It’s October 1987 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Mecca Arena holds around 11,000 and people have bought tickets tonight to see a taping of the pro-wrestling show WWF Superstars. The weekly program had been created the year before to showcase the World Wrestling Federation’s hottest stars and tour the country for fans everywhere. The hour-long show itself typically consisted of some feature matches and wrestlers in-character talking to cameras or crowd to sell the audience on an upcoming pay-per-view event (a format which still holds today with RAW and Smackdown Live).
On this night, the fans had no idea what kind of incredible ‘sports entertainment’ groundwork was about to be laid.
One of the most high-profile wrestlers at the time was a sandy-bearded self-obsessed asshole named Ted Dibiase. He was better known as The Million Dollar Man and his ‘gimmick’ was that he was stinking rich and laughed in the face of anyone who wasn’t. He bought his way out of problems and as such, angered most of the stone broke wrestling fans in rural America who knew in their trailer-park-living hearts that they would never even approach that level of luxury at any point in their lives. Tonight however, Dibiase would go from a love-to-hate villain to legitimate monster.
During the taping, Dibiase stood up on stage in front of the crowd and started talking into a microphone. Immediately he is boasting about his wealth. His bodyguard Virgil (that’s a whole other story) is holding cold hard cash for the people in the audience to gawk at while Dibiase yells out amazingly insensitive lines like “Look at the poverty!” and “You people couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time”. The crowd boos like they’re supposed to and everyone is having a good old time.
Dibiase then makes a bet with the crowd. He offers someone to come forward to bounce a basketball for five hundred dollars. Gloating about his endless money to the filthy, disgusting masses and laughing like king of the shitpigs. Hundreds of hands go up in the air and he’s elated that he has exposed the crowd’s hypocrisy when they are faced with a bundle of cash. The Million Dollar Man has command of everyone.
A small boy is finally selected from the crowd and adorably, he says into the microphone that his name is Sean. Dibiase tells him that if he can bounce the basketball fifteen times, then he will hand over the $500. After a further insult from Dibiase (“I can tell by looking at you that you could use a lot more than five hundred bucks!”), Sean starts bouncing.
As he keeps control of the ball, the crowd starts to get behind him. Despite his very young age, Sean is doing it with relative ease. The general vibe of the segment starts to turn and a belief quickly emerges that hey, maybe the Million Dollar Man isn’t all that bad. He’s just showing off his money and giving this kid some of it. And Sean is getting there! That kid is better at bouncing a basketball than I am! You know what? I think everything will be okay!
On the fourteenth bounce, Dibiase kicks the ball away.
The crowd falls silent for a moment. Sean is stunned. The only sound is the voice of the Million Dollar Man. “Oooh, you didn’t get to fifteen Sean! And what that means is you got to learn a hard cruel fact of life. When you don’t do the job right, you don’t get paid.” Dibiase walks away throwing his head back with laughter. By this time, the crowd is basically calling for his head. He has suddenly become a legitimate real-world scumbag hated by thousands. And Sean just stands there. Eight years old, utterly confused and all alone.
From a character and story standpoint, Ted Dibiase betraying the innocence of small child is one of the pinnacle moments of being a ‘heel’. Heels, which basically means ‘evil wrestler’, are a crucial part of this business. It takes an element of the classic good versus evil framework and uses it to sell a wrestling match. After Dibiase screwed Sean out of $500, everybody wanted to him get his comeuppance. What’s his next match? I want to know about it right now because I will pay any amount of money to see this man get some payback. Sign me up.
In an instant, you’re completely invested in seeing Ted Dibiase pay for his cruelty. Not only is humiliating a child a low act, there’s no acting involved. The child feels the real inner pain while, unbeknownst to him, he is used as a tool for marketing. On several different levels, you’re angry and the only way to release your rage is to pay money to see the upcoming match in the hopes of seeing this monster of a man beaten senseless. It is a basic, lowest-common-denominator concept with several sleazy but self-aware tendrils creeping into your wallet. It is bewildering and more importantly, it works.
