There’s always been an art to turning a wrestler from a heel to a babyface in professional wrestling. When we as fans take a step back and look at it through a wider lens, it’s really a lot that the company asks of us who become emotionally invested in characters: “Okay, we know you’ve hated this guy for a while, but now try liking him for a change.” I find it’s easier for fans to adapt to booing a newly turned heel than it is for them to accept a newly turned face. After all, betrayal is so much easier to accomplish and understand than redemption.
In my mind, there are only four major types of babyface turns, which I will list in order of weakest to strongest. I believe that the weakest type of babyface turn is when a heel is forced to turn babyface after being betrayed by another heel (i.e. Shawn Michaels in 1995, Mick Foley in 1998, Brock Lesnar in 2002, Randy Orton in 2004, John Morrison in 2009, R-Truth and Alex Riley in 2011). I feel this is the weakest because the heel in question didn’t have any change of heart until he was forced to out of necessity. Sometimes the crowd forgives them and embraces them, like with HBK, Lesnar and Morrison. Other times, the crowd doesn’t buy it and never embraces him, like Randy Orton, and they turn back heel.
The next strongest type of turn is when a heel is humbled out of his own braggadocio after a rough loss, major injury, or losing streak (i.e. Razor Ramon in 1993, Steve Austin in late 2001, Triple H and Hulk Hogan in 2002, Kurt Angle in 2003, MVP in 2009, Edge in 2010, Zack Ryder in 2011, Chris Jericho in 2012). This is a pretty strong type of babyface turn because WWE can weave its own tale of redemption.
Next is when a heel is so fed up with being evil that he decides to give being good a shot (i.e. Sgt. Slaughter in 1991, Undertaker and Mr. Perfect in 1992, Lex Luger in 1993, Yokozuna in 1996, Mankind in 1997, The Rock in 1999, John Cena in 2003, Shelton Benjamin in 2004, Ric Flair in 2005, Triple H in 2006, Sheamus in 2010). This is a very strong type of turn because the heel is able to see what he’s doing is wrong and can have a change of heart without being forced to.
The strongest type of babyface turn is when a heel is so damn cool he does absolutely nothing to change but the crowd embraces him anyway (i.e. Steve Austin in 1997, DX in 1998, Chris Jericho in 1999, Eddie Guerrero in 2003, Randy Orton in 2010, and CM Punk in 2011). Turns like these don’t happen very often because the support needs to be so great that the storyline is out of WWE’s hands and they have no choice but to go with it.
So WWE has recently taken two if its most diabolical characters over the past few years and decided that you should cheer for them. So far, one turn has worked perfectly while the other is struggling to get some traction underneath it. This is the story of The Miz and Alberto Del Rio.
Miz was the first of the two to turn, so I’ll begin with him. His turn falls into the “humbled” category after a series of losses to Kofi Kingston. Miz was a very interesting choice to turn babyface, considering that he had been responsible for the betrayal and subsequent face turns of John Morrison, Alex Riley, and R-Truth. These guys could have started a Miz Betrayal Support Group.
Miz joined Mick Foley’s Survivor Series team in November, cementing his status as a babyface. This turn hasn’t caught on because, for the most part, Miz hasn’t really changed any of the qualities that made him so unlikable in the first place. He’s still extremely annoying, full of himself, and “above” everybody else with his connections, such as being able to pull Ric Flair onto his Miz TV talk show segment. The only difference is that now he’s focusing his attention on being an antagonist for baddies like Antonio Cesaro rather than Kofi Kingston.
The Miz actually has some decent qualities to him that I feel aren’t being played up enough to make him likable. For one, Miz absolutely busted his ass to go from a green rookie to a polished veteran starting from his Miz & Morrison tag team in 2007 to busting out on his own in 2009 and ultimately becoming WWE Champion in 2010. It’s the quintessential tale of working your way up the ladder. Miz has shown flashes of these hard-working qualities recently by “working hurt” with a taped-up shoulder.
Ironically, the only person who seems to take notice of Miz’s hard work is the heel commentator, JBL (who even more ironically was the man who tortured Miz backstage in real life when Miz was starting out in 2006). Michael Cole, who was touting Miz’s qualities when he was a heel play-by-play man in 2010-11, now strangely is an antagonist to Miz on commentary (especially during Main Event, which Miz co-hosts with Cole) when Cole is now, for all intents and purposes, playing it straight and neutral. Had Cole still been the annoying heel announcer of years past, being at odds with Miz may have helped Miz come off more likable. Now, a more subdued Cole isn’t doing Miz any favors by testing him on commentary.
Finally, the key to any good redemption story is to make it count by being triumphant. Believe it or not, turning face has actually made Miz worse in kayfabe turns. He’s suffered some pretty devastating beatdowns at the hands of The Shield, Brock Lesnar, and now Antonio Cesaro. Everybody loves a winner, and aside from the occasional victory over the Prime Time Players or Cody Rhodes, Miz doesn’t win.
When you look at the reasons for turning Miz face, his upcoming Marine sequel seems to be a main reason. But WWE knew Miz was going to film this movie for a while, and frankly, I thought Miz should have turned babyface back at Wrestlemania by being the final member of Team Teddy. Heck, even John Lauranaitis thought so! If you recall, Miz was losing a lot and was having a hard time getting on the Wrestlemania card. A good story would have been a now-humbled Miz requesting to be on Team Teddy, with the team members skeptical of him, only to have Miz prove himself to be loyal on the biggest stage (even in defeat). Miz certainly had a better reason to join Team Teddy back in April than he did to join Team Foley back in November.
