The pro wrestling business' very foundations are built on the notion of good guys and bad guys, or babyfaces and heels. Sure, there's World Championships and in-ring competition, but it's seeing the good guy getting his revenge on the nefarious villain who's caused him such problems that really sells tickets and drives the industry.
Over the decades, there's been some legendary wrestling characters and runs, be it an all-conquering hero or a shortcut-taking rogue, but there are some figures who stand out above all others.
To give things a relatively modern slant, here lies an article focusing purely on the past 15 years of the WWE, meaning anything as far back as 2001 is fair game.
It's a chance to explore the greatest villains, the greatest bad guys, the greatest cheaters to have stepped foot in World Wrestling Entertainment during that period, whether it's a case of someone who's a career bad guy or maybe someone who just had a brief flirtation with the dark side.
So without any further ado, let's take a look at the 15 very best villains that the past 15 years of WWE has given us.
Having debuted as a heel monster back in 1997, the early years of the Big Red Machine saw him as a presence to be truly fearful of. It also helped that he was a total badass who wouldn’t think twice of hitting a Tombstone on any man, woman, child or chicken.
The early 2000s saw Kane never quite hitting the heights of the Attitude Era, but there was a moment in time during the original brand split where the Devil’s Favourite Demon became massively relevant for the first time in what seemed like an age.
The year was 2010 and the phrase “vegetative state” got used far too often. Once you got past that term being driven home on TV each and every single segment – Kane had reportedly found his brother, The Undertaker, in a vegetative state and was on the warpath to find out who was responsible – it actually led to a massive kick in the right direction for the Kane character. Why’s that? Well, in one of the most obvious reveals in WWE history, yes, Kane was the one who had attacked Undertaker.
By the time ‘Taker returned, Kane had won the Money in the Bank briefcase and successfully cashed it in on the same night against Rey Mysterio. So you had a returning Undertaker seeking vengeance against his brother, the WWE World Heavyweight Champion Kane. What was more shocking here, though, is that Kane actually came out of the feud as the victor, defeating his brother in No Holds Barred, Hell in a Cell, and Buried Alive matches.
14 Brock Lesnar
As soon as he debuted on the main roster in 2002, it was instantly known that Brock Lesnar was no mere mortal. This was a monster, a brute, a force of nature. Or in the words of Paul Heyman in later years, this was The Beast Incarnate.
Lesnar would only be with the WWE until 2004 during that run, and he’d even get some time as a babyface during that initial stint with the company, but it was as a dominating heel that he made his mark. Having debuted in a major way by destroying smaller talents like Matt and Jeff Hardy, and Spike Dudley, Lesnar tore through anyone and everyone in his way.
Brock managed to become the WWE Champion within 6 months of his debut, defeating the iconic Rock for the gold at SummerSlam 2002. With Paul Heyman at this side, Lesnar was unstoppable. In terms of dominant, bully heels, nobody in recent memory has been as untouchable as Brrrrrock Lesnar, with him even manhandling the legendary Hulk Hogan.
Since returning to the WWE in 2012, Lesnar has been a tweener of sorts, basically just being out for himself and running through heels and faces along the way. Still, his formative years as a destructive heel are something that are still fondly remembered to this day.
Whilst many loved Batista as the all-conquering babyface over the years, The Animal’s star always shined brightest when he was on the other side of the fence.
As a heel, Big Dave initially made waves as part of Evolution, but it was his heel turn towards the end of 2009 that saw Batista do arguably the best work of his career. Having turned on his bestest bud Rey Mysterio, Batista would spend the next few months decimating the much smaller Mysterio before turning his attention to the likes of The Undertaker, John Cena and even the legendary Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
By the time Batista left the company in mid-2010, he’d become hugely entertaining and effective as the whining heel who’d belittle the smaller guys whilst also running scared when it came to facing one of the company’s top tier talents. The 6-time World Champion had never been better, but just like that he was gone, quitting the company due to an unhappiness at the direction the WWE was heading.
Batista would, of course, return to the company in the buildup to WrestleMania XXX but his greatest heel run was clearly the one he started in late 2009.
12 Steve Austin
Stone Cold’s infamous heel turn at WrestleMania XVII may not have sat well with fans or have been an all-round great idea in hindsight, but the Texas Rattlesnake certainly made the most of the change of character.
Many may have forgotten just how awesome Austin was at being a truly vicious heel once he made a deal with the devil and joined forces with Vince McMahon before forming the Two-Man Power Trip with Triple H. He may have ran from certain fights, like any good heel would, but Austin and Hunter’s attacks on Team Extreme (yes, even Lita) were flat-out brutal.
