this is a heel turn

A History of Heels in Wrestling and Beyond

In pro wrestling, a heel turn describes when a good guy turns bad. But it doesn't just happen in the ring – more traditional sports stars also make this attention-grabbing transition.

by Carl Anka
Nov 11 2015, 4:46pm

Image via WWE

Boiled down to their base elements, both sport and professional wrestling (this is the last time I will separate pro wrestling from sport in this article) are about morality as entertainment. Lessons in mortality – good vs. evil, big vs. small, red vs. blue – are all found in sports, painted in vibrant-coloured strokes.

The greatest sports work best not as testaments to human endeavour and physical competition, but rather as episodes of non-verbal storytelling. There's a reason why more people get worked up over the World Cup than the Olympics: one serves as a fortnight-long celebration of what we as a species can achieve when striving for greatness, the other is more of a blockbuster season finale full of twists, turns, blood feuds and shocking swerves.

Simply put, sport works better when there's a narrative to get involved in. And for there to be a good narrative, there have to be heroes and villains.

Enter the heels.

A heel turn is a professional wrestling term used when a good guy (a babyface) becomes a bad guy (a heel). It's one of the most basic storytelling techniques wrestling writers use to get interest from a crowd. It can reinvigorate a character, be used as a shocking plot twist, and work to elevate a smaller character into a bigger star. Some of the best heel turns manage all three in one fell swoop.

A heel turn is also a manoeuvre a number of "legitimate" sports stars have been performing for the past few years, and for many of the same reasons.

The most famous heel turn, in American wrestling at least, occurred on 7 July 1996 at WCW's Bash at the Beach, where one-time wrestling hero Hulk Hogan (now terrible racist Hulk Hogan) came out at the close of a match and delivered a mammoth atomic leg-drop on good guy Randy Savage. Hogan was to team up with WWF/E defectors Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to form the nWo – the New World Order – and become the new bad boy of the sport.

Wrestling fans were incensed.

Watch just how angry fans were while Hogan messed up his big speech (he calls it the New World Organisation). Hall and Nash had to beat up a fan who tried jumping the barrier to give Hogan what for, such was the level of palpable rage in the arena.

Hogan's heel turn tapped into that special kind of anger sports fans only feel when someone confirms their dickheadery in such an overt manner. It's the same brand of rage that made an Arsenal fan throw a small plastic chair at Emmanuel Adebayor when he ran the length of the pitch after scoring. How could Hulk Hogan, hero to the everyman, Mr Say Your Prayers And Take Your Vitamins (as far as we knew back then), turn his back on us?

If Hulk Hogan's heel turn was the most famous, then Shawn Michaels' in 1991 was just as powerful.

At this point Michaels was one half of The Rockers – a day-glo, fun-loving tag team – with his buddy Marty Jannetty. In hindsight, the heel turn is patently telegraphed. Look at Michaels: he's clearly the bigger, cooler looking star rocking a biker jacket like an older brother back for Christmas.

And yet, such was the snap of the super-kick Michaels dropped, the turn had fans in shock. Shawn Michaels would go on to become a multiple heavyweight champion and Hall of Famer; Jannetty (when not being name dropped by Action Bronson for his sweet drop-kicking prowess) is now wrestling shorthand for being a second banana, the man who got ditched because his partner was the true star.

Heel turns aren't exclusive to pro wrestling, however – you'll find them in pretty much every sport.

As sports reporting becomes more and more an integral part of the 24/7 news cycle, so too does the need for relatable narratives that help fans and journalists make sense of the constant stream of information. The more narratives we apply to our sport, the more they resemble professional wrestling storytelling.

Professional wrestling as we see it now is the result of nearly 100 years of fine tuning, taking a form of entertainment that worked in fun fairs and carnivals and using its physical style of storytelling to create narratives that transcend language. There's a reason why WWE is broadcast in so many territories: its basic underpinnings don't require a grasp of the native language to understand the action that occurs on-screen.

So, as sports stars and writers keep looking for ways to define both themselves and what's going on in the modern era, is it any wonder they crib from some of wrestling's best? The signifiers for a wrestling heel turn – garish outfits, a change in hair style, big tattoos and bigger bling – work just as well in painting a badass athlete. Lionel Messi got a fade haircut, a tattoo sleeve, a tax avoidance case, and then damn near murdered Jerome Boateng on a football pitch. The dots are there; connect them and you have a tasty heel turn from football's ultimate star.

Two good-looking heroes falling out when one showed promise for a world title? There are myriad Formula One stars who fit the Shawn Michaels role. But to get the true Rockers breakup you need a Jannetty, a guy who could have gone to the top but for his partner shivving him and a few bad decisions – in short, you need the story of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

Once you get a taste for the heel turn you begin to notice them everywhere. WWE's monster heel (a bad guy who just beats the shit out of everyone) of choice right now is former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar – a physical phenomenon who started off nice, before turning evil and disappearing for years. Brock's now one of the WWEs biggest draws, a bad guy who's won fans over in spite of himself thanks to his explosive performances.

Look at that description again – you can sub in Justin Gatlin's name for Brock's, for he is unquestionably athletics' heel of choice

Not that this is an entirely modern phenomenon. For so long as there have been sports, there have been people willing to use the tactics of great heels to stand out. Muhammad Ali famously cited golden age grappler and phenomenal heel Gorgeous George (think proto-Ric Flair) as inspiration for his flamboyant braggadocio style of interviews. The two once met following Ali's fight with Sonny Liston, where George outlined the need for sporting heels.

"A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth," he told Ali. "So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."

Sports stars have cherry-picked the best storylines from professional wrestling for years and applied them to their own arenas. And, if anything, we'll see even more in years to come. God bless the heels, and those who would copy them.