There’s a moment in the newly released One Night in Miami where Muhammad Ali tells Malcolm X why Gorgeous George is his favorite wrestler. With the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning, Ali talks about how George incites the crowd; the angrier they get, the more George provokes. With every move he makes, the more the audience can’t wait for him to lose. Obviously, the champ wasn’t a fan of losing, but Ali understood how to put butts in seats. More importantly, he knew any story worth telling has a villain people can’t wait to see toppled.
Why the whole thing about Ali? Well, if you read the headline, you’ll know where this is going, but for those of you who didn’t, Roman Reigns, Bayley, and Kenny Omega get what Ali was preaching way back in the 60s. If there’s one good thing to come from this pandemic, it’s these three becoming the three best heels we’ve seen in North American wrestling in recent memory. And the lack of crowds has a lot to do with it.
Roman is a mob boss. Bayley is a disgruntled jerk, and Kenny’s intro alone is possibly the most pompous thing ever in the history of anything. And all three revel in being bad guys. But like every heel worth their weight, they’re the heroes of their own stories.
Reigns truly believes he’s doing what’s best for WWE and every single wrestler on Vince’s payroll. Bayley says she’s just righting wrongs and a real role model in a world in dire need of someone to admire and lionize. And Kenny? Well, Kenny says he’s restoring order, and the wrestling world can’t function without him as the champion. How can the best bout machine not be the champion of the world? And if we squint hard enough, we can see they each have a point.
The best heels aren’t too far from being right. Daniel Bryan, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, and Vince McMahon himself all had perspectives not far from the truth. Each took something the crowd loved—or the crowd itself—and flipped it on its head. Much like Reigns, Bayley, and Omega, they pointed out the inherent flaws in “good guy logic,” and they tsk-tsked humanity’s capacity for hypocrisy.
And the more right they are, the harder we push back. We want to believe in something, and these are the people telling us nihilism is the only game in town. And they don’t care how good they look while screaming at us to listen.
Cool heels are a thing. They’re so much of a thing they sometimes render storytelling moot. They cater to the crowd with catchphrases and do everything but beg the audience to participate. They rarely break the rules, and if they do, their ability to sell their dastardly deeds as exactly that is, shall we say, lacking. Reigns, Bayley, and Omega don’t have anyone to look “cool” for with no truly live crowd.
Wrestling now is more of a single-camera show, like The Office, instead of a multi-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live studio audience, like Full House. When any of the three heels mentioned earlier do something foul, they revel in its sadism without waiting for a response. Bayley laughs at her own jokes. Omega isn’t going for “this is awesome” chants. Reigns isn’t ending promos telling the crowd to believe anything because he just doesn’t care.
They’re communicating to those at home more so than those in the audience. Using the crowd to enhance the show becomes less of an issue, so they’re allowed to just be heels. On last week’s Dynamite, Kenny Omega sidelined the Young Bucks for the Good Brothers. It was manipulative, foul, and a perfect move for a heel.
The Good Brothers are in action?! @MachineGunKA & @The_BigLG have inserted themselves into this six-man tag-team match!— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) January 14, 2021
WATCH #AEWDynamite NOW on @TNTDrama. pic.twitter.com/M8QQzARLeO
They sold it as such on commentary but imagine how that moment plays with an amped-up crowd excited to see the Bullet Club back in action. Nobody gains anything, and in the end, the story of one man stabbing his friends in the back to roll with his other friends, who just so happen to be invaders, now looks like a reason for everyone to celebrate. And more importantly, Kenny would look like someone who shouldn’t be punched in the face. Is that what we really want? No, thank you.
These three are doing yeoman’s work right now. They’re being old-fashioned heels with a modern twist and being unapologetic in the process. As a result, their eventual downfalls will be that much sweeter. Ali said Gorgeous George won before he stepped into the ring simply because people paid to see him lose. There’s a lot of money in watching these three take a pin, and both companies would be wise to milk these runs for all they’re worth.