From there, Austin would continue his heel act against Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho once The Game went down with a quad injury. Then came Austin’s involvement in the whole Invasion angle, with him initially turning face and helping out the then-WWF before again turning heel as he double-crossed Team WWF and joined the Alliance.
It may have been a bad call to have Austin turn heel at WrestleMania XVII in his home state, but there’s no doubt that the Bionic Redneck fully embraced his new role and did the best job possible.
11 Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle is one of the greatest talents to ever lace up a pair of boots. In the ring, very few can rival the Olympic gold medalist’s skills, and on the microphone he’s up there as one of the most entertaining superstars to come along in the past two decades.
Despite debuting in 1999 and soon becoming a cocky heel who championed his own achievements and his famed three I’s, the 2001 WCW/ECW Invasion saw Angle become a brilliant babyface. Not to fear, though, for a dastardly return to his heel roots wasn’t far around the corner.
Whether it was his legendary battles with Chris Benoit, his time under the tutelage of Paul Heyman and with Team Angle at his side, him desperately trying to screw over Eddie Guerrero during Latino Heat’s WWE Championship reign, or even his hugely entertaining feud with Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle made for just such a brilliant, brilliant bad guy whether he was positioned as the chicken sh*t heel or the wrestling machine who just loved to take shortcuts.
10 Seth Rollins
Yes, we all know his recent return should’ve seen him positioned as a babyface, allowing him to explode and become the face of the company, but Seth Rollins has come back from his injury issues to resume his spot as the WWE’s top heel.
Regardless of the holding off on the Rollins face run for now, Seth is undoubtedly an amazing heel. For someone who’s so talented, athletic and high impact in the ring, it’s difficult for The Architect to not be cheered. Still, Rollins largely manages to still make his heel act work by being such a snivelling, brown-nosing, cowardly heel, complete with a grating maniacal cackle and a penchant for rubbing his opponent’s faces in their failings.
Whether it’s sneaking wins, retaining titles by questionable means, or even just being a puppet of the nefarious Authority, Seth Rollins has been one of the WWE’s top heels for the past couple of years. It’s been a great ride so far, but still… just imagine how amazing Seth can be when the trigger is pulled on the inevitable babyface turn down the line.
9 The Rock
During the late ‘90s, The Rock was such an entertaining heel. But whilst he was certainly entertaining, he’d still manage to always bring it back enough to make himself out to be an asshole and keep the boos coming. Of course, the then-WWF eventually gave in and turned Rocky into a face, creating one of the most popular superstars the industry has ever seen.
So, given that this list only incorporates the past 15 years, taking us back to 2001, the majority of that time saw The Rock positioned as a good guy. But cast your memory back to a brief few months in 2003. Yes, I’m talking about “Hollywood” Rock.
With many fans starting to lose their patience with The Rock taking breaks to film movies, The Great One took this hostility and ran with it, returning to the WWE in January 2003 and bigging up his movie career whilst making himself out to be bigger than the company. This new persona gave The Rock a much-needed refresh, with his act being far more entertaining than anything else on WWE TV at that point. Like any great heel though, he’d still manage to make himself out as the bad guy worthy of boos whilst still being entertaining – such as his skits with The Hurricane, his reignited feud with Steve Austin, and the first Rock Appreciation Night.
Hollywood Rock is one of the most underrated personas and acts of the past 15 years, and it’s crazy to think that this particular run only lasted for a matter of months with Rocky putting over the newly-arrived Goldberg at April’s Backlash event before he again left to continue his movie career.
8 Vickie Guerrero
She may have been one of the most annoying on-screen WWE characters in recent memory, but that’s kind of the point.
In a time where it’s hard to be a genuine heel due to the business having been long exposed and fans fully up to speed on how things work, Vickie Guerrero was one of the few people to get vitriol and hate from all corners of the WWE Universe.
For someone with no experience whatsoever of being an actual on-screen character as part of a wrestling product, Vickie soon found her feet and became a performer who elicited a crowd reaction that many superstars would be jealous of.
After a few early appearances, it was only following the death of her husband Eddie Guerrero that Vickie became a prominent fixture on WWE TV, with her becoming a regular on-screen presence in 2006 before becoming the SmackDown General Manager.
