Every pro wrestling fans appreciates the classic heel or face turn. Ones seemingly inevitable when unexpected injuries throw storylines into the mix, likewise an opportunity for a promotion to reward an athlete needing a new character lease on life.
Some, of course, do this better than others, with it arguably directly attributed to his/her ability to embrace the turn. For heels, blatant mocking of a crowd, disregarding rules, the occasional cheap shot. For faces, channeling values, ethics and ethos, brighter colored ring gear, and a willingness to get the beejebuz beaten out of you to protect the outnumbered but truly good guy or gal.
But then there’s the grey area.
For some peculiar reason, promotions continuously feel uncomfortable in treading that delicate middle ground of empowering an audience to determine allegiances. To this day, I’m shocked how many consecutive times creative teams of all sizes feel the urge to ‘rescue’ seeming heels from crowd respect to obscurity, likewise push snarky faces to goofy status. The nail in the coffin is new merchandise: a seeming endorsement of where these individuals should be.
It’s befuddling, really, as this a tale of competition as old as sport itself. The triumphant hero victor learns to respect the steadfastness of the seeming villain. The reverse from a would-be-bad guy recognizing s/he underestimated someone deserving of respect. Still, weekly storylines push cliques, entrance music, and ring entrances as preferred dictation prose. Even kids like to pick their own favorites.
I recall a wonderful conversation with a terrific talent in Jonny Vandal about his character, one literally chained to Trina Michaels and with clear sexual undertones. Sure, Vandal is intended as a heel based on opponents. Still – and after some time discussing his character – he proclaimed he really thought his character was making strides in its complexity. And he was more than right, with Vandal and Michaels crowd favorites at every venue. There’s a reason an Athlete Appreciation piece is dedicated to Vandal.
There’s another athlete appreciation piece on Shane Taylor, the perfect epitome of a grey area character. Badass enough to strike fear into anyone, but begrudgingly accepting of any sparring partner willing to step into the ring with him…and, most importantly, confident in doing so. The same can be said about the likes of Adam Cole and Roderick Strong; there’s a reason they’re so popular as would-be-heels turned crowd heroes.
This only gets worse for female athletes, where stereotypes immediately come into play. Good girl or bitch…but why not let the crowd decide? It’s no coincidence Alexa Bliss gear dominated Wrestlemania stands; she’s the one mainstream female wrestler with a long enough leash to avoid character oversimplification. She’s anything but nice, but sports a competitive fire sans sappiness is one fans can’t help but enjoy. It’s the same trait people love in The Undertaker.
Embrace the grey.