How is this for babyface behavior? Three weeks ago, face Bayley won the Women’s Championship from heel Charlotte after interference from face Sasha Banks, who hit heel Charlotte with a crutch. A week later, heel Charlotte called for face Bayley to relinquish the title due to the interference. Mega heel Stephanie McMahon even came out to make the argument, in her own oily way, that this was “the right thing” for face Bayley. The basic argument: face Bayley is the personification of goodness. She would never want to potentially tarnish her first Women’s Championship – one of her many lifelong dreams – by keeping a title that she won through interference. She would want to earn it on her own merit. Face Bayley, after much contemplation, refuses joyfully and proudly. Heel Charlotte, later in the segment, tells her that her decision didn’t matter because she’ll beat face Bayley at Fastlane and “earn” the title. This begs the question: who is the face, and who is the heel in this segment?
This isn’t a lone incident. A month ago, the night he was reinjured, Seth Rollins had a promo in the ring with Stephanie McMahon where he was, once again, looking for HHH. They have a back-and-forth where Rollins acts smarmy throughout. Then he goes through a litany of places he’ll go next in search for HHH, ending on, “What happens when I show up at your front step and one of your little kids answers the door, Steph?” This is, arguably, the second biggest face on the brand threatening a preteen on live television to that child’s mother’s face. No major babyface in history could get away with that – not Bruno, not Hogan, not The Rock, not Steve Austin, not one. No matter how rakish and grating Stephanie is, the mind reels at how anyone backstage could think this is a good idea.
Rollins with Stephanie
This is a problem that WWE creative has had for a while now. They have seemingly become confused on how to book a face character. The face character is apparent only considered such because they are wrestling the heel character. Other than that, no real reason exists for fans to cheer these wrestlers beyond the fact that they are supposed to. The Bayley and Rollins examples show the opposite of babyface behavior. In 2017, Rollins condescendingly calls a woman – a high-ranking professional, at that – “buttercup.” He implies violence towards that woman and her children. Meanwhile, Bayley gleefully takes a dishonorable route to victory. She rejects reason from the heel, who shouldn’t ever be speaking reason in the first place. What face has been able to get over on the past two years on a long term basis? The New Day did, but their shtick has been wearing thin for a while. Enzo and Cass got over, but again, that pairing is coming apart at the seams and a breakup and/or heel turn seems imminent. Ziggler got over for one pay-per-view when his career was on the line and he cut a couple passionate promos. Then he was turned heel suddenly once that heat petered out. The lower- and mid-card talents have no heat. Apollo Crews and Kalisto are so stale that they have become reviled. Crowds were chanting, “Thank you, Ziggler,” after he bashed them with chairs, not once but two or three times. Roman is over, but not necessarily in the way the company had hoped. He gets mild face receptions in a few arenas and blasted with jeers everywhere else. Ambrose gets massive pops in some cities, certainly, but lukewarm receptions in others. AJ Styles, an arrogant jock heel, gets more babyface reaction than most other faces in the company.
So what exactly makes a face? In his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” detailing what creates realistic stories and a respectable protagonist, famed noir writer Raymond Chandler wrote, “[D]own…mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world… if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge…If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.” [emphasis added] So what exactly makes a face? If Chandler is accurate, then the qualities consist of being a “common” middle-class, blue-collar worker, a proud person who is not afraid, and most importantly, a person who has some code of honor.
Relatability is paramount for every babyface. It doesn’t always have to be the character that is immediately relatable. Instead, it’s the situation they are in, that he or she is the underdog, the unappreciated, and the downtrodden who has to fight the odds. However, this sense of relatability can also be seen in the language utilized as well. In the Ricky Steamboat promo below, which takes place not long after Randy Savage crushed his throat with a ring bell, he explains that while he was recovering, “each weekend I would watch wrestling like everyone else…on my TV set.” He connects himself to the fan base by saying he’s just like them in watching and enjoying wrestling. Like them, he watches on his television in his living room. He later calls Hulk Hogan “our champion,” again making an emotional appeal to the audience that he is one of them. This type of simple language seems lost in the modern day.
Establishing blue-collar heritage and mentality, which ties into relatability of the character, is also important. During the famous feud between Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair in 1989, this was highlighted particularly well. Flair was seen as the 1 percent of the wrestling world. He went to private school; he has intricate, expensive robes; he rides in limousines and wastes money on partying with a harem of women. Steamboat, however, was the public school student who now has a wife and child that he is providing for. He is humble and unassuming. He has earned his place through merit. In essence, he is the common man. Nobody perfected this poor everyman better than Dusty Rhodes though. In his famous “Hard Times” promo, he connects himself to fans through poverty and unemployment when he defines “hard times” as “when the textile workers around this country are out of work” and “got four or five kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food.” The self-proclaimed “son of a plumber” who eats “pork and beans” uses his blue-collar background as a way to connect to blue-collar, lower-to-middle class fans who have spent their hard-earned money to attend shows. He furthers the appeal when he stretches out his hand to the camera and asks the viewer to do the same with their television screen. “This is my hand touching your hand.” He is literally connecting to the audience through the medium. However, in the modern WWE, class seems to be a non-factor. Little is mentioned about the wealth or family life of the superstars – unless it serves a one-time angle – as everyone arrives in limos and wears expensive clothing. In fact, the last time someone talked about needing to feed his family was a heel, Kevin Owens, which further illustrates the confusion of what makes a face and a heel.
