On Sunday night (June 16, 2013) at WWE Payback, WWE effectively pulled off the rare and difficult "double turn," where at the same time a heel turns babyface, a babyface turns heel.
The double turn is rare for several reasons, but mostly because it’s very difficult to pull off effectively. You need to plant the seeds for both turns well without having the turn occur too early, you need a live crowd smart enough to recognize it playing out, and you need two wrestlers to perform in a nearly perfect way.
Payback’s effective double turn has been overshadowed a bit since on the following night Mark Henry one-upped the performance, delivering "The World’s Strongest Swerve." Henry deserves all the credit in the world for that excellent angle, but I want to take a step back to Sunday and appreciate how well the double turn was laid out.
The gold standard for the double turn is from WrestleMania 13, when Stone Cold Steve Austin became a babyface as Bret Hart turned heel in the same match. Sunday’s turn was similar in how it was laid out and how the audience was convinced to go along with both sides of the turn. Leading up to WrestleMania 13, Austin had been receiving some face pops as the crowd slowly embraced his bad-ass persona during the feud. During their submission match, a classic brawl that ranks as one of the top WrestleMania matches of all time, Austin took a serious beating but refused to submit. Locked in the Sharpshooter for some time, Austin, laying in a pool of his own blood, passed out rather than tap out.
Now, at that point, Austin could have become a face while Hart moved on to other things after some sort of "that was a heck of a match, you’re a tough SOB" promo. Instead, Hart continued the beat down on Austin, letting loose with months of frustration on the unconscious Austin. The crowd jumped all over Hart, whose facial expressions sold the fact that he was turning. The storyline would continue with Austin as the anti-hero and Hart as the villain, seamlessly continuing a very long feud in a fresh manner.
The WWE tried to replicate that success at Payback with Alberto Del Rio and Dolph Ziggler.
They had a few important ingredients going their way heading into the event. Primarily, Ziggler had been getting some face pops for a while, especially with his Money In The Bank cash-in victory against Del Rio. In addition, the story had built-in sympathy available to be played with, since Ziggler was returning from a real-life concussion. Add in the fact that Del Rio is one of the best in the business when it comes to heel mannerisms and is a good candidate to sell such a turn, plus an always-hot and smart Chicago crowd, and they had all of the pieces necessary.
But a double turn is difficult, and just the ingredients isn’t enough. The two parties, and Ricardo Rodriguez and AJ Lee, too, had to tell a strong story and get the crowd to buy in. By having Del Rio consistently attack Ziggler’s injured head but Ziggler continue to kick out and fight back, they built up sympathy for Ziggler from the crowd.
Midway through the match, you once again could have had a situation where Ziggler became a face by way of a strong a gutsy effort, but it was on Del Rio to sell his side of the turn. As referees continued to check on Ziggler constantly and Lee looked on in horror, Del Rio slowly changed from being begrudgingly aggressive to being ruthlessly aggressive. The kick to the head from inside the ring was a huge step, an unnecessary shot that no babyface would take. The fact that the crowd reacted to it was important, because it primed them for the most important scene of the story.
With Del Rio standing in the middle of the ring, Ziggler clawed to try and stand up. Del Rio extended his arms with his trademark condescending grin, providing the lasting visual for the double turn.
When Ziggler hit the Zig Zag out of nowhere, the crowd popped huge. One half successful.
Then Del Rio hit a superkick to the head and got the pin to a mixed reaction. A mixed reaction is to be expected here, as the heel turn takes time to marinate.
I actually thought the Del Rio promo, a smarmy "you should be cheering for me, I did this for you" piece, was unnecessary, but I guess WWE wanted to hammer the turn home. The promo was taken by some as an attempt to salvage Del Rio as a face but I don’t think that was the case at all – like Hart before him, Del Rio had to make his motivations clear and show that he feels justified in his actions. After all, as Del Rio explained on the follow-up Raw on Monday, Ziggler won the title off an injured Del Rio, and turnabout should be fair play.
And if Monday’s excellent promo wasn’t enough, along with some subtle but important changes to Rodriguez’ deliveries, Del Rio was put in a match with the returning CM Punk, clearly a babyface.
Annnd just in case there were any doubts, a not-medically-cleared Ziggler showed up to pound the living hell out of Del Rio at the end of the show (a moment that probably should have ended the show, but as it’s not the top storyline right now, I guess it’s forgivable if there’s a strong follow-up on SmackDown).
The battle lines are now clearly drawn – Del Rio is a heel who feels justified in how he won the title and doesn’t understand the fans turning on him. Ziggler is injured and trying to get back his title that he lost due to injury. We’ll see whether Ziggler maintains his brash, cocky anti-hero attitude or becomes more cookie cutter (he should stay the same), but there’s no doubting that Del Rio is the bad guy, Ziggler is the good guy, and WWE has flipped what was a stale angle on its head and created a hot angle for the summer months.
The double turn is rare because it’s tricky and requires a lot to go right. This one wasn’t quite Austin-Hart, but it’s one of the best double turns in memory.