In the WWE Universe, heroes and villains play pivotal roles in captivating audiences and telling compelling stories. While these characters have evolved through the years, few can deny the allure and impact of the classic wrestling villain – the heel. The past 12 months were a banner year for rogues, a true celebration of the art of being evil inside the squared circle, where the antagonists stole the spotlight by embracing the role and elevating it to new heights.
Setting the tone was Roman Reigns, who tormented fans with his actions as much as his absences. At the Royal Rumble, the Tribal Chief made audiences squirm as he and his Bloodline punished Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn with such audacity that it silenced the raucous Texas crowd at the Alamodome.
Months later, Reigns appalled audiences again when, with Solo Sikoa, he left his cousins, the Usos, in a crumpled mess following Tribal Court. As disgusted as many were, more than three million people tuned in to watch the reprehensible actions of the Undisputed Universal Champion as he tore his family apart.
But perhaps Reigns’ best work came at Elimination Chamber against Sami Zayn in Zayn’s hometown of Montreal. Facing a hostile crowd that was solidly behind their boy, Reigns demoralized an entire city by breaking their local idol. Viewers could almost see souls leaving the bodies of those gathered at the Bell Centre as Reigns barked at the fans, “I thought about this all week, and that’s all you got, is a couple of Sami chants?”
While Reigns excelled at making people uncomfortable, he wasn’t alone.
Santos Escobar made a late-year surge after turning on his idol, Rey Mysterio. Feeling betrayed after Rey sided with an outsider, Escobar stomped his childhood hero into the dirt, putting Mysterio on the injured list (in kayfabe) with a vicious strike that earned him the contempt of friends and fans.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Escobar then punctuated his vicious turn with the vilest statement ever as Mysterio sat at home recuperating from knee surgery. Said Santos:
“...Rey, this one is from the bottom of my heart. I hope the surgery didn’t go well. I hope you catch an infection and they have to amputate your leg! As a matter of fact, I hope you never come back!”
While Escobar’s contempt was a refreshing yet despicable display of raw emotions, there was Asuka, who was enjoyably wicked in her pursuit of Bianca Belair and the Raw Women’s Championship. The Empress of Tomorrow tormented the EST for much of the spring and summer by blowing mist in Belair’s face at every turn.
But as Belair grew wise to her rival’s tricks, Asuka learned to adapt on the fly. At Night of Champions, she spewed her venom but missed. On the verge of defeat, Asuka wiped the misty residue from her lips with her fingers and rubbed them in Belair’s eyes. Moments later, Asuka was back on top of the world as champion.
Speaking of champions, of WWE’s 15 active titles, roughly two-thirds of all title holders were heels at various points in 2023. Roman Reigns held onto his gold for a third consecutive full calendar year, but he had some company.
Gunther began 2023 as the Intercontinental Champion and, barring a setback, will finish the year still in possession of the title. Along the way, the Ring General obliterated the Honky Tonk Man’s 35-year-old record as the longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion of all time. In the process, Gunther also became the first man to hold the IC crown for over 500 days.
As the year progressed, Gunther had classic encounters that raised the profiles of several stars, such as Chad Gable and Tommaso Ciampa. Gunther also upped his game by coming out of his shell to improve his mic skills. After demolishing Matt Riddle, Gunther stood on the announcer’s table and cut a short but confident promo, declaring his dominance while taking a jab at the fans. As I noted then:
“...there was a noticeable twinkle in his eyes as he took glee in mocking yet playing to the crowd, who booed him lustily throughout, proof that he’s connecting with the audience.”
While Gunther was making an impression on fans, Dominik Mysterio was doing the same, inspiring crowds everywhere to boo him whenever he touched a microphone. Far from the most imposing or intimidating performer on the roster, Mysterio leaned into that by accepting the challenge of being a cowardly heel. As Mysterio would slink off, he’d show little shame by jumping into the big, strong arms of his female protector, Rhea Ripley.
Along the way, Mysterio became both a ratings draw for NXT and its North American Champion, becoming the pride of San Diego in the process. But most of all, he earned the respect of the legendary Shawn Michaels, who said of Mysterio:
“To me, Dominik Mysterio - MVP of the WWE this year. Every time he comes here, I look at him, and I say, ‘Hardest working man in show business.’ He has just been an iron man for us.”
Regarding NXT, the developmental brand had its share of delightfully dastardly moments, such as Bron Breakker’s heel turn and his destruction of Von Wagner. There was Jacy Jayne and Gigi Dolin’s dramatic reenactment of the Rockers’ breakup as a cowardly Dolin tried jumping through a door face-first to escape the wrath of a furious Jayne.
However, as great as these performers were, perhaps the star of the year was Rhea Ripley.
In January, Ripley won the women’s Royal Rumble. She advanced to WrestleMania 39, defeating Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown Women’s Championship. The clash was a hard-hitting classic that may stand the test of time, serving as a physical performance that future generations of sports entertainers might aspire to.
Everyone claims to be “daddy”, but there is and will always be ONE Mami pic.twitter.com/AzIwCZNh0h— RheaRipley_WWE (@RheaRipley_WWE) November 28, 2023
However, during the latter half of the year, Ripley would reach impressive new heights.
While Judgment Day claims that no one person is the group’s leader, Rhea Ripley has established herself as the brains and brawn of the outfit. She is both Paul Heyman and Roman Reigns rolled into one, and then some, becoming the first woman to lead an all-male stable, in and out of the squared circle.
In the ring, she dominated the likes of Liv Morgan and Zoey Stark while outsmarting and outlasting the likes of Nia Jax and Raquel Rodriguez in multi-person matches. Outside the ring, she kept Damian Priest from hastily cashing in his Money in the Bank contract. She led Dominik Mysterio to the NXT North American title and captained Priest and Finn Bálor’s pursuit of tag team excellence.
And despite being in a heel faction, Ripley continues to garner strong reactions from fans, which have made her possibly the top star of Monday Night Raw, or Monday Night Mami, as her top-selling t-shirt calls it. If Ripley can continue on her current path, she could be WWE’s main attraction and WrestleMania’s night two headliner by 2025.
And so, as 2023 comes to an end, the impact the heels had on WWE’s landscape is undeniable. Their ability to stir emotions, drive storylines, and enthrall audiences has propelled the company to greater success, reflected in improved ratings, boosted ticket sales, and a renewed interest in WWE.
In the ever-changing world of pro wrestling, the role of the heel remains a cornerstone, the heart of storytelling and character depth in this genre. As 2023, the year of the villain, gives way to 2024, these captivating evildoers will likely shine over the next 12 months and beyond, leaving a legacy that will last for years.