likely to get over. Good heels have the ability to elevate other wrestlers who struggle as a babyface, and I can think of so many struggling babyface wrestlers in WWE. It’s easier to get the fans to hate someone, then it is to get the majority of fans to love and admire someone every day of the year.

Again, it’s down to evolution, the older fans (not all, but many) have grown so tired of the old fashioned way wrestling is booked, they prefer the heels, even if the heels are disgustingly bad, the wrestler will receive praise for doing “good heel work”. The elimination of kayfabe by WWE, and the rise of social media, has made it so fans can interact a lot more, and are so educated they know the difference between a heel who is going through the motions, and a heel who is really trying to piss you off. The fans take much more notice in the wrestling ability of an individual, and chastise anyone who falls below their standards; to the point of embarrassment. It appears nowadays, to get over, you need to be an entertaining heel who can work (in the ring) better than most. Eventually the wrestler will be noticed, and just at the right moment, will see the errors of their ways and turn on the other heels, possibly becoming a loved babyface, or failing miserably to the point their career goes on a downward spiral.

With the way characters are portrayed in television shows over the past few years, it tells me the WWE has to evolve with the times to create the next true babyface World Champion. Shows like the Walking Dead have complex characters who don’t always make the right decisions, largely down to the stress of a zombie apocalypse leaving mankind to revert to a state of survival; they have to make questionable choices to stay alive. The perfect example of this in recent WWE storytelling is the return of The Undertaker. WWE and The Undertaker knew that by bringing him back as the babyface he portrayed before he was no longer able to wrestle full-time, some fans wouldn’t buy it, and some would inevitably turn on The Undertaker for doing the same old thing.

Just as The Undertaker has done throughout his career, he changed it up, he returned as a desperate man, an Undertaker not seen for several years, The Undertaker who would do anything to win, The Undertaker who would take shortcuts so he could exact revenge. WWE created a dynamic where you could cheer for Lesnar, or you could cheer for The Undertaker, they never fully turned babyface or heel. I would say they worked as tweeners at Summerslam, and the buildup highlighted the many questionable things both men had done, there was no defined “good guy” or “bad guy”, it was like throwing two rival lions into a pit and seeing who would be victorious. It’s a good example of what WWE can do with their storytelling; keep the audience guessing whether a wrestler is good or bad, and if the fan decides on their own, all the power to them.

It remains to be seen whether wrestling can produce another superhero universally loved by all. Everyone wants to boo the villain, but only a portion of fans want to cheer the good guys, they want the good guys to have elements of bad, so they don’t seem so one-dimensional. They want good guys to question their decisions, to make mistakes, to be like a human being and ask for forgiveness, to prove themselves worthy of respect. Fans want to love someone again, but it’s impossible with all the over-exposure, you can only eat chocolate so much until you get sick, and it’s the same with wrestling. You can only watch so much until you begin to nitpick and criticize, eventually you get bored and wonder why you watch every week. You go on Facebook and ask why WWE does this, and why they don’t do that, and suddenly you’re one of those fans looking for reasons to watch a show you used to love as a kid.

Heels have it tough, faces have it even tougher, and the business is in need of evolution and innovation. The fans need one or two aspiring (future) legends to show up and force change, to think outside the box and renew interest in wrestling. Those who inspire change and innovation are rare gems, fans will have to wait until WWE manages to find someone everyone can love, and until then, we have to continue loving heels, because one day .. those wrestlers who we hated, may suddenly become our superheroes. And with everything said, I hope you enjoyed the read, I hope the piece was thought-provoking, and I wish you a good morning, afternoon, evening or night, wherever you happen to be. Ciao.

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