On the surface, it seems hard to separate the idea of a bad guy riling up the crowd from the very concept of pro wrestling itself. A performer gets a reaction to invest fans in the outcome of the contest. In reality, it’s a much more subtle art. The evil competitor needs to draw fans’ ire and contempt, referred to as “heat,” but not in such a way that people are driven to want them off the show or (even worse) to turn off the show altogether. Back in the day this was done by bad guys remaining in character even while in public and in daily interactions. Heels were pricks, and hated their babyface rivals; even at the grocery store so that fans wanted to (and tried to) assault them for real. Some traditionalists will tell you that without this doctrine of kayfabe (the story-as-24/7-reality), heels can’t get the same reaction. They posit that the get-off-my-tv “Go Away Heat” is the only kind left.
If there is hope left for the modern generation to still prove it can get nuclear-intense heat, the original kind that is sought after and achieved by design, lies with a small club of performers. Among its numbers are WWE’s Elias and Kevin Owens, who have proven adept at working a crowd in the classic sense, whether as a face (Owens is one currently; Elias was for a promising flash) or as a loathed heel. Both were working as bad guys when WWE rolled into Seattle for the October 1, 2018 edition of RAW. Ostensibly a promotion for WWE’s upcoming Australia show, where the two would be tag team partners, they chose to simultaneously take shots at the local crowd. The crowd is supposed to hate them, after all, and hate them in the way that they’ll pay just to see John Cena and Bobby Lashley (their Aussie show opponents) wreck the pair’s lives. If you think that’s no longer really possible…just listen.
I can recall pops that were this loud, some that were louder (though you’d have to go back a fair bit in time), but I am not sure I can think of any boos in recent wrestling history that were:
2) more sustained for an entire segment
3) achieved by design (i.e. no “Go Away Heat” involved).
What can we take from this absolute knockout blow by Elias and Owens? Whatever we can glean from this night might tell us something about the current art of getting real, pure, attentive heat as a pro wrestler.
1) They made it a sucker punch.
Both Elias and Owens were able to be turned face eventually because their skill with words and character is easy to enjoy, even when they’re using it to be total dicks. This kind of “smart fan” approach of appreciating good heel work has spread along with social media and, no matter how you may feel about it, is likely here to stay. What’s important here is how Owens used it to his advantage. He started out the promo not by attacking the fans, or even the faces, but just touting himself and Elias as “great guys.” Given some their actions in WWE to that point, that sounded (and legit was) funny, and some fans even started to applaud at the latest antics of their favorite a-hole. That just teed up Elias to hit the fans where it hurt. He got straight to poking at the city’s still open, extremely public, wound about losing their beloved basketball team, the SuperSonics. His line was direct and to the point, but worked all the more effectively for Owens’s taking a softer approach at the outset and luring people in.
2) They did their homework.
As you can tell from the intensity of the reaction, Elias’s comment goes far deeper than the standard “(home team) sucks” comment you may get at any wrestling show. The NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics were created in 1967 and became a signature of the league (with their unique jerseys and stars like Lenny Wilkens, Gary Payton, and Ray Allen) as well as the city. They even won the NBA title in 1979. In 2006, the team was sold to a group who pledged to keep the team in Seattle, but were eventually revealed (via leaked emails) to be plotting in secret to move them even while making that pledge. In 2008, the team was uprooted and moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder, leaving all of Seattle feeling lied to and like the rug had been pulled out from under them by outsiders.
That’s a lot of history to know, and Elias and Owens had to know it a full decade after the fact in order to sell their spot as well as they did. For context, Elias would have been 20 when the Sonics moved; Owens would have been 24. They not only knew it, but also clearly dug around and determined that the citizens were (rightly) still angry about the double-cross. Not many things that have been discussed publicly for 20 years can still be a sore subject, but these two found one and knew when and how to hit it. The effect was perfect, to the point that former Sonics players even got in on the action.
3) They let the reaction develop
How a performer responds once they get the crowd’s reaction is at least just as important as how you get it in the first place. That was especially true for Elias and Owens as they were visibly caught off guard by just how well their ploy worked – look at Elias’s face above. He’s trying to look put of off or annoyed while wanting to smile or crack up at the giant wave of enmity. But what did they do next? …Nothing.
It would have been very easy for either man to instantly try to double down or lash back out with a quick “oh, shut up” or other snarky comment. They had a match to promote after all – they could have mentioned Cena or Lashley, gotten a quick cheer, and then had a dead crowd again. By leaving a void for the crowd to fill, Elias and Owens allowed the boos to spread, others in the crowd catching on slowly, until they gained enough momentum to drown out anything. It became the thing to do, all together, to protest not only the guys in the ring but the real heels off in Oklahoma City counting their money. Letting the vibe breathe, so it could grow, enabled this to become a real moment and is a credit to both Owens’s and Elias’s reading of the room.
4) They adjusted to re-engage repeatedly.
After the key pause, once the audience reaction seemed to crest, both men then managed to pounce in a way that kept things going. They spoke up, gave another reason to boo, but did not change the subject or even really move on. First, Owens simply raised his voice to suggest Elias do the same – basically making himself a walking, talking version of the sports thermometer that encourages people to get louder. Which they did. Elias then tied things back to his gimmick, barking at his sound guy to turn up his monitor mic so everyone could hear him. This encouraged people to keep going in order to make sure they were really drowning him out. In their way, each man avoided hitting on the head “wow, y’ll are LOUD” or “shut up I’m talking.” In fact they didn’t address the audience directly at all. Rather, the heels gave the audience indirect hints to raise the decibels, which folks picked up and then responded. The subtlety of it all…*Chef’s kiss*.
It remains to be seen whether anyone else (non-MJF division) will consistently learn the lessons of this night to produce their own modern source of traditional nuclear heat on a regular basis. What’s most important is that the blueprint is still there. Those who are able to identify the right bone to pick, how to read the moment, and where to double down, are still able to really hit home. With any luck, and more talented performers like these two, we’ll be cursing out plenty of names for years to come.