Lutz's Blog: Dolph Ziggler's recent plight shows that it takes more than popularity to make an effective babyface
By Jeffrey Lutz
When Dolph Ziggler turned babyface following his match last month at Payback with Alberto Del Rio, it answered the hopes of many fans who were already rooting for Ziggler, anyway. His cash-in of the Money in the Bank contract, and the overwhelming favor with which it was met by New Jersey's night-after-WrestleMania crowd showed that WWE was likely to capitalize on the aspects of Ziggler's character that would make him a favorite for all the other fans.
WWE found that opportunity when Ziggler suffered a real-life concussion, using it to garner sympathy for Ziggler while pulling the plug on Del Rio's disappointing babyface turn. It appeared to be a turning point for Ziggler and an opportunity for him to finally establish himself as the permanent main-event player so many fans and observers predicted him to be long ago. Those people probably had something different in mind, however, than Ziggler initially flopping as a face due to shoddy writing and directionless storytelling.
Double turns are rare in wrestling because they're difficult to pull off in a way that benefits both participants, and it's uncommon for two feuding wrestlers to be in need of a simultaneous turn the way Del Rio and Ziggler were. Most fans, at least from my generation, point to the WrestleMania 13 double turn that allowed Bret Hart to break new ground for his character as a first-time heel singles star in WWE and put Steve Austin on his way to becoming arguably the greatest protagonist in the company's history.
The best part about that turn was that Austin didn't change his character once he went babyface. Fans were ready to root for him because the match against Hart proved everything that Austin had been saying about his character, that he was as tough as he said he was. Once Austin found worthy foes in Vince McMahon, then The Rock, who were written flawlessly and who possessed the natural abilities to perfectly play off of Austin, "Stone Cold" was off and running as an astronomical moneymaker.
The aftermath of Ziggler's turn wasn't nearly as smooth or effective. It was clear that Ziggler was gaining popularity among older fans because, even though his brash, arrogant "Show Off" gimmick is a natural heat magnet, Ziggler, like Austin, was backing up the fundamental aspect of his character by proving it in the ring night after night. There's no quicker way for a wrestler to earn the respect of fans than through strong ring work that stays true to his character, and Ziggler seemed determined to receive that respect as he sold and bumped in ways almost certain to shorten his career.
Those same fans who came to respect and even like Ziggler for backing up his big talk most likely had different visions for his babyface turn. No longer was Ziggler the Show Off -- he lost the edge to his character and became sympathetic and somewhat whiny, delivering a dull promo about how Del Rio nearly ended his career by zeroing in on Ziggler's head injury at Payback and disingenuously playing to the crowd after unnecessarily taking out 3MB. Austin's character was never sympathetic, only bent on revenge against Hart and intent on continuing his path toward becoming the best. Fans wanted the same from Ziggler.
WWE's writers, however, didn't seem up to the task. Not only have they still not given Ziggler a true, defining babyface moment, they've still written him with shades of gray as he slowly breaks away from his heel companion, A.J. Lee. The story line has left fans confused about the true nature of Ziggler's character and gotten in the way of them rooting for him based on his natural abilities. In fact, they're hesitant about whether they should root for him in at all.
Many complain about WWE's start-stop pushes and its agonizing delays in elevating stars who have gained attention from fans. In Ziggler's case, though, it may be a saving grace in keeping him at the top of the card. If Ziggler's unsuccessful first month as a babyface had occurred without him having established a track record of above-average work, WWE may have opted to abandon his new direction and push him back down the card. That above-average work is WWE's incentive for figuring out how Ziggler as a babyface should look.
Even though Ziggler needs to get fans behind him with his words, that work often speaks for itself. As I watched him at Money in the Bank in a rematch with Del Rio, I felt nervous about picking apart Ziggler's babyface turn because it was operating perfectly Sunday night. The crowd was firmly behind him, and Ziggler was turning in yet another quality performance against an equally motivated opponent. In that moment, Ziggler was the quintessential good guy.
Monday Night Raw follows tonight, though, and the show presents another chance for Ziggler to plant himself among WWE's no-doubt babyfaces. He's chasing the World Heavyweight Championship, which is a good start because fans will probably love when he finally wins it, so long as he doesn't continue to lose momentum until then. Ziggler as a babyface is different, a challenge for WWE's writers to show a new side of a character who still identifies himself as a #HEEL on Twitter. WWE and Ziggler, though, can make it work. The answer is in changing him as little as possible.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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