John Cena, Roman Reigns, and WWE's Heel/Babyface Issue
John Cena was the most hated babyface in WWE but that title now belongs to Roman Reigns, as the heel/face dynamic continues to be an issue.
John Cena’s reign over the WWE is the stuff of legend. There’s an asterisk by that of course, due to the fact that he was never capable of maintaining a long-lasting foundation of support as a babyface. Indeed of all the things he did for the company and all the things WWE did for him, it’s the one blemish on his career.
He may not mind, and WWE doesn’t seem to mind either. After all, WWE always claimed that any reaction was better than no reaction and Cena seemed perfectly happy to go along with that. Perhaps wrestling fans read too much into it. Or perhaps the company doesn’t read enough into it.
The heel/babyface dynamic has been around for nearly as long as the business of professional wrestling has. Good versus evil has been around much longer of course, and that’s at the heart of every pro-wrestling presentation.
The format can change, the ideas can evolve, and the talent can adopt any sort of style imaginable. But at the end of the day, it’s the eternal tale of right and wrong, of heroes and villains. Fans know that. The boys in the locker room know that. Even WWE knows that.
But that didn’t stop Vince McMahon from turning the business upside down. Telling the world that pro-wrestling was a work and not to be taken seriously, was just the first step. Kayfabe died a long time ago, and WWE has done everything in its power to ensure it stays dead.
So Cena was the most hated hero the world has ever seen. So what? In the world of WWE, the only thing that mattered was what the company said and that still holds true today. Heels vie for the cheers of fans when they shouldn’t, but WWE tells everyone those heels should be hated.
Babyfaces work to gain approval but are booed for it, and WWE reminds everyone that those faces are “controversial,” and that everyone has their own opinions. Yet heels are still booked as despicable cowards, and babyfaces are still booked as valiant champions. So WWE must still believe in the same principles that brought them to the dance. Right?
But WWE exists in a vacuum, where only the company’s mandates are deemed important. Roman Reigns is despised, but he’s not presented as a villain. Bray Wyatt is more popular than he’s perhaps ever been, but he is no hero. White is black, and black is white.
Much of the blame for today’s WWE falls at the feet of Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Texas Rattlesnake was the most popular antihero of all time, and he was really the first to transition that character into a full-time babyface.
Jake the Snake Roberts and The Road Warriors were examples of that very situation, but Austin did it on a scale never seen before.
Fans loved Stone Cold even though he flipped them off. Grown men and women cheered a bald redneck drinking beer that shoved his middle finger in their faces. Austin had no business ever getting over as a baby, but that’s exactly what he did.
From that point on, the heel/babyface dynamic was forever changed in WWE. Suddenly antiheroes became the norm. The white meat babyfaces of the 1980’s disappeared. The same was true of the coldhearted heels that fought against them. They were all replaced by a new breed of wrestlers that went to the extreme for approval and ratings.
Today’s New Era is the evolution of WWE from The Attitude Era. Now instead of curse words and lewd behaviour, Superstars rely on their athleticism to get them over. Flips and dives are methods to get there. But is all of that working?
Stone Cold certainly cannot be blamed for skewing the product when he finally hit it big in WWE, nor can WWE, for capitalising on Austin’s popularity and turning him face. The company had to strike while the iron was hot; there was just no other choice.
But fans’ response to Austin’s character at that time carried over to every popular heel that came after. It was chalked up to the changing times, and to the tastes of the audience who wanted something edgier. However WWE has not been the same since then, and it certainly seems to have grown worse over the years.
Perhaps the biggest problem is WWE’s insistence on not listening to the fans when it matters the most. Reigns and Wyatt are just two prime examples of talents that should each be on the other side, yet WWE will not make it happen.
Many believe that fans should never dictate how a pro wrestling company handles its characters, that heel and faces should be presented as booked.
But when 20,000 people blow the roof off with pure hate for Reigns and later light up their phones as they sing along to Wyatt’s music, then something is wrong. WWE needs to refocus and reexamine how its talents are booked. That’s been the case for a very long time.
Of course, as long as kayfabe is dead, nothing will ever change. Heels and faces mix on social media all the time. Guys appear out of character every day and it’s all captured online for the whole world to see. Any real adherence to kayfabe is nonexistent, and everyone in WWE seems just fine with it.
Cena’s character appeared to be an aberration in the beginning. But as time went on, it became obvious that everything was changing in the WWE. Now Cena’s company continues to follow the path of most resistance, and it’s not doing them any favours in the long run.
WWE has moved into an extremely odd spot where the idea of good and evil are laughable notions, yet babyfaces and heels still exist. They should exist of course as pro wrestling will always need them in order to survive. But in Vince McMahon’s company, the rules simply do not apply.
But they do at the same time. It’s a situation as confusing as Cena himself, and WWE seems intent on continuing as is. Maybe it’s not so black and white after all.
Tom Clark can regularly be seen on Sportskeeda. His podcast, Tom Clark’s Main Event, is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Android, Windows Phone and online at boinkstudios.com
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