In his latest weekly feature, Jack King considers the place of classic heel work in modern wrestling...
When the nWo swaggered onto the scene in the mid ’90s, a lot changed - not least the role of the villain.
Their success marked the rise of the ‘cool’ heel in mainstream Western wrestling, just as popular and admired as their babyface foes (often even more so.) The trope spread wildly, feeding off the frustrations and subversions of a Generation X audience. Of course, in the decades since, it has only continued to thrive in the hard cynicism of the internet age.
But naturally, with the nWo’s ascent came the demise of the ‘classic’ bad guys. These days, it’s often said that the art of being a ‘real’ heel has been lost forever - at least in the English-speaking world. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at last weekend.
You know the drill by now. NXT, apparently devoid of momentum, pulled it out of the bag yet again with a stellar TakeOver event. Vengeance Day is an early contender for show of the year, and like most great wrestling shows, it had variety. We saw the shocking fallout of an excellent main event, while Gargano and Kushida combined grace with grit, and Io Shirai continued to dominate her title scene. Speaking of the Women’s Champion, her biggest potential threat dominated the opening bout - a traditional heel vs. face encounter framed by the promise of Raquel Gonzalez’s impending singles push.
But the most old school dynamic of all was the men’s Dusty Classic final. It was the simplest of stories told in compelling fashion: MSK, the flashy newcomers, overcoming the Grizzled Young Veterans. In the aftermath of this match, it feels appropriate to discuss why Zack Gibson and James Drake represent the return of bonafide bad guys.
On the surface, this might seem wrong. The match played out at hyper-speed, and that wasn’t just MSK’s doing. Gibson and Drake matched them step for step, and occasionally exploded with new-age tag offence of their own. Arn and Tully may have shuddered at the sheer amount of frills on display.
But despite their ability to wow a crowd, in my mind, the Grizzled Young Veterans are indeed ‘proper’ heels - the most genuine in today’s WWE. Sure, they can go in the ring, but unlike the heel versions of the Young Bucks or Lucha Bros, we’re never guilty of wanting them to win.
It’s an achievement clearly anchored by Gibson’s personality. Pound-for-pound, he is maybe the most naturally-detestable wrestler around today - combining menace, petulance, and opportunism. He deliberately lacks any shred of charm or cool, constantly irritated that we boo him, but somehow still completely shocked that we choose to do so. He’s never funny, at least on purpose.
This charisma, combined with a loyal workhorse in the form of Drake, sees the pair perform an impressive balancing act. They’re old school a**holes in a modern context, updating the idea of what a true heel can be.
Some might argue that this isn’t true, claiming that classic heels never went away, we just forgot how to spot them. The main name cited in this argument is usually Baron Corbin. Thanks to his status as one of the most groan-inducing members of the roster, wiser fans will pop in to tell us that actually, Corbin is a proper heel - and the fact that we dislike him only proves their point.
Now, as a quick disclaimer, I don’t hate the man portraying Baron Corbin. He’s underrated in the ring, massively consistent, and does exactly what is required of him on a weekly basis. But I do hate WWE's use of him. He’s not a heel we want to see lose; he’s a heel we don’t want to see.
Again, this isn’t Baron’s fault - it’s the booking. The prime example of this is Kurt Angle’s retirement match, where he went down with a whimper to the Lone Wolf at WrestleMania 35. It was an immensely unsatisfying end to the career of an all-time great, and honestly, it didn’t even elevate Corbin by making us hate him more. It just made us hate the booking.
Another figure we have to consider is AEW’s MJF. He certainly fits the mould of a classic heel, scheming his way to the top, while never missing an opportunity to remind us that we’re ugly, virgin losers. We like to be told that, for some reason.
But therein lies the problem, and the reason we can’t consider MJF in the same bracket of pure heeldom as the Grizzled Young Veterans. Even though he’s a complete heat magnet, there’s a part of us that delights in his dickishness. He’s so good at what he does, we can’t wait for the next instalment. It wouldn’t be Wednesday without him.
It’s also worth noting that while bad booking has hampered Corbin, MJF is as much the victim of good booking. Sometimes we actually prefer him to win, as it drives his nefarious plans forward in their most naturally exciting direction.
Which brings us full circle; we never want to see Drake and Gibson win. When they do, it only adds fuel to the fire - uniting us further in support of the next team that faces them, regardless of who they actually are. It’s classic heel stuff, which lends itself perfectly to the tournament setting. That might explain why the Veterans have reached the last two Dusty Classic finals in a row, only to fall at the last hurdle. It might also explain why Gibson won the second UK Championship Tournament, only to waste his follow-up title shot.
Spearheaded by Gibson, and backed up by Drake, the Grizzled Young Veterans are the definitive revival of pure heel work (even more so than, ironically, The Revival, who were always too slick to truly hate.)
Together, the Brits could signal the dawn of a new villainous age, one Western wrestling has long been crying out for. Here's hoping they succeed.