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Sprechen Die Wrasslin'? Heels And Faces


Much has already been said about Jon Jones, Rashad Evans and the rift in the Team Greg Jackson camp. Fans and media alike have been taking sides and in some cases villainising one fighter while heroising the other to the extent we can almost expect to hear terms like Heel and Face inappropriately thrown about. What's happening is more complex then a manufactured character arc in the imaginary pages of Pro Wrestling although I believe in Rashad Evans' case we have a fighter shrewd enough to play up the situation to generate fight hype and therefore more money for all involved.

But what do these insider terms mean?

It's hard to pin point exactly when these terms were first used but it's likely to have originated as early as the 1920's,  after the first World War when wrestling had already fallen into disrepute and had scurried into the shadows of the carnivals. The terms may even have been coined by the group made up of Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Toots Mondt and Billy Sandow aka The Gold Dust Trio who realised the benefit in manipulating audience emotions and booking the local sports heroes in worked matches to bring money in. It wasn't uncommon for Lewis to push for a Football star to come in and be put over much in the same way Pro Wrestling has done in relatively recent years with stars such as Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White.

Face is the abbreviated version of Baby Face, a common phrase in the early 20th Century for a particular aesthetic found in a man: youthful, clean-shaven, well groomed and without flaws or blemishes. Any man in the early pro wrestling business with these qualities was invariably made into the hero of a match or feud to battle against a villain often represented by an older, more grizzled looking opponent who perhaps had facial hair, was overweight,  going bald and had a few scars to boot. Pro Wrestling was yet again playing to human prejudices and stereotypes and in particular to perhaps the oldest concept of all, Good and Evil equated with Beauty and Ugliness. It's a stereotype that's been with us for millennia, from the fairytale folklore of handsome princes and beautiful princesses to wicked witches and ugly sisters, and even into religious scriptures describing the light and beauty of the angelic to the horned and cloven hoofed darkness of the demonic.

The baby-faced heroes against the ugly villains have had Pro Wrestling audiences lap it up for decades and its something that still works in today's 'entertainment' events. So why are villains known as Heels?

A few believe heel came from early 20th century slang that meant someone who was badly behaved similar to other slang terms such as cads and scallywags. But more believe (including myself) that Heel is the abbreviated term for a Heel Turn which is a process in Pro Wrestling of turning a Hero into a Villain through a staged event usually within a match but sometimes after a match. The concept is where a worker turns his back on the fans, or on a friend or ally to highlight an act of betrayal and selfishness and this concept really started once Pro Wrestling had a TV outlet and therefore a regular audience that could keep up with the manufactured drama while having a few subtle hints thrown their way such as discontent between two allied parties.

One of the most classic examples of a heel turn is when a popular baby face tag team is booked to break up where one of the heroes is getting put through the ringer by the opposing villain team but finally breaks free of their assault and looks to tag in his partner only for his partner to turn his back (turning on his heels) and walk away from the ring leaving him to his fate. Less sophisticated heel turns usually involve sneak attacks and changing sides, but the old classic is still my favourite. This of course is a great way for both workers to begin a singles program starting off with a feud between the two that ends with a grudge match.

There is another term that gets used in the wrestling industry, and very little if at all in MMA coverage, and that is of a Tweener which is simply an abbreviation of an in-between-er, someone who an audience is otherwise indifferent to which usually means someone who is unable to draw and make money. Not to be confused with the more recent phenomenon of the Anti-Heroes in pro wrestling since the mid 1990's who resort to villain-like tactics yet have the audience on their side (such as Steve Austin's anti-authoritarian phase feuding with the boss Mr McMahon), no worker should be comfortable as a tweener as it usually means they've yet to find their place as a performer.

So while a real drama is unfolding between two Light-heavyweight fighters and the most successful gym in MMA history, and themes surfacing of betrayal and selfishness are genuine, how these events continue to unfold may be worth looking at more closely with just a pinch of cynicism.

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