From a protégé betraying his teacher to the super kick that shattered a longtime brotherhood to the startling end of Hulkamania, discover the hidden stories behind fifteen pivotal heel turns that forever changed professional wrestling!
What Is A Heel Turn In Professional Wrestling?
In professional wrestling, a “heel turn” refers to a dramatic shift in a wrestler’s character, transforming them from a hero (or “face”) to a villain (or “heel”). This moment is often characterized by a betrayal or shocking act that aligns the wrestler with villainous traits, fundamentally altering their role and relationships within the professional wrestling narrative.
Heel turns are key elements in wrestling storylines, creating new rivalries, altering alliances, and evoking strong emotional responses from the audience. The following are fifteen such examples!
1. Christian Cage Turns On Sting
Christian Cage’s journey in TNA took a pivotal turn at the Hard Justice event on August 13th, 2006, at the Impact Zone in Orlando, Florida.
Earlier, at Victory Road on July 16th, 2006, Sting had secured a title shot by winning a four-way match that included Cage. The stage was set for a dramatic showdown at Hard Justice, where Sting faced Jeff Jarrett for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
In a surprising twist, Cage, who had been in Sting’s corner, betrayed him. In a climactic moment, Cage used Jarrett’s guitar as a weapon against Sting, enabling Jarrett to retain the championship.
This heel turn by Christian Cage marked a departure from his earlier alliance with Sting and reshaped the dynamics of his character in the promotion.
2. Tetsuya Naito Creates Los Ingobernables de Japón
Tetsuya Naito’s trajectory in New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) saw a critical shift around 2013-2014, following a challenging phase where he struggled to win over fans despite a notable victory over Hiroshi Tanahashi in the G1 Climax final. Faced with the audience’s lukewarm response, Naito embarked on a transformative journey to Mexico around 2014, joining Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL).
It was in CMLL where Naito aligned with the Los Ingobernables stable, a move that significantly altered his persona.
Embracing a rebellious and villainous character, he returned to Japan with a new edge.
Capitalizing on this momentum, Naito formed Los Ingobernables de Japón in NJPW around late 2015, a faction that quickly rose to prominence, reshaping both his career and the landscape of NJPW.
3. The Rockers Barbershop Fiasco
The breakup of The Rockers, featuring Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, marked the emergence of Shawn Michaels as “The Heartbreak Kid.” The Rockers, popular from 1988 to 1992, eventually faced internal struggles leading to their split.
This moment occurred during the “Barbershop” segment, hosted by Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake on “Wrestling Challenge,” which was taped on December 2nd, 1991, and aired on January 12th, 1992. The segment initially seemed to show The Rockers reconciling their differences.
However, in a dramatic twist, Michaels executed a superkick on Jannetty and then threw him through the barbershop’s glass window. This act not only symbolized the end of The Rockers but also was crucial in establishing Michaels as a prominent heel character in WWE.
The aftermath of this split saw Michaels’ career skyrocketing as he became one of the most celebrated wrestlers in history. In contrast, Jannetty’s career didn’t achieve similar heights, impacted by various incidents outside the ring.
4. The Mega Powers Reach Their Boiling Point
In the late 1980s, two of WWE’s most iconic figures, Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, formed an electrifying tag team known as “The Mega Powers.” Their partnership, marked by a meteoric rise and a dramatic fall, became one of WWE’s most compelling storylines.
Things were well between the pair until Miss Elizabeth, Savage’s manager, began managing Hogan, too, causing paranoia to set in for Savage.
Things hit a boiling point when Hogan took Elizabeth to the medical area during a tag team match against The Twin Towers at The Main Event II.
A shouting match ensued between the pair after Randy found Hogan with Elizabeth. Savage’s heel turn was complete after he viciously attacked Hogan with the WWF World Heavyweight Championship belt.
This act effectively dismantled “The Mega Powers,” marking the end of their partnership and setting the stage for an intense rivalry between the two superstars.
5. Kenny Omega Joins Bullet Club
Kenny Omega transitioned from a beloved babyface to a significant heel in New Japan. Initially, Omega gained prominence in the tag team division, forming “The Golden Lovers” with Kota Ibushi. This tag team was active mainly in DDT Pro-Wrestling and achieved considerable success, capturing multiple tag team titles in Japan.
