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EditorialAEW Naughty or Nice List 2023: Best Heels & Faces of the...

AEW Naughty or Nice List 2023: Best Heels & Faces of the Year

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Coinciding with WWE’s Naughty or Nice list, let’s examine All Elite Wrestling’s roster to give a 3-count of the best babyfaces and heels of AEW, too.

Of course, AEW doesn’t treat heel and babyface dynamics the same way WWE does. There is much more of a blurring of the lines, with people bouncing around for each particular feud.

Still, there are some who just stay firmly on one side of the black and white scale, rather than straddling that gray line all the time. Today, we’re looking at the most clear-cut heroes and villains who did the best work, were the most popular, and any other metrics where you’d justifiably call them the top of the line.

As with that WWE list, these names I picked are solely by my personal opinions, although I tried to factor in my perception of public opinion even if I didn’t necessarily prefer that person over some others. I try to be as objective as I can, despite how it’s a mostly subjective topic. Naturally, your personal preference may disagree. If so, be sure to tell us your list in the comments below!

Without further ado, let’s talk about the men and women who made this year’s AEW list…

BEST BABYFACES

MJF

If you had told me when I wrote up last year’s list that I’d be talking about MJF being on the babyface side of the 2023 article, I’d be skeptical. Nevertheless, here we are. He’s “our scumbag” and absolutely deserves a top 3 spot, if not the #1.

MJF’s transition from the top heel for years to the fan favorite hero was given an actual shift, rather than one day, he just decides to start fighting the villains, like what happens with most wrestlers. It took a friendship with Adam Cole for him to lower his shield, open up, and become a “lovable” character, instead of someone we love to hate. Frankly, it’s perfect, as so many jerks and assholes out there in the world are only acting like that because they aren’t getting the right amount of love from anyone and they’re lashing out. Sometimes, all it takes is for you to pet a dog for them to wag their tail instead of snapping their jaws.

MJF has clearly been having fun with this run, and it shows through his work, which makes it more fun to watch him. He’s not an entirely different character, as he’s still sly, insults people and checks off some antihero traits, like when he calls for sportsmanship, just to poke someone in the eye. It’s nice to see a more realistic gimmick change, rather than a 180 degree flip.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoy babyface MJF more than heel MJF in the grand scheme of things, but I think it works about as well as what some other wrestlers have done in their careers. For instance, being able to cheer for a jerk Triple H in D-Generation X after so much time as a heel, or cheering for Randy Orton when he’s not in Legend Killer mode. This goes to show that MJF isn’t a one-trick pony, but a star who just gets it.

Orange Cassidy

If this were a ranked list, I’d make the case he could be considered over MJF, not just because MJF was a heel for a portion of the year, but because Cassidy has zero heelish qualities in comparison. The guy’s just as much of a babyface as you can get.

When you look at what he accomplished this year, he was the star of an entire title division and leveled up to main event status, finally. I’d go so far as to say he’s the most consistent in-ring performer in the company, save for possibly Bryan Danielson, and that’s saying a lot, considering how many great wrestlers there are.

I’ve been a fan of Orange Cassidy since day one of AEW. He immediately shot to the top few spots on my rankings and has stayed there ever since. Maybe I’m being a bit biased, but when I look at successful babyfaces from this year, I think this guy was the most bankable for the longest time frame.

Eddie Kingston

Underdogs can find their way on this list rather easily if they keep up that fan favorite connection even after they win the big one. Now, Eddie Kingston didn’t win the AEW World Championship—the biggest prize in both companies under Tony Khan—but he did finally dethrone Claudio Castagnoli for the ROH World Championship.

Adding on top of that, the New Japan STRONG Openweight Championship was another major bonus, and then, lumping that together to create the Continental Classic means even without walking away as the winner of the tournament, he became synonymous with it for the history books. Had he not been holding these two titles prior, and been booked to put them on the line, there’s no Triple Crown idea.

I think Kingston embodies that “everyman” type trope in a lot of ways that people can identify with, rather than being some six-pack athlete who is a good guy, but is still unrelatable to most. This year, fans were rewarded for being a supporter of his, rather than solely disappointed all the time like years prior.

5 Honorable Mentions:

  • Adam Cole – The MJF babyface transition wouldn’t have worked without his part in the storyline, and his return to action after his concussion made for some amazing babyface reactions, too.
  • The Elite – Although there were plenty hiccups this year, and eventually, The Young Bucks turned heel, for the first portion of 2023, they were such great babyfaces. Watching them fully reunite (albeit temporarily) with Hangman Page coming back into the fold was a long time coming.
  • Mark Briscoe – Unfortunately, this came about from the worst set of circumstances with Jay Briscoe’s passing. However, it’s good to see that he wasn’t just cast aside as a tag team guy who would remain ineligible to join the AEW roster. He’s been one of the top babyfaces of ROH (if not THE top face) and has had numerous big time spots as such in AEW, too.
  • Kris Statlander – Coming back from her injury to dethrone Jade Cargill and go on a run with the TBS Championship was great for her. She’s doing her best work so far and remains someone to cheer for in the process.
  • Willow Nightingale – Nobody is a better “pure babyface” on the roster than Willow. She’s their Bayley from NXT type.
  • Just shy of making the honorable mentions: The Acclaimed, Darby Allin and Sting

BEST HEELS

Christian Cage

Was there any doubt? Christian Cage is undoubtedly the top heel in AEW this year, if not the top heel in all of pro wrestling at the moment.

