The Mental Ward: Turning Heel…..


I first discovered pro wrestling in the mid-1980s. “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes doing battle with “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton inside a steel cage is one of my earliest wrestling memories. However, when I saw “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Sting go 60 minutes at the first Clash of the Champions, I was hooked for life. THAT was storytelling. THAT was drama. THAT was pro wrestling. In my youth Hulkamania ran wild. In my high school and college years, The Attitude Era redefined the industry. In my adult years, things just haven’t been the same. A spark is missing. The sport I loved has morphed into something almost unrecognizable at times. Yet, I still watch. I cling to hope that pro wrestling will one day again return to past glory. Webster defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. Ladies and gentlemen, come on in. We’re all friends here. Welcome back to, “The Mental Ward.”

Regardless of what anyone is willing to admit, we all like a little bit of drama in our lives. A little drama is fun when you can sit back, just watch, and enjoy yourself. Whether it’s the drunken best man slurring his way through an uncomfortably way too detailed wedding toast, or something as simple as watching another couple throw out every dastardly insult in the book just to win an argument, we all love drama. Sometimes you’re the polarizing co-worker that likes to push other people’s buttons just to make them uncomfortable. It happens. Regardless of the case, we all love it. It gives us something to talk about the next day, and the day after, and so on and so forth. In the case of professional wrestling, there’s no greater drama than that of a meaningful, well-executed, good old fashioned heel turn. We see heel turns today, but they’re so predictable and uninspiring. We used to see heel turns that came out of nowhere back before the days of Internet message boards and smarks that “knew” everything. Before you could read a week in advance about what was going to happen at a live event. Wrestling websites have done as much to kill pro wresting and kayfabe as the McMahon/Levesque union. It’s o.k., Just keep counting your money, fellas. Anyway, the heel turn, when executed properly can be a complete game changer. It can catapult a guy from relative obscurity to national news. It can breathe new life into an otherwise stale character that has long since fallen off the fans radar. In today’s wrestling, you can’t just have a heel turn, because the audience is just too informed. Plus the WWE appeals to a 6th grade fan base that cannot afford to buy any merch on their paltry 12 year old weekly allowances. To have a successful heel turn, guys have to shoot from the hip and be real on the microphone. Not this planned dialogue that was written by some failed Hollywood screen writer. If you will permit me, in this week’s column, I am going to examine some of the greatest heel turns in modern professional wrestling history. I also will touch on who I think needs a heel turn in the worst possible way, even though we all know it won’t happen because Vince McMahon knows best and he hates us all.

•”Macho Man” Randy Savage turns on Hulk Hogan and the Mega Powers explode!

The writing was on the wall. There were signs. We all knew the Macho Man was unhappy with Hogan being the champ and getting all the attention. I can’t help but feel like he maybe felt this way out of the ring, too. The WWE knew that they couldn’t have two huge babyfaces continue to be on the same page every week, so they made an executive decision to start the process of having Savage cross over to the “dark side”. It culminated on an episode of “Saturday Night’s Main Event” when Hogan and Savage were in a tag match. Miss Elizabeth was knocked down and Hogan left Savage to fight two giants in the ring as he carried Liz to the back for help. Savage comes back and in a jealous rage, hits Hulk with the belt, thus starting a feud that ended at WrestleMania V when Hogan beat Savage to regain the strap. This heel turn had everything you wanted as a fan. It had a build up, a confrontation, and then the turn. On a side note, Savage never really got back to the top like he was for that previous year he was the champ. In a day and age where guys held the belt for an extended period, it just wasn’t in the cards for Savage to be champ several times over. Had he of been in his prime 15 or 20 years later, he would have. I absolutely believe that. There weren’t many better than “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

•Sgt. Slaughter turns on the United States of America during the Gulf War!

