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The essence of being a ''heel'' - how to be a bad guy in pro wrestling

Being a “heel” in pro wrestling is easy-you just have to make everyone hate you.

I learned from some all time greats-Dick Murdoch, Stan Hansen, Skandor Akbar, Freebirds and the best of them all, imo, Dave “Fit” Finley.

We were in Europe where I lived for two years wrestling for both Otto Wanz and Peter William in Catch Wrestling in the early 90s, basically the carnival circuit-not as part of the carnivals, but we followed the carnies all over Europe and lived like they lived and worked where they worked often sharing a parking lot as our “home”.

We lived in trailers behind the tents that made up our wrestling arenas. My trailer was 16 feet long and 6 feet wide with no running water-I had to go inside for a shower or bathroom. “Inside” meaning into the tent, or building, where we wrestled-and in the case of Bremen it was about a ¼ to ½ a mile walk and in the freezing winter night, no fun. In Graz, home of Arnold, and in Vienna we lived, during the summer, on campgrounds with the traveling gypsies.

One day as we were sitting in the locker room one of the young guys had just returned from the ring. He was a big guy-over 6’6”-and had done both a dropkick and a hurricarana, very impressive for someone his size. Fit Finley told him they looked great and it sounded like the crowd loved it-the young man said thanks.

What Fit said next is the essence of being a heel, “don’t ever do it again.” That simple. That is the essence of being a heel.

The young man never got it; he loved to make the crowd “pop”. The young man never figured out that you would never make money doing things the crowd loved if you are a heel, in fact-just the opposite; you only do what they hate. Needless to say the young man never made it big, he could have-but loved being cheered too much to be a heel.

I broke in with some old tough guys who both knew how to brawl and how to wrestle. I wrestled in Japan more times than I can count. I also could cut a good promo. I also learned the way to get heat was to set up the baby face.

I made sure when I was champion that I never outwrestled, outfought or out promo’ed anyone I was facing. I quit doing the fallaway slam because it was cheered at times, I quit being funny in promos-I only did things that people hated.

Few can do this, because deep down they want to be loved. They know it is a work but they can’t get away from being cheered. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard guys come back and say-“there is a big heel section today” and they said it with pride like they were doing something good. They weren’t-if they were getting cheered by anyone they were failing to do their job. IF their job was to be a heel.

Anytime a heel has been around a while they start getting a fan section, I fought hard not to let that happen. When I would see someone with a towel and cowboy hat, dressed like me, I would go after them and explain that the last thing I needed was some “low class guy living vicariously though me trying to be cool for the first time in his life” It usually worked. I wanted everyone booing me, not just 99% of the crowd.

Curt Henning was wrestling Hillbilly Jim one day in a house show. A fan was yelling against Hillbilly and for Curt-Curt spit his gum out, slapped it with his hand and hit the fan in the face with the gum-the fan shocked, starting booing Curt. Curt looked at Hillbilly and simply said, “Perfect”. Now Curt was the heel and Hillbilly was the babyface as it was supposed to be.

There are exceptions-the tweeners, those that are neither baby nor heel or an exception. I am not talking about those guys I am talking about pure heels who want heat and lots of it.

I carried it to extremes, I wouldn’t sign autographs, I wouldn’t allow merchandise to be put out with my name on it, and I would not allow press at appearances I did for charity. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was a good guy. I got this by breaking in the way I did where we lived the gimmick, nowadays that has changed-but if I saw a group of “smart” fans at the airport I would do what I could to make them hate me, most the time I just ignored them and wouldn’t even answer questions. I knew these guys would be at the arena and I didn’t want someone there at the arena that thought deep down I was a good guy.

Is this extreme? Yes, but the gimmick I copied-JR Ewing-used to wear a Cowboy hat everywhere during the filming of Dallas to keep up the image.

This has all changed-it is now a corporate sterile environment. And, I would argue that with an emphasis on health and wellness that things have gotten much, much better than the Wild West days I started in.

I can remember a day at a house show where as soon as I picked up the microphone a group of smart fans started chanting “Boo-oo-o-ring” and I hadn’t even said a word yet. So I waited and tried to start again, same thing-“Boo-o-ooring!” chant. So I called for a chair.

I sat in the middle of the ring, and sat, and just kept sitting there. Nothing. I said nothing and did nothing, just sat there. Tony Chimel, the ring announcer asked me, “Are you going to do anything?” I said “no”. It seemed like an eternity-I just sat there, they chanted and then started getting quite and then finally they quit. The crowd got restless-here is the main event and the big heel is just sitting in the ring for minutes doing nothing.

Chimel told me, “I’m begging you to do something”. I just looked at him and said nothing.

Finally it happened, the crowd starting murmuring and then started booing, very loudly. I picked the mic back up and said, “Now that we know who is calling this match I will start over.” The place was booing and starting to throw stuff into the ring. I did my promo to fantastic heat and had the baby face come up and start on top, everyone left happy.

When I returned the agent, I think it was Arn Anderson told me-I haven’t seen that in years, and we both laughed. You can’t let the crowd control you, you have to control them. And, it is for their enjoyment-you want to take them on a roller coaster and leave them happy, but to do that you have to be in control. If the crowd is in control they would have the baby face come out and squash the heel-the perfect way to book a territory closed.

I never got into the promo where you tried to one up the other guy. I helped all my baby faces with their promos-or at least I would let them know what I was going to say so that I wouldn’t bury them-or surprise them. I was there to put them over, and if I did my job I would get over even more. The idea of one upping someone can be funny-and I certainly did that as a rib several times, but when you want heat and you have to be serious-it has no place, in my opinion.

