Long before Vince McMahon made the switch to sports entertainment, actual wrestling was already one of the least important aspects of the WWE Universe. Sure, grappling permeates every second of WWE programming, and the underlying goal of every character on Raw or SmackDown Live is either to win lots of wrestling matches or at least to be a part of some great ones firsthand. However, two random wrestlers could hit the ring and create the best match in history, and not a single person in the audience would care in the slightest unless those performers also had clear-cut characters the fans could relate to.
On the most basic level, this means every match should have at least one good guy and one bad guy, or, at the very least, it should be obvious which side the opposing wrestlers lean towards. Some wrestlers are great at playing either role, but evolving audiences usually mean there’s a specific part they should be playing at any given time. The superstars who have been able to accurately read the audience and make the right choices about whether to be a heel or to be a babyface can be rewarded with newfound pushes or even a full second act to their careers.
In contrast, those who may be less adept at understanding their own talents have suffered greatly for it, sometimes even coming close to losing their jobs. The WWE Universe is an always changing and difficult environment to predict, so one can hardly fault a wrestler for trying something different and falling flat on his or her face. That said, it’s still a shame when it happens, especially to someone who looked like they could have been huge stars under the right circumstances. Keep reading to learn about 8 turns that saved wrestlers' career and 7 that killed them.
15 KILLED: Goldberg
World Championship Wrestling had a well-known reputation for making an outrageous number of boneheaded mistakes, and yet for all the negatives, they also created one of the biggest wrestling sensations of the Attitude Era entirely from scratch: Goldberg. Naturally, being WCW, it then took them less than two years to entirely destroy their greatest invention. The formula for what made Goldberg such a massive star was deceptively simple. He possessed an incredibly impressive physique, looked believable beating people up in mere seconds, and genuinely seemed to feed on the approval of his audience. That last one was arguably most important of all, as the wrestling industry has seen more monsters than anyone could name. Again, WCW being what it was, that connectivity with the crowd was the first thing the company decided to take away at the peak of Goldberg’s fame. Make no mistake about it: Da Man was still the most popular act in a failing WCW when he suddenly turned heel to join The New Blood at The Great American Bash 2000. Instantly, the appeal was gone, and WCW had no idea how to bring it back.
14 SAVED: Shawn Michaels
Earning a perception as a tag team wrestler can be both a pro and con for a young performer, as has been covered countless times by this and other websites. Nine times out of ten, one of the wrestlers in the team will find success wildly greater than the other, and it all comes down to which one of them speaks up first and demands that something change. For the Midnight Rockers, that was Shawn Michaels, who had had enough of Marty Jannetty’s nonsense and kicked him through a Barber Shop window to prove it. Not only did this save Michaels from getting stuck in the tag division for all eternity, it transformed him from a generic pretty boy face into the Heartbreak Kid, a persona that took him straight to the top of the WWE Universe. From that point on, perhaps a few too many heel or face turns would inevitably follow, and only through his sheer charisma was Michaels able to survive the downtimes.
13 KILLED: Rikishi
“I did it…for The Rock. I did it…for the people.” To whichever writer it was that came up with this infamous statement that turned Rikishi heel, the irony was probably supposed to be about how The Rock didn’t want Rikishi to do “it,” that being to hit “Stone Cold” Steve Austin with his rental car. Obviously, the audience was supposed to despise Rikishi for it, although not to the extent it almost destroyed his career. The problem was WWE missing the mark entirely on what had been making Rikishi so popular. He wasn’t yet another big hulking bad guy; he was someone who ignored his size and had fun with the fans, connecting through the universal language of dance. As an angry giant wanting respect for Samoans, Rikishi was representing a stereotype that very few people could relate to in any way. Worse than that, Rikishi didn’t have the mic skills to flesh out the character beyond that minor trait. Despite a brief push up the card, a turn as the Intercontinental Championship, and a few marquee matches at Pay-Per-Views, ultimately, it’s safe to say Rikishi was simply a bad, bad heel.
12 SAVED: JBL
From when pro wrestling was created possibly all the back to the 1980s, being from Texas and wearing a cowboy hat was somehow more than enough to make a grappler extremely popular or viciously hated, depending on which party of the country they were working. Once the industry started creating some more fully fleshed out characters, though, tropes that simple stopped working, although not for lack of trying. Take, for example, Bradshaw, who spent almost eight full years being a nondescript tough Texan and was rightfully stuck in the midcard or lower because of it. He attempted to mix things up a little while a member of The Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness, but the second that was over, he was back to being a bland babyface with an accent standing next to Ron Simmons. Then, Simmons retired, and Bradshaw was just a bland babyface. Anyone else may have lost his career long ago, but Bradshaw was already fairly close to the McMahon family, and he had one great idea left in him to finally turn around his fortunes. Keeping the cowboy hat and Texas pride, JBL added the perfect touch of evil millionaire attitude, definitively making him a villain with some serious potential.
