In Search Of Heel Heat

For wrestlers, the bottom line is making spectators feel something. Even, and maybe especially, hatred.
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Illustrations by Ben Passmore.

This story is from WORK, the 12th issue of The Classical Magazine. You can get that issue through our app, or at our Plasso store in non-iOS formats.

There wasn't a lot to downtown Bayou La Batre, Alabama. A de facto general store offered ethanol-free gas, video rentals, and pizza with scripture quotes on the box. "Y'all here for the wrestling?" We were. Half a mile down the road, the parking lot of the Community Center overflowed; people were parking on the lawn.

The big name on the card that night was Percy Pringle, better known to pro wrestling fans as Paul Bearer, the morbid-mannered manager and sometime antagonist to WWE's iconic Undertaker. It wasn't every day this small coastal fishing town hosted someone who'd been on worldwide TV, but Percy had also grown up nearby. The moment he stepped through the curtain into the main hall, the crowd began clapping furiously for him-- for his success, his South Alabama roots, and his presence in Bayou La Batre. He made his way along the rows of folding chairs to the wrestling ring, waving and smiling amidst a hero's welcome.

"Oh yeah," Pringle said, taking a microphone and heaving himself up onto the ring apron. "Y'all glad to see me?"

The applause increased; many were standing. "Damn right," Pringle said. "Damn right you are, you little shrimp-pickers. You bunch of sad-sack out-of-work oyster-shuckers." This was in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster, and the crowd murmured unhappily. "Hell," Pringle continued, "I'm about the biggest deal you ever laid your ignorant backwater eyes on. I get my feet dirty coming back to this fish-stinking little town, you'd better make it worth my while. You oughta kiss my feet." The crowd began to boo.

"Fat-ass!" someone yelled.

Pringle grimaced horribly. "Who said that?" he demanded. "Listen here; you nasty little shrimp-pickers better show me respect!" The catcalls multiplied. In under a minute, the hometown hero had turned the crowd against him. He'd used his leverage to draw one of pro wrestling's key ingredients, crowd animosity-- in wrestling terminology, heel heat.

***

In defiance of the obsessive, apparently autistic drive to catalogue and classify that characterizes fandom in general and internet "culture" in particular, pro wrestling's insider lingo remains hard to nail down. There are the basics: bad guys are heels, good guys are babyfaces, something staged to look unstaged is a work.

Beyond that it gets murkier, and not by accident. Wrestling jargon is the scattered shards of a secret, largely lost carny patois. It's coded, contextual, regional and informally developed, so the substrate of its significations is seldom stable enough to anchor precise definitions. Meanings of "heat" include genuine enmity between individuals, a match segment in which the villain gains advantage, and a crowd reaction. "Heel heat" is the crowd's anger towards bad-guy wrestlers.

Pro wrestling shares DNA with ancient, populist performance forms like pantomime and mummers' plays. In contrast to somber, snooty cinemas demanding that an audience sit silently while a packaged Entertainment is decanted into their skulls, pro wrestling hinges on interactive immediacy. Audiences shout insults or encouragement, and good pro wrestlers work out their matches on the fly, largely in response to audience reactions. If the people are booing, that's something; if they're cheering, that's something else. The noise is what’s important; silence equals death. Whether on TV or live, a disinterested pro wrestling crowd is dispiriting. As a fan, it's tough to have fun when the people around you are sitting on their hands.

Older wrestlers speak wistfully of crowds so incensed that heels could barely escape the arena alive, but in the WWE, the global entertainment brand that defines pro wrestling in our lifetimes, heel heat is lately hard to come by. I’m a diehard WWE fan, not a hater, but as someone who’s spent time in the world of local, independent pro wrestling, I can’t help but notice how much more heat baddies get in the bingo halls and high-school gyms where the indies live.

WWE is an unusually nimble colossus; its brand of sports-entertainment is always evolving and almost always massively entertaining. But even in a time of troubled antiheroes, and despite countless efforts at reinvention, the foundation of successful ticket- and merchandise-selling pro wrestling.remains a fight between a good guy you admire and a bad guy you dislike. In WWE, impressive athletic feats and weirdo or slapstick comedy, both longtime components of pro wrestling, now get audience response more reliably than the misbehaviors of the villains. Without a heel audiences hate or fear, the crucial narrative element of pro wrestling slides into postmodern meaninglessness. What was thrilling physical drama, a form of combat storytelling, becomes a mere succession of stunts.

Jim Ross, a legendary and legendarily enthusiastic pro-wrestling announcer, now hosts a podcast. One of the frequent topics of discussion with his guests, who are mostly wrestlers, is how difficult it's become for heels to get heat. In keeping with old-school pro wrestling's broadly conservative bootstrap mentality, many of his guests blame wrestlers for failing to evoke a crowd response -- the kids today just aren't doing it right. Others pin the problem on the diminishment of fan belief in pro wrestling as an authentic sporting competition.