One time in Portugal I remember going out and singing in English, which I am sure few understood there-God Bless America, with Chimel waving the flag around the ring. The place broke into song to drown me out-it was amazing, the entire arena singing together to get at me. I did it as a joke to the guys in the back doing a parody off of the Nikolai Volkoff gimmick of singing the national anthem in a different language to get heat-and I couldn’t believe the response. The only thing I regret that day was not changing the finish. I was not champion and the match I had wasn’t important-I was wrestling my pal Bob Holly and I wasn’t in an angle so there was no heat on this match and I was supposed to go over.

As soon as I covered Bob I realized I should have had him kick out, the place would have erupted. I then would have put Bob over, it was a mistake I made that I later told Bob and he agreed it would have been a swerve that would have left everyone happy. Instead I left with monster heat and never returned due to retirement. But…what a night of heat it was.

I can tell so many stories of heat and crowds, but don’t want to bore you-the main thing is “what makes a heel” and that is being something everyone hates.

You can’t have one redeeming quality-not one. Not a smile that fans think maybe you are good, nothing. If you want to be hated and do your job you have to think about what you do.

I was sitting in a gym in NYC and saw a guy walking by with a coat on and a towel around his neck-I wanted to slap him it made me so mad. Then I realized, if that made me so mad-then that is exactly what JBL should wear. So that is how the towel and cheesy coat were born.

I remember in Japan one time I went out with Eddie Guerrero-we had great chemistry, and were great friends. However, this night didn’t work and neither of us could figure out why. Later Eddie called me and said, “You never begged off,” meaning I had not shown cowardice at all in the match.

The next night I picked my spot and was on my rear and started begging Eddie with my hands in the air pleading-it got me tons of heat, we had found the missing piece.

The monster heel isn’t scared, yet once he loses and his invincibility is gone-his character is done. Heels that last have to be cowards-people hate a coward, that’s why heels have to be what people hate the most.   

Roaddogg was a great heel, one day he is doing his promo and the fans are starting to say it with him. He turns to them and says “This isn’t sing along with Roaddogg” and he put the mic down, not only did he cut them off, he also didn’t give them what they wanted. He had heat, which is the essence of being a heel.

If a heel has something that the crowd loves to say with him, he is not doing his job-because that is making them happy, and making it harder on the baby face. You only want your opponent to have the fans chanting with him. I would chant “J-B-L” until someone chanted it with me and then I would stop and berate the person. I wanted heat.

It was my idea to be chokeslammed through ring by the Big Show and also my idea to be chokeslammed through my own limo by Undertaker. I fought to never win “clean”; I wanted fans to feel I was undeserving and to hate me. During the debate over Summerslam Undertaker had said he wanted to put me over clean, he’s a true pro. I objected, I thought if I ever beat someone of his stature then folks would start to think I deserved to be champion-I wanted the whole world to think I was not a deserving champion. I wanted heat, and by not beating Undertaker and retaining the championship and bragging about it-I got the heat I wanted.   

 I even would try to pick a fight with the “Internet” right before PPVs and it worked for a while, until they realized I was doing it for heat and then I couldn’t get them worked up anymore. Working smart fans rarely works, and to me is not worth the trouble. They want to see good, hard work that makes sense. Working them is tough, but I tried and for a while it worked-but as with trying to work the insiders, it only works so long.   

To me, working the “smart” fans is not important-they are a small percentage of the overall fan base, and all they really want is good work with good storylines. Working them makes one seem smart-but it doesn’t last long and can backfire just as easily.

Heat is hard to come by and trying to make things a ‘shoot’ is tough, because once the match starts and you shoot someone off the ropes then everyone realizes it is not a shoot. That is why heat has to be on the individual and not just it being a “shoot.

That being said, when you do blur the line like CM Punk did recently-it is awesome.

Heat is no more than as Dick Murdoch would say, “I call your sister a name, you call my mom a name and we fight.” It is that simple.

However, heat-in promos-is never the oversimplified, “you suck.” Fans will boo like parrots after that, but that is not real heat. Heat in promos has to make people think and be smart enough to make them hate you. To do that you have to make real points, but embellished of course.

When I started JBL I literally took a speech from Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator. I saw him and saw what kind of response he got from the media about his comments- and I took it almost word for word what he said about immigrants when I was trying to get heat working with Eddie. I took a real person’s feelings and attitude and put them into a promo. To me that is the essence of being a heel.   

Of course, heat can sometimes backfire. When I beat up Hornswaggle in the cage we thought I would have monster heat. It worked the other way, it almost turned me babyface! Fans thought it was funny I threw a midget into a cage, we couldn’t believe it. So you always gotta have a plan b is the moral of the midget tossing event.

I remember talking to a “smart” fan  and I put that in parenthesis to identify not as an insult) in the early 90s about “Killer” Tim Brooks, he was telling me how much he hated him. I asked him if Stan Hansen were to come in would he pay to see it-he almost shouted, “I would love that”. I think you understand, Killer had heat.

Remember heat is NOT seeing a heel and thinking that guy is great, it is rather “I hate that guy and want to see him beat” I understand the fine line between hating a guy with heat and hating a guy because he has no business in the ring-big difference I understand. What happened with Killer was heat; this guy actually hated the character and wanted to see him beat. He would tell everyone all week how bad he hated him and how he wished he weren’t there-and then he would pay his money on Friday hoping to see him lose-THAT is the essence of being a heel.

Let me know what you think-I am just building this site, hope you like it. 
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