The Anti-Antagonist: The Story We Tell

Adam Gorzelsky

Bret HartFor as long as I can remember, a manufactured struggle of good vs. evil always has been a part of professional wrestling. Like any other form of fictional storytelling, there has been an ever-present need to provide specific reasons for a crowd to cheer or boo no matter how absurd the reasoning behind such a raw emotional reaction…And let’s be honest here…any longtime fan of professional wrestling is aware of just how far those bounds of absurdity can be pushed.

Despite its effectiveness, there is little question that this standard practice is not without its flaws. Even in the days of Hulkamania when cartoonish wrestling was at its peak, an undercurrent of resentment toward the allegedly clean-cut superhero was present. The smart fans of those days rejected Hogan and cheered for the heels…just listen to the reaction when Flair wins Royal Rumble ’92…but such overt rejection of the neatly drawn boundaries was anything but mainstream.

One could argue that the NWO and the Outsiders in particular brought to the forefront the concept of it being “cool” to cheer for the heels. While this is true, in my mind, the quintessential turning point that solidified a new way of thinking involved Bret Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Onscreen and in reality, Bret was the consummate good guy. You didn’t necessarily need additional reasons to cheer him, but the WWF shoved them down your throat on a regular basis anyway. On the other hand, Steve Austin was as stereotypical a heel as you could imagine. He drank, he cussed, and showed a complete lack of respect for authority figures.

What followed was surprising, yet natural…legitimately unfathomable to a man like Bret Hart, yet wholly understandable when one reflects upon the evolution of professional wrestling. Fans didn’t want to be told who to cheer and certainly were prepared to blur the lines between good and evil. This reality created the Canada vs. America storyline and spawned the Attitude Era itself…What’s amazing is the fact that the fans, not the WWF itself, created this new direction…The WWF merely acquiesced and went along for the ride.

While the Attitude Era is dead and buried, a similar and more impactful phenomenon has been occurring before our eyes. While it still has remained cool to cheer for the heels, an additional factor seems to have taken this rejection of on-screen storytelling to a new level.

24/7 social media such as Twitter takes us inside the minds and onto the radar of a class of individuals who previously were shielded from public view. We enjoy unprecedented access to the individuals behind the superstar personas…As a result, we as fans have every incentive to care more about the performers themselves than the gimmicks portrayed on TV. If we like a performer as person…as a professional…we cheer.

Much of the chatter during this past Raw revolved around the fact that many of the encounters featured heel on heel action (intentionally provocative). Daniel Bryan fought The Miz one night after playing a manipulative male chauvinist at Money in the Bank, while Chris Jericho unceremoniously interrupted a Dolph Ziggler promo that predominantly invoked cheers from the crowd…at least once Vicky put down the mic.

Many people complained that placing these superstars together left unacceptable questions such as who to cheer…Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating a complete abandonment of the face/heel system, as the character dynamics associated with the heel or face persona provide storyline elements in and of themselves. What I am saying, however, is that must-see feuds should not be sacrificed out of a rigid adherence to character classifications…In fact, much like the Hart/Austin situation, WWE would be wise to allow the natural progression of fan reaction to dictate the direction of these must-see feuds.

Dolph ZigglerTake a guy like Dolph Ziggler….a hard working, charismatic individual who has become somewhat of a folk hero for smart fans. At this point, Dolph is going to get cheered whether he kisses a baby or pushes an old woman out of a wheelchair simply because people want to see him succeed…not the character, but the individual. Nevertheless, Jericho/Ziggler will provide an absolute masterpiece of a feud on many levels regardless of the fact that the crowd will engage in dueling “Y2J” and “Let’s Go Ziggler” chants instead of traditional pops/heat.

Most importantly, though, while Ziggler continues to play the technical roll of a heel in this feud, the fans will have the opportunity to dictate his future. Cheering a heel is the ultimate show of respect that sends an unmistakable message to WWE officials that this individual demands to be pushed…There’s little doubt in my mind that the pure emotional fire forged via a feud with Chris Jericho will send this message loud and clear…It’s up to us though…We can dictate what we desire.

Which brings me to my final point in this regard…

Three weeks ago, I discussed the inevitability of John Cena regaining the WWE Title in the near future, even speculating that it could occur as early as the 1000th Raw. While highlighting the potential positive aspects that could result from such a scenario, I was met with the same suggestions that permeate any and all conversations involving John Cena…He needs to turn heel.

I respond to these suggestions in the same manner that I have in the past…The WWE won’t formally turn John Cena heel because of the humanitarian load that has been placed on his back…because the people that he touches outside of the ring are the same fans whose emotional attachments continue to be dictated by the individual’s character inside the ring.

However, more so than ever before, the incoming Punk/Cena situation will provide the fans with an unmatched opportunity to create a path…to write a storyline that absolutely cannot be ignored by WWE. Although Cena has faced his share of hostile crowds, from One Night Stand against RVD to Money in the Bank against Punk, this one has the potential to break the mold. If the golden boy is coronated with a freshly designed belt on the biggest Raw in history, the fans could and should provide a reception that rivals Bash at the Beach ’96.

If politics and finances deprive a new generation of its formal Hulk Hogan moment, we as fans need to exercise the option informally on behalf of WWE. Tap into the years of conditioning that has allowed us to read between the lines and create our own dimensions to the characters…Make Cena the villain on a level never before seen.

In the end, professional wrestling has evolved from a reality fully dictated by the whims of a promoter, to a reality driven by the knowledge and will of the fans. If the return of super-Cena as the unquestioned face and champion of the company is an undesired reality, we’re not powerless to prevent it from coming to fruition.

Don’t forget to check out all of the new shows and content that are a part of the Voice of Wrestling Network. While you’re at it, give myself and Martyn Nolan a listen in our latest edition of Virtually Reality. Check back at every Sunday for each new episode!

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