There's a standard counterargument to this, and it’s not a bad one: most people understand that plays and movies are fictive, but a sufficiently well-told story can still make them care. It's true that in the era of social media wrestling fans are relentlessly and obtrusively given peeks behind the magician's curtain, but saturation tabloid coverage of Jennifer Lawrence’s personal life has not harmed audiences' interest in the plight of Katniss Everdeen.

A vocal bloc of nostalgic fans blame the lack of contemporary heel heat on WWE's PG television rating. There's no denying today's WWE, a publicly traded company striving for mainstream acceptance, is far less transgressive than it was in the depraved depths of the 1990s, when concussion-inducing steel-chair shots to the head were the norm and storylines included necrophilia, men hitting women, and rape played for laughs. But however one feels about the mass market tempering pro wrestling's outlaw spirit, the WWE can afford the best creative minds in the business; they should be able to work around limitations.

The problem -- and the reason why Randy Orton has to direct a half-dozen shouted insults at the local MLB team to get the crowd to boo him -- may not be one the WWE can solve. It’s in part a symptom of success, a byproduct of the WWE's global brand dominance.

When the WWE comes to your town, you're seeing megastars. Most of them are dazzlingly, luminously charismatic. When Randy Orton is right in front of you, he's so surreally, disorientingly perfect that it's hard to be mad at him, regardless of what he’s saying. His star power and gender-transcending sex appeal outshine the specifics of the storyline in which he’s embroiled. Even heels who look more like Bacchus than Apollo, for instance creepy swamp freak Bray Wyatt, are so thrillingly great at what they do, so good at being bad, that fans recognize and celebrate the talent on display regardless of its ostensible evil.

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Bad guys, including those in pro wrestling, have always had a following. In the early eighties, a thuggish posse known as The Four Horsemen courted outrage by boasting about their wealth and sexual prowess. They were good at it, but the language and delivery of Ric Flair, their breakout star, was so exciting that he ended up as loved as he was hated. Flair’s hubris was intoxicating, his delight in himself exuberantly heartfelt. “Lord, it's hard to be humble,” he’d moan, “when I look SO FINE!”

Plenty of people riding the bus like listening to rappers gloat about their Rolls-Royces, and when Flair told the crowd, "My shoes cost more than your house," some fans cheered his panache in the same spirit. A group of show-goers began dressing in their (presumably less name-brand) versions of The Horsemen’s power suits and aviator shades. America celebrates success, and there's a strong aspirational streak in this country's still largely blue-collar pro wrestling audience. When everyone’s accepted that power, wealth, and conformity to beauty ideals are marks of merit, the shtick of a superior braggart is less able to anger the masses.

Another part of the problem, as noted by Pro Wrestling Torch's Wade Keller, is that WWE's announcers no longer set a moral tone. Whether because evincing outrage is considered old-fashioned or because they're too preoccupied trying to hype WWE-related services and merchandise, announcers allow heels' cheating and other misbehaviors to pass unremarked. This seems an easy enough problem to fix, but it’s not being fixed.

Denied a code of wrestling ethics to sin against within their matches, and afraid to alienate stockholders or advertisers by violating whatever larger taboos still exist, WWE heels increasingly resort to fallbacks like insulting the region's favored ball team. But all outrage is local: when a WWE heel on Monday Night RAW seeks heat by picking on the live audience's local sports franchise, the rest of the country watching -- let alone the larger audience worldwide -- has no reason to feel upset. What works for the live crowd means little to the diffuse TV audience.

Independent wrestling isn't beholden to ratings, stockholders, or international audiences, and so can still address the concerns and anxieties of its attendees in ways WWE can’t. Indy wrestling is and has always been entertainment by the community, for the community, and most of its participants are from the community.

Different regions of the US have different regional wrestling cultures; each is hometown comfort food, seasoned and spiced according to local tradition. It’s not haute cuisine, and it’s not trying to please every palate. I saw a black wrestler in mid-Mississippi who called himself Mr. Tibbs bait the crowd by bringing a white girlfriend to the ring. "This is my property," he told us. "She does anything I tell her." Having riled up everyone in the audience who disapproved of either interracial dating or the notion of people as property, Mr. Tibbs went on. "White girls know their place. She doesn't talk back like all you mouthy black women do. I'm done with y'all. I can't stand being around black people. You embarrass me."

It wasn't comfortable, but it was effective. Whether because they were offended, disgusted, or just because the whole angle made them fucking nervous, everybody welcomed with warm relief the babyface who came out to cut Tibbs short. This isn’t subtle, PG-rated, or the sort of thing that necessarily belongs on worldwide TV, but the atmosphere in the middle-school gym that night was electric with tension.

***

WWE's equipment, presentation and behind-the-scenes production and editing are among television's very best. The fireworks, the thundering sound system and the dazzling light shows are magnificent. They’re also overwhelming.

The sheer spectacle, impressive as it is, pummels people into passivity. Individual audience members' voices are lost amid the rafters of the cavernous NFL stadiums WWE roosts in. At an indy show in a VFW, when some skinny drunk stands up and shouts at the heel, everyone hears. When the heel responds by calling him a stupid redneck, mocks the town for being poor, and calls the whole audience sexually dysfunctional cowards, it gets under your skin. When you aren't adrift in a sea of of other fans, you're tense over the possibility that the heel will say something personal to you, your significant other, or one of your friends.