Omega’s career would take a pivotal turn in 2014 when he signed with NJPW. It was during this period that he joined the infamous stable, the Bullet Club, and debuted his “Cleaner” persona.
This move marked a major change in Omega’s wrestling character, culminating in the betrayal of his friend and tag team partner, Kota Ibushi, effectively ending The Golden Lovers.
He eventually rose to become the fourth leader of the stable, a position that further solidified his status as a top wrestler in New Japan.
This heel turn and leadership role in Bullet Club were crucial in shaping Kenny Omega’s legacy in professional wrestling.
6. The 2008 Transformation of Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho’s transformation in 2008 stands out as one of the defining moments in his professional wrestling career.
Jericho, feeling deceived by Michaels’ antics, confronted him about the dishonesty. This confrontation escalated dramatically when Jericho delivered a low blow to Michaels and then violently thrust his face into a television set dubbed the “Jeritron 5000.”
Drawing inspiration from legendary wrestler Nick Bockwinkel and the cold, calculating Anton Chigurh from the film “No Country for Old Men,” Jericho crafted a new persona that was more methodical and malevolent.
This character evolution was not just a mere change in alignment; it was a complete overhaul of Jericho’s on-screen presence.
7. Tommaso Ciampa Betrays Johnny Gargano
On May 20th, 2017, at NXT TakeOver: Chicago, the dynamic of NXT’s tag team landscape shifted dramatically. Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano, collectively known as #DIY, had risen to prominence with their standout performances.
However, their pursuit of the NXT Tag Team Championship ended in defeat against The Authors of Pain.
In a shocking aftermath, Ciampa turned on Gargano, severing their celebrated partnership. This betrayal, marked by two running knee smashes and an “Air Raid Crash” through tables, catapulted them into one of NXT’s most memorable feuds.
8. The Formation of the Bullet Club
In Japan, Finn Bálor, then known as Prince Devitt, was a prominent figure in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, particularly in the junior heavyweight category. His tag team with Ryusuke Taguchi, Apollo 55, was highly successful, capturing the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship four times. However, Devitt’s ambitions led him to a significant turn in his career trajectory.
The pivotal moment occurred on April 7th, 2013, at Invasion Attack, where Apollo 55 faced the tag team, Time Splitters.
Following their loss, Devitt turned heel by attacking Taguchi, effectively disbanding Apollo 55, one of the most accomplished junior heavyweight tag teams in NJPW history. This heel turn was the start of a new chapter for Devitt.
Devitt then aligned himself with Bad Luck Fale, and soon after, they were joined by Tama Tonga and Karl Anderson. This formation led to the creation of the Bullet Club, a groundbreaking and villainous stable that became a major force in professional wrestling.
The Bullet Club’s impact extended beyond its original members, with later additions such as AJ Styles, Kenny Omega, and the Young Bucks further cementing the group’s legacy in professional wrestling.
The stable has been compared to the New World Order (nWo) from World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and is known for using the nWo’s signature “Too Sweet” hand gesture as a homage.
9. Beer Money, Inc. Dissolve
Beer Money, Inc., consisting of Bobby Roode and James Storm, was a highly celebrated tag team in TNA. Their dynamic changed after the Bound for Glory series in 2011.
Roode, having won the series, unsuccessfully challenged Kurt Angle for the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. Shortly thereafter, Storm surprisingly defeated Angle to win the title.
This set the stage for a title match between Roode and Storm, where Roode shockingly turned heel. In a memorable moment, Roode attacked Storm with a beer bottle to win the championship, thereby ending the partnership of Beer Money, Inc., and beginning his journey as a solo competitor.
10. When Hacksaw Jim Duggan Broke the Hearts of Millions
Hacksaw Jim Duggan, known for his patriotic persona, once shocked his fans by turning heel during his WCW stint in 2000.
During WCW Fall Brawl, Duggan served as the special enforcer in a match between Team Canada and the Misfits in Action. Despite his continuous chants of “USA,” Duggan unexpectedly betrayed America, aiding Team Canada’s Lance Storm to win the match and retain the U.S. title.
This abrupt heel turn, orchestrated by WCW and Vince Russo, was a brief three-month deviation from Duggan’s patriotic character, and he soon returned to his American roots, bidding farewell to the Team Canada angle and the anti-American persona.