He’s KILLING IT with this Patriarchy angle, saving the TNT Championship after a series of dud title runs with Wardlow and company, and by association, he’s making so many other people look great.

This all started with the Jungle Boy feud, which in and of itself was a really good one that would have put Cage in contention for this list. The fact that it kept going and the gimmick of ragging on everyone’s fathers only got worse (for the better, I mean) by adding Nick Wayne to the mix, then, eventually, stealing Luchasaurus’s title reign, and now feuding with Adam Copeland? Loving it. Give me more.

Blackpool Combat Club

People can’t help but to cheer for them, but they spent most of their time this year as antagonists. Claudio Castagnoli was always a villain with the Eddie Kingston feud, for instance, Wheeler Yuta became a sniveling dick, Jon Moxley stopped holding back his brutality and Bryan Danielson, easily the most babyface of the group, still wasn’t exactly shaking hands with his opponents before matches or anything of the sort.

For every instance where Danielson is booked more as a tweener or babyface, like against Brody King or Kyle Fletcher, he’s also definitively heel in something like the Jay Briscoe Memorial bout at ROH Final Battle.

These guys are the cool heels. They’re more about leaning into their knack for violence and their perception of what wrestling should be, rather than being weasels like some other heels, but they’re still villains nevertheless, and entertaining ones, at that.

Don Callis

He’s a manager rather than a wrestler, but he gets some of the best heat on the roster regardless, and is able to transfer it to others. Don Callis is the total opposite of the BCC type of heel, as he’s 100% weasel, and relishes in it.

I really think we only got a taste of what this could have been this year. Injuries, poor planning, or whatever the excuse was, things just got derailed before they could fully get going. Whether or not they’ll be able to recapture the magic and get back on track remains to be seen, but for a while there, Callis feuding with Kenny Omega, in particular, was one of the top stories going on for a few months, and something that produced some really great matches and moments.

Callis has done wonders for someone like Konosuke Takeshita by being his mouthpiece, and has given more credibility to Kyle Fletcher and even Will Ospreay by proxy (though Ospreay had enough going on with his impressive in-ring skills that he didn’t really need the association). Powerhouse Hobbs is better off with Callis than as part of QTV, for sure. If you’ve got a heat magnet like Callis by your side, you’re going to catch some boos.

5 Honorable Mentions:

  • The House of Black – Julia Hart became one of the best heels in the women’s division this year, while the male members of the crew had their trios title run and have put on some great matches. Thumbs up, for sure. This was a very good year for them as heels, and even though I don’t think 2024 will be as prosperous, I could see them reaching those levels again if they were to turn babyface, just to freshen things up.
  • Roderick Strong – As far as my personal tastes go, I’m not digging this as most people. However, there are elements that do make me laugh, and I can see why some people love it. Undeniably, he’s a top heel, and I bet if Adam Cole hadn’t gotten injured, we’d have seen way better stuff coming out of this. Maybe that’ll happen in 2024. I’m just sick of the “Adaaam!!” catchphrase, as it has gotten overplayed for me. Maybe, it’ll come back around. The Samoa Joe version of it doesn’t land with me.
  • Samoa Joe – Speaking of Joe, he’s in a funny spot right now where he is acting like a bodyguard babyface, but we all know it’s not out of altruism. I like that. Joe’s always great, and his path of dominance with multiple title wins this year and vacating the ROH TV title as an unstoppable force just helps boost him even more. Gotta love when he does that spot where he just moves out of the way, too.
  • Swerve Strickland & Prince Nana – Up until the past few months, I wouldn’t have put him on this list, but MAAAN has Swerve leveled up recently. He’s gone from being in roughly the same spot that he was in WWE to being many people’s pick for the next world champion. That’s awesome. So is his theme song, even though we’re not supposed to dance along with it.
  • Timeless Toni Storm – Like with Rodrick Strong, I’m not as fond of the gimmick as most people, and I really, really didn’t like The Outcasts, but I can’t deny that Storm was the biggest heel in the women’s division by far. No question. And a lot of people absolutely adore this character and consider it her best work yet and can’t get enough. Easy pick for a runner-up spot.

Those are my picks, but who do you think should be considered the best babyfaces and heels of the 2023 AEW roster? Who do you think will take these spots in 2024? Tell us what you’re thinking in the comments below, and happy holidays, everyone!

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