It didn’t take long for Vickie to get over as a mega heel, largely down to her shrill voice and constantly shouting her “Excuse me!” catchphrase. She may not have been an in-ring talent, but Vickie Guerrero is one of the most grating heels of the past 15 years, hands down.
7 Kevin Owens
KO has only been on the WWE main roster for just over a year, having stepped up from NXT in May 2015. Since then, the former Kevin Steen has shown just why he’s long been considered one of the best talents in the world.
Owens could and should be a huge babyface for the WWE whenever they decide to pull the trigger on him down the line, but in the past year he’s showcased why he’s one of the greatest true heels still in the business.
In a world of cool heels and cheap pops, Kevin Owens is a heel’s heel. He’s constantly talking trash, constantly bigging himself up, he’s brilliant in how he teases spots that would get big cheers but then ultimately takes a cop out route with a headlock, and he’s great in how he’s not afraid to be a coward and retreat when necessary. And most importantly of all, whilst he’s doing all of this he’s firmly getting himself over, his opponent over, and highlighting the importance of whatever stakes are on the line. Simply put, KO makes whatever he's involved in feel as important as possible, making the most of whatever the WWE throws his way and seizing every opportunity.
Owens is one of the very best in the game right now, and his star power, be it as a heel or a face in the future, is only going to get bigger over the next few years.
6 The Undertaker
The legendary Undertaker has taken on many new incarnations over the past few decades, transitioning from an undead zombie, to the Lord of Darkness, to heading up The Ministry, to an American Badass, to returning to his roots as The Deadman. What we’re looking at here, though, is his Big Evil run from 2001 to 2003.
Just about creeping into this list timewise, ‘Taker’s Big Evil moniker made for one of the greatest heel runs in modern memory, even if the Big Evil persona was only a heel for the first year or so of its lifespan. It may have been a little underappreciated at the time, but the following years have caused many a wrestling fan to look back and realise just how good a character Big Evil was and just how great ‘Taker was in the role.
Turning heel by forcing Jim Ross to kiss Vince McMahon’s ass, ‘Taker soon cut his hair short for the first time in his WWE career, and he’d become a thorough bastard of the highest order, becoming the ultimate big bully act.
Seriously, if you’re not a fan of Big Evil, just go back and watch him dismantle Rob Van Dam at Vengeance 2001, watch his brutalizing of Maven at the 2002 Royal Rumble, watch his creepy assault on David Flair in the build-up to WrestleMania XVIII, watch him threaten to do unspeakable things to Ric Flair’s young daughter, and watch him bully The Hardy Boyz and Lita at any opportunity.
5 The Miz
You may absolutely hate him, but that just means he's great at what he does.
Given his smarmy persona and reality TV background, Mike Mizanin was always going to be a great heel if used in the right way. Sure, there may have been a few babyface runs here and there over the years for The Miz, but they felt so unnatural and forced, and as such they bombed.
Since bringing his real life wife Maryse on the road with him post-WrestleMania this year, The Miz has been on fire, delivering some of the best work of his career. Sadly, he lost a little momentum when he had to take time off to film a new Marine movie (because clearly the world was crying out for yet another Marine movie...), but he’s now back on WWE TV and seems to have slipped right back into where he was before his break.
Now whilst The Miz’s work of the past few months has been great, it was his ascension to becoming WWE Champion back in 2010 that was him at his very best. From his US Title run and feud with Daniel Bryan, The Miz became one of the most detested characters to come around in a long time. He’d be a heel before, but him mentoring the already-seasoned and loveable Daniel Bryan saw his heel act get taken to new acts. Then came his WWE Title win courtesy of cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase and his subsequent retaining of the belt against John Cena at WrestleMania XXVII, much to the shock of many.
The Miz says he’s awesome, and when it comes to being a heel, he really, really is.
4 Triple H
Once you get past the countless talents he reportedly held down or the times he got completely needless, pointless wins that killed a talent’s momentum, Triple H has been a damn good heel for many a year.
It may have been “Game Time” far too often for many wrestling fans to stomach, but that doesn’t take away the fact that Hunter is one of the most despised bad guys of the modern wrestling landscape. And if anything, bar the huge pop he got upon his Madison Square Garden return in 2002, Triple H largely flopped as a babyface whenever given the opportunity.
For the majority of his WWE career, Hunter has been the very definition of a great heel. Never afraid to take a shortcut or to simply walk out on a challenge, The Game became famous for screwing over guys like Mick Foley, The Rock, Chris Jericho and any up and coming babyface act. Then there was his brutal attack on longtime BFF Shawn Michaels upon HBK’s return to the company. And of course, later on came Evolution and his subsequent turn on Randy Orton, not to mention his ensuing battles with Batista.
