It’s January 23, 1984. Madison Square Garden. It’s the night when Hulk Hogan would first be crowned WWF champion, defeating the despicable Iranian nationalist the Iron Sheik. Your announcers are Gorilla Monsoon and Pat Patterson.1 The action starts — illegally — before the bell even rings:
Gorilla Monsoon: He’s on top of Hogan, pounding away! And Hogan still has his robe on! [ … ] Hogan, down in the center of the ring, still got his ring gear on! The Sheik now has Hogan’s robe — and he clotheslined him with it! Down to the canvas!
Pat Patterson: The Sheik — he’s an animal! [ … ]
Gorilla Monsoon: Finally referee Dick Loetz2 manages to get that robe away from him. And Sheik is saying, “Get on your feet, boy. I want a piece of you.” The Sheik with a big right hand!3 And another! Hulk going for the ride, into the ropes. Sheik up, and a vicious clothesline sends him down, and a knee to the neck area!
[The Sheik gouges Hogan's eyes.]
Gorilla Monsoon: The Sheik will use any means and any way in his power to win this match. Deliberate choke now by the Iron Sheik as referee Dick Loetz steps in and gives him the count! [ … ]
Pat Patterson: Oh! He is actually spitting on Hogan!
That’s a verbatim transcript of the announcers that night, with one admitted change: I switched the names of Hogan and the Iron Sheik throughout. Because, weirdly, it makes way more sense that way. You can watch that match, get caught up in the excitement of Hogan winning, and totally miss one of the most significant aspects: Despite the fact that the Sheik was the anti-American terror and Hogan was the golden-boy hero, Hogan was wrestling as a heel.
Hogan had played a villain earlier in his career, but his charisma made it impossible to keep him on that side of the spectrum in the AWA. When he came (back) to the WWF near the end of 1983, his routine was already more or less codified. People remember the high points of his set of moves: the “Hulking up,” the finger wagging, the leg drop. But there were other standards: the illegal punch, the rake of the eyes, the rake of the back. Hogan’s look may have been heroic, but much of his repertoire belonged to a rogue.
The heel shtick extended beyond Hogan’s ring work. Throughout his prime WWF period, between 1983 and 1993, Hogan was a dick basically every moment that he wasn’t boring. In 1987, Hogan was presented with a trophy for being champion for three years; a week later, Andre received a (smaller) trophy of his own for being undefeated for 15 years. (The WWF gave the trophies out for no noticeable reason other than to start this feud, and the presentations took place on Piper’s Pit, of all places.) When Hogan got his trophy, Andre congratulated him modestly; when Andre received his, Hogan interrupted Andre to give a long, self-centered speech. Andre soon turned against Hogan, largely because he felt Hogan had egotistically upstaged him. Hogan actually had egotistically upstaged him. Andre had every right to feel insulted.
When Hogan finally dropped the WWF title, his “friend” Randy Savage won it in a tournament. Hogan promptly teamed up with Savage, upstaging him with his sheer presence throughout much of Savage’s championship reign. Their partnership fell apart when Savage went into a jealous rage over Hogan’s apparent displays of affection for Savage’s girlfriend, Miss Elizabeth. Even though Savage was painted as the villain — just as Andre had been — Hogan had repeatedly shown ostentatious affection for Elizabeth. Savage had every right to feel disrespected by that.
Soon after Hogan’s triumphant second return to the WWF in 1993,4 he appeared at ringside in the main event of WrestleMania IX to help his “friend” Bret Hart, who had lost the WWF title to Yokozuna. Hogan showed great concern for Hart — until Yokozuna taunted Hogan and challenged him to a match right then and there, which he immediately accepted, forgetting his concern for Hart and claiming the belt as his own in short order. One minor irony here is that, previously, Hogan had been teaming up with his real-life friend Ed Leslie, a.k.a. Brutus Beefcake, and they were slated to win the tag team belts, but Hogan (in real life) decided it was beneath him, and so came the Hart-Yokozuna angle.
Hogan is the greatest hero the WWF has ever known, and certainly its biggest star.
