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Why wrestling’s bad guys equal good business

Human emotion makes the villains more compelling to watch.

During a recent episode of 83 Weeks, hosts Conrad Thompson and WWE Hall of Famer Eric Bischoff touched on which booking philosophy is best for pro wrestling: having heels or babyfaces on top as champions.

Making an argument for the rogues, Thompson noted the recent success of WWE and AEW, where Roman Reigns and MJF, respectively, sit as their company’s top champs. Thompson also pointed to the 1980s, where Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen held every NWA title while Flair defended his world crown in various territories.

When asked what he believed was best, Bischoff also sided with the bad guys:

“In general, I get far more excited about creative potential when the heel has the championship. Because now you’ve got aspiration. That’s a human emotion. You want the audience to aspire to see that; they want to see that heel get beat. I absolutely believe in —we’ll call it the Ric Flair philosophy — that heels should have the belts [...] and having the babyfaces chase it and making it aspirational and hoping that this is going to be the week we finally see it. I mean that’s, you know, the Bloodline thing, right? So it’s been driving that for a year and a half or however long it’s been. So yeah, I’m in that camp.”

Bischoff is on to something when he cites human emotion because people enjoy watching others fail, presumably wicked antagonists. In some ways, that ties into the motivation behind hate-watching, which may explain why business is booming for WWE.

According to a 2022 Vice article on the psychology of hate-watching, people are happier when they feel emotions, even if unpleasant, like contempt or jealousy. A 2019 piece by Forbes said human brains get a shot of dopamine when something goes wrong for those they envy.

Both articles suggest that such disdain is normal, healthy even, provided one channels those feelings in a positive direction, such as personal growth. Meanwhile, such loathing is proving profitable for pro wrestling, specifically WWE.

The Roman Reigns character is that evil mafia-like boss and alleged abuser most viewers want to see fall, which continues to be a ratings hit for SmackDown on Fox. Dominik Mysterio consistently gets the loudest boos of any WWE villain due to his cowardly and cocky behavior. Still, he was responsible for NXT’s recent impressive television rating as he won the NXT North American Championship. And then there are the roughhouse bullies like GUNTHER, the Intercontinental Champion, and Rhea Ripley, the Women’s World Champ.

It’s a shocking contrast to the foundation Vince McMahon and his father used to build WWE, which was off the backs of heroic champions like Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, and Hulk Hogan. Ironically, WWE nearly went out of business more than 25 years ago when its rival, WCW, had a heel Hollywood Hogan ruling the roost.

And now, in the modern era, hate equals big bucks. And business is looking good with bad men (and women) on top.

Which do you prefer, Cagesiders? Watching a show with a character you hate on top so you can root for their downfall? Or cheering on one you love while they take on all comers?

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