In 1990, America was in the middle of the Gulf War with Iraq. In those days a brash, fearless, Vince McMahon turned current events into a storyline, regardless of the consequences. This angle saw beloved former U.S. Marine Sgt. Slaughter take off the red, white, and blue and don the Iraqi colors. This was a huge heel turn because Slaughter had always been a great patriotic babyface for the company. This took guts on everyone’s part, especially Slaughter himself. His family received death threats over this angle. He would go on to lose to the Immortal One, Hulk Hogan, at WrestleMania VII thus ending the feud. A while later, Slaughter would do a series of vignettes where he was at notable U.S. landmarks like Arlington National Cemetery saying, “I want my country back.” Because we all love a good apology, we welcomed Sarge back with open arms. The truth is they HAD to do this. There were real life and death issues at hand. I don’t believe there is anyone in wresting today with the stones to pull off this dramatic of a heel turn.

•Shawn Michaels turns on Marty Jannetty ending their successful run as The Rockers!

In 1992, it was pretty obvious who the “show stopper” was, and it wasn’t Marty Jannetty. Jannetty was a fine hand. He was a good technical wrestler with high flying ability but he lacked “it”. The break up of tag teams has long been a staple of pro wrestling storytelling. The Rockers were not immune to this phenomenon. It was time to split up this tag team just like so many others before. The Rockers had wrestled in smaller territories before making it big with the WWF. By the time that they had hit their stride on the big stage, they had traveled and performed together for several years. That is enough to drive anyone crazy. Shawn was THE guy. The Rockers had a successful run as a babyface tag team, thus making this heel turn all the more impactful. On a segment of, Brutus Beefcake’s “Barber Shop” HBK took a page out of the New Testament when he hugged Jannetty, very Judas like, before he delivered his patented sweet chin music. He then threw Jannetty face first directly through the plate glass barber shop window. Funny thing about this heel turn, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan was talking about how great of a tag team they were, and how this was the way it was supposed to be. Then after the kick, Heenan said, “I KNEW IT!” There was no greater color man than “The Brain”. The rest as the say is history. HBK went on to become, to me, the greatest champion in WWF/E history. As for Marty Jannetty, I rest my case.

•Hulk Hogan turns his back on the fans and forms the nWo!

This is not arguably the greatest heel turn in professional wrestling history; this WAS the greatest heel turn in professional wresting history. Hogan had been gone for a few months making movies and filming “Thunder In Paradise”. Scott Hall and Kevin Nash had left New York and come to WCW, thus forming “The Outsiders”. They had been presented as guys who didn’t work there but were invading the company. They had spoken of a third man who would join them to rock the wrestling world. In July 1996 in Daytona Beach, Florida at the “Bash At The Beach” pay per view event, we finally met the “third man”. The main event that evening saw WCW stalwarts, Sting, Lex Luger, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage set to take on “The Outsiders” and their mystery partner. I was 16 at the time, and I remember saying it was going to be Hogan. I had nothing to base that on. We didn’t have spoiler pages or wresting websites to give us the scoop. People laughed at me. It was a stupid idea. Turns out, I was right. The truth is, WCW was having trouble finding the right storyline for Hogan much like the WWF had just a couple of years before, which led to him leaving the company. Hogan was aging. You can only talk about prayers and vitamins and positive things so long before people get just sick of it. (Right John Cena?) Anyway, Eric Bischoff originally wanted Sting to be the third member, but he refused. I can’t blame him. If it didn’t work, It would have been wrestling career suicide. As Kevin Nash said, “Hogan saw the money train and jumped on board.” Hogan came down the aisle, got in the ring, and dropped the big leg on Savage, thus revealing he was the third man. People went nuts! Hogan cut a promo after the match in the ring with his newfound brothers and “Mean” Gene Okerlund. He did the unthinkable. He told the fans that he had done it all for the money all along. He told the fans to “stick it”. They threw trash in the ring, one spectator even tried to run in there….it was pure wrestling gold! I can’t imagine what Bischoff and the other brass were thinking as they watched this scene unfold from the back. This gave Hogan not just another huge run, but this move was the catalyst that set off the Monday Night War and Attitude Era. I can’t help but think that history could repeat itself today if WWE were to go this route with John Cena. Having him turn heel and join “The Authority” would be great television and HUGE business. Just ask Hogan.

