Craig Wilson, Brian Damage, Jamie Lithgow, John Carbery and Russ Morgan
Inspired somewhat by last week’s Sunday Sermon on the best tag teams in wrestling history, I thought a good follow up would be a look at the most iconic babyfaces in the business. The guys, and gals, you associate with taking on all those bad guys week in, week out.
Craig: It was a remark from Jamie in last week’s Sermon on tag teams that got me thinking about this. It was when he said you always associate Mr. Perfect with the Intercontinental title and Demolition, during the late 80s/early 90s, with the tag titles.
As a WWE guys that started watching in the 1980s, the babyface that had the biggest impression on me was, of course, Hulk Hogan. The man that battled all the bad guys that the various devious managers put in his path from King Kong Bundy through to Sgt. Slaughter.
Then in the 90s came Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. The babyface champion hand picked to lead the company in a new direction after the steroids scandal of the early part of that decade. More recently you can’t look beyond the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, albeit a blurring of the lines/ass kicking/tweener face, and John Cena.
While over in WCW you had Sting all the way through the late 80s to the early 00s as he fought to save the company from whatever fate the nWo had in mind for the company.
So, who do you consider some of the best babyfaces in the business? Who were the guys that spent the bulk, if not all, of their time being a fan favourite?
Brian: I was never a fan of babyfaces ever since I was a kid. I never cared for Hulk Hogan or Dusty Rhodes…I was more into heels like Paul Orndorff, Randy Savage, Ric Flair and the Honkytonk Man. With that said, seeing as this is a topic of greatest babyfaces…I immediately think of Ricky Steamboat who spent his entire career as a “good guy.”
Being a babyface is hard work….much harder than being a heel in my opinion because you have to rely on the fans to get behind you and pay to see you. Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino, Dusty Rhodes, Wahoo McDaniel, Sting and of course Stone Cold Steve Austin made very successful faces.
Craig: Perhaps we can look at heels next week, Brian!
I agree that being a babyface is harder. You can only be too cocky, you can only be so aggressive and you can only be so disparaging towards opponents before you go too far. Although I’m not the biggest fan, The Miz is becoming a very solid heel – particularly his opening promo this week on Smackdown calling out Daniel Bryan for his comments last week and attacking the things the WWE have had him do and calling the fans the cowards. A babyface couldn’t do that. I’m not saying being a heel is easy, it takes hard work to get real heat, not just cheap heat. But, by God getting really over as a babyface must be very difficult.
We saw out long it took Rocky Maivia. Just pushing a superstar down the throats of fans has failed time and time again. First with Rocky and more recently with Roman Reigns. A babyface needs to make a connection with the fanbase and that’s not always the easiest thing to do.
Jamie: That connection with the audience is probably why I never really got Hulk Hogan. I’m not American, have never taken vitamin tablets, have never said prayers and don’t like milk. I had nothing in common with the guy so never felt a need to make a connection to him. However, as I kid I did seem to connect with Sting, who was essentially a WCW hybrid of Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. His rhetoric was much the same as Hogan’s, but for some reason I gravitated towards him. Maybe it was the bright colours?!
The babyface I felt the biggest connection with as a kid was always Bret Hart. Upon winning first the Intercontinental and then WWF Title his thing was always defending it against all comers. Like most other sports, fans appreciate effort and work ethic. Winning matches and holding titles seemed to really matter to The Hitman, thus the result of his matches really mattered to me.
Craig: Certainly not his kind of vitamins, Jamie…
You mention bright colours as an aside but I don’t think that can be overlooked and certainly not written off. I mean, how much of an appeal was the Ultimate Warrior as a young kid before we really knew that he wasn’t, by any means, an in-ring great. I mean, his bright facepaint, colourful attire as well as the loud entrance music were all attributing factors to getting interested in the Warrior. The lack of much depth beyond that prevented him becoming the new Hulk Hogan but still… It was also a reason that The Rockers worked, same sorta thing: bright colours and loud rock music.
Further proving we are of the same age, Jamie – as if being in the same class at school wasn’t enough… – the memories you mention of Bret Hart are the same as mine. It was the fact that he gave off the appearance of being clean cut that really helped me connect. I guess, even at a young age, I identified him as an underdog and bought into him.
A few years later I started to like Razor Ramon. Obviously, I had no clue what Scarface was as a lad that wasn’t even a teenager but did identify with his coolness, even as a young kid growing up in Scotland.
As for Stone Cold, that was in 1998/99 when I was fourteen or fifteen. I don’t think I was a particularly ‘difficult teenager’ – one for my parents – but who, at that age, couldn’t identify with Austin. He swore and drank beer – both of which were kinda taboo by virtue of fact we wouldn’t do in front of our parents! As a teenager I got Stone Cold Steve Austin. Had I been that age in 1990 with Hogan on top, I reckon I’d have thought it was naff.
John: For my money the best babyface around today is Bayley. I couldn’t stand her when I first saw her, she reminded me of Emma who I also couldn’t stand, I thought her music sucked and her happiness just didn’t sit well with me. What can I say, I was an ECW guy in my teens ok?