Thirty years later, tons of wrestlers who have played heels still say it’s some of the most fun they ever had in their career. They have said it gives them more freedom to experiment. If you’re a ‘good’ wrestler (or ‘babyface’, yes that’s the correct term), you can’t really make any mistakes. If you fall on your face or accidentally hit somebody too hard, that’s not really the most wholesome and hero-like thing you can do. But if you’re a heel, especially a chicken shit coward, you’ve got space to play it loose, try new things or sometimes, innovate on old classics.
That’s exactly what happened in October 2015. In the NXT development division of WWE, world-class wrestlers Sasha Banks and Bayley were deep in their months-long feud in Orlando, Florida. At the marquee event NXT Takeover: Respect, Banks (heel) and Bayley (babyface) were yet again in the middle of an incredibly exciting match (their second of the year) and were well on the way to yet again making women’s wrestling in the modern era rise heads and shoulders above most offerings in sports entertainment. Compelling action, fresh moves and exciting in-ring storytelling – easily proving they were two of the best in the business.
So a little background here: while Banks was all about strutting around and calling herself ‘The Boss’ because she’s so damn good, Bayley’s whole vibe was a fun-loving family-friendly facade wrapped around a highly-skilled and very respected wrestler who worked herself to the bone to achieve her childhood dream. And within her bright colours and big smiles, Bayley had an ace up her sleeve: a young girl named Izzy who was Bayley’s real-life biggest fan. Every week, Izzy’s parents would attend the NXT taping so their daughter could wear Bayley merchandise and cheer for her favourite wrestler in a way that made everybody’s heart melt. This was a slice of real-life innocence that all wrestling fans could get behind and enjoy. To some people, Izzy’s legitimate fandom outshined any cynical corporate greed that flowed like a river through WWE. She was the small but limitless soul of NXT.
Now back to the match. Due to Bayley’s family-friendly but also a highly-talented wrestler persona, fans of all ages and backgrounds liked her. But none more than superfan Izzy. So when Banks sets out to punish Bayley by throwing her against steel stairs and the huge video screen, everybody is on the side of the babyface. It’s around here that Banks becomes truly horrific. Izzy is already distraught by seeing her hero being thrown around and screaming in pain. And then Banks does this:
Let me explain. In her most terrible moment, with Bayley unconscious on the floor outside the ring, Sasha Banks snatches the hairband off the head of the small girl, mocks her emotional distress and then throws it back in her face while she’s bawling in the arms of her father. I mean, just look at this:
People across the wrestling world were stunned. Both from a legitimate concern for Izzy’s emotional wellbeing and also staggered in awe at a new untold depth that a wrestling heel had suddenly explored within the storyline of a match. Dibiase humiliating a child who didn’t know what was happening was one thing, but this was different. There was no indifference or acting here: Izzy was really upset.
Nobody expected it. It was incredible and Banks pulled it off in the most despicable way possible. When the camera captured Izzy’s real tears, WWE producers must have been running for the champagne. And with this newfound Evil Sasha on display, it was all the more rewarding when Bayley won the match through grit and determination. Fans were satisfied, Bayley was champ and this match was burned into the brains of fans everywhere. Because that is what a heel is for. To make you hate them. To get you to question the scripted nature of wrestling just enough so you will hand over your money to see someone get what’s coming to them.
Obviously, these are just a couple of exceptional examples. Most heel work is more predictable. It could be anything from ‘the evil foreigner’ attacking the American flag or a corporate shitheel who cheats his way to the top with backing from company executives. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. But when it does, WWE make history.
Because it’s all for the cameras. Sean’s family received $500 before their son ever set foot on a stage and Sasha personally apologised to Izzy and her family after the match. But we’re still talking about manipulating the emotions of children and using them as a marketing tool. You start to question everything and everyone. Are the parents complicit in some way? Am I a scumbag for enjoying it? Am I also being used and don’t know it?
When a heel wrestler does their job in this way, it’s both despicable and amazing. Two terms that fit WWE perfectly.