Killer Heels: What WWE can learn from the rise of Negan

WWE, particularly its RAW brand, is in a creative slump. Despite a talented roster of wrestlers, people are tuning out in their hundreds of thousands. There are many reasons for WWE’s decline, one of which is its lack of credible heels.

Heels are important. Though it’s his name above the marquee, every great face needs a great rival. Hulk Hogan had Ted DiBiase, Stone Cold had Vince McMahon and even the much derided John Cena was super-over against the dastardly Edge. Though face vs face clashes have done mega-business on occasion (particularly at Wrestlemania VI and XVII), heels are the nuts and bolts of professional wrestling: without them, the whole show falls apart.

To address its heel malaise, WWE need look no further than The Walking Dead for inspiration. Since the arrival of super-heel Negan, the long-running zombie show has gone from solid entertainment to must see television. One bad guy, in just a handful of on-screen appearances, has revived the entire franchise and got everyone talking about it.

Here are 5 lessons WWE can take from Negan when it comes to booking its heels…

A Credible Threat

When discussing Negan everyone talks about that scene: the one featuring a baseball bat and some heads. However, perhaps the most important moment of Negan’s introduction comes after he is done swinging for the fences. Without back up, he drives Rick away in a camper van and explains to the former sheriff how things are going to be from now on. During this trip, Rick, who the audience know is incredibly tough, has the opportunity to kill Negan, but at every turn the villain has him completely at his mercy.

In the third instalment of season 7, Negan and his Saviours come to collect their “tithe” from Alexandria. Unsurprisingly, they take every gun in the village. Rick’s arsenal, with which he has defeated everyone who has stood in his path before, is gone.

In the past, The Walking Dead has not always got it right with villains. The Governor was an interesting character who David Morrissey played well. Unfortunately, he never seemed a genuine threat to Rick. With Negan, however, that changed. Not only has he beaten Rick’s gang when they were armed, he has now left them defenceless. The fear Andrew Lincoln showed when first confronted with the baseball bat wielding monster was incredible. In Negan, he has not just met his match, he is overmatched.

We all know that Rick (or possible Daryl or Maggie) will eventually give Negan his comeuppance. But by establishing him so forcefully, we begin to doubt ourselves, and this keeps us tuning in. When was the last time a WWE heel was presented as such a credible threat? RAW’s top heels, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, spend more time arguing over clipboards than they do beating people down; foreign menace Rusev loses more matches than he wins; and the interesting Bray Wyatt has been castrated after suffering defeat in nearly every feud he has had.

If WWE wants to make its TV output unmissable, its heels need to be credible threats. If there is no adversity for the faces to overcome what is the point of tuning in?

Shock and Awe

It is hard to think of a more shocking debut than Negan’s. After months of his name being whispered, Jeffery Dean Morgan unceremoniously strode out of a camper van and bludgeoned two of The Walking Dead’s leading characters to death. Fans were instantly repulsed and intrigued by him.

The lesson here is that heels must do heelish things. Whilst there is place for the comedy heel and the cowardly heel these are usually opening match acts. Top card heels need to be vicious and outrageous.

WWE has a long history of scandalous heels. Whether it was Jake Roberts forcing his cobra to bite Randy Savage or HHH marrying Stephanie McMahon in a drive-thru chapel, WWE has always been able to shock its audience. Events like these change fans perceptions of the performers involved, sometimes for many years.

Though it is arguably more difficult to shock audiences in the PG-era, it is certainly not impossible. Kevin Owens’ attack on Sami Zayn during their run in NXT is a good example of this. The prize fighter’s betrayal of his friend in his moment of glory was despicable and the power bomb on the ring apron that followed, though hardly the most violent move in wrestling, was sold like death by all involved.

The Owens we see in 2016 is a far cry from the 2014 version. Even the Hell in a Cell gimmick failed to produce a memorable, vicious moment in his recent feud with Seth Rollins. It is easy to see how much more heat he and Jericho would have if they were delivering ConChairTos to anyone who crossed their paths.

