6/19/15 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
At Battleground 2014, John Cena beat Kane, Randy Orton, and Roman Reigns in a Fatal Fourway match to retain the WWE World Heavyweight Title. It was a decent match- Cena retained in his first defense while most fans remained preoccupied with disappointment over Daniel Bryan’s neck injury forcing him to vacate the belt. The significance of the match is that it was the last time a babyface wrestler won a match for WWE’s flagship title.
Almost a year later, Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins have held the title have held the title by a variety of means, but no fan favorites have been able to overtake them. Collectively, they withstood challenges from Cena, Roman Reigns, Randy Orton, and Dean Ambrose. For over 300 days, no babyface wrestler has been able to win a WWE Title match.
That development is significant because it bucks WWE’s historical trend. Generally, wrestling promotions are booked as “face territories” or “heel territories.” Face territories are those in which a succession of monsters, jerks, and assorted bad guys parade through as challengers for a conquering hero. Heel territories are led by a villain who fans want to see beaten so badly that they pay their money, show after show, to see the latest challenger take a shot at him.
From its inception, WWE has undoubtedly been a face territory. After Bruno Sammartino took the title from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers a month into the WWWF’s split from the NWA in 1963, he or Pedro Morales held the top spot for the next eleven years, save for interludes by Ivan Koloff and Stan Stasiak totaling 30 days. After a run from Superstar Billy Graham that lasted almost a year, Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan dominated the better part of the next decade.
The introduction of the PPV era encouraged WWE to change its champion more often to sell big shows, but nearly every lengthy title run belonged to a fan-favorite with a legitimate claim as face of the company. Hogan gave way to Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, who gave way to Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, who gave way to John Cena.
There were interruptions along the way, but they mostly amounted to blips on the radar. Yokozuna held the title for nearly a year, though his dominance was meant to build toward the coronation of Lex Luger as Hulk Hogan 2.0. The rapid-fire title changes of the Attitude Era complicate the analysis, as does the varying statuses of the WWE Title and the World Heavyweight Title in the mid-00s.
Nonetheless, the only prolonged heel reign at the top of the company’s pecking order since Graham and Yokozuna was HHH’s from 2002-2004. He held the title four times, with shorter reigns by Michaels, Goldberg, Chris Benoit, and Randy Orton sandwiched between his wins. HHH made WWE a true heel territory for a brief time because the shows were built around a series of challengers trying to dethrone him. He was no transitional champion- he beat the likes of Booker T, Kane, Rob Van Dam, and Scott Steiner who all tried to ascend to the top of the card. Whenever HHH did lose, it was portrayed as a monumental triumph of good over evil.
That period in WWE more closely resembled the NWA in the 1980s. That period was known for wrestlers like the late Dusty Rhodes or Kerry Von Erich briefly holding the title before it fell back into the grip of Harley Race or Ric Flair and the next challenger would start his pursuit. Fans paid to see their heroes chase the title rather than try to fend off nefarious rivals.
The change in the last year feels more like a philosophical shift than an aberration because it has accompanied glacial movement in the company’s creative structure. Vince McMahon has made no secret of the fact that he prefers a babyface champion who can branch out beyond wrestling, draw in new fans, and grow the business beyond its core. But Vince is not alone atop the company hierarchy as he has been for over 30 years.
Ironically, when McMahon started to share control, he did with the one man who bucked the company’s historical trend: HHH. Perhaps McMahon chose to consult with HHH because he offers a counterpoint to his own thinking, or maybe it only has to do with keeping control of the company in the family. Either way, it is obvious that WWE’s booking changed perceptibly at around the time HHH became a force within the creative team.
If the shift toward a heel at the top of the card is not enough evidence, consider the example of NXT. HHH is unquestionably the driving creative force for WWE’s developmental roster. The most significant storyline in NXT in the last year was the debut and rapid ascent of Kevin Owens, a heel in the purest sense of the word. Fans immediately noticed that Owens’s win over Sami Zayn looked a lot like Brock Lesnar’s thrashing of John Cena at last year’s SummerSlam. We know that there is one voice that carries weight in both NXT and on the WWE main roster, and that voice belongs to HHH.
Another key factor in the decision to book a face or heel territory is the personnel on hand. Vince McMahon has been lucky to land on Hogan and Cena as two of the most bankable, consistent talents in wrestling history. Since the emergence of Cena, he has tried to create others in his image, but that goal has proven very difficult to achieve. As the likes of Batista, Bobby Lashley, and Reigns have failed to capture the same babyface staying power, the prospect of another option must seem comparatively more desirable.
One common thread in heel champions is that they have to be able to maintain their unlikable qualities through thick and thin. Ric Flair would cheat to win and antagonize every hero in between his matches. HHH incorporated fans’ real life distaste for his politicking into his character. Over the last year, Rollins has proven capable of serving as a despicable foil to a variety of opponents. Likewise, the Owens persona has long term potential because it is rooted in very believable characteristics.
In spite of all of these factors, the safe money is on WWE continuing to do what has made the company successful for more than 50 years. As the biggest wrestling company in the world, it makes sense to have a marketable face that people like for PR purposes. Perhaps it’s more likely, given the success of non-traditional champions like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan- that WWE will tweak its Platonic ideal of a babyface champion, but keep the overall structure in place.
Regardless of what happens in the next few months, the past year is already unique in WWE history. With so few prolonged stretches of heel dominance, Lesnar and Rollins have already made themselves different from their predecessors. Given the environment in WWE- both on-screen and backstage- it’s at least worth considering the possibility that this difference symbolizes something larger.