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The simple reason weak babyfaces work better than strong ones


Pop quiz: Which babyface has/had a stronger connection to the WWE fanbase: Roman Reigns or AJ Styles? John Cena or Daniel Bryan?

Now first let’s define our terms. When I say “stronger” connection, I mean in terms of intensity, passion, “this is my guy fight me” loyalty. Reigns and Cena have their supporters and the sheer number of arm-cockers in the audience today and brightly-colored shirts that peppered crowds five years ago (and let’s be honest, today still) show they have passion in their respective fanbases, but I don’t think anyone will question who gets a bigger babyface pop between Cena/Reigns and Bryan/Styles.

You can argue Cena and Reigns get bigger “reactions” but we’re not talking about reactions in general; we’re talking about babyface cheers for babyface characters. The guys who beat up the bad guys, hug the grandmas and kiss the infants in the crowd. Who gets the bigger “cheers” between those two pairs? It’s Styles and Bryan, no question.

So what is it that Styles and Bryan have that Cena and Reigns don’t?

You can’t really say “it’s just that Styles and Bryan were indie darlings that smarks love” since those guys get cheers from people who never saw a single Brian Danielson match or a minute of anything AJ Styles did in WCW, TNA or New Japan.

You can’t say “Bryan and Styles are better workers” because that same audience of casuals who cheer them don’t really care about workrate in and of itself. And besides, Cena (and to a lesser extent, Reigns) have had a great number of top-top matches. There’s something else to it than just that.

If you ask me what they lack I would say: vulnerability.

Take Cena: Here’s a guy who, no matter how many times he may lose, when he’s in a match you can’t help but think “I wonder how Cena is going to win this?” as though it’s always this close to a foregone conclusion. When Cena got wrecked at the hands of Lesnar at SummerSlam 2014 it was surreal. The next month they rematched and if you remember, you probably were thinking “there’s no way Cena will lose twice, so how are they going to...” He has a quality about him that makes it hard to see him as a guy you believe would lose a fight. And it’s not about muscles or swagger, either.*

What about Reigns: How many times has he faced Lesnar (or been in some other big, climactic match), and everytime we’re sure “this is the time he wins” and he keeps losing. And yet no matter how many times Lucy yanks that football we keep belie’dating that this time is going to be the time. What is it about him that, no matter who he’s toe to toe with—even Undertaker at WrestleMania—you think “bet on Reigns”?

I say it’s vulnerability...or a lack-thereof.

No matter the feud or the opponent, Cena and Reigns never seem vulnurable. Even when they’re wearing a crimson mask I still can’t suspend my story-watching sense of disbelief and accept that they are in danger of losing. Until I see the three-count-loss I will always expect a win.

But Bryan? Styles? Those guys get in a match and, depending on the opponent, I am often anxious and worried about the hero, hoping they’ll pull it out but daring not to believe it till I see it.

Why did/do Sami Zayn and Johnny Gargano work in NXT where most main-roster babyfaces flop? Why is Batman more popular than Superman? Similarly, why has Marvel been able to make hits out of B and C characters while Warner Bros can’t make a Justice League movie work with the most famous heroes ever put on the colored page?

The answer is in the storytelling.

A vulnerable character means drama and drama means compelling storytelling. When Gargano faced Ciampa, every fiber in your sense-of-justice being told you Gargano had to win because it was the right thing to do; he was the hero who’d been hurt over and over and was due for payback. But during the match didn’t you buy into the Ciampa near falls? Sure, because Garagno was written well enough to sell you on the idea that he—great and talented though he is—could lose.

When Bryan faced off against Triple H at WrestleMania XXX, didn’t you have flashes of “oh no no no no not the Pedigree! noooyes! Kickout. Whew.” I mean the whole crazy adlibbed story from SummerSlam 2013 to WrestleMania XXX is just the proof of concept that a babyface that is written to be vulnerable is one the fans will get behind (or at least a lot easier than they will a babyface that usually trounces his opponents).

*Even Stone Cold Steve Austin, while he rarely ever got physically outmatched, often got outschemed and outplayed by the cheating boss. It was a different way of achieving the same goal: It made the hero look “loseable” and allowed the audience to invest in his story and root for the day when he would finally put the villain (the boss) in his place.

The great exception to all this is, of course, Hulk Hogan, who rarely showed weakness (a good Earthquake rib squashing here or there, yes, but it wasn’t often), but I would handwave that as the kayfabe-rich 1980’s environment where the stories were simpler and the audiences happier to accept a shallow, 2D story of “hero beats villain, like all the time and over and over” than they are today.

Everyone keeps trying to “fix” Roman Reigns like there’s something wrong with Roman Reigns. There’s nothing wrong with Roman Reigns. He’s a solid worker who has shown he can shine under the right circumstances.

In fact, I think the peak of his popularity was just before the Shield split when they were feuding with Evolution. In each of their classic matches I thought “I bet the Shield lose here because blah blah blah.” I saw vulnerability in them as they went up against a bigtime supergroup. That “believability in losing” allowed me to root for them as heroes in the story in a way I really haven’t since Roman went solo and turned into defacto Superman.

Nothing is wrong with Roman Reigns; it’s the guy writing his story that needs to rethink things.

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