What Is a Heel in Wrestling?
Heels are a necessary part of professional wrestling. Heels—the bad guys—create the perfect foils for the good guys. They're jerks—both to their opponents and the audience—and they cheat. Heels also have to be credible and strong. In any good story, the good guys have to overcome a variety of obstacles, and professional wrestling is no different. In professional wrestling, a good heel is the equivalent of a boss fight. They cannot be easy to defeat, both because they are skilled wrestlers, and doubly so because if need be, they are willing to cheat. A good heel will always make a hero—babyfaces, or just faces in wrestling lingo—seem like they have to overcome every obstacle.
As such, it's no wonder that in many wrestling promotions heels hold the championships far more frequently than the heroes do. That's part of telling an important story. It's great to cheer on the good guy when they're on top of the mountain, but the story of climbing the mountain and overcoming insurmountable odds is an even better story. Plus, heroes usually being noble characters means that babyfaces will follow the rules, even if they bend them a little. Heels, on the other hand, follow the mantra "win at all costs." When a wrestler cheats to win and has become quite good at cheating without getting caught, of course, they are going to be at the top of our metaphorical mountain more frequently.
There are several things that make a good heel and allow a character to generate heat from the audience. Firstly, being an all-around jerk usually helps. We all know jerks in real life and seeing the good guys do things to a jerk that we wish we could do to one is fun. We live vicariously through the heel. This gets expanded on through 'cheap heat' tactics such as "your hometown/local sports team sucks" monologues. Additionally, fighting dirty and cheating are great ways to let the audience know they aren't supposed to be cheering for you. Those are great, but while it sounds easy, it's not. A character doesn't just exist on the microphone. They have to do it in the ring as well, and likewise, their dirty tricks don't need to be limited to when they're fighting. Storyline politicking backstage is just as important. And they have to be consistent in how they portray themselves. It's a very fine line between being someone the audience hates and wants to see get their comeuppance, and someone the audience just wants to see go away.
With all that said, here are the five greatest heels in professional wrestling. I'll only be including active wrestlers in this list, so legendary heels such as Ric Flair, Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan, or Ivan Koloff will not be included. They do not have to be a current heel, however, so long as they have been a heel, and are recognized for their heelwork.
5. Brock Lesnar
I'm putting this one early in the list as he walks a fine line between proper 'heel heat' where the audience hates his character as they are supposed to, and 'go away heat' where the audience hates him as a person and hates booking decisions surrounding him. I am still putting it on the list because, in this situation, everything with Brock Lesnar is almost a worked shoot, where they know the audience just wants him to go away, and they have incorporated that into his character. Essentially, he's an internet troll in real life, only instead of being lazy and in his mother's basement, he lives on a farm with his hot wife and is actually capable of killing you with his bare hands.
The WWE star-turned MMA star-turned WWE star gets his heat by being a part-time performer with a full-time championship. Only doing a handful of appearances a year while being the WWE Universal Champion means the top belt in the promotion is almost never around and never defended. The one prize everyone is supposed to be trying to achieve isn't even there. He knows it. WWE knows it.
They know the audience wants him to go away forever so the top belt can be contested. They know he has the wrong kind of heat and Brock Lesnar will take your tears, add extra salt to them, and drink it while looking you straight in the eye and smiling.
4. Martin Kirby
Okay, this is one for the indie marks, especially British ones. Though having a few babyface stints in the past, Kirby is one of the best heels in the UK wrestling scene. His theme song is a high-energy tune worthy of Dance Dance revolution, his signature moves are named for the video game character (save the Sablebomb, which he also uses). He seems tailor-made for being a good guy, but honestly, no matter what promotion he's in, he inevitably ends up a heel. He's just such a perfect heel. It's like fate has him set out to be one.
Whether it's abandoning his tag team partner Joe Hendry in the first match of the World of Sport tag team tournament, taking the mick out of El Ligero (Now shortened to 'Ligero' in NXT UK) in brilliant comedy matches, or refusing to defend his Defiant Wrestling Internet Championship outside of pay-per-views (defeating the purpose of an Internet Title to be defended in matches streamed online for free), this guy is just an all-around jerk.
Arrogant and egotistical to the core, (his former tag team with the late Kris Travis was called 'Project Ego.' Kirby is a big draw on the independent scene. Not because fans love him, but because fans would pay anything in the hopes to see anyone defeat him. And eye rakes? Yes, he loves his good old-fashioned eye rakes.
