By Nick Perkins, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@WesternRebel)
It was the kick felt ‘round the world. When Daniel Bryan kicked AJ Styles in the groin on the November 13th edition of Smackdown, it felt like he kicked the collective audience in the groin as well. It was the ultimate betrayal from the man who was literally the most inspirational wrestler of this, or almost any, year. At first, viewers were angry, this writer included. How could WWE botch such a feel-good story?
Then, something funny happened.
Daniel Bryan, to the surprise of nobody, gave some pretty incredible performances. First, he put on an excellent match with Brock Lesnar and reminded all of is that in the ring, Bryan is untouchable. Then, he had a series of promos detailing the “New Daniel Bryan.” And they worked. Suddenly, the “real people’s champion” was blaming the people for not actually being there with him throughout his journey back to WWE. It wasn’t true, obviously, but Daniel Bryan made crowds believe that he believed that.
This past week on Smackdown, Bryan lambasted the fans for destroying the environment. This declaration was met with a chorus of boos but, objectively, Bryan was right. We are messing up the earth and totally screwing future generations.
While pondering that thought, I realized something else. Bryan scratched and clawed and worked his ass off to return to the ring. While I was excited he was back, I didn’t do anything for him while he was on the journey. I didn’t crowd fund to pay his medical bills; I didn’t even write him an encouraging tweet! That takes like, 30 seconds. Yesterday, I tweeted about what kind of food my cat prefers. (Incidentally, you can follow me on Twitter @WesternRebel).
It was at that point I realized that the “New Daniel Bryan” is going to work. It’s going to work because Bryan, to a point, believes in everything he is saying. At least his character does. Bryan worked his tail off to make it back into a WWE ring, and fans just wanted the same old stuff from his character. They wanted the “Yes” chants and the pointing and the “babyface comebacks.” But what about what Bryan wanted?
Maybe he wanted something different. Maybe he wanted to challenge himself. Maybe, just maybe, he legitimately needed an outlet to get rid of some of the real anger that he had built up over the years. He is channeling all of that into this new character and it’s going to work. I was wrong in my initial response and I fully admit that. I was wrong because I reacted with emotions instead of logic. Logically, everything Bryan is doing right now makes sense, and that’s why he is such an effective heel.
Compare that with the Dolph Ziggler “turn” this past week on Monday. Evidently, Mr. Ziggles is now a good guy, because Drew McIntyre didn’t give him enough credit for his success. This was literally the same gripe that the Miz had with Daniel Bryan, yet fans were expected to boo Miz but cheer Zigs. Dolph Ziggler is a phenomenal in-ring talent, but fans have no reason to invest in him, whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. I’m sorry, WWE, I’m not going to cheer a guy who gets his feelings hurt for being left out of a video package.
WWE knows how to do heel turns well. Bryan’s turn was done well. So was Dean Ambrose’s turn. Tommaso Ciampa broke the hearts of fans when he turned on Johnny Gargano.
But for every Daniel Bryan or Dean Ambrose turn, there’s a Big Show or Dolph Ziggler turn. When heel turns are done well, it’s because there is legitimacy in the reasoning for a character to turn to the dark side. Ambrose never fully trusted Seth Rollins and finally grew sick of his association with him, but Rollins started it, way back in 2014.
Fans didn’t fight side-by-side with Daniel Bryan during his uphill battle to get back in the ring. He did it by himself and fans selfishly wanted to reap the benefits of his return. We wanted to feel good because we want to believe that if Daniel Bryan can fight for his dreams, so can we. Bryan is right. Ambrose is right. Ciampa was right. When Johnny Gargano jumped Aleistar Black, he was right.
The point is, the best heel turns occur when the finger is pointed at, perhaps, the biggest heels in WWE – the fans.
Nick Perkins is a world (okay, state)-renowned writer who dreamt of being a professional wrestler, until he realized that he was a) the opposite of athletically gifted and b) really, really afraid of being hurt. So he became a writer instead, and has been proclaimed (by himself, as well as close friends and relatives) to be a ‘natural.’
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