Heel Honor Roll #3: King Booker
Every great hero needs a villain, and Heel Honor Roll is a column in which we take a look at some of the most effective heels in the business from history and today. Each week we'll discuss one of the many miscreants, jerks, and all around bad guys that we have (at least at some point) come to love in wrestling, and examine how they got doing wrong so very right.
It shouldn't have worked. Booker T, a 14 year veteran with a career that skewed more toward speaking with action in the ring rather than words outside of it, had parlayed winning the King of the Ring tournament into a total gimmick change built around full king's garb (complete with a crown and scepter), a constant declaration of royalty, and possibly the worst English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke in Marry Poppins.
Considering people are up in arms about Fandango's "dancer who wrestles" character being too ridiculous to get over, King Booker should have been the single most embarrassing point of Booker T's career. As it stands, looking back on how well Booker T was able to execute the turn to King Booker, and just how memorable and effective the character was, he probably wouldn't have gotten into the WWE Hall of Fame without it.
In retrospect, the success of King Booker had two major components, one based in execution and the other in storytelling. Regarding the execution, the commitment of King Booker, Sharmell, and a host of players to the concept is something that WWE writers and talent should have to study. Remember, this was a ridiculous idea.
Longtime wrester with established appeal as a hip hop adjacent personality masquerades as British royalty. That's the angle, and on paper it should have been awkward and unreal. But there's King Booker, holding up an legit broadsword from the turnbuckle, and I can't help but smile. Then there's William Regal shouting "ALL HAIL KING BOOKER!" at an opulent coronation ceremony, repeating it until it becomes annoying, then continuing the repetition until it becomes hilarious, and I can't help but laugh at it all. Oh, and Sharmell might be the best part of all of this, taking what had previously been WWE's standard lazy attempt at "evil woman who manipulates because she's a woman" and turning it into something fun with her beauty queen waves, shrieking commands to bow down, and tears at being named queen of the Smackdown realm.
Everyone involved with this angle refused to wink at the camera, to ever let on that they were anything other than 100% convinced that this was a reasonable way to be acting. Even when King Booker and Queen Sharmell broke character when angered, they returned back to their regal personas as soon as they regained composure, further normalizing the air of grandeur as the order of the day. The royal court, and indeed much of the programming around them, simply went about their royal business as though there was no other way they should be doing things.
The result was a cohesive message that gave credibility to the implausible; yes, we knew this was ridiculous, but it's wrestling, so that was tolerable, and since everyone else seemed to be buying into it, we could too. If the announce team had at any point sold out King Booker as being too ridiculous to take seriously, similar to what they wound up doing to Tensai by refusing to fully commit to the reality of the character's outlandish nature, King Booker would have failed miserably. Instead, we got JBL listing historic royal orders for comparison purposes and making proclamations about how "Camelot has come to Smackdown", buying into and forcefully advancing the idea, legitimizing King Booker as a competitor. No winking at the fans or undermining the reality of the character, just people buying into the concept and committing to building around it.
I think this forceful commitment is the main reason why we enjoyed King Booker as a heel so much; we weren't made to feel stupid for watching what was, on paper, a stupid sounding idea, and with time, we accepted the character because everyone involved did as well.
However, as excellent as the execution was, all the technique in the world doesn't work if the heel isn't connecting to something real, and here, for all the ridiculousness in the pomp and circumstance, King Booker was tapping into a visceral understanding of betrayal. Every good heel turn involves a degree of betrayal, really, otherwise it’s just early 2000 Big Show being labeled as a "good guy" or "bad guy" based on whether or not he smiled on that week's Smackdown. We need to have cared about who a character was in order for who he is now to impact us. For King Booker, that betrayal had everything to do with the tradition and history behind Booker T.
For over a decade, Booker T had built a career on connecting with his past and letting his ring skills do the bulk of his talking. Certainly, this paid dividends both in success as a multi-time midcard champion and in terms of his relationship to the fans, who viewed him as something of a bridge between the old school and the new, connecting traditional tough guy principles to dynamic athleticism. Yet for all of that credibility, main event success had unfortunately eluded Booker T for much of his mainstream career, save for four rushed WCW title reigns as WCW fell apart, well after the brand and the belt had been diminished.
In the WWE, following the same tactics that had made Booker T such a beloved fan favorite once again plotted a sure course to the middle of the card, with Booker T securing a couple of midcard belt reigns. And then, finally, after having already made the transition to doing bad things with the help of Sharmell, Booker T defeated Bobby Lashley to win a revived King of the Ring tournament. Suddenly, with a little bit of bad, Booker T had made the leap and won a prestigious event in the WWE landscape. The turning point, given what was revealed over the next year, was inevitable.
Some people are fond of saying that you can really understand a person by seeing them handle adversity, but I'm of the mind that watching them handle power is a better indicator of human nature. Once the shackles of pursuing success are behind a man, he's truly free to be who he wants to be, who he feels he is at heart. In this story, King Booker, in the mind of Booker T, was reality (undoubtedly lending credibility to the execution discussed above). This moment, the King of the Ring coronation, should have validated King Booker's entire career, and he was going to make sure we all knew it. Unspoken talent gave way to spoken bravado. A focus on the family of the past gave way to a new family, one more appropriate given King Booker's status as King of the Ring and, eventually, World Heavyweight Champion.
The man who had for years been a stalwart of the way we all thought unsung heroes should behave shouting at us what we always knew and appreciated him for not pointing out; he was better than his list of career achievements indicated. Coming from him, it was one of the worst kinds of betrayal; King Booker was saying that he knew he was better than us all along.
That's what really gave the ridiculous King Booker character some depth and unlikable edge; he turned on what we loved him for, what he stood for, simply because he finally had the bona fides to justifiably do so. The virtuous yeoman put on a crown and suddenly acted as though he'd forgotten who he'd been before he put it on. Maybe it was power corrupting, or maybe it was corrupt underneath a veneer of workmanlike duty all along, but either way our man of the people had completely rejected our reality. Instead, King Booker was intent on building his own reality, his own kingdom, founded in his right as having finally reached the crown he'd been pursuing for his entire career.
In this way, King Booker really was intent on bringing Camelot to Smackdown; fans just hated him because his new kingdom had no place for them.