Ponder for a moment what it means to be a heel in professional wrestling.
Each of us is unique, each of us has our own criteria which when we watch our preferred promotions we say, “that’s our guy, or that’s our favourite female wrestler.” And if you scour Twitter for less than 15 seconds you’ll “unearth” more than the lion’s share of hot takes. Among them you’ll find the debate over who is the best heel in professional wrestling today.
A Thorn in Your Heel
It’s an interesting topic. Consider what qualities you would say define the quintessential heel in the industry. Fundamentally, to be a heel — or to be villainous — means many things because the act can be so layered and dynamic. In the past it could have meant being an ’80s era alpha male like Randy Savage who verbally abused the beloved Miss Elizabeth. In the past, it could have been as simple as being rich enough like the Million Dollar Man that you could declare “everybody’s got a price” en route to purchasing the WWF championship from Andre the Giant instead of winning it on his own. Or you could have been Jake Roberts, opting to sick your cobra on folks or lock unsuspecting ultimate warriors into snake pits. Then you had Ric Flair, obviously, who epitomized what it meant to be the boastful heel champion in the ’80s and ’90s.
On another end of the spectrum there were heels who won by underhanded means or bent the rules to benefit their ends. During his WCW TV title reign, Stunning Steve Austin would either win outright, narrowly escape or run out the clock on the 10-minute TV time limit just to retain. Hollywood Hogan throughout WCW’s heyday from 1996 onward into its decline is another prime example. Moving along we can point to HHH in the early 2000s, Samoa Joe at his peak in TNA toward the end of that decade, or by this time someone like Randy Orton, who we now rightly consider one of the best, if not the apex heel, in pro wrestling through villainous, vile, remorseless and underhanded means.
Going Nuclear vs. A Slight Simmer
The object of the heel is to obtain heat, and as you can see through these examples and many more that will come to your minds there are many avenues to get it. Or you can just be Baron Corbin and exist.
There is no defined route towards success as a heel, although there are obviously templates to follow. A lot goes into an effective heel run, something fans at large may not totally appreciate. The person needs to understand themselves, their own psychology and effectively why they act the way they do. A great, recent example was Cody Rhodes’ heel run from 2017-2019 where he excelled as the arrogant, egomaniacal heel who put himself ahead of everyone, including friends, family and above his wife if it meant winning. That run checked those boxes, and he worked the audience brilliantly during that period.
In that vein, that’s why Orton works so well as a heel because he meets that same criteria and has done so at a consistent level. He understands himself, his role, his pathology and he can obtain and keep heat without becoming another stale act struggling to stay relevant on WWE programming. The proof is in his current run on Raw. It’s also why he’s consistently in the conversation as best heel in the game. Perhaps ever. He simply gets it and embodies the heart of heel work.
More recently, MJF has burst into the conversation, largely because at 24 years old he’s already better than he has any right to be. His heel work has been exceptional, and much like Orton, he leans into what makes a heel great. Albeit with a twist. Where Orton leans into villainy, MJF leans into being a unique throwback combination of Ted Dibiase meets modern-day Chris Jericho. He’s a rich prick, and he knows it. And he plays it so well to the benefit of the product by lambasting fans and keeping his character work kayfabe such that the lines are blurred between Max and MJF. And the scary part? He’s only getting better.
Both are exceptional, and are in the S-tier of what they do. They’re heels true to form and action, they get heat often and with ease, and when they’re on, they’re amazing. While there isn’t a wrong answer in this grand debate, the only distinction to make is Orton exceeds MJF’s heel work because Orton is the more true to form, seasoned antagonist who thinks on his feet mid-match; something we maybe haven’t seen from MJF yet. Given time he’ll develop both that aspect and his brand of heel work further, but now isn’t then and for the moment Orton is his maker, with a legacy that is unmatched.
However, neither are the best heel in the game today.
Breathe with the Switchblade
In recent weeks Bullet Club leader and former NJPW triple crown champion “Switchblade” Jay White returned to action, notably this past weekend to help kick off the company’s G1 Climax tournament.
