By Jerry Chandler
One of the things that pro wrestling has always lived and died on is the simplicity of various concepts and how easily the audience would- no matter how absurd they truly were -go along with the concepts. For literally decades upon decades, wrestling fans simply accepted some things that happened in wrestling because they fully accepted that what they were watching was real. Well, that or they had a hunch that it wasn’t but simply went with it. One of the things that might blow the minds of some who are not fans of pro wrestling is the ease that promoters have traditionally had with getting fans to accept good guys becoming bad guys and bad guys becoming good guys. Frankly, if you’re unfamiliar with pro wrestling or simply an infrequent viewer, you might be shocked at how often good guys become bad guys and bad guys become good guys. You would also be amazed at how ridiculously simple it could be (and still can be) to make that switch.
Not knowing wrestling, two things might come to mind with regards to wondering about the relative ease or difficulty in doing such character flips. First, you would think that changing a good guy to a bad guy can be done with relative ease. You would be, in the vast majority of such flips, correct. All you have to do to change a face to a heel is have him betray his friends, the fellow wrestling faces, over such petty things like jealousy, envy, greed, ego, etc. Have a face turn his back on the fans, turn his back on the people that “made” him and you can easily make that flip to a heel. Within the span of two weeks, a wrestler who was getting standing ovations in the biggest arenas could have everyone in that same arena instead wanting to see him beaten and bloody with every fiber of their being.
Second, you would probably assume that flipping a heel to a face was amazingly difficult. In a heel, you have a character that lies, cheats, and steals his way to victory on a regular basis. In a heel, you have a character that brutalizes the fan favorite wrestlers in sneak attacks, two, three, and four on one assaults, and with the use of foreign objects. Foreign objects in wrestling speak being anything brought into the ring to be used as a weapon (brass knuckles, chairs, canes, tennis rackets, guitars, sledge hammers, urns, green mist, etc.) that aren’t allowed under the rules of the match. Heels insult the fans on a nightly basis, and they make it clear that they’re in it for themselves and no one else. So, yeah, I could see where you would think that switching a heel to a face could be a difficult task. You would be, in the vast majority of cases, wrong in that assumption.
It is actually ridiculously easy to switch a heel to a face in wrestling and have the fans accept the change. It was even more ridiculously easy to do so back in the era of kayfabe. Strangely, all you sometimes had to do was portray another heel or group of heels as worse than the heel you intended to flip and then utilize the exact same techniques that you would use to flip a face into a heel.
You take a group of wrestlers who are all heels and you decide that you want to flip one to a face. All you really have to do is have the others betray him. You tease at the tensions in the stable for a few weeks of television, you have the odd eruption of personality conflicts causing the soon to be face and the other heels almost come to blows, and you’ve set the stage for the big moment. In a match against the faces, during an interview segment, or in a backstage skit you have the big moment where everyone come to blows. The heel stable turns on their fellow heel, beating him mercilessly for whatever transgressions against them they claim he’s made, and then, when he’s at his most vulnerable and about to suffer crippling injury at the hands of the stable, the face or faces swoop in and save him. You have a quick brawl where the now evened odds allow the faces to chase off the stable of heels, and then you have “the moment” where it happens.
The heel looks around in confusion. The heel readies himself for a fight with the faces. The faces all beg off the fight, pointing out what just happened and extend the hand of friendship. The heel (if they’re out in the ring) will look around at the fans (who will chant louder with each look) before shaking the hand of the face. The faces will then raise the former heel’s arms, pointing to him and encouraging the audience to cheer. Traditionally, the audiences tended to eat it up.
Sometimes they would play on history to help accomplish the flip. An example of that would be Sting and Lex Luger. Sting, who ran as a face for most of his headlining career, and Lex, who flipped back and forth with the changing of the seasons, were friends in both wrestling storylines and in real life. Whenever Lex was a heel about to be brought back into the face fold, it was usually Sting who was there to bring his old friend back over from the Dark Side. There was Sting, the ring having just been cleared of the other heels, extending the hand of friendship and offering Lex another chance at redemption. The fans ate it up (even when it was chance #971) because who doesn’t like a good redemption moment?