11 KILLED: The Goodfather
Heel or face, it doesn’t really matter -- a character like The Godfather wouldn’t quite work in the modern-day PG version of WWE. Back in the Attitude Era, however, he was an absolute star, getting sold out crowds to chant along with glee about how pimpin’ wasn't easy. Charles Wright had tried a few other acts in wrestling prior to finding his money gimmick, and while the alignment wasn’t always the issue, it’s worth pointing out that duds like Papa Shango and Kama Mustafa had him playing the bad guy. By allowing him to show a lighter, funnier side as The Godfather, WWE turned a repeat failure into the most popular opening card act of his time period. Godfather even ascended the card high enough to win the Intercontinental Championship. It all came crashing down when WWE had Godfather turn his back on pimping for the Right to Censor, adding another “o” to his name along the way. The truth is, Wright never had much in the way of ring skills, and without dance moves and fun catchphrases to keep fans interested, his career plummeted into nothingness -- until WWE welcomed him back to the Hall of Fame, forgetting all about that extra “o.”
10 SAVED: Tommy Dreamer
One of the preeminent icons of Extreme Champion Wrestling, the so-called “Innovator of Violence” Tommy Dreamer has spent so much of his career as a babyface, some of his fans probably don’t even remember that he started off as a heel. There were also a few times Dreamer was a de facto heel once ECW closed its doors, whenever a faction of hardcore veterans would crop up in a mainstream promotion and try to take over. These attempts at being a bad guy never quite panned out for Dreamer, as his sympathetic look and willingness to do just about anything made it too hard for fans to hate him. That said, one can hardly blame Dreamer for trying to be a heel when his career began since he had no way of knowing in advance how his career would have turned out. In fact, being a bad guy for a little while was integral to the Tommy Dreamer legend, as he had to prove himself as “hardcore” in order to win over the fans. One could even argue Dreamer was never really a heel, and the whole thing was ECW manipulating the crowd to cheer him from the very beginning.
9 SAVED: Mark Henry
When a wrestler gets dragged through the mud as thoroughly as Mark Henry was over the first decade-plus of his career, one simple turn from heel to face or vice versa isn’t going to save them. Luckily for the future Hall of Pain founder, he was locked into a lucrative contract from day one, although it may have been a double-edged sword in that some of his worst gimmicks were allegedly attempts at discouraging him into quitting. Henry always persevered, however, and it finally paid off with a bombastic run as a heel late in his career. There had been a few attempts at making the World’s Strongest Man use that persona for evil in the past, yet none took off as completely as when he began kicking ass and taking names in the most classic variety. In a certain respect, it felt like the extremely long time spent being a joke was the spark that emboldened Henry to perform so well, proving that McMahon’s investment in him was indeed worth it all along.
8 KILLED: Ahmed Johnson
Not every pro wrestler to reach the main event is going to stick there forever, and yet it’s still a shock how quickly Ahmed Johnson fell from greatness, especially considering how rapid his rise to the top was. Debuting with a major impact, Johnson’s first act in a WWE ring was slamming the gargantuan Yokozuna like it was nothing, and his intensity made him a massively popular star in short order. Johnson was rewarded by being crowned the first black Intercontinental Champion in history, only to find himself out of the company entirely less than two years later. Part of the problem was his penchant for getting injured too often, and the real nail in the coffin was WWE attempting to turn him into a heel after one of his many returns. Out of nowhere, Johnson decided to join the very crew that had most recently put him on the shelf, the Nation of Domination. This made no sense, as he and NoD leader Faarooq had been feuding for over a year, and no explanation was ever given aside from the cliché “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Unsurprisingly, WWE fans never accepted Ahmed as a heel, and what happened in WCW was even worse…
7 SAVED: Mr. Bob Backlund
Thinking back on the 1978 day when Bob Backlund defeated “Superstar” Billy Graham to win his first WWE Championship, the younger Backlund already looked like the more out-of-date performer between the two. Nearly 15 years later, when Backlund made his WWE return in his early 40s, he looked more like a fossil than a traditionalist. Granted, he was still in great shape and could grapple with the best of them, but Backlund’s style, attitude, and general demeanor all seemed entirely out of time, making it hard for younger fans to cheer him the way they did when he still possessed an infectiously relatable youthful exuberance. Rather than attempt to adapt to modern times himself, Backlund instead made the brilliant move of acknowledging his differences and acting superior for it, instantly becoming one of the most hated heels of the New Generation. Gone was his childlike energy, replaced with a terrifyingly insane thousand-yard gaze and a minor Messianic complex to prove he was serious. Unfortunately, the reign of Mr. Backlund was not long, but it most definitely reinvigorated his career in a major way, simply by taking things in the opposite direction of what he was used to.