The verdict isn’t in yet on Miz’s babyface turn. He still has some opportunities to make it work, but toning down his annoying characteristics and winning some big matches will certainly help his cause, the same way it helped this next man.
Alberto Del Rio
So far, everything’s gone right for Mr. Del Rio since he turned babyface at the TLC Pay Per View in December. His turn falls into the category of being fed up with being evil. The transition has been so seamless it’s actually quite incredible, and I believe the main reason for Del Rio’s babyface success isn’t what you think it is.
First, let me get the negative out of the way, because there isn’t much that’s wrong with Del Rio’s face turn. I really don’t like how blatant WWE has been with trying to position Del Rio as the face of the Latino market. Having him change the color of his tights (and Ricardo changing his bowtie) to the colors of the Mexican flag is one thing, but Big Show basically blurted out that WWE is trying to pander to the Latino market by making Del Rio a good guy. A little subtlety would be nice.
Other than that minor gripe, Del Rio’s turn has been perfect, and it started with the man who is absolutely instrumental to Del Rio being beloved: Ricardo Rodriguez.
When you look at Del Rio’s time as a heel, some of the qualities that made you hate him had to do with his treatment of Ricardo. Yes, Del Rio is rich and drives tons of fancy cars that you can never afford, but you can at least identify with Ricardo, who is doing a job that’s a bit demeaning in order to make ends meet. Del Rio treats Ricardo like he would treat any of us if we were working for him.
That’s why it’s so important that Ricardo was the impetus for Del Rio to turn babyface, because you’ll recall that Del Rio came to Ricardo’s aid at TLC when he was being accosted by 3MB, and his feud with Big Show started because Show was picking on Ricardo when he drew his name out of a list of potential challengers toward the end of the year. Suddenly, Del Rio was treating Ricardo like his friend rather than his subordinate. Vicariously through Ricardo, we fans can identify with Del Rio’s generosity and kindness.
The turn was fully cemented in a Last Man Standing match against Big Show. This reminded me of MVP’s babyface turn in 2009, which happened the exact same way. By taking an absolute pounding and then managing to do the impossible by knocking a giant down and keeping him down (albeit with a little help…MVP needed Triple H and Del Rio needed the announce table), both MVP and Del Rio demonstrated their worth to the fans. It’s actually a credit to Big Show, who has been one of WWE’s best performers over the past few months.
Del Rio’s face turn has been monumentally more successful than Miz’s because Del Rio’s character has done all of the things I’ve criticized Miz’s character for not doing. He has shed the unlikable aspects of his character (the cars, the poor treatment of Ricardo) and has turned this change of heart into triumph (winning the World Title that had eluded him all throughout 2012 when he was a heel).
So What Now?
Miz has one more United States Title shot in him against Antonio Cesaro (perhaps at Wrestlemania?). If he doesn’t convert, it may be his last opportunity to get any kind of momentum under him, and he probably would be turned back heel after the movie buzz (if any) dies down.
Del Rio has a match against Jack Swagger at Wrestlemania, and I’d like to take a little time at the end of this column to give my thoughts on the matter.
I think it’s a really bold move by WWE to give Swagger a World Title shot at Wrestlemania considering he only came back about a month ago, and you can make a grocery list of more deserving guys who busted their humps all year and could have been rewarded with a title shot in a marquee match at Mania (Ziggler, Sheamus, Ryback, Bryan, Big Show, Orton, Rhodes, Sandow, Barrett, Cesaro, Kane, Miz, Kofi, Rey, Sin Cara). Even guys like Henry and Jericho who only recently came back are more over than Swagger may seem like more deserving choices.
It’s all a moot point anyway, as I’m convinced they’ve saved Wrestlemania for the time for Dolph to successfully cash in his Money in the Bank contract and be World Heavyweight Champion, which is the only type of cash in we haven’t seen yet (other than a cash-in during an ongoing match, and that will eventually happen, believe you me). So no matter who faces Del Rio at Wrestlemania, Dolph is walking out as champion.
I actually really like the decision to give the match to Swagger, because it will help Del Rio make himself an even better babyface. It’s no secret that WWE has been salivating at the chance to have another Eddie Guerrero or Rey Mysterio (who has to be on his last legs) to keep the Latino market. That guy was supposed to be Sin Cara, but the injuries and the language barrier have prevented him from making that next step. By having Swagger and Zeb Coulter act like the crazy Republicans who have been telling the Latinos to “giiiiiiiit ouuuuuut!” Del Rio will provide a great protagonist to stand up for them.
I think the build for Swagger/Del Rio will be extremely interesting, and these two have also proven that they can put on a good match. I’m not too worried about the amount of heat the match will get anyway, as this match is not going to sell the show (leave that to Rock/Cena, Brock/HHH, and Punk/Undertaker). In all honesty, if the primary goal of the match is to solidify Alberto Del Rio as the Mexican’s People’s Champion, there is no other choice but Swagger as the antagonist at Wrestlemania.
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