Why Are AEW Better At Building Genuine Babyfaces Than WWE?
Unlike WWE, AEW have a host of loveable heroes to draw upon. Why is that?
Jungle Boy is young, handsome and talented. He has an incredible mane of hair. His best friend is a dinosaur.
It should be easy to hate him, but for some reason we don’t.
Last weekend, Jungle Boy faced Kenny Omega for the AEW World Championship, coming up just short after an excellent match of twists and turns. Roared on by Daily’s Place, he scored several excruciating near-falls on the reigning champ, only to fail at the final hurdle.
But despite losing, it was clearly another Jungle Boy moment.
Compared to some on the roster, these moments have been quite infrequent for Jack Perry, often separated by large gaps. Despite this, he’s never forgotten, inevitably drawing upon the full support of the crowd each time he rises up the card.
The battle royal victory to secure this title match was one such moment, as was his show-stealer with MJF at Double or Nothing 2020. Before that, his mini-feud with Chris Jericho announced the youngster as a future star of the promotion. Despite not always winning, these moments have represented key stages of progression for Jungle Boy.
He’s seized every one, and earned our adulation each time. Jungle Boy is a developing success story - an innately likeable face utilised correctly (if a little patiently) by AEW. He is certainly one of the purest good guys in the promotion, but in terms of popularity, he’s just one of many.
The sheer scope and variety of beloved babyfaces is one of AEW’s clearest strengths. Any given card is full of them.
Jon Moxley has long been one of wrestling’s biggest antiheroes, but now forms a warped, loveable tag team alongside Eddie Kingston, arguably the best promo in the world at present.
Darby Allin’s excellent TNT title reign transformed him from indie firecracker to counterculture hero. The recently-turned Inner Circle boast many popular figures, not least a sure-fire future star in Sammy Guevara. People love the Best Friends and Orange Cassidy; people love the Dark Order.
And bubbling away under the surface, we have ‘Hangman’ Adam Page, owner of perhaps the most compelling story in all of AEW. From losing the first ever AEW World Championship match to enjoying tag team success with Kenny Omega, to betraying his partner and leaving The Elite, to finding new undercard allies in the Dark Order, everything is in place for a heroic redemption arc. We’re just waiting for it to happen.
In summary, AEW’s good guys have a lot going for them, even as we approach the end of the lockdown period. But there’s an uncomfortable comparison to be made, because put simply: WWE have a babyface problem.
When Drew McIntyre won the 2020 Royal Rumble, Twitter was swamped with phone camera footage of bars and living rooms, fans exploding with joy at the rise of a deserving hero. A year later, he’s been reduced to a confused stereotype - sword in hand, kilt around waist, spouting amateur British history lessons on a weekly basis.
Cesaro teased us with the idea of a long overdue push, before being dragged back under the glass ceiling by a man he’d already beaten at WrestleMania. Raw Women’s Champion Rhea Ripley cannot beat Charlotte Flair clean, and may not even be a babyface at the time of writing. We’re just not sure.
In fairness, the lack of live crowds obviously hasn’t helped WWE. It’s hard to forge a hero in the sterile surroundings of the ThunderDome, with the inability to gauge an organic human audience and react accordingly. On the other hand, would WWE listen to such a crowd response anyway?
The company’s star-making issues stretch much further back than the ThunderDome period, with Roman Reigns the biggest reminder of this. It’s great to see the Tribal Chief thrive as the best part of the current product, but only after a half decade of infamous failed babyface pushes.
For balance, it’s important to recognise that the success of AEW’s babyfaces isn’t universal. Funnily enough, it seems to be those with the most influence that have found it the hardest.
Cody Rhodes started off hot, leading the revolution, tearing the house down alongside his brother, but that sentiment has changed these days. (Did he have to beat Penta and Ogogo in such straightforward fashion?)
The Young Bucks never looked comfortable in their role as tag team heroes, and are now thankfully back to doing what they know. Kenny Omega has reportedly had a big hand in the women’s division, whose biggest star is tellingly a charismatic heel.
But across the board, when compared to WWE, it seems far easier to forge a connection with AEW’s faces. Given the naturally likeable nature of many of their stars, it may seem as though the promotion have luckily scooped a handful of wrestling’s best babyfaces. This isn’t the case at all. I’d even suggest that if the two companies’ rosters were completely swapped, the results would still be the same. AEW’s atmosphere is simply more conducive to producing loveable heroes.
So why is this?
A main reason is the writing. Yes, both promotions utilise scripted promos, but AEW’s feel far less tightly constrained. The wrestlers’ personalities shine through far more fully, forging a much more genuine bond with the viewer. Often WWE fall into the trap of giving their promos a universal voice; it’s hard to recognise any particular babyface as special when they sound the same across the board.
This is speculation, but watching AEW I also get a sense that non-wrestling segments are a fluid and collaborative effort between wrestler and writer. The likes of Jericho and Moxley appear to be largely left to their own devices, while less experienced figures may have more of a helping hand - but even the latter promos are clearly written by people who understand wrestling, and people who understand wrestlers.
This stands in stark contrast to WWE, who often hire writers with no knowledge of the industry (a topic which was thrown under a microscope by the recent release of Kenice Mobley.) I’ve seen the argument that it’s good to hire unfamiliar names, as they can approach the show from a completely fresh mindset, uninfluenced by our in-built traditions and biases as fans. I’d argue that this is true, but only if they are used in tandem with writers or bookers who do understand the complex framework of professional wrestling.
In my own experience, it quickly became apparent at WCPW that one can’t freely write a wrestling storyline. It’s a tedious and frustrating process. Our creative team were constantly reminded of the need to be mindful of beats and checkpoints, to take into account the emotions of the crowd at every stage, and to preserve continuity. Without such consideration, a storyline can quickly become an incoherent mess, and roster-members can become hollow chess pieces with little connection to the audience.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this all too frequently in WWE over the past year or two.
Still, we must acknowledge that AEW also has a natural advantage. As the newer and smaller company, it’s an exciting underdog, fulfilling a role in the wrestling landscape that is all too easy to root for.
As such, their babyfaces are also easier to support. They carry not only our kayfabe hopes of seeing the villains vanquished, but our real hopes of seeing a competitive, exciting wrestling industry once again.
As things stand, they’re giving it a damn good shot.