And while he was never cast as a villain, he just might have been its biggest heel.5
I‘m not bringing this up to attack Hogan. (Though, increasingly, he’s something of an easy target, as Stuart Millard captured in his meta-critique “The Mad Lies of Hulk Hogan.” Instead, I’d like to use Hogan as a point of comparison for the current state of WWE’s top heroes. A month ago, good guys John Cena, CM Punk, and Sheamus, along with the vague ongoing presences of Triple H and The Rock, outweighed their heel counterparts on the roster to an oddly significant degree. The top heels were either infrequent performers like Brock Lesnar, under-established stars like Daniel Bryan and Dolph Ziggler, or guaranteed losers like Chris Jericho.6 For more than a year, fans have been clamoring for a Cena heel turn to balance the scales and break the monotony. This isn’t the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling era anymore, when Hogan could reign atop the WWF for years on end, facing a procession of monster bruisers and aggrieved former friends. Since the ’90s, changes in allegiance have gone from revolutionary to pro forma, expected turns in any wrestler’s career path; once Hogan himself turned away from the light to join the nWo, it was plain that there were no more sacred cows when it came to good and evil characters. Cena’s consistency isn’t just unusual — for the ADD-afflicted modern viewer, it’s unsettling.
But now, just weeks later, we find the WWE hierarchy in a place of more balance if not greater certainty, thanks almost entirely to CM Punk’s heel turn. In his brief WWE career, Punk has flip-flopped several times. He started his WWE career (on their ECW brand) as a face, briefly turned heel there, and then came to SmackDown as a face before turning heel in a feud with Jeff Hardy. After a run as the leader of a cultish troupe called the Straight Edge Society, Punk finally became a nominal face a year ago by virtue of his famous worked-shoot promo, and in the months that followed he dared the WWE fans to cheer him over the establishment champ, John Cena. By the time 2012 rolled around, Punk had devolved into a more traditional good-guy champ — albeit in the antiheroic Attitude Era mold — trading in his verbal razor blades for a watered-down, jokey version of his formerly subversive style. That all changed a few weeks ago, when he shockingly attacked The Rock, who had returned to inform the world that he’d be wrestling for the WWE championship at Royal Rumble in January 2013.
Survivor Series in November. Months of trading blows with Cena couldn’t affect the adulation Punk got from the crowd, but presumably blindsiding The Rock was a bridge too far. The show ended with Punk staring at his hands, coming to grips with what he had done — the Pietà pose of heel turns.
The question now is whether the fans will accept him as a heel. His feud with Cena last summer cemented him not as a straight hero but as the flag-bearer of the anti-Cena segment of the WWE fan base. Will Punk’s being designated a bad guy entail that the crowd will boo him accordingly? It’s certainly conceivable that Punk — more than anybody else in the business — can succeed as a heel because the smart fans respect him enough to respond appropriately, to boo not because they hate Punk but because they know he wants them to.
It’s the polar opposite of the situation in which Cena has been mired for the past year. When he feuded with Punk, he was the de facto heel. In fact, he was the best heel in WWE. Nobody could rouse a crowd’s ire or inflate an opponent’s stock in the eyes of smart fans better than Cena. And despite a few feints toward a heel turn, he has remained the WWE’s heroic stalwart, even through the boos.
Which is not to say that Cena’s persona has been pristine. He talked trash to Punk and The Rock in a manner that would have been unheard of for good guys in eras past; Cena-Rock wasn’t a Hogan–Ultimate Warrior collision of holy forces so much as it was a snaps contest that made both guys look smaller. He speaks of his passion for the sport with all the reverence that Hogan told his fans to take their vitamins, but he’s shown a nonchalance for rule-breaking to rival Hogan’s: He threw Edge into the Long Island Sound in 2006 and tossed Kane off the roof of an ambulance. (Cena’s feuds with Punk and The Rock were realistic and layered, and he wrestled them respectfully.) This doesn’t even mention the numerous times Cena has slammed opponents through tables and attacked them with the metal ring steps. Rarely has a character booked to be so pure attempted homicide so nonchalantly.
Cena, for what it’s worth, is the clear-cut babyface in the World Heavyweight Championship match this Sunday at SummerSlam. He’ll be taking on defending champ Punk and pure baddie The Big Show.7 On this week’s Raw, he surprised fans and engaged in some gray-shading of his own by refusing to shake Punk’s hand after they teamed in a tag match. “I stuck my hand out and he didn’t shake my hand,” Punk said afterward. “That’s the ultimate sign of disrespect where I come from.”8 To be fair, Punk did stage a semi-walkout at the end of the match after Cena mocked a couple of Punk’s moves, but any cracks in Cena’s moral façade are significant, even if those cracks never amount to much. He’s been heroic for so long in an industry where fan-favoritism is as disposable as athletic tape, and that consistency makes the prospect of Cena’s eventual heel turn overshadow nearly everything he does. At SummerSlam, the likely outcome should be Punk retaining the title; this triple-threat match feels like a space filler before a more significant match in the future, and WWE has been making such a big deal about the length of Punk’s title reign that one assumes it’ll continue. But that said, WWE has always been built upon good guys winning in the end. Sure, villains have held the WWE Championship, but only a few — JBL, Shawn Michaels, Yokozuna — have held it for any real length of time, and during those stretches there weren’t many viable good-guy champions available. On Sunday, the real intrigue will be in seeing which side of the ideological spectrum the crowd supports.
