Heel turns: they’re such a crucial part of storytelling in professional wrestling, and yet they often tend to be so dull and cliche.
You know the drill: wrestler reaches for tag, partner drops off the apron at the last second. Or, a babyface uncharacteristically runs in brandishing a chair, fakes hitting his buddy’s opponent but then, well, you know the rest.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of really effective and memorable short-arms and swerves out there. But, they’re in the minority, drowning in a sea of copycats and lazy writing.
At Bash at the Beach 1996, Hulk Hogan didn’t perform an elaborate double-cross. He sauntered to the ring, took a breath, and dropped the hammer on Randy Savage – and the wrestling world – before embracing his new allies, The Outsiders.
This brass tacks approach didn’t ruin the moment. Longtime Hulk-hater Bobby Heenan casting doubt as Hogan approached the ring didn’t ruin the moment. And the fact that Nash and Hall didn’t stay in the ring to appear as though they were going to take a beating from the Hulkster didn’t ruin it, either. If anything, all of the above helped make the whole thing feel even more real.
Hogan’s behaviour as top babyface and global role model was always questionable. So when he made his fateful choice at the Ocean Arena, everything made complete sense. Every last lick of it.
One of my favourite sayings is this: it’s not the what, it’s the how. And when the timing is right and all the factors align perfectly, a heel turn’s impact will transcend the device used to implement it on TV.
In 2004, an instance much less-renowned than the birth of the New World Order unfolded before us on SmackDown. And yet, it was every bit as beautiful.
For over five years, Faarooq and Bradshaw essentially kept each other employed. With their careers very much on the chopping block circa 1998, this sudden alliance provided a lifeline to both.
Their time served as henchmen to The Undertaker in the Ministry of Darkness evolved into a pair of WWE tag team title reigns, and their dark personas evolved into the beer-drinking, poker-playing Acolytes Protection Agency.
They later enjoyed additional championship gold, endured a brief forced break-up via a roster draft and remained thick as thieves throughout. They were the personification of ride-or-die… until they encountered Paul Heyman.
Seething after spending recent months being ‘proven wrong’ by Chris Benoit and having his mouth literally washed out with soap by John Cena, the then-Smackdown General Manager was not in the mood for the laughing APA in the hallways after his latest Cena-related humiliation.
It prompted the scheming and manipulative GM to set a stipulation on their upcoming challenge of blue-brand tag champs Rikishi and Scotty 2 Hotty: “if you don’t win, you’re fired”.
And they didn’t. After everything they’d survived over the past six years, it appeared the APA’s time in WWE was over.
They hadn’t lasted this long by caving meekly from idle threats, however, so they chose to storm Heyman’s office and dare him to fire the pair of them to their faces.
It was here that the true nature of Heyman’s petty quest for revenge became apparent.
Paul clarified that he did not at any point say they were both fired if they lost. In fact, he was looking at Faarooq when he said it. Only Ron Simmons’ career was at stake.
As for Bradshaw? Heyman wouldn’t dream of firing him, he explained. With the Texan’s side career in finance attracting plenty of wealth and profile, Paul E saw the upside in him – and him alone.
Faarooq brushed off this transparent attempt to drive a wedge between them and informed Heyman that they were both leaving.
As he made for the door, Bradshaw froze.
The expression on his face provided more storytelling than many recent editions of WWE television have in an entire episode. He couldn’t even look his best friend in the eye.
As realisation sank in, a heartbroken Simmons left the office alone, conveying every bit as much emotion via body language as his now-ex-partner. Heyman’s dabble in game theory had worked a charm.
Shortly after, Bradshaw tried to stop Faarooq before he could leave the building – and the roster – for the final time. Within seconds, his hopes of making good with his buddy were obvious as nothing more than an attempt to clear his own conscience.
“I’m a freaking one-man conglomerate,” Bradshaw proclaimed in a high-pitched tone you’d seldom hear escape his tough-talking lips. “I can’t throw that away because you said something stupid”.
Trying to somehow transfer all responsibility onto his partner was the last straw. And Ron had been around the block often enough to see it for what it was. He shook his head, turned back around, and left.
The following week on Smackdown, John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield made his first official appearance. Clad in a suit and wielding a copy of his book, JBL pointed out that the fateful episode seven days prior was in fact Heyman’s last in charge. He had quit WWE in protest at being drafted to Raw to serve under Eric Bischoff.
Layfield noted that it offered him the chance to get Simmons’ firing undone so that the APA could be back in business – then calmly confirmed that he wouldn’t do any such thing.
That ruthless decision paid off. The WWE World title and a lengthy reign would soon follow, and JBL carved out a legacy as one of the top stars of that era.
But what really made this betrayal hit harder than most was how real it all was to most viewers.
We’ve all had that ‘work-spouse’ who wouldn’t say a word to us when the two of you were in competition for a promotion. Or the friend at school who changed their attitude in a heartbeat after years of loyalty because the popular kids finally acknowledged them.
Bradshaw abandoning Faarooq was more powerful than any chairshot or neglect to tag. This was real life. This was society at its most raw and unpleasant.
We don’t screw over friends and colleagues with a stage prop or an elaborate act. We use the same lack of eye contact Bradshaw did. We make the same excuses Bradshaw made.
If you think about it, this was arguably the APA’s inevitable fate. Layfield was younger, hungrier and unproven. By the time the team formed, Simmons had already been World heavyweight champion in WCW and thus found it easier to adopt a more insouciant outlook. All the time John spent lounging backstage playing cards, he was keeping his true ambitions close to his chest.
JBL had no problem justifying his own actions the night Heyman put him on the spot. In his eyes, it was just the old lion moving aside for the young lion to have their turn rather than the actions of a sociopath the minute friendship lost its convenience. He was always going to do this. It was a matter of when, not if.
Professional wrestling as an art form has its fair share of Hollywood-level betrayals (pardon the pun, given the legacy of Hogan’s 24 years ago). This particular attitude adjustment, however, was the David Mamet of heel turns: uncomfortable yet undeniably riveting in its naturalistic approach.
And even if it never enjoys the iconic status of the Barber Shop window or a snapped crucifix necklace, the expression worn by John Bradshaw Layfield the night of March 18, 2004 will forever be the face of when pro wrestling turned heel on escapism and embraced reality at its ugliest.