6 KILLED: “Diamond” Dallas Page
Considering he was calling himself “The People’s Champion” well before The Rock had the idea to do the same thing, it should go without saying that “Diamond” Dallas Page had a natural connection with his fan base. Strangely enough, it took DDP and WCW, in general, an oddly long time to realize this, as he spent the first seven or eight years of his career attempting to be a scummy heel, chomping on cigars and treating the audience like scum. The second DDP turned face, his value as a performer skyrocketed through the roof, leaving WCW with nothing else to do except ruin things spectacularly. For some bizarre reason, the first two times DDP won the WCW Championship, he did so as a heel, a role he wasn’t suited to play in the slightest. DDP’s bad side kept shining as the year went on, causing him to drop further and further down the card, aided by a New Jersey Triad of wrestlers fans were rapidly losing interest in. The only thing that could save him was a career revival in WWE, and that was instantly ruined when Vince McMahon debuted Page as a heel.
5 SAVED: Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho has been such a great performer for so long that it would probably be hard for fans to remember way back when he was jerking the curtain for ECW, let alone WCW (and don’t even ask about SMW or his time in Japan). It wasn’t that Jericho wasn’t already impressing in the ring from a very young age, as his wrestling skills and natural charisma shone through almost immediately. On the downside, Jericho’s desire to be a beloved rock star must have gotten the best of him in these days, as he played a very generic babyface with little personality. Younger female fans thought he was good-looking, but the larger male fan base had nothing to applaud, causing some concern Jericho might not be able to make a name for himself in WCW. That all went away in short order when Jericho underwent his first legendary heel turn, and the success of his subsequent feud with Dean Malenko made it pretty clear this jerk wouldn’t be going away for a long, long time.
4 KILLED: Randy Orton
With some 13 WWE Championships to his name, it’s safe to say Randy Orton’s career turned out pretty well. Believe it or not, though, there was a short period at the start of his career when Orton’s fortunes took a rapid nosedive, and it almost looked like he may not recover. The most amazing part about it is this took place immediately after he had won his first World Championship, when he was kicked out of Evolution the very next night on Raw. Had Orton turned on the group and gone solo, it could have been a career-defining moment people still talk about to this day. By getting beat up by his friends, Orton’s win looked like a fluke, and all of his success up until that point a joke -- something he couldn’t have achieved without Triple H, Ric Flair, and Batista helping him out along the way. To repeat, Orton has more than redeemed himself many times over, typically by turning heel and reaching even greater heights and more championship honors. That said, every time WWE turns him face, they run the risk of ruining things all over again.
3 SAVED: Rocky Maivia
“Die, Rocky, Die” is one of the most vicious chants the WWE Universe has ever shouted at a new wrestler, which on paper makes it look like future Hollywood megastar The Rock must have been a pretty great bad guy early on in his career. Rocky Maivia would indeed become one of the better villains of the Attitude Era in more ways than one, but this disturbing chant actually came to prominence when he was supposed to be a happy-go-lucky babyface. In fact, it happened exactly because he was so damn happy, smiling and slapping hands with fans, winning championships before some older people within the industry felt he deserved the honor. The solution here was pretty simple, and once Maivia was sidelined with a minor injury, Vince McMahon started putting his plan into action. By the time Maivia was ready to return, he turned heel by joining the Nation of Domination, also revealing he possessed some incredible mic skills that would keep him on top for a long time to come, heel or face, wrestler or catch-all entertainer.
2 KILLED: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
All good things must come to an end. Unfortunately for WWE, when it comes to the Attitude Era, pretty much all of the positives making the company a massive success abruptly stopped all in one moment when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin turned heel by shaking hands with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania X7. While the Attitude Era was in many ways a sum of countless parts, Austin was the driving force putting them all together. Even during his lengthy absence due to a neck injury, the impending knowledge “Stone Cold” would return could send fans into a frenzy, knowing he was going to open a serious can of whoop ass when he finally came back. That all ended when Austin became a corporate stooge desperate for hugs and approval, although critics do admit the move was brilliant character work. Sometimes, character work alone won’t save a questionable decision, though, as fans simply wanted to keep cheering Austin forever. By the time WWE realized this, it was almost too late, as Austin was forced into retirement not long after he made the switch back to being a hero.
1 SAVED: Hollywood Hogan
Starting in earnest around the 1992 Royal Rumble, professional wrestling fans were doing something they hadn’t done in decades. Thanks to the way Hogan helped Ric Flair eliminate Sid Justice, the fans found the audacity to boo the Hulkster in earnest, triggering a spark that wouldn’t pay off in earnest for over four years. Unquestionably the most marketable wrestler of the ‘80s, Hogan’s prospects had been dwindling considerably each passing year, as Superman can only conquer so many villains before the shtick feels a little bit old. By the time he jumped ship to WCW, the only people cheering Hogan were the rare wrestling fans who didn’t see him in WWE, and the shine didn’t last long with them, either. The only thing Hogan could do to stop his career from plummeting in the early 90s was to revolutionize the business all over again, creating the New World Order of wrestling, brother. Of course, leaps like this weren’t exactly new for Hogan -- he had a similar issue in reverse near the start of his career, when he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire as a generic bad guy himself. Infusing personality and a love of the crowd made him an outright superstar for the ages, and perhaps the biggest icon of his era.
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