In the other title match, Sheamus, the holder of SmackDown‘s World Heavyweight Championship, defends his belt against Alberto Del Rio. I’d normally say “spoiler alert” before naming Sheamus’s opponent, who won’t be officially announced until Friday night’s episode of SmackDown airs, but the news has been out online for several days already and nearly all of WWE’s Internet fan base reads the spoilers. Sheamus started his WWE career as a villain and turned face last summer, courting the young-adult fan base by portraying something approximating a brawny Irish Pixar character. Now his situation may be nearly as immutable as Cena’s; Sheamus is widely seen as the only guy on the roster who could supplant John Cena as the heroic public face of WWE. (CM Punk may be a high-wattage star, but he seems reluctant to assume the talk show/Make-A-Wish/public-relations role in which Cena excels.)
Sheamus’s run as a babyface, however, has been even sketchier than Cena’s. Despite his invincible presentation, Sheamus has inherited the mantle of Hogan-style in-ring corruption more than anyone else. Back in February, he attacked Daniel Bryan, his upcoming opponent at WrestleMania, after Bryan retained the World Heavyweight Championship in a grueling Elimination Chamber bout — the sort of move normally reserved for villains. He beat Bryan at ‘Mania by blindsiding him with a kick before Bryan knew the match had started, which would have been despicably underhanded if Sheamus hadn’t been the match’s hero.9 Throughout their feud, Sheamus’s humor took on a mean edge, as he seemed to relish belittling the diminutive Bryan as much as pounding him. His recent feud with Alberto Del Rio has seen him relentlessly jeer Del Rio’s unathletic attaché, Ricardo Rodriguez — a particularly bizarre move for a guy who’s the face of the WWE’s “Be a Star” anti-bullying campaign. Last week, Sheamus stole Del Rio’s car and trashed it just for giggles. These tactics aren’t typically found in Chapter 1 of the white-knight playbook.
And I haven’t even mentioned the other three biggest matches on the SummerSlam card. The aforementioned Daniel Bryan will be battling Kane, who, after months of terrorizing Cena and Randy Orton, became a good guy without much narrative effort a month ago. Dolph Ziggler will face off against Chris Jericho, who was an unrepentant villain until just a few weeks ago. And in the main event, WWE chief operating officer Triple H will take on NCAA champion wrestler turned pro wrestler turned UFC fighter turned pro wrestler Brock Lesnar in a match where the face-heel alignment is almost at odds with itself: Devil-may-care badass versus corporate suit is a story we’ve seen before in Austin vs. McMahon and Cena vs. John Laurinaitis, but this time we’re supposed to boo Lesnar, the rebel, and root for Triple H, The Man. Even with help from his loathsome representative Paul Heyman, Lesnar is almost too badass to be bad, so this past Monday he crippled Shawn Michaels on Raw. Michaels is Triple H’s buddy and probably the only universally beloved wrestler in recent memory. If anything could solidify Lesnar’s villainy, this is it. After he beats the hell out of Triple H on Sunday, it will be interesting to see whether the crowd sympathizes with the COO’s misery or the cage fighter’s determination.
In one sense, Lesnar would actually be the perfect example for the hero’s dilemma, because to some extent, the heelish tendencies of wrestling heroes can be read as a broader statement about the game. In the world of fake sport, just as in boxing and MMA, professional fighters are expected to be egotistical assholes. It’s too simplistic to say that with Punk or Cena or Sheamus, their willingness to embrace their inner villains is just a symptom of modern wrestling. That all heroes after “Stone Cold” Steve Austin have some degree of “anti” prefixed upon them. But it’s important not to forget the old days, even before the famous yellow and red of Hulkamania gave way to more nuanced shades of gray, the Hulkster — the WWF’s first icon — was never as virtuous as he’s remembered to be.
It’s not what wrestlers do that makes them heroes, it’s how we respond to them. Or how we’re expected to respond. Heroes come in several different packages, but the one constant is that they’re all jerks. We like them that way.