Let's talk about the heel turns in professional wrestling that have stuck with us for life.
Shawn Michaels ruined our childhood by sweet-chin-musicing Marty Jannetty and throwing him through a poor defenseless barber shop window.
Stone Cold Steve Austin singlehandedly put an end to the Attitude Era in 2001 at WrestleMania 17.
The Red & Yellow succumbs to villainy during Bash At The Beach 1996.
For fans over the age of 30, every single one of the above events shaped our lives as we grew with professional wrestling. Each of these moments defines the end of an era, the first step into uncharted waters. No one knew what would be coming next, or what this all meant for our favorite wrestlers. We just knew we were in for a ride.
Now let your imagination run wild for a minute... and picture this.
Jeers and boos erupted from the stadium as professional wrestling’s biggest and most successful superstar just turned heel. Slamming his finishing maneuver onto his babyface tag team partner, he finally gave the crowd exactly what they wanted – a full fledged, nonstop heel turn. Everyone knew he had it in him. Everyone was ready for it. They were expecting it – clamoring at every event. The boos were generally on par or louder than the cheers at this point. Nothing was stopping this train now.
The trash poured into the ring as his compatriots gathered around him in the ring, cheering each other on and tarnishing the reputation of this once esteemed organization. The announcer rang into the ring, desperate for answers and genuinely shocked. “What the hell are you doing?!”
“The first thing you need to do is tell all these people to shut up if they want to hear what I have to say,” he sneered at the crowd. He gestured, he ranted, he aired his grievances to an ungrateful public, finally over the edge by years of abuse and mistreatment from a once adoring crowd.
“You can call this right here – the new new world order of wrestling!” exclaimed John Cena.
You read that right. John Cena, fulfilling the prophecy and destiny.
One of the most admired and loved wrestlers on earth, the man who has fulfilled more Make A Wish requests than any other person in history… now a despicable, chicken shit heel. He’s reformed and resurrected the most feared faction in the history of our great sport – the New World Order. Standing in the ring, flanked by Cesaro and Keith Lee, his henchmen with equally legitimate grievances with both the crowd and the organization that employs them, throwing caution to the wind and bringing a new set of outrageous violence to be inflicted on the WWE. No one is safe – no brand, no superstar, no mercy.
I’m getting goosebumps writing this. I am all about it. I am f*cking here for this turn, because a John Cena heel turn is exactly what wrestling needs right now. More important than anything, the viewers will feel something, and it’s the way to bring the lapsed fans back into the congregation.
When’s the last time you genuinely cared about a wrestling angle like this? A storyline that ACTUALLY upset you? Something happening in the ring? The talent’s there for sure. There’s no stopping these guys right now – so many incredible talents in every organization, it’s impossible to name them all. When did you really feel it last? In your bones, in your soul – you were fully invested, must see TV every week. You already know the answer. The formation of the NWO. Hulk Hogan’s heel turn. The beginning of the Monday Night Wars.
It was the moment the industry changed forever, better or worse. There was no way to imagine the impact that leg drop to Randy Savage would have on sports entertainment, but it was the catalyst for something amazing. Since then, there have been many attempts to use the formula in a new, fresh way – and all have failed to stick the landing in one way or another. They lacked the depth, the feeling, the reach of the New World Order and its charismatic and chicken shit heel leader. Sometimes, the way to reinvent the game is to draw from the past exactly in the way you did before. The best way to reinvigorate these programs, and perhaps wrestling as a whole, is to turn John Cena heel, reform the NWO… and let them start a war with an unwilling, but ultimately accepting, heel Roman Reigns.
I’ve never written for a professional wrestling program. I would never claim to have any significant knowledge or idea, or even perception, of what it takes to create content for television three nights a week, on top of a monthly pay per view. I can’t imagine the demand, the pressure, the significance of working to continue a well-established program in the mold of the undisputed greatest sports entertainment organization of all time: World Wrestling Entertainment. Eric Bischoff, Paul Heyman, Dixie Carter, every single promotional territory in existence, has failed to topple Vince McMahon’s dynasty, and all that come after continue to falter and stumble. McMahon has soundly beat them all, and he sits on the throne.
But something’s been missing since he vanquished his competition. Something has felt off. Since the end of WCW, WWE has faced no real opposition. Eric Bischoff has been the only person to successfully stand toe to toe with Vince and, for a period of time, beat him at his own game. What made Bischoff so successful, so inventive, was that he made the crowd feel something. He made the people experience the heat in ways they hadn’t since Jim Cornette did in the territory days. What separated Cornette from Bischoff was the lack of access to a national television audience, and also the willingness of the industry’s biggest star to turn his back on the audience. It was revolutionary to the American audiences, most that were used to the white meat baby face Hogan and couldn’t believe their eyes.
Bischoff did an entire TED Talk regarding emotion in professional wrestling and its use in the political arena. He tapped into his philosophy and swung for the fences with the Hogan heel turn. What would have happened if the crowd would've rejected this? What if the angle flopped? What if, what if, what if... none of it mattered, WCW needed a big break, and it worked. There’s a serious argument to be had that Bischoff is one of the greatest minds in wrestling, past, present, and future. His use of emotion, allowing the slow burn to build, breaking with the shocking turn, was masterful, extraordinary. It felt real, which is what kept people coming back for more, week after week. Without the Hogan heel turn, there would be no Monday Night War, and WWE may not exist the way we know it today. However, without the effect of true competition in the market, as well as a change in content consumption via the internet age explosion and a bonafide megastar in the vein of a Hulk Hogan, it may be virtually impossible to pull off something so catastrophic. Unless it was pulled off with a character established before the explosion. A character that was both hated and loved the way Hulk Hogan was. It could only be pulled off with perhaps the last true icon of pro wrestling, John Cena, and the groundwork for the turn was already put in play during WrestleMania 36.