Dare to be Different

With the exception of part-timer Brock Lesnar, heels in the current WWE product almost all have the same shtick. They moan about matches, cower from the faces and win cheaply. They are rarely the equals of their opponents and largely interchangeable.

Negan could never be described as interchangeable. Though his barbed-wire baseball bat could be straight out of a Texas death match, it is not Negan’s brutality which makes him stand out. Unlike almost every other character in The Walking Dead, he is perfectly manicured. He smiles, jokes and even professes fear of Father Stokes. Though the smiling villain is not necessarily the most original act, it is a departure from the shows modus operandi which has proven a hit with viewers.

WWE does not have a wrestler on its roster with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s charisma. But a heel with just a tenth of it could thrive given the right push and radical gimmick. Again, this is an area where WWE has form. The first incarnation of Kurt Angle, an uppity, patronising flag-waver, was a smash hit with fans. Playing the traditional patriotic wrestler for heat was very different to everything else in the twilight of the Attitude era. Even his music, to which fans gleefully chanted “You suck”, was a change from the rock riffs used by other wrestlers at that time. The gimmick, combined with Angle’s obvious wrestling skill, turned him into a bona-fide star in the years to come.

Character is Key

As in any story, the most memorable characters in wrestling need a reason for their actions. Mick Foley’s time as a backyard stunt machine endeared him to fans who saw him as one of them. Ric Flair’s need to hold the world title so he could ‘style and profile’ made him a heat magnet. How many current WWE heels have a compelling backstory?

The Walking Dead’s portrayal of Negan has been exceptional in this regard. It is clear he is an egotistical, megalomaniac with a Charles Manson-like following, but we do not know why. Eschewing the route taken by Lost, we know nothing of his life before the zombie outbreak. This will no doubt come in time. For now, however, the viewer is left to guess at his true motivations. This mystery makes him compelling.

In NXT, Kevin Owens had a compelling raison d’etre. He was the family man who was prepared to anything to give his kids a better life, even if that meant ending the career of his so-called best friend. Few characters on the main WWE roster have such depth. If they did, and the audience saw them develop slowly overtime, viewers may be less likely to tune out.

In truth, this is not just a problem for WWE’s heels. What do we know about Roman Reigns other than he is Vince McMahon’s chosen one? Given his long family association with the business, surely WWE could find a way to give the muscleman a more relatable backstory.

If the heel needs a gang, make them count

Heel stables have been a staple of prowrestling for time immemorial. What easier way is there to stack the deck against the face than giving his opponent a gang to help him out?

In recent years, however, WWE heel stables have been decisively underwhelming. When Seth Rollins led the Authority’s team of wrestlers, his main henchmen were two weedy, semi-retired cruiserweights whose screwy interventions wound fans up in the wrong way. The Wyatt family, who look like monsters, lose too easily to be genuine threats. The Club, when they were briefly partnered with AJ Styles, looked great on occasion but never received a sustained push and were then buried with crap comedy routines. The less said about The League of Nations the better.

Contrast this with Negan’s Saviours. Though Rick and co did initially smash through the low-level hoodlums, once they encountered the core of the gang things changed. Though we have seen relatively little of the Saviours in action so far, they appear truly frightening.  Not only do they look like killers, but small touches like bullying children and taking polaroids of dead bodies have made them thoroughly repulsive. But as much as the audience wants to see Dwight and his comrades knocked off, their killer reputation makes this seem less likely. How can Alexandria’s small band of fighters hope to overcome Negan’s army? Doubt like this keeps viewers hooked.

WWE has proved itself more than capable of building threatening, dislikeable gangs: for every Oddities in the WWE archives there is a Hart Foundation. Not only do great stables enhance feuds, they build stars like Batista. A dangerous heel squad would give WWE’s faces meaningful obstacles to overcome and its viewers more interesting feuds to sink their teeth into.

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