In this blog post, I explore the question: How much of the heel’s identity and success is dependent on the wrestler’s performance, and how much on the audience’s (re)actions?
This question relates to the work I am doing on the co-constructon of kayfabe through the moment-to-moment interactions between wrestlers and fans. For this particular blog post, I reflect on my observations from the AAW show Killers Among Us on June 17, 2017.
And we started with Garza Jr and ACH, who both play at being overconfident and obnoxious and this kinda makes them both heels but ones we love for comedy. During the course of the match, however, Garza Jr. proved to be the bigger heel in his interactions with crowd and bringing out the chair to attack ACH with. Given his history with the AAW and his previous interactions with the fans, ACH remained more a WWE-style babyface, perhaps: he’s the kind of heel we love.
Eddie Kingston came out right away playing dirty pool by trying to sneak a huge nail into his match with Jeff Cobb. On top of this attempt at smuggling in a foreign object, he also went for Cobb’s eyes and bit his finger to break hold. Kingston then won and got tremendously booed even though the win was clean — to which he responds by flipping off the booers. Kingston’s antics in this match made him the heel, which was reaffirmed by the audience’s response to his winning. This position is interesting, however, given how often he has been seen as the face when matched with Sami Callihan. However, here the fans let Kingston know that he had crossed the line, and that such antics are only tolerated in very specific situations — like taking down the “hated” Callihan.
Davey Vega was in a fatal four-way match vs. Jake Crist vs. Chuck Taylor vs. PACO. Now, this match should have had two heels and two faces…except that Chuckie T. borders between face and heel, often for comical effect.
Vega was more the classic obnoxious-but-cowardly heel. His appearance was immediately met with chants of “fuck you, Vega,” indicating a vast history with the fans. Even before he did anything, his mere presence elicited such a negative reaction — or was it a negative reaction? At this point, given how often he elicits these chants regardless of his actions, the fans may be just performing an expected reaction to his presence. When it is less about what the wrestler does and just who the wrestler is, then the fans appear to draw on their history and memory of that wrestler, and as long as the wrestler never does anything to counter this perception, then the fans will continue to perform a specific call-response action; thus, Fuck You Vega becomes a standard chant that transcends matches.
The historical baggage of Vega became evident throughout the match when a mockingly supportive chant of “Davey Vega” was met with the response “Sucks” — usually this split-crowd call-response is meant to show support from some fans for a wrestler, while other fans show their displeasure with said wrestler. However, in this case, the crowd subverted this meaning, and overall they further pronounced their displeasure with Vega, causing Vega to pause in disbelief and then flip off the crowd. And thus the history of “Fuck You Vega” continues as heel and fans maintain their performances.
Zack Sabre Jr seems like a heel in the ring given the pain he is willing to inflict on his opponent through his earnest and unrelenting application of submission holds that contort his opponent into a pretzel. But is he a heel or just determined? Sabre Jr. seemingly does not care how much pain he inflicts in his match with Mat Fitchett, which earns him a “You Sick Fuck” chant for his seeming lack of human empathy in the ring. But Sabre Jr. never changes how he wrestles, as every match contains the same masochistic moves — and the fans never completely turn on him. So while the fans may whince, their chanting of “You Sick Fuck” is more a part of the performance, as Sabre Jr. wants to cause such a reaction in the fans, and their chanting reaffirms his actions.
An interesting case study came in the Abyss vs. Low-Ki match. Abyss had appeared several times before at AAW, and his performances left much to be desired. His immensely apparent whiffs, botches, and no sells never sat well with the crows. So, is Abyss a heel just because of how poorly he performs in the ring? Was he booed not for character performance but actual performance? Now, Abyss was positioned as part of the heel faction at AAW, as he was on the side of Callihan and OI4K. But that animosity toward Abyss never seemed to be based on his OI4K allegiance.
When the OI4K manager tried getting the O-I-4-K chant going, the crowd used that cadence to chant “Fuck You Abyss.” For other OI4K members, it would have been easy to get their chant going — although they are the heels, they are well-liked heels, and the audience will demonstrate their affection for the heels through that chant. But not for Abyss. Apparently a wrestler can produce so much audience apathy and even anger through bad in-ring performances that they can not get the type of character-based interaction desired for the match. When the wrestler is a known botcher, it doesn’t matter if they are a face or a heel (see Sin Cara of the WWE for another example of this phenomenon).
Then came two huge crowd favorites: Trevor Lee and PENTA EL 0M (formerly Pentagon Jr.). Throughout the past dozen or so shows with AAW, Lee made fans with his dancing antics; whenever he would dance, or he would get the other wrestlers to dance, it became an automatic hit with the audience. Naturally, then, he turned heel when he refused to dance. Starting at this AAW show, he came out to different music and refused to give the crowd what they both expected and wanted.
This seeming lack of gratification led the crowd to chant “Fuck TNA,” as a reference to Impact Wrestling and Lee’s affiliation with that organization. Lee responded by calling the fans dumbasses and correcting them about name of the wrestling company for which he said he’s a superstar. A little kid standing at the guard rail yelled to Lee: “Your mom wants her hair back!” You know you have pissed off your fans when you are getting a sick burn from a kid.
In the John Morrison versus Brian Cage match, Morrison was trying to be a face in his interactions with crowd; he kept trying to give away his shirt — but the crowd kept throwing it back at him. Normally a crowd is supposed to cheer the idea of getting a soiled shirt from their favorite face, but the continual refusal of the shirt illustrated just how much the crowd saw Morrison as the obnoxious heel character.
Cage, then, did a tremendously heel act by dragging Morrison’s shirt thru his wrestling shorts. He then threw the soiled shirt in Morrison’s face. So who is the heel: the obnoxious Morrison or the “you sick fuck” Cage, as appointed by the crowd’s chant? Cage’s move is more disgusting than anything currently seen by a WWE babyface, given their PG Era sensibilities. But then Morrison won by using the referee as a shield and doing a low blow on Cage. So both men are heels?
reDRagon vs. War Machine also had no clear faces or heels. War Machine were more the heels based on their size and gimmick, but reDRagon was not exactly playing clean. So, as with the Morrison vs. Cage match, the audience didn’t have a clear face-heel dynamic to cheer for and against.
In the final match of the night, Sami Callihan vs. Michael Elgin clearly positioned Callihan as the heel, as he went for chairs immediately to use against Elgin, thereby furthering his history as a heel at AAW. However, Callihan comes off as somewhat of a cowardly heel given the look of fear he had when facing Elgin, despite his posturing in promos as righteous and brave. The crowd was firmly behind both wrestlers, as they performed their respective roles.
Overall, the wrestlers would enact a certain character-based performance that elicited specific and expected reactions from the audience. The only one who deviated from this relationship between wrestler’s actions and fans’ reactions was Abyss, who’s history of botches at AAW matches set him up to be jeered no matter what character-based actions he performed. The fans’ actions didn’t turn a wrestler heel, either in that match or in general, as the wrestler’s decision to be a heel then generated fans’ actions. However, fans’ actions could reaffirm a wrestler’s position as a heel, such as with Vega and Morrison.
Thus, the fans had to buy-in to the idea of the wrestler being a heel for the storyline told within the match to work — as it did in all cases except with Abyss.