But over time I warmed to her completely. Her persona is one of a goody two shoes, sweeter than sweet white meat baby face and somehow it seems authentic. Being that kind of babyface in 2016 and being as over as she is just might be the most impressive feat in WWE right now.
She actually reminds me a lot of Sting, who really nailed the whole face thing throughout the 90s. In the first part of the decade he was the consummate fiery good guy who never backed down from monsters like Sid and Big Van Vader and in the latter half he was famously the anti-hero face du jour. It really is a shame Sting never jumped to the WWF early in his career, he had everything Vince loved in a main event babyface plus he and Bret Hart would’ve lit the ring on fire in an inevitable feud.
When I was a kid I liked a mix of faces and heels and while later I loved heel Owen Hart, Bret was the be all end all in my house. There was just an air of integrity about him. He’d say he was the best there is… and then he’d get in the ring and he was the best! He also always played by the rules and seemed to only win because he was the better wrestler on that night. Special mention goes to the British Bulldog at this point too, I don’t think anybody has ever been a bigger star for the WWF in Europe. Even in Ireland during the early 90s where all things British and Union Jack were treated with suspicion at best and hostility at worst he was a huge deal and crazily over as a face. I still can’t help but think his braids look cool, he was just that over.
Jamie: Very true. Bulldog was so popular in the UK and Ireland that nobody cared that his haired looked ridiculous, we just figured that it must be cool because Bulldog was doing it.
I’m in total agreement about Bayley too. There’s just something genuine about her, she’s more believable as the goody-two-shoes than John Cena. Not that I’m saying Cena isn’t genuine – although what’s with all the military references, how many tours of Afghanistan has he done?! – it’s just easier to buy a fun loving young woman who wants to make kids happy than a 250lb man with arms bigger than an average person’s waist. I think that’s maybe what helped to make Ricky Steamboat such a good babyface. By all accounts he is a genuinely nice guy and did not have an intimidating presence either. It’s hard to say in hindsight, and he was also good as a heel, but Daniel Bryan had a quality to him where I could have seen fans cheering for him for the rest of his career.
John: I think with both Steamboat and Bryan they had a weird mix of being humble and fiery at the same time. Steamboat was a reserved family man as far as his persona went but would fight his heart out in the ring. Bryan had a kind of every man appearance and was smaller than a lot of the guys he was in with but also fought valiantly from underneath.
The Rock n Roll Express and in particular Ricky Morton were masters of this too. I’ve heard it said by many people I’d consider experts that the key to being a good babyface is selling and waiting for that perfect moment comeback. The RnR with their hot tags were masters of that kind of thing plus all of their opponents made for great heels because they were usually much bigger than them or if they were similarly sized you’d just get the heels to cheat.
Russ: Bret Hart was massive here in the UK in the 90’s. I think that incredible match with Bulldog in 1992 and the embrace at the end cemented that. The Ultimate Warrior was so over for a couple of years that no matter what, you could never have turned the guy heel, it just would have made zero sense. As a kid I was behind Hogan. I think the “All American” was pushed so far down your throat that it transcended what nationality you were.
John: For some reason when Hogan and Duggan did the whole USA thing it worked but it took skill and charisma to pull off. Lex Luger bombed with his patriot gimmick. Even as a kid I thought he was a bit weak and when he and Bret tumbled out of the Royal Rumble together in 94 I was fully on the Hitman’s side.
I’ve only seen a handful of his matches but Jerry The King Lawler was an incredible face during his extended main event run in Memphis. I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts on Shawn Michaels as a face. When he first turned in 96 I couldn’t stand him. I didn’t give a crap about his boyhood dream and I kind of abandoned the WWF for a while for the greener pastures of WCW which had just been spray painted black by the NWO just as the fed were losing me. In saying that though, you’ll find no better face performer than HBK after his return in 2002. His first match back with HHH at Summerslam that year is a masterpiece in salesmanship, psychology and sympathy on Shawn’s part and I genuinely consider it to be one of the greatest matches of all time.
Craig: By 1996 I had fallen out of love with wrestling – it took a certain Stone Cold to woo me back – so I didn’t see HBK’s face run the first time around. As part of the Wrestling 20 Years Ago podcast I’ve been watching both WWF and WCW in 1996 and I agree, I don’t give a toss about boyhood dreams when you’ve got the nWo on, what would have been at the time, the other channel.
But HBK’s 2002 comeback. That was excellent, as was his runt through until retirement. But, I was fully behind HBK’s quest against Triple H. 100% behind it.
I also fully support the earlier mention of Bayley. She is so, so over as a babyface act. Whether it’s the larking about with New Day on Monday’s Raw or hugging the fans, the WWE fanbase is so, so bought into her character. She’d make a list of Top Five best babyfaces on the current WWE roster, right?
There’s our take on who are our favourite babyfaces. Who do you think are the biggest and best babyfaces in the history of wrestling? Leave your thoughts below.
You can read all previous Sunday Sermons here.