Even though I enjoyed the match between Bobby Lashley and Umaga at WrestleMania that wrapped up the feud between Donald Trump and Vince McMahon, I couldn’t help but get a little nervous about what was going to come next. Two weeks later, my fears have been confirmed, as the WWE has gone full speed ahead with a storyline pitting Lashley against McMahon.
From a common sense standpoint — something that doesn’t always apply to wrestling storylines — this turn of events is entirely logical. Vince had his head shaved at WrestleMania. Vince doesn’t like being bald, and he blames Lashley for the loss of his hair. It’s only natural he’d look for some retribution.
It’s hard to argue against it from the business end either, simply because Mr. McMahon’s track record as a heel speaks for itself. The WWE struck gold when he was first pitted against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, playing off the nearly universal desire to get revenge against an oppressive boss. Since then we’ve seen Vince in the same role against other wrestlers, and while the subsequent feuds didn’t bring anything new to the table, they still succeeded on some level because fans enjoy rooting against the Chairman.
Since the WWE seems intent on continuing Lashley’s push, he needs the built-in heat that Vince receives. That’s because while Lashley has a great look, is believable in his character and seems like a good guy, he is, to put it nicely, a little charisma-challenged. He appears to be getting more comfortable on the microphone, but I don’t see anyone giving one of his promos a standing ovation any time soon.
No matter how much we may wish to see something different, no matter how dismayed we might feel that the promotion is choosing to go to this well yet again, it’s only logical to pit Lashley against McMahon because right now, Vince is the WWE’s top heel. And therein lies the problem.
It’s not like this is a development that just popped up overnight. Once the build-up started toward WrestleMania 23, it was apparent that there was a glaring lack of villains to help propel the top matches. Thus, we got two face versus face matches for the two biggest titles — and no, I don’t count Batista’s actions in the final weeks before Mania as a true heel turn. Umaga was the definite heel in the Battle of the Billionaires, but since he doesn’t talk, he’s hardly the type of character you can build around in the long term.
Raw does have a couple of heels near the top of the card in Edge and Randy Orton, but unless one of them emerges as the clear number one contender to John Cena (himself once again in need of a heel to be his foil, but that’s a story for another column), they look like they may end up feuding with each other. Smackdown has… well, no one really, though Ken Kennedy has promise if the powers that be resist the temptation to turn him face.
I think most fans and observers of pro wrestling would agree that the art form works best when there is someone whose actions clearly define him as the guy to root against; someone who you want to see get what’s coming to him at the end of a feud. So why is it that the top wrestling company today finds itself so devoid of quality bad guys?
As Eric Bischoff explained in his 2006 book Controversy Creates Cash, part of it can be attributed to a financial model that rewards faces. Since wrestlers get a cut of all the merchandise sold that bears their likenesses, it literally pays to be a face. I don’t know who made the decision to put D-Generation X back together, but since the group is a merchandising machine, I’m guessing Triple H didn’t put up too much of a fuss about it even though he relished his previous role as the WWE’s number one bad guy.
You can’t discount the lack of truly top rate personalities on the current roster as a factor either. During the WWE’s heyday, guys like The Rock, Chris Jericho and Mick Foley were adept at playing compelling face or heels. A lot of today’s wrestlers don’t appear to have the performing or acting chops to achieve that kind of versatility. Some are young enough that they may develop it with time, but some of those skills are natural and can’t be taught.
The final ingredient in the present state of affairs is plain old bad decision-making. When you have someone like Carlito who has publicly expressed his preference for playing a heel and actually has the ability to do so, it behooves you to put him in that role. If his current storyline doesn’t end with him turning on Ric Flair, consider that a wasted opportunity.
It’s going to take someone smarter than me to figure out a solution to the heel shortage, but one thing’s for sure: it’s not going to get better overnight. There are things the WWE can do to help the process, but cultivating heels is kind of like building a pro sports team through the draft. It takes time, patience and a little bit of luck. There’s also the x-factor of the audience itself, because no matter what direction the WWE tries to lead them, the fans ultimately have a lot of say about who they will cheer and who they will boo.
All of that inevitably leads us back to Lashley versus McMahon. Yes, it’s not very high on the originality scale. It may prove to be one too many trips to the well for Vince’s Evil Chairman character. I can’t say I’m too thrilled to see it play out, because I do feel like we’ve seen this before.
But until some more heels step up, I can’t say that it doesn’t make perfect sense.