Ricky Steamboat promo before Wrestlemania III
The famous Dusty Rhodes “Hard Times” promo
Babyfaces also must have a code of honor; they must be a moral conscience of the world they inhabit. In the Ricky Steamboat promo above, he says of Randy Savage, “[Y]ou think a man who would still hold some morals as a professional wrestler, being the Intercontinental Champion.” He is focused on the ethics of Savage’s behavior and holds him to a moral code, which he violated by attempting to end Steamboat’s career. In “Hard Times,” Rhodes claims, “I don’t have to say a lot more about how I feel about Ric Flair. No respect. No honor. There is no honor among thieves in the first place.” Again, this example shows that the face has a code that the heel has violated. Even uncommon babyfaces who break rules and display antisocial behavior, such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin,” even these faces have a strong subjective moral code. In 1998, when The Undertaker and the Ministry of Darkness kidnap Stephanie McMahon with the plan for The Undertaker to “marry” her, no one comes out to save her immediately. The segment goes on for minutes when finally The Big Show comes out to help, but is beaten down and tossed from the ring. Finally, the glass breaks, and Austin runs to the ring in his knee braces to take on the Ministry 5-on-1 to save the daughter of a man he despises. Even “Stone Cold” has a code; he refuses to let this type of thing occur in his world. In the following promo, Sting becomes the moral conscience of WCW – a role he takes up in a more substantial way for years as “Crow” Sting – when he criticizes the hypocrisy of Hogan “wiping out and trashing every little kid, every single person that was a part of your life, that patterned their life after you.” The babyface should not only have a code but also announce that code proudly and stand up against those that break it.
Sting on the night after Hulk Hogan joins the NWO
Finally, babyfaces must stand up for themselves and keep fighting the good fight; it is a sense of pride for them to stand up after they get knocked down. John Cena says this all the time. Every time he’s been matched on the mic with a heel in the past eight years, he talks about how he never gives up and “when he gets knocked down, he gets back up.” Despite how trite he might have made the concept through repetition, it has a long history in the business. Dusty Rhodes gained considerable steam as he came back from his broken leg at the hands of The Four Horsemen in a legendary program. In the 1999 Last Man Standing match, The Rock beat Mick Foley over his head with chairshot after disgusting chairshot until even the viewer wanted Mick to give up, yet he didn’t. Austin turned into a babyface against Bret Hart in another historic match at Wrestlemania XIII due to his unwillingness to quit. These are just a few prime examples that show that this underdog, never-say-die attitude is one of the key necessities for any successful babyface to succeed.
Given these characteristics, the only person on the current roster that isn’t tarnished or miscast, the only person to push as a top babyface, the only one person, given proper build and booking, that exhibits these qualities is Sami Zayn. Sami with his cabbie hat, his windbreaker, his ginger beard, and genuine smile has the look of the friendly guy t the local pub, the one is straight-as-they-come, always has a good word, and always makes people laugh. He isn’t built like Reigns or Rollins. He is fit, but fit in the way a man who works with his hands is fit. He does not look like the prototypical wrestler of 2017. He doesn’t have tanned, glistening muscles. He doesn’t have long, perpetually wet hair. Instead, he has the look of the everyman.
Beyond his everyman appearance, the promos below show that Sami speaks from the heart, no matter the emotion, with ease. All of his emotions feel genuine and earned. He doesn’t exaggerate; he doesn’t attempt to be too clever. He doesn’t say “have” but “got” as he speaks the common vernacular of his time. All of this connects to an audience over time, given enough exposure of course.
Sami has consistently displayed a thoughtfulness and conscience. In September, he warned Chris Jericho that Kevin Owen would turn on him just as he did Sami. He didn’t need to do this. And after Owens showed his true colors, Sami did not gloat. In promo 1 below, he says that he “takes no joy” in being right about Owens. In his classic match last year with Owens, he held his collapsed former best friend in his arms after a Helluva Kick. He held him out of instinct, out of compassion, before that fire kicked in as he remembered all the horrible acts Owens committed against him and gave him another Helluva Kick to seal the deal.
That match also shows that Sami is no pushover – he has a moral code. He can be kind and compassionate, but when his code is violated, when his opponent is wrong, he will stand up to them. In promo 2 below, he actually repeats the earlier words of his NXT mentor, Dusty Rhodes, when talking about Samoa Joe: “He’s got no respect. He’s got no honor.” He even calls him “a corporate stooge,” which puts Joe on the side of power and money and Sami himself on the side of the working class and the fans. In another instance, two months ago, no one on the roster would take on the up-and-coming monster, Braun Strowman, but Sami did. When he was asked backstage why he picked a fight with the behemoth, he only said, “Because no one else would.” Sami, here, shows he is a man of honor and bravery. Mick Foley, who didn’t want Sami to get injured while fighting Braun, set a ten-minute match where Sami would win if he survived the ten minutes. Sami did. But in promo 3 below, Sami says he challenged Braun again because that’s “not the victory that [he wants].” Compare that sentiment, simply, to what WWE wrote for Bayley two weeks ago.
Sami Zayn promo 1 – regarding Jericho and Samoa Joe
Sami Zayn promo 2 – regarding Samoa Joe at Fastlane
Sami Zayn promo 3 – regarding challenging Braun Strowman
Ending of Sami versus Owens at Battleground
WWE is proving, over and over, that they lack the ability to note the characteristics of a true babyface in modern times. They cast people in the wrong roles (Reigns), they script inappropriate narrative and dialogue for them (Rollins), or tarnish their consistency through illogical character choices (Bayley). But the confusing part of this problem is that the characteristics haven’t changed. They were the same in 1985 as they were in 1998 as they are today. If WWE capitalized upon the babyface traits Zayn holds, that he holds “by inevitability,” he could easily rise to the top babyface in the company and get the fans to cheer for him in the way they want Reigns and Rollins and Bayley to be cheered. Hopefully, in the “new year” following Wrestlemania, we will all get to see the rise of a true face of the company in Sami Zayn.