(A section from the forthcoming The Name of the Game is Wrestling. Part of The Big Book of Little Games, The Name of the Game is Wrestling is a professional wrestling roleplaying game (for smarks). Written by myself and Dan "The Polish Powerhouse" Waszkiewicz and will be released in September.)
(For those not in the know, in wrestling, "babyfaces" are the good wrestlers and "heels" are the evil wrestlers. This chapter deals with the psychology of "the turn," which is how you transform a fan favorite into someone the fans absolutely hate.)
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But if you really want to get a heel over with the crowd, you have to set it up right. If you spend months setting it up, if you treat the turn like a real story. Let me give you a couple of real examples.
Zbyszko vs. Samartino
Larry Zbyszko was a young babyface who was trained by “the living legend of wrestling,” Bruno Samartino. And that wasn’t any hype, either. Bruno was beloved by fans. He was a solid worker and keen on wrestling psychology. Zbyszko was promoted as “the only wrestler ever trained by Samartino,” but despite that, or perhaps because of it, Zbyszko could never get out of Samartino’s shadow. For months, he tried, but Samartino’s legend was too great. So, the pupil challenged the teacher to a match, going so far to even threaten to retire if his mentor did not accept the challenge. Samartino accepted and the match was on.
During the match, everything Zbyszco tried was countered by his mentor. And when Samartino got an advantage, he quit it. When he put Zbyszco into a armbar, he broke the hold. When he caught Zbyszco in a bear hug, he released it. When he met Zbyszco in a test of strength, he stepped back, breaking the grasp.
As the match progressed, Zbyszco became more and more frustrated. When he put Samartino in his finisher, the abdominal stretch, it looked like the student may beat the master… but Samartino broke the hold, frustrating his student even more.
Finally, Samartino broke a hold and Zbyszco fell through the ropes to the floor. Zbyszco was hot. And when Samartino held the ropes open for him, Zbyszco took a cheap shot and downed his mentor. Then, the punches started throwing. Cheap shot after cheap shot. That’s when Zbyszco got a chair…
Zbyszco left Samartino in the middle of the ring in a pool of his own blood. And Larry Zbyszco, in one match, became the hottest heel in the territory. Zbyszko was so hated by the territories fans, his car was vandalized multiple times, his taxis were overturned, he was assaulted by fans and, one night, was even stabbed.
The program went on to culminate in Madison Square Garden with a classic match that had the audience cheering and booing for a straight twenty minutes.
The Big Turn of 1980
The same year Bruno and Larry started their feud, a little further down south, another classic program was about to pay off. A year before, one of the hottest feuds in the Georgia territory was Ole Anderson (the heel) and Dusty Rhodes (the biggest face). The feud ended with a match that left Dusty bloody and beaten. He cut a promo promising, “This will never be over! It will never be over!”
Over the course of the year, Anderson made a face turn. He was such a hated villain that nobody trusted him, but he ran in to help faces in peril, fought old allies in brutal matches and did his best to prove that he had changed his ways. For a year, Anderson was a face.
A year into Anderson’s face turn, he and Rhodes became a tag team against the Masked Assassins. A special referee, Anderson’s old tag team partner Ivan Koloff, was put in place. It seemed the odds were against Ole and Dusty. But that’s exactly how Anderson and Rhodes wanted it. The match was in a cage—to keep any outside interference. And it was inside that cage that Anderson’s revenge finally came to fruition.
When the moment was right, when an injured Rhodes finally got the “hot tag,” and Anderson stepped into the ring… Anderson started stomping on Rhodes.
When the Masked Assassins and Koloff saw what was happening, they both stood back in shock. And then, they joined in. Wrestlers tried to run in to help Rhodes, climbing the cage, but the Assassins knocked them all back down to the floor while Koloff and Anderson worked over the American Dream. Eventually, the faces broke through the cage, but the damage had already been done.
The next episode of Georgia Championship Wrestling was devoted entirely to the turn. Anderson sold it like prime real estate. Whenever a wrestler entered the interview area (with the legendary Gordon Solie), they had something to say about it.
The turn was one of the most memorable wrestling moments in my memory. I remember going to school on Monday and every single boy in the sixth grade was talking about it. We talked about it all week. We couldn’t wait until Saturday to find out what would happen next.
As a side note, I have to admit, I was bullied a lot while I was in Georgia. I was small. I was from a state above the Mason Dixon line. I was incredibly shy. And watching someone from my own home state, Ole Anderson, the leader of “the Minnesota Wrecking Crew,” get the better of the Southern hero, Dusty Rhodes, was more than a little cathartic. While the other kids talked about how Anderson was going to get what he deserved, I was secretly cheering for him. It was the first time I ever found myself rooting for a heel. It was an important part of my childhood that stuck with me for the rest of my life.