Heel Heat And Suspending Disbelief
Pro wrestling has gone out of its way to let the world know the matches are predetermined, and with countless shoot interviews available, much of the backstage, behind-the-scenes activity has been made available as well. Some would say this makes the wrestlers job that much more difficult, some say it disencumbers them, allowing them more freedom in their performance. For my money, the best pro wrestling still occurs when a wrestler can make the viewer suspend their disbelief and buy in, 100%, to what they’re seeing in the ring. There have been countless times in my viewing history where I’d watch a show knowing that what I was seeing was predetermined, only to have something slightly out of the ordinary happen in-ring or during a promo that would stop me dead in my tracks and make me think, “Wait, what was that?” If they can make a fan do that, the pro wrestler has not only done their job, but they’ve got you right where they should want you.
Throughout my many years as a wrestling fan, there have been several wrestlers with that special ability to make a fan do a doubletake, to question what they just saw. I always though Kevin Sullivan was one of the better heels I’d ever seen because of this fact. To see him in interviews now, he seems like one of the nicer, more relaxed people you’d ever wanna meet, but his character as a Satanic, wildman, at least for the first large part of his career, never came off as campy or contrived in the least. He lived it, and it showed. Bringing in elements of the occult into pro wrestling was pure genius on his part, especially when you consider where he plied his craft, Florida, often times the buckle of the Bible belt. Attacking people with spikes, cryptic promos, and those dead-on-the-inside eyes of his, it all added up to one of the more inventive, and despite being completely over the top, believable heels I’ve ever seen.
The ‘Loose Cannon’ angle Brian Pillman worked in the mid-90’s was a perfect example of seamlessly melding fact and fiction. So well done was the angle that even inside lifers like Jim Ross questioned whether the things Pillman was saying and doing were real. His ‘worked shoots’ on WCW, Goldust, Eric Bischoff and particularly, Kevin Sullivan and the infamous “I respect you, booker man” were absolute gold. His ability to sell the character was a thing of beauty, and had he not suffered a terrible car accident, which I’ve no doubt hastened his death, Pillman may well have become one of the biggest heel performers in the business.
Pillman’s ‘Loose Cannon’ character was not that dissimilar to the character the legendary Terry Funk played for decades and still plays to this day. His ‘wild man’ style has brought millions of fans to arenas all across the globe. He’s had amazing angles with everyone from Ric Flair to Sabu, The Briscoe Brothers to The New Age Outlaws, and one constant always remained, regardless the decade: People believed Terry Funk was out of his mind. That included many of the wrestlers by the way, as Terry has always been known as a man to march to the beat of his own drum. His ability to get his character across, no matter the cost, is what has made him such a Rushmore-like figure in pro wrestling, and he’s built a legacy that is among the greatest ever.
The whole NWO angle (at least, in its infancy) had plenty of people asking themselves if what they were seeing was real. Before it became watered down with half the WCW roster, the NWO angle was so hot that police were actually called out to shows to check on if actual assaults were taking place. In an era where the curtain was flung wide open, that was some old school heel heat the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years.
I’ve always thought William Regal was one of the most underappreciated heels in wrestling history. His facial expressions, his promo work, the way he carried himself in the ring, everything was done to perfection. Knowing he could take the overwhelming majority of the wrestling world in the ring right now and stretch them until they cried has a lot to with his believability as well. I’ve always thought Regal was born 10 years too late. Had he started in wrestling in America in 1982 rather than 1992, I fully believe he would have been a World Champion. How big would a World Title feud between Regal and Steamboat or Rhodes would have gotten over in the mid-80’s NWA?
Most recently, CM Punk pulled this feat off, last year during the Summer of Punk revival on WWE television. His series of promos he cut on John Cena and WWE were absolute things of beauty, and had it not been for WWE’s woeful mismanagement of the angle, might very well have gone down as one the best storylines in wrestling history. Instead, WWE introduced far too many other variables into the mix, watering it down and effectively killing it, but for a few weeks, CM Punk had all of us believing again.
I could go on and on and name many others, but the accolades would all be the same. Those with the talent to breathe just enough ‘real life’ into their characters that fans are left to ask what’s real and what’s not are a special and unique breed. In an age where the high flyers and spot monkey types seem more and more prevalent, it’s still the guy who gets on a mic or in the ring and makes the fans boo and cheer while also getting them thinking and asking questions that can take the game to a whole new level. Fans go to a wrestling event prepared to be entertained. It’s when a wrestler makes them invest themselves emotionally that you know you’ve got something special.