Sometimes it didn’t even make the slightest lick of sense, yet it still worked. Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff was one of a long list of heels who faced off against WWF mega face Hulk Hogan in the 1980s. Orndorff, often accompanied to the match by an evil manager and/or a heel stable-mate would regularly, storyline-wise, beat the living hell out of Hogan (and others) via cheating and outside interference in his quest for championship gold. By “beat the living hell out of” I mean he and his stable-mates, usually at the urging of an evil manager, would inflict great bodily harm and injury to the top faces. Matches that he lost would sometimes end with Orndorff and his heel allies attempting to break arms, legs, ankles, ribs, or backs and occasionally going after eyes.
And then they decided to turn him face.
You have to understand something about Orndorff. One of his selling points as a monster heel was the fact that he was in phenomenally good shape. A lot of wrestlers in that era worked out in the gym to get big, but this was still an era in wrestling where working out to get big wasn’t quite in line with bodybuilding. Even Hogan, the face of the company in the 1980s and hyped as having 24 inch biceps, was big in ways other than just muscle mass. Paul Orndorff was one of the guys in that era that was big in the bodybuilder sense of the word. He was a huge guy, and that was a part of the ego of his character. He, or his manager mouthpiece, would tell anyone who would listen, whether they wanted to hear it or not, how he had the best body in pro wrestling.
At least until they needed him to turn face (again) in the WWF.
Orndorff was a part of Bobby "The Brain" Heenan’s stable of heel wrestlers at the time. The Brain brought in a new member, "Ravishing" Rick Rude, a wrestler who had also worked at obtaining more of a bodybuilder’s physique, who Heenan now promoted as having THE greatest body in wrestling. This led to an ego meltdown where Orndorff and Heenan/the Brain’s stable of wrestlers broke up over Orndorff’s fragile ego being bruised. He was then attacked by Rude and the others and they engaged in a feud with Mr. Wonderful as a face. He was completely accepted as a face by the fans over this. This led to one of Orndorff’s final big matches in the WWF before his retirement (one of several due to a real injury received in the ring) where he teamed with a group of faces, including longtime friend/foe/friend Hogan, to face off against Rude and a team of heels.
If you put down on paper the various paths that have been used to change a heel into a face in wrestling, it would likely look insane to anyone that has never watched wrestling. But it almost always works, and it is almost always immediately accepted by the fans. In some cases, such as with Savage and Elizabeth or with Sgt. Slaughter wanting his country back, there’s a redemption factor at play. More often than not though, it boils down to the two concepts of the enemy of my enemy is my friend (or the enemy of the guy who’s feuding with the guy I’m rooting for is worth rooting for) and suddenly feeling that the tide has turned because now “we” have this major player on “our” team. Oh, and then there’s always the option of also playing it up as the heel is a bad guy, but those OTHER GUYS are so much worse. Again, as insane as it may look on paper sometimes, it almost always went off smoothly and generally got accepted by the fans.
The fans didn’t even have to be told by a promoter to cheer for the newly minted face either. They knew when the switch happened, they even, as noted above, actively encouraged it when allowed to get in on the act. It was something that longtime wrestling fans had been conditioned to accept when it happened, and new fans quickly got into the swing of it with ease.
Again, it looks insane when removed from the context of the event itself, but it’s a matter of this being the longtime, accepted storytelling found in pro wrestling. It’s part of what works for pro wrestling, and it’s a part of how the stories are told. In reality, it’s no more insane than 007 pulling an unrealistic rabbit out of his hat or the bad guys making it unrealistically easy for a story’s sleuth to neatly wrap up every aspect of their weekly murder mystery in 60 minutes. What makes it work, what makes all of it work, is the simple fact that it’s just the accepted thing in the storytelling for the genre. If you’re in to fill-in-the-blank entertainment, it’s a part of the charm of the genre for fill-in-the-blank fans. It’s also what they’re used to and comfortable with.
There are times I miss it being that simple and easy.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.