Actions must have consequences. One of the oldest and greatest stories of all time is about a cataclysmic decade-long war caused by one man’s wife leaving him for another. If that man shrugged it off, called up his ‘brochacho’ or carried on as if nothing had changed, then there’s no story. No need to go to Troy, no need to fight a war, no need to care.
Bringing us to AEW’s babyface problem. They’re not selling heels’ actions so that we, as fans, get invested in their retribution. And when it comes to top babyfaces there’s a little question I always like to ask internally: What Would Stone Cold Do?
Yes it’s a high bar but that’s the point. He was the hottest babyface in the history of wrestling, the single biggest draw in the history of wrestling (I’m aware others were hotter for longer, none were this hot at their apex, all the numbers back this up). So as not to alienate those of you who weren’t around, here was the formula:
- Heel does anything Steve Austin considers even remotely offensive
- A pissed off Steve Austin storms the ring by whatever means necessary to ensure he gets there – feet, Zamboni, beer truck, whatever – the point is he’s getting there, he will not be stopped
- Steve Austin tells us he’s pissed off and why he’s pissed off, vows to kick the heel’s ass
- Steve Austin kicks the heel’s ass
- And if he doesn’t the first time, he relentlessly pursues them until he does what he says he will and gets his vengeance
He emotionally (usually anger) sold whatever the heel had done so that we were invested in seeing him gain revenge. We were along on the journey, living vicariously through this generational ass kicker.
On last night’s Dynamite, MJF started the show with a big smile. He laughed, he joked, he called up his ‘brochacho’, screwed around backstage with his list. Did anything but mention the importance of getting back the world title belt stolen from him, what, a month ago? Yes, nominally all of this was somewhat a means to that end but the only emotion here was happiness. He was neither sad nor angry re: his stolen property.
(WWSCD? A month without his belt? Anything ranging from the heel having a broken appendage to the building being burnt down. After being screwed at KOTR ’98 he interrupted the opening segment the very next night to demand a title shot.)
The only serious character in all of this was Wardlow. Who is presumably a heel? (He is targeting the babyface champion.) But was the only guy I wanted to get behind. Since he very clearly and emotionally (again, anger) explained his story to us. He was a good guy, he did nothing wrong and had his career derailed by this jackass walking round with a clipboard but without his title, crossing names off a list.
He angrily grabbed Max by the neck, told him what he’d done to him and that he was going to get him when the time is right and when he least expects it. And now fans have a reason to emotionally invest in him and anticipate that promise.
Now let’s consider Hangman Page. Whose infant child a sinister and gravely serious Swerve Strickland threatened last week. The babyface’s response to this? Well, Hangman politely waited for his timeslot forty minutes into the show then posed atop the ramp while said heel’s minions were a mere twenty feet away. Essentially, he went through his usual routine. If he was upset or angry, there were no signs.
(WWSCD? Damn sure not politely wait his turn. Probably gatecrash the opening match, hijack the show, demand the heel come out and if he didn’t, head backstage to look for him after vowing to do unspeakable things. He did after all attack Bret Hart in an ambulance and take Vince McMahon hostage with a pistol.)
Even Adam Copeland took an age to finally aim any emotion at a heel Christian Cage. Okay, he has shown one or two bits along the way, the story hasn’t exactly been consistent, but he’s never truly sold what were overtly despicable actions by the heel, only tried to reason with him.
While Kenny Omega didn’t even mention Don Callis costing him the world title Saturday. He made fun of Callis’ word choices then breezily accepted a challenge from the heels for a street fight. Shouldn’t that have been Omega’s challenge after having not only his title shot but his record reign taken away?
There seems to be a growing mid-teens-WWE influence on the product. After an influx of production and behind-the-scenes people from that era. Which is like shoving medieval doctors into modern day hospitals to dole out leeches and crushed jewels*.
An era saturated by John Cena laughing off having his title stolen, or Roman Reigns responding to similar with the words ‘sufferin’ succotash’. A period personified by fan indifference, declining ratings and ticket sales. Sound familiar?
Because pissed-off babyfaces wanting redemption is what sells tickets and gets fans to watch. In fact the only people who fit that bill on this Dynamite were (pseudo)heels the BCC & Wardlow. They were the only people who actually cared about what had happened to them and actively pursued retribution. For everyone else, nothing really mattered. So why should it to fans? And that’s the bottom line.
*Legitimately prescribed by Lorenzo de’ Medici’s doctor