What do Walter White, Steve Austin, Don Draper, John Cena, Dexter Morgan, Frank Underwood, and CM Punk have in common? To answer the question, everyone reading needs to understand why it was asked in the first place.
On my Nashville radio show yesterday, we held a discussion that stemmed from a question and a statement one of my cohosts posited earlier in the week relative to Sami Zayn. The question seemed simple enough. He asked me who the last true, purebred, 100% babyface to succeed near the top of a card for a substantial length of time was and then asserted that Sami Zayn, currently in NXT, might have a chance to be the first in quite some time.
Names emerged on the show like Sting, Ricky Steamboat, Bret Hart in the two year span prior to Wrestlemania 13, Rey Mysterio Jr, and Dusty Rhodes. But here's the thing...if that's legitimately the kind of list that one has to make, it paints a very "grey," not grim, but "grey" picture on the wrestling industry. One name I personally threw out in the discussion off air was the original Rocky Maivia, more well-known as the smiling character that the fans immediately defecated on and one that would eventually lead to one of the most popular figures of all-time once the first version was scrapped in every way possible. Again though, that's 1996, and that iteration of Rocky was in no way, shape or form near the top of the card.
Let's take a trip down a secondary road for a second and look at television drama over the past decade, which brings the first sentence of this piece back into focus. There was a time in drama and certainly in comedy where definitive protagonists and antagonists followed the patterns of good and evil and stuck to the preconceived notions almost all of us are born with of what constitutes a hero or a villain. Without talking about Matlock in a wrestling column, Andy Griffith was in many ways the epitome of a protagonist both in drama and in comedy, sometimes with both levels of character existing within the same structure.
That day and age appears to be over. The highest critically rated shows on television (outside of reality shows that in many cases exist for viewers to watch in the hopes of embarrassment or failure...not the performance shows, but the "reality" shows that make Russo-level WCW look like the BBC World News) almost all feature shady leads who many viewers still unabashedly root for every week.
The water cooler show of today may well be ABC's Scandal, where almost no character, short possibly of David Rosen, is presented as anything even remotely approaching a hero. Neither Hart or Cohle were "good guys" on True Detective, but the viewer was still led to root for those characters because of a greater menace. Dexter Morgan was a serial killer and he was treated like a flawed hero with a code to explain his mischief. Mad Men's Don Draper is a brilliant advertising executive but is also a serial philanderer, a misogynist in many respects, and selfish to an insane degree. AMC's other critical hit was Breaking Bad, where Walter White in the end discovered and admitted to himself that he was a bad man all along and that he wanted, that he craved, that he was driven by a desire for power and the feeling that he mattered. Neither Carrie nor Brody are true heroes, both driven by less than moral means on Homeland. Damages was full of nothing but greed, envy, and evil, but Glenn Close won multiple Emmys for her role as Patty Hewes and Rose Byrne found herself nominated. Is Raylan Givens on Justified a "true" hero? Honestly, he might be the closest thing you'll find and as a lawman, he breaks regulations on almost every Tuesday night.
That's just a few examples on television and that's just a small taste. So let's get back to the squared circle.
Sami Zayn has been cheered everywhere he's ever worked. He has gotten over everywhere. Sans mask, Zayn is a pure babyface but he's one that the mass of NXT fans has embraced and not seen as either a cookie cutter character or a sellout. Most expect him to get the "call" before SummerSlam. He is entering a new world, a much larger conglomeration of fans, and a different attitude to the presented product. So my co-host's question isn't the one I want to ask you today...though if you have your own thoughts on that question, please share them in the comments. Just as a brief aside, very impressed with a lot of your responses during my short time writing for SB Nation. It's great to learn something or be presented with a good point that makes me immediately wish I had thought of it and included it in the initial piece.
Here's the question:
CAN a pure babyface, a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool hero truly get over and stay over in 2014 in the pro wrestling industry, particularly as culture seems to increasingly glorify and celebrate debauchery, failure, hatred as an art, and rebellion? Yes, in addition...the old adage is true, chicks dig the bad boys. But, in as platonic a way as this statement can be said, so do dudes...a whole lot of dudes.
There's no answer yet because we don't have a test case with which to analyze the data. However, because of the success of Daniel Bryan and also of CM Punk, two shades of grey, it's very possible it can be done. Sami Zayn isn't a big guy and he's not a meathead. Sami Zayn doesn't have the body of a god or the mic skill of any of the legends. What Sami Zayn has is an infectious energy, an even more infectious built-in chant that can absolutely take off...because it's been a part of the soccer/futbol world for decades, and he has the ability to work his tail off in the ring. Succinctly, Sami Zayn has the appearance of an underdog and the workrate and talent of a future Hall of Fame wrestler. He's young enough to grow with the crowd and it's hard to imagine any true wrestling fan not appreciating what they see from bell to bell. So it's attainable, but how high up can that character go?
He's far superior to Evan Bourne but Evan barely got out of the blocks...if I'm Adrian Neville, I'm scared, but that's not a comparison for Zayn. Sami can work with anybody and tear houses down, which he'll have going for him until or unless his body betrays him. A young Daniel Bryan is a fair comparison. But DB wasn't a pure babyface who never flipped to the other side, far from it as we all know. Zayn could literally walk in the door as the sympathetic figure. The little things we just won't know until we see them. Things like Zayn's marketing color scheme, what theme he's given, whether he will be marketed to kids first and adults second, and if he will find himself booked to kowtow and chum around with other babyface characters who are seen as sellouts by an increasingly sarcastic and jaded audience. For example, can't you just see Sami Zayn hanging out with Sheamus? Good worker, especially for his size...but crapped on relentlessly.
Bret's heyday as a babyface was in a world that was much less argumentative. And ironically, it was the rise of the ultimate antihero, Steve Austin, that largely sent Bret's character in the other direction. Sting and Steamboat and Morton and Rhodes among others...again a completely different global paradigm. Rey Mysterio Jr won a Royal Rumble and held the top prize for a short time, but in many respects he was always seen as a gimmick, albeit a surefire Hall of Fame gimmick. Not to mention, a whole lot of bros roll their eyes when "619" hits. Maybe the biggest question is the one that is the most uncertain, whether or not WWE will allow Sami Zayn to be a pure babyface or whether they'll use that charcoal Crayola on him, put an edge to him, and change what makes his character work so perfectly in Florida.
Of course, not one word of this article matters if Zayn doesn't get the call, but that seems highly unlikely. The hijacking crowds that love to cheer the bad guy, will they give him a chance to win them over? Oh, and one final question...which pretty much envelops this entire discussion and could prove the underlying point...
Do you even want to see a pure babyface in 2014? (Yes! Yes! Yes!...No! No! No!...Ole! Ole! Ole!)
Just something to think about.