Nowhere so as much as in professional wrestling, which throughout the years has provided more people you hate, and people you love to hate, than any other endeavor. Nowadays, as this issue’s look at the Daniel Bryan situation attests, fans appreciate the “bad guys” more than ever. From the dawn of pro wrestling, booing one wrestler has been just as important as cheering the other. But where do they meet–when does a bad guy get so good at being bad that the fans start cheering for him? Even though some folks insist it’s a phenomenon of modern culture, investigation shows it’s always been that way. It just happens more quickly now, and for a few more “modern” reasons. And as with anything else, sometimes it just comes down to the individual.
Most fans will say Stone Cold Steve Austin was the first anti-hero in pro wrestling, and they’d be wrong–it’s just that Steve did it better, on a bigger stage, in front of more people and more successfully than anyone else, ever. Other than that, not even close. Back in the 30’s, it’s easy to imagine a lot of men eventually wanting to have a beer with the Dirty Dusek brothers as word of their riotous mat antics spread in newspapers and made them celebrities. In the 40’s, a lot of wrestling’s “heels”, the accepted nom de plume of the bad guy wrestlers, became the most famous, most recognizeable faces in the sport through the movies (Mike Mazurki) or the war effort calling away a lot of top stars and leaving the “attractions” behind (The French Angel, the Blimp). But the pro wrestling stars aligned with the moons of television, and wrestling’s first true “cool heel” was born in the late 40’s.
“Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers may not have been the first wrestler to bleach his hair blonde, or the first to break the rules, or brag about how great he was, but he put all those things together with a movie star look and made history. While his blonde contemporary, Gorgeous George, was on network TV from Hollywood California, acting effeminate and being the target of many an old lady’s hatpin, Rogers went a different direction entirely. Rogers was a “tough guy” from Camden, New Jersey, a big star who traveled first class, with all the cars and booze and women that his lifestyle could pay for, and then told you about it. While in those days overwhelming support for a “bad guy” was hard to find, it was cool for a guy (or a woman) to like Buddy Rogers. Fast forward 25 years to 1977, and the same things were being said about a kid in the Carolinas. Rogers was even brought in to pass the mantle to the NEW “Nature Boy”, Ric Flair.
Back in the 50’s, just like everything else, it took longer to go from zero to hero. It was more about being on top for a long period of time, being a local institution somewhere, although it certainly happened on a regular basis throughout the country. Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher were both dastardly heels in the 50’s, yet became popular icons in the 60’s, the Crusher ruling the AWA and especially Milwaukee, while Bruiser owned Indianapolis–literally–and the duo was tops at the box office in Chicago. Then, it was about two beer-drinking, blue collar, saloon-crawling guys who liked to fight, Bruiser an ex-NFL star and Crusher of Polish heritage in a working-class neighborhood, being so tough for so long they earned respect.
The Memphis wrestling area was especially conducive to fans supporting the dirtiest players in the game. In the late 50’s, the popularity of the legendary Sputnik Monroe among the black community was so great, that it directly led to integration of the races attending all sporting events in the city. In the 60’s, Jackie Fargo, who had learned well from Rogers, had parlayed his fame from the Fabulous Fargo Brothers tag team, one of the top heel combos in tag history, into being the top name in Tennessee wrestling for 15 years until the ascension of Jerry Lawler. In the 70’s Lawler himself started as a brash, obnoxious smartmouth bully, but when it became obvious the local kid was drawing big crowds and competing toe to toe with the World Champion, the hometown hero syndrome kicked in and made Lawler the “King” of Memphis.
Things changed a little in the 80’s. The fans started being a little more independent in their thinking. Even with the above mentioned examples of stars who became popular by being unpopular, they never got full-throated endorsements from the entire audience until they officially “switched sides”, and were matched against other heels. But by the mid 80’s, along with the WWE expansion, the NWA landing national cable on TBS, and an upswing in attention on pro wrestling, people got smarter and more expressive. The Four Horsemen were natural candidates for fan clubs, for the Buddy Rogers reasons above. The Midnight Express and I were another story.
Between 1986 and 1988 a big change occured in fan reaction in the Northeastern US. A lot of fans were finding out more about pro wrestling, and began cheering for the wrestlers who were the best at what they did, regardless of what side of the fence they were on. In 1986, the Midnight Express and I could cause a riot in Philadelphia, but by 1988 we were the most popular tag team in the city. The fans saw the intricate teamwork of Stan Lane and Bobby Eaton, the fact that the Express match on any given show was the best (or next to Flair’s), and that the smartass manager put a lot of thought into his ramblings, and had appreciation for it. By 1990, on one memorable occasion our opponents, the Dynamic Dudes, ostensibly the “good guys”, were booed and catcalled out of the building against us, no matter what we tried to do to stop it.
The next decade brought Austin vs. McMahon, the ultimate take this job and shove it angle, and instant communication via the internet, which has blossomed in the 2000’s. There are few secrets in wrestling anymore. Anything that happens is instantly reported around the world. Many people view wrestling with different eyes or an appreciation for different things. Now, fans make a wrestler popular for any number of reasons, help push that on the internet, and influence live audience reactions. A lot of promotions don’t appreciate that, but in ROH we encourage our fans to cheer for whoever they like, and usually reward wrestlers whose crowd reaction is exceptional with more bookings. But that’s just us.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that fans will still cheer for someone that catches their attention and appreciation for whatever reason. Being anti-authority in the US culture is always a plus. Being cool, someone the fans would want to hang out with or be like, works for many. Being just d*** great night after night at what you do is easier said than done, but usually effective. Or, you can take the Kevin Steen route, which I have to suffer in ROH, and be the wrestling version of shock jock Howard Stern, or trash TV like Jerry Springer, to attract attention. That’s a by-product of our “free speech” policy.
The point is, if you’re really good at being really bad, today’s wrestling fan, more quickly than ever, will appreciate you for it.
by Jim Cornette