At only 27, White has spent the last two years establishing himself as one of wrestling’s top villains with a hitlist including the elite from both NJPW and AEW. His actions and disrespectful tone have sent Japanese fans filing for the exits after doing something so very rare — he roused not just a cheer or boo, he made them absolutely angry. That’s distinguishable from “go away, Corbin,” heat. If you know anything about Japanese audiences, say from watching MMA such as Pride FC, they’re very respectful and rarely reach the rowdiness of North American fans. It is no small feat to anger those fans.
Here’s another example. In July 2018 NJPW held a G1 Special at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. This was early in their attempt to break into the U.S. market, which for viewers at home necessitated an English-speaking broadcast team. Enter MMA veteran and pro wrestling aficionado “Warmaster” Josh Barnett, coupled with WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross.
During the match, White, who was defending his U.S. title, suplexed Juice Robinson into the steel barricade at ringside. These barriers were not secured. When the move was executed, Robinson went into the railings, the force sent the announce table backwards. The table struck JR and sent him onto the floor, ultimately suffering broken ribs from the incident.
This was not planned, it was a shoot.
What ensued however highlights several of White’s intangibles. First and foremost knowing they screwed up, he made the most of it and started boasting immediately; not because he meant to do it, more so to show that he didn’t care. Barnett was unhappy, and as he stood up what did White do? With the crowd hailing him with boos, he scurried and ran for his life. Naturally. It’s Josh Barnett, after all. But what did White do once he turned his back? He started mouthing off again, and spat in Barnett’s general direction … while making sure he was still a safe distance away while the crew tended to JR.
White gained nuclear heat from his “kick the dog” moment that night. What that exemplified two years ago at age 25 was that he knew how to capitalize on a situation, he knew how to act as a heel should and did what was needed in the moment off-script to get his heat over. He’s carried that through his feuds with Robinson, Okada, Naito and Tanahashi, whom he beat for the IWGP title in early 2019.
Jay White is the top heel right now. A true heel at that, and one you can categorize as a villain in the same way Roberts, HHH and Orton are. He has the ability to work on his feet and think in the moment like Steve Austin circa ’96; combined with ring skills that complement and round out the package. Comparably to Orton, he also embodies the best qualities of what makes an effective bad guy.
His wrestling IQ bleeds out into all aspects of his heel work from his promos to in-ring work, and how he handles crowds and live situations. He’s a heel and he acts like it, who carries himself with the confidence of someone beyond his years because he believes he will overcome his marks. He believes he’s better than. That’s why he excels and has evolved into the villain role so few can pull off. When he speaks, there’s a cold sincerity to his cadence because he isn’t just saying he’s better than you, he’s telling you he is without uttering the phrase.
Jay White and MJF are the future top heels in pro wrestling, there’s very little to argue against in the matter. Both are roughly the same age, both have a natural knack for wrestling and keen understanding of the business and how it works. But comparisons being what they are, White’s resume and overall skill set dwarf MJF’s if we judge them by what they accomplished or were capable of by year 5 of their careers.
Randy Orton may be the forerunning king of heels in 2020, having set the table for everyone else as he so appropriately stated in 2018 weeks removed from White’s errant attack on Jim Ross. There isn’t any denying him. However, in 2020 while Orton is king, White’s recent body of work unencumbered by awkward face turns and botched title reigns excels where Orton can’t and hasn’t. Orton is a legend in his own right and deserves more praise than he gets, but apropos to his moniker all legends must inevitably fade away and die.
That day may be today, tomorrow or yesterday, but at 27 years old Jay White has made an undeniable mark in wrestling that gets lost in translation because he isn’t in the North American market. But when you look at a list of what makes an elite pro wrestling heel, White checks off the box beside every worthwhile metric. Not even WWE can ignore it, and his being recognized widely as professional wrestling’s top heel leading into the next 10-15 years is inevitable. It’s just a matter of when the switchblade drops.