Duggan later revealed that WCW was struggling financially at the time, and he was pressured into the role to boost ratings. Despite the controversial storyline, Duggan’s loyalty to his American heritage was eventually restored, and he concluded his WCW career on a patriotic note, aligning himself once again with the stars and stripes.
11. Seth Rollins Leaves The Shield, Joins the Authority
The Shield, comprising Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns, is recognized as one of WWE’s most formidable stables in recent years. Their near-unstoppable momentum placed them in direct opposition to the heel stable, The Authority.
Contrary to expectations that Dean Ambrose might betray The Shield, a surprising twist unfolded on the June 2nd, 2014, episode of Raw. During a confrontation with Randy Orton and Triple H, Triple H hinted at a “Plan B” for The Authority.
It was then that Rollins shockingly attacked Ambrose and Reigns with a steel chair, turning heel and aligning with The Authority, effectively disbanding The Shield.
12. Stone Cold Steve Austin Shakes Hands with Arch-Rival Vince McMahon
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a central figure of the WWF’s Attitude Era, was known for his intense rivalry with Vince McMahon. Their feud was a highlight of the era, with Austin often disrupting McMahon’s plans and vying for the WWF Championship.
The dynamics of this rivalry took an unexpected turn at WrestleMania X-Seven, held on April 1st, 2001, at the Reliant Astrodome in Houston, Texas.
Initially, McMahon seemed to be aiding The Rock. However, in a shocking twist, he handed Austin a steel chair, which Austin used against The Rock, hitting him multiple times.
After winning the match, Austin and McMahon shook hands and shared beers as the show ended. Hell indeed froze over that day.
13. The Montreal Screwjob
Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart’s rivalry culminated at Survivor Series 1997 in a match infamous in professional wrestling lore as the “Montreal Screwjob.”
Hart, then WWF Champion, was set to leave for WCW. During the match’s closing moments, Michaels applied Hart’s signature Sharpshooter move.
In a controversial and pre-planned act, Vince McMahon instructed the timekeeper to ring the bell, indicating Hart had submitted, despite him not doing so.
This incident led Hart to lose the title in a deceitful manner, publicly revealing McMahon as the WWF chairman and giving birth to his “Mr. McMahon” character.
You can learn everything there is to know about the inner workings of the Montreal Screwjob and the betrayal of Bret Hart here.
14. Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko: A Heel Turn For the Ages
In 1980, professional wrestling was shaken to its core by one of the most dramatic and intense rivalries between Bruno Sammartino and his protégé Larry Zbyszko.
Zbyszko, who debuted in 1973 and was trained by Sammartino, quickly established himself as a promising wrestler but continually found himself in the shadow of his mentor, a wrestling legend.
The tension reached a boiling point when Zbyszko, frustrated at being seen only as Sammartino’s protégé, challenged him to a match on television.
Sammartino, initially reluctant, agreed to the match to allow Zbyszko to prove himself, emphasizing that it wasn’t a fight but a test.
The match, starting as a technical showcase, took a shocking turn when Zbyszko attacked Sammartino with a wooden chair, leaving the legend bloodied and needing to be carried out on a stretcher.
This heel turn not only marked a significant change in Zbyszko’s career but also reignited Sammartino’s, leading to sold-out venues across major cities and culminating in the “Showdown at Shea” in front of over 36,000 fans.
15. “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan Is Here
Imagining Hulk Hogan as a bad guy in the ’80s and early ’90s was seemingly impossible. Thus, Hulk Hogan’s heel turn at WCW’s Bash at the Beach on July 7th, 1996, in Daytona Beach, Florida, was quite unexpected at the time.
Known for his hero persona, Hogan’s unexpected betrayal during a match featuring The Outsiders (Kevin Nash and Scott Hall) against Sting, Randy Savage, and Lex Luger was groundbreaking. Hogan interfered, attacking Savage and revealing himself as The Outsiders’ mystery partner.
This act marked the birth of “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan. The influential nWo stable would radically change the professional wrestling landscape.
As the fifteen examples above proved, heel turns are more than just moments of treachery; they are transformative junctures in the wrestling universe that can change the entire narrative structure inside the squared circle.
The legacy of these historic twists will be forever carved in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed them.
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