•Bret Hart turns his back on his American fans and reforms “The Hart Foundation”!

In the late 1990’s, Bret Hart was losing his footing in the company. He was a top babyface, but was being forced out in favor of anti-hero “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and a new more edgy WWF was emerging. The top heel spot was going to be given to Shawn Michaels and his Degeneration X faction. Society was changing. The days of white meat babyfaces smiling and slapping hands with fans were long gone. People began to embrace those who displayed a rebel attitude. Anti-establishment was in. This provided the perfect environment for Bret “The Hitman” Hart to voice his opinion on the matter. Bret legitimately didn’t like the direction the product was headed and he let it be known. This set the stage for an epic double turn at WrestleMania 13 when Austin passed out due to blood loss while locked in the Hitman’s sharp shooter. Bret Hart was declared the winner of the “I Quit” match even though Austin never officially quit. The fans began to cheer Austin who had won their respect as a no nonsense guy that stood up to anyone and everyone, including the boss. Hart would then go on a crusade against America and their declining values as he reformed the Hart Foundation with Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, Owen Hart, and Brian Pillman. This was one of my greatest memories of wrestling growing up. Again, you have to be real to make it more believable. Bret was digging at the United States every chance he got. He was booed without mercy in the states, but cheered as a noble statesman when he returned to his Canadian homeland. It was one of the first really strange dichotomies in pro wrestling. If you’re a babyface, you’re a face everywhere. Same with a heel. This was great wrestling and even greater drama. Of course, it ended in Montreal at Survivor Series 1997. After “The Montreal Screwjob” a new super-heel emerged, Mr. McMahon. I still think a lot more could have been done for business had Bret stayed on top in the WWF. Sadly, we will never know.

Honorable mention for other all time great heel turns include:

Larry Zybyszko turning on his mentor, Bruno Sammartino…
Andre The Giant hiring Bobby “The Brain” Heenan as his manager and challenging Hulk Hogan….
Paul Bearer betraying The Undertaker in favor of Mankind….
Curt Hennig turning on the 4 Horseman, joining the nWo….

It is nearly impossible to pull off a great heel turn in today’s wrestling world. Everything has changed. No one wants to be the “bad guy” anymore. In order to be a successful heel you must first have a solid history as a babyface and vice versa. When this is the case, there is usually a solid big money run once the dust settles after the turn. Very few guys spend their entire careers in the national spotlight as just a heel (Jesse “The Body” Ventura and King Kong Bundy come to mind) or strictly as a babyface (Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Tito Santana, and The Junkyard Dog did). One of the most hated villains in pro wrestling history, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper became one of the most beloved babyfaces after his late 80s turn. Why? Because he had an established track record on the other side of the fence. Seth Rollins turning on The Shield last summer was so great because it was unexpected. We didn’t see it coming. The fans wanted the unit to stay together. Big Show has gone from bad to good and back again so many times that it has lost its meaning. The same can be said of Kane. One of the WWE’s top babyfaces, Sheamus, recently returned after some time off for an injury as a heel and everyone was jut like, eh whatever. To me, there are only a couple of guys who could make a huge impact by going rogue. Unfortunately, Daniel Bryan is one of them, and he may never return. It all really does come down to Cena. I just don’t know if we’ll ever get that, though. For as many old school wrestling guys that work for Vince McMahon, it is both shocking and insulting that WWE continues to pump out the product that we see week in and week out. I’ve Cena ‘nuff. Then again, there’s no competition to drive WWE to make any drastic moves. I long for the day when something changes.

C’mon WWE, let’s try something different. I dare ya. After all, we love drama, don’t we?

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