WWE shows are slick, professional, and extremely well controlled. Local shows have a different vibe. They also offer, for better or worse, a raw sense of danger absent from WWE. We all know it’s a work, but sometimes a local heel seems so out of control you worry he might hurt someone. What’s to stop him? How sure can you be that the local promoter hasn’t hired someone with an anger problem, someone with poor judgement, or someone authentically unbalanced?

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I still vividly recall one night at a small show along the Florida panhandle when a girl, maybe ten years old, was relentlessly heckling an indy wrestler named Death Row. "You're stupid!" she shouted over and over at him. Death Row, a towering figure in a ragged jumpsuit, didn't respond. He never spoke; absolute silence was part of his persona. Standing maybe six-and-a-half feet tall, comprised mostly of sinew and sunburn, Death Row had long, dirty hair and a maniac's staring eyes.

He continued to ignore the girl until midway through his match when he chanced to be outside the ring near her seat. With no warning, he spun into a crouch facing her and roared, animal-like, only a foot from her face. His strange eyes seemed to bulge from his head. I was sitting five rows back, and the shock of the enormous bellow from this previously mute monster nearly knocked me out of my chair.

We all knew the undistinguished, juggalo-painted bodybuilder who Death Row had been kicking around the ring would live to fight another day, but for a moment, that aggravating little girl seemed in genuine jeopardy. A humongous ogre was roaring at her, with no barrier between them! The kid was so frightened she went into hysterics, and her mother called the police. Between the initial disruption of the kid freaking out and the subsequent, literally show-stopping arrival of the local constabulary, the whole episode badly derailed the night's pro wrestling card. Whether this was a fuck-up or not depends on what you want from your night out; a heel so scary someone called the police on him is something I’ll never forget.

Independent wrestling, though as qualitatively uneven as any other art form’s grassroots version, is the easiest place to find and experience pro wrestling's allegorical magic, the genre's stripped-down ritual roots. It’s an alchemical reification that requires, above all else, heat.

I've been sufficiently mellowed by age and softened by cynicism that it takes a lot to work me into the kind of frenzy those older wrestlers brag of provoking, the point at which I personally want to get my hands on a heel wrestler, but I don't think it's coincidence that the notable exception was rooted in regionalism.

It was several years back, at a non-televised WWE "house show" in what was then the New Orleans Arena. Jericho, a smart-aleck heel whom I strongly preferred to the blandly boy-scout jock babyface John Cena, made reference to the flood that killed thousands of New Orleanians and decimated most of our city. It was cheap, and not even particularly clever: "John Cena, you're gonna go up in smoke, just like New Orleans did in Hurricane Katrina!"

Of course Katrina didn't flood New Orleans; the failure of the federal levees did. But the affront was no less searing for that. The audience gasped and began booing -- hollering, really -- in outrage. Have you ever heard tens of thousands of people yell in anger simultaneously? I have, but I only barely remember it. I was vaguely aware of the sound around me, but all I could really hear was the blood in my ears as I stood, also shouting, and flung the only missile to hand, my Diet Dr. Pepper.

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Saint Expedite guided my usually wretched reflexes: from a dozen rows back, my drink struck Jericho mid-shin. Security was all over me in moments. I was forcibly yanked from my seat and dragged away while the kids in the rows around me climbed over one another to high-five me and the adults slapped me on the back. It was a mix of humiliation and affirmation that I was still too upset to properly appreciate.

The security guys were local. As they muscled me towards the exit tunnel, I pleaded with them. "You heard what he said! Come on, don't kick me out!" They were supposed to escort me from the building, but conferred and relented. I couldn't return to my seat, but was allowed to stand with them in the very back of the arena and watch the night's final match.

I've never been so angry at a wrestler as I was with Jericho. I didn't just want John Cena to win, I wanted him to hurt Jericho badly, to cripple him. The line between Jericho the pro wrestler and whatever he was that wasn't a wrestler didn't exist. I wanted that motherfucker carried out on a stretcher. Since I couldn't get to Jericho, Cena was my proxy. I needed Cena to win, to do what my flung drink had been unable to.

Cena did win, decisively. Late in the match, Jericho begged on his knees for mercy, but Cena gave him none. When it was over, Cena got on the mic to tell the crowd that just as he had whipped Jericho's ass, New Orleans had whipped the hurricane's ass, and that Cena personally was inspired every day by our never-give-up attitude. He raised his diamond-studded title belt overhead and said all of us in New Orleans were the true champions.

People in the arena were actually crying with joy, and I was right there with them. Even the security guards were moved. Jericho's transgression, disgusting as it was, allowed us this mass catharsis. After the anger, there was vindication and release. Through the heel disrespecting our city's suffering, that match had become, for a moment, tremendously important. With Cena’s victory, everyone could go home happy. The harvest would be good, the weather gentle; the ritual was complete.


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