3. Charlotte Flair
Charlotte Flair is not just genetically superior. She's also genetically inherited her father's ability to be a big jerk in the ring and on the microphone. Thirty years ago, she might even be ranked number one on this list, but in today's world where every fan is a smart-mark, she sometimes finds herself getting babyface pops from the fans who love and admire her heel work, or she gets the 'wrong kind of heat' where fans are just sick of seeing her. But that's hardly her fault. WWE has made some questionable booking choices with her, and sometimes go away heat can be the best kind of heat to get.
Charlotte is such a natural heel (pun intended) that when they tried to give her a face run while having Becky Lynch turn heel against her, the fans popped for Becky and gave Charlotte all the heel heat. And at the time it was good heel heat, not the bad kind of heat.
Despite being extremely talented on the microphone and every bit as talented in the ring, Charlotte is seen as a butt-kisser who has had opportunities handed to her because she's the daughter of Triple-H's friend and mentor, and while most of her wins are clean (barring the occasional eye rake), she's not above cheating to win. Charlotte, like Lesnar, has found a way to turn bad heat into good heat. Is all of the heat she gets fair to her? No. But she owns it, runs with it, and never looks back.
Oh, and never just think of her as "Ric Flair's Daughter." That would be a huge mistake. Just ask ESPN.
2. MJF (Maxwell Jacob Friedman)
I won't lie. I only became familiar with MJF earlier this year. But everything I have seen from him has been absolutely amazing. Most of you have only seen him from All Elite Wrestling or Being the Elite, but if you get a chance, watch Major League Wrestling. This guy is a heel genius and, in the future, will be the top heel in the entire industry. He's cocky, arrogant, punches both above and below his weight, and commits the greatest cardinal sin that solidifies him as a top bad guy—wearing a scarf.
My favorite part? Kayfabe. Now, I'm not sure he's the kind of guy who would tear his mugshot in half in front of a kid who wanted an autograph, but at post-match press conferences for AEW, he doesn't break character. The Young Bucks and Jericho all become nice personable guys during media scrums. Not Maxwell J. Friedman. His media scrum started with him calling the dirt sheet reporters nerds, went on an expletive-laden rant about Shawn Spears, and when questioned on his promo length, told them "I'm going to be the star attraction..." named dropped VP Cody Rhodes as his best friend and then said, "I can do whatever the [expletive] I want here," as he continued to belittle everyone in the room.
He mocked a paraplegic wrestler in a battle royal, antagonizing and singling him out as easy prey. He intentionally called room service to interrupt an interview conducted in his hotel by Chris Van Vliet. He starts every match by telling the audience exactly what he thinks of them. He is a type of heel genius I haven't ever seen, and mark my words, in five years' time, he will be number one on this list.
Before we get to our top spot, I wanted to also acknowledge several other heels who do great work and are highly talented in-ring performers but fall just short of a top-five list. I also want to take this chance to apologize to them and beg them to not kill me.
Honors go out to Guerrillas of Destiny members Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa. I'll also mention Randy Orton and Zack Sabre Jr., who are great at working the crowd for some heat if it ever feels like the audience is about to start cheering them.
1. The Miz
Over the past half-year, Miz has come into his own as a babyface, though he'll likely not ever be a top babyface in the WWE. But as a villain? The Miz has definitely come a long way in being a villain. A decade ago he was getting "the wrong kind of heat" and despite being booked strongly, when he was the WWE Champion in 2011, he didn't seem too important. In fact, he was pretty much a third wheel to a rivalry involving the Rock and John Cena. It turned out he wasn't popular backstage either as many stars and fans just saw the former Real World star as little more than a reality TV star looking to extend his 15 minutes of fame.
After dwindling in the midcard for a while, Miz really came into his own with several memorable Intercontinental Championship reigns. A new 'Hollywood A-lister' persona, combined with memorable rivalries with Dolph Ziggler, Dean Ambrose, and most notably Daniel Brian, shot his heel stock right into the stratosphere. This man is a walking highlight reel of classic heel moments. Whether it's always having his protege Alex Riley interfere in matches (and treating Riley like garbage the whole time), just walking away mid-match to retain his title by count out loss, regularly taunting the audience's intelligence AND local city, to his legendary tirade against Daniel Bryan on the Smackdown post-show Talking Smack. Yes, Miz is having a good babyface run right now, but damn, does he make a great villain.
Oh, and that promo against Daniel Bryan? Yeah, that was unscripted. Sheer brilliance.
© 2019 Nigel Kirk