My favorite part of WrestleMania 36, an underrated and under appreciated wrestling event that I hold close to my heart for a variety of reasons, was the Firefly Fun House Match. John Cena vs. The Fiend Bray Wyatt. Initially planned as an in-ring wrestling event, it was pushed to the cinematic style approach as the global pandemic forced the world to change. It’s one of the greatest “in-ring” psychological matches of all time. It's a match that was so shocking and so unprecedented in its psychology, it got its own action figure. Its use of the three arc structure, the arrival, betrayal, and ultimate fall of the hero to the forsaken one, the heel turn, is something that hasn't been seen before in the WWE Universe. It relied heavily of classic storytelling, and its composition is second to none. Few pieces of content give me the excitement the way the Firefly Fun House Match does. The story is simple; Bray Wyatt shows John Cena that his biggest enemy has always been himself and that, no matter what or who he thinks he is, Cena will always be just another chicken shit Hollywood Hogan in disguise. The climax of the match comes in the form of the ultimate heel turn move: a chair shot to the unprotected opponent. A do over from their first encounter six years previously at WrestleMania XXX, Cena doesn’t second guess himself in this realm and swings hard at Wyatt. The turn is complete, and Cena takes the plunge head first.
By building on this framework, coupled with the existing narrative that everyone The Fiend comes in contact with becomes a changed person, Cena could return and complete this process in person, all while recruiting the compatriots like Cesaro and Keith Lee, both of whom are incredible performers who haven’t quite gotten their time in the sun yet and would be perfect additions to Cena’s stable as passed over talent desperate for their top spot shot and tired of waiting. History repeats itself, and Cena takes his place at the head of the table.
You can feel it, right? That feeling, that electricity. Where do you take this story? This new, vicious NWO runs through the rosters of Raw, SmackDown, NXT, even 205 Live. No one is safe. Mid-match, mid-promo, on "Talking Smack" segments - you never know where these three will show up. You work the story, let the heat build, the slow burn. This type of destruction doesn't go unnoticed by the other top heel who is looking to cement his place at the top, someone who has history with Cena already. While the destruction takes place, it's easy for him to ignore it at first, but once an attack on Jey Uso backstage happens, it becomes impossible to disregard, and the stage is set for Roman Reigns to become the unwilling but necessary challenger to end John Cena's career and new movement.
Without question, the hottest character in WWE right now is Roman Reigns. After years of struggling and failing to get over with the fans in a positive way, Reigns has ascended to the position as the monster heel he was born to be. With the assistance of Paul Heyman, Reigns has launched an incredible run as Universal Champion, besting both The Fiend and Braun Strowman, then in back to back unbelievable programs with Jey Uso and Kevin Owens. There’s few folks that drive narratives and programs as well as Roman Reigns has recently, which makes him the perfect opponent to this new heel Cena.
Imagine for a moment the first meeting of the two in their new roles. They have a pretty amazing history already, with some serious heat taking place in the ring in August 2017. Cena stood in the ring across the table from Reigns and, after a seriously heated exchange, says “I’m still here because you can’t do your job.” Shoot or work, this certainly felt like real shots fired. Reigns went over on Cena at No Mercy that year, but the battle felt far from over. Allowing each of these folks the space to run with these new characters, taking harder hits at one another, heat seeker after heat seeker. It’d be a classic role reversal; Cena returns as the embattled veteran, desperate to show the world he is the one, while Roman Reigns stands in the ring as the one. Heyman stepping in to assure Reigns of his place and cutting a series of legendary Heyman A+ promos on Cena. Roman Reigns is now forced to side step his mission to proclaim himself as the “head of the table” to deal with this new threat, one that jeopardizes his longevity and place at the top of WWE’s roster. Not only does this story write itself, the heel vs. heel showdown underscores the seriousness of Cena’s heel turn and its impact on the WWE Universe. Reigns becomes the Sting of the modern wrestling arena to Cena’s Hogan – the unwilling hero, unsure whether he’s saving the company or himself.
It’s a fresh spin on a classic winning design, with the players changing ever so slightly. This is a storyline that has an expiration date, one that could only be doable one last time. WWE has struggled to make stars like Hogan and Cena since the acquisition of WCW and the end of the Monday Night Wars, and this opportunity presents a rare “lightning strikes twice” moment where you can retread classics while allowing the building of superstars the way it used to be. Wyatt’s mind games recreated the narrative Bischoff perfected in the 90s, and Cena is the only superstar qualified to helm it. Cena is, for all intents and purposes, the last great icon built through the previous formulas of WWE. To capitalize on this idea, right when the industry as a whole needs a gigantic shot of energy, may be the boost the company needs to bring people back, especially as the return of the live audience is imminent. It’s a storyline that is draped in history and success, and if pulled off properly, could re-ignite the pro wrestling world. It has the potential to set the tone of the next ten years of programs, allow the creation of a brand new fleet of superstars getting over in the ways the WCW stars did during the NWO years, and maybe even allow the competition to flourish in the wake of it.
Maybe it’s just a pipe dream.
Maybe it’s just something best left to the imagination, like Undertaker vs. Sting, better in the theater of the mind than on the screen.
But you’d be lying if you said you couldn't wait to see it go down.
Here's hoping, brother.
Adam Barnard is a staff writer for Kulture Popped and has absolutely no idea how Mr. McBossMan doesn't see that this is such good shit. Check out the rest of his work at ThisisGoober.com.