Basically, Triple H made a career for himself as a heel who either surrounded himself with followers or simply turned on those closest to him. Whatever he did, it certainly worked, and the Cerebral Assassin will go down as one of the biggest names of the past 20 years, whether you like it or not.
3 CM Punk
Whilst CM Punk became the hottest superstar since Steve Austin at one point in time, it’s his heel work that’s to be talked about here. The Second City Saint was a great, great babyface, but he was an even better bad guy.
During his time in the WWE, Punk had two notable heel runs. The first saw him turn on Jeff Hardy in what was one of the greatest feuds of the past few decades. Hardy was always a massive fan favourite but at times seemed to be missing that special something to be the huge star that his fanbase warranted. Luckily, CM Punk provided to be just that special something.
Having cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase on Jeff, Punk fully turned heel and even banished the Charismatic Enigma from the company in a Loser Leaves Town sort of bout. This was all scripted, of course, but Punk’s character at that point transitioned into somebody who very much spoke the truth. Championing his straight edge lifestyle and ridiculing Jeff’s very real use of drugs, Punk was doing what every great heel does: believing every single word that he was saying.
The Straight Edge Society would follow, with Punk becoming a cult leader who saw himself as a Jesus figure. Moving on from Jeff Hardy, the ever-creepy Punk would soon torment Rey Mysterio and his family. It was truly great stuff. Creepy, yes, but great.
Another heel run would occur later in Punk’s WWE career, with him snapping on The Rock. Whilst Rocky would move on to battle John Cena, Punk set his sights on The Undertaker’s streak, even going as far as mocking the recently deceased Paul Bearer!
I’ll admit it, I’m one of those guys who never really saw Edge ever quite becoming a true main event guy. Sure, he was good in the ring and solid on the mic, but there just seemed to be something missing from the Toronto native. Then came the real life situation between Edge, Lita and Matt Hardy.
Off the back of Edge’s affair with Lita becoming public knowledge amongst wrestling fans, the former IC Champion went on to become one of the most despised performers on the planet… and he absolutely loved every minute of it. Every boo was soaked up, every shortcut was taken, and any and every chance to just be a slimy guy was maximized to its fullest.
The irony is, Matt Hardy was the one hit hardest in real life by these events, yet it ended up being Edge who benefited the most from it all by the time everything was said and done. Embracing the Rated R Superstar moniker and becoming the “Ultimate Opportunist”, Edge shot to the top of card, most notably becoming John Cena’s greatest rival and ending his career as an 11-time World Champion.
Not bad going for someone who many didn’t see as more than a tag team specialist or a midcard guy at best.
1 Chris Jericho
If you saw Jericho’s heel turn in 2008 then you’d expect no one else at the #1 spot of this list.
Chris Jericho is one of the greatest wrestling talents in the history of the business, with him being the complete package and able to get over huge as either a babyface or a heel. Whilst many were clamouring for a Jericho babyface World Title run in 2000, it was as a heel that he really found his groove as a top level talent.
Granted, he turned heel in the build-up to becoming the first ever WWF Undisputed Champion, but it was his heel turn in 2008 that was the stuff of legend. For whatever reason, Jericho’s Undisputed Championship run saw him play the awkward third wheel in a feud between Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, with the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rollah left cleaning up dog turds. Seriously, that happened.
In 2008, having turned on his mentor and friend Shawn Michaels, Jericho began the greatest run of his career, one of the greatest runs in recent memory, and the greatest heel act of the past 15 years. Scrapping everything that people liked about him, Jericho changed his attire both in and out of the ring, tweaked his in-ring arsenal, and completely changed up his promo style and persona as he became a cold, calculated, clinical individual who was only out for himself.
Jericho and Michaels had the hands-down greatest feud of the past decade during that time, but it wasn’t just this feud that saw Jericho truly become The Best in the World at What He Does, for he would be great in every single thing he became involved in. Whether that was battling Shawn Michaels for the World Championship, engaging in a fantastic feud with Rey Mysterio, teaming with Big Show, mocking the injured Edge, or simply doing a shtick with Bob Barker, Chris Jericho cemented his status as a true icon of the business and the greatest heel of recent times.
Even during his current WWE run, 8 years removed from that 2008 heel turn and in a very different landscape, Jericho is still showing why he's one of the very best heels in the business to this day.