Where have all of MMA’s Heels Gone?

| December 1, 2010

Where have all of MMA’s Heels gone?  That is the question.  But first, let’s define the term “Heel”.  Heel is commonly used in professional wrestling to describe a “villain” character or “bad guy”.   A heel is typically opposed by a “babyface” or more simply, “face” (crowd favorite) and he is often portrayed as behaving in an immoral manner, breaking rules or otherwise taking advantage of his opponent outside the bounds of the rules of the match.  Some heels do not (or rarely) break rules, but exhibit unlikeable personality traits.  No matter the type of heel, the most important job is that of the antagonist role.  Heels exist to provide a foil to the face men.  If a given heel is cheered over the face, a promoter may opt to turn that heel to face, or to make the wrestler do something even more despicable to encourage heel heat.

So does the term heel translate to MMA?  Well, sorta.  But in MMA, since the fighting is real and the championship belts are real and matches aren’t fixed the way they are in pro wrestling, the heels are created organically by the fighters themselves as opposed to being contrived by the promotions.  What it really comes down to is that some guys are assholes that people have a tendency to dislike (see Top Ten Biggest Douche Bags in MMA) and some guys are likeable.

There are a few rare cases however, as with Tito Ortiz (15-6-1), where a fighter intentionally makes himself into a heel in order to generate fan interest and ultimately sell more tickets.  The “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” has ingeniously made himself MMA’s biggest heel, which has brought him both love and hate from fans, all the while making him one of the biggest draws in the sport for the past ten years.  Whether you love him or hate him, it’s hard not to talk about Tito Ortiz.  Most people probably thought he was truly a heel until season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).  It was then that most of us witnessed the caring, nurturing, father figure of a coach that Ortiz was to his team as he led them to victory over Ken Shamrock’s team.  Since parting ways with the UFC after his loss to Lyoto Machida in May of 2008, Ortiz has undergone back surgery, but has tried to stay in the spotlight taking commentating jobs with Affliction and Elite XC.  He plans to make a full recovery and return to action in the Fall of 2009 with an organization other than the UFC.

Speaking of Ken Shamrock (27-13-2), he is a prime example of a true heel.  He’s an egomaniacal dick, who in my opinion warrants all of the negative attention he gets.  This was also made clear during TUF season 3, as Ken couldn’t relate to his team and didn’t seem to care enough to improve the situation.  In the cheating spirit of a true heel, Shamrock tested positive for steroid use after his fight against Ross Clifton in February of 2009.  Over the years he has been loved and hated, and many loved to hate him.  In the early days of the UFC, he was the heel that everyone rooted for, probably because of his comic book hero physique and good looks.  At one point he actually left MMA to pursue a professional wrestling career, where he took on the role of a heel.  Upon his return to MMA, Shamrock was a more polished showman and took his heelism to the max in a rivalry with Ortiz.  Shamrock, a UFC Hall of Famer, and one of MMA’s first big stars, is now in his mid forties and on the verge of retirement.

Tim Sylvia (24-5) is another definite heel.  During his reign as the heavyweight champion of the UFC, Silvia was by far the most disliked and disrespected champion.  The “Maine-iac’s” cockiness and arrogance combined with his awkward style of fighting, his unathletic build, and his New England accent, in my opinion seemed to rub fans the wrong way.  He also tested positive for steroid use after his fight against Gan McGee at UFC 44, which added to the building dislike for him.  Unfortunately for Big Tim being a heel didn’t make people want to watch him fight, it did however make for some great bash threads in the online forums.  Since being let go by the UFC after a loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 81 in February of 2008, Tim has fought once on an Affliction fight card.  He is no longer a relevant heel due to his inactivity.

David “Tank” Abbott (10-14-0) is one of MMA’s original heels.  He burst onto the scene at UFC 6 with a brutal knockout of John Matua in 18 seconds.  As Matua lay on the octagon floor convulsing, Abbott mocked him.  When shown a replay of his handiwork during the post-fight interview, Abbott talked about how it made him sexually aroused.  These antics created a bad boy image that made him UFC’s most talked about star for a couple of years.  Over the years Tank has lost more often than he’s won, but fans still love to see this “Pit Fighting” stylist get in the cage or ring, because you never know what might happen.  Approaching 45 years of age, “Tank” only has one or two more “side show” fights left in him.

Phil Baroni (13-10-0), aka the “New York Bad Ass”, is one heel that is still relevant today.  Baroni started his career fighting in the UFC and then went on to fight in Japan’s premier organization, PRIDE, but has been relegated to fighting in the “B” level organizations as of late.  Between his theatrical entrances, his non-stop banging in the ring, and his mouth outside the ring, love him or hate him, Baroni is pure entertainment.  The NYBA is another fighter who has tested positive for steroids.

Frank Trigg (19-6), known as much for his mouth as he is for his fighting, was one of the UFC’s biggest heels from 2003 to 2005 when he was the arch rival of the then welterweight champion Matt Hughes.  The amount of trash talking he did was matched only by that of the New York Bad Ass.  After dropping two fights in succession to Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre (both by rear naked choke), “Twinkle Toes” left the UFC and moved on to fight in smaller organizations.  He also put his gift of gab to good use by commentating for various fight organizations and hosting a daily MMA radio show on the Tagg Radio Network.

Gilbert Yvel (35-13-1), Holland’s number one heel, is the dirtiest fighter to grace the sport of MMA.  As a testament to his poor sportsmanship, his record includes disqualifications for biting, eye gouging, and knocking out a referee.  This menace of a mixed martial artist has been fighting in the premier organizations of Europe and Japan since 1997 and continues to garner the hate and attention he did ten years ago.  Look for “The Hurricane” to fight again for the Affliction promotion.

Wes Sims (22-12-1), one of the tallest combatants of the sport at 6 feet and 10 inches tall, is known for his unorthodox fighting style, his amazing strength, and the many illegal blows he has delivered to his opponents.  He solidified his reputation as a heel during a controversial fight against Frank Mir at UFC 43, in which Sims got up while Mir was on his back against the fence and proceeded to stomp on Mir’s head several times while holding the fence for extra balance.  The fight was stopped and Sims was disqualified.  Much like Tim Sylvia, Wes Sims is a heel that MMA fans love to hate.  Sims continues to fight in smaller shows, but is not relevant among the mainstream of MMA.

The heels of the early days of MMA helped the average fan relate to this emerging sport.  The characters and storylines made the technical complexities of the sport more palatable and the fights more personal.  It forced fans to choose a side and get more emotionally invested.  Mixed Martial Arts without heels is like an action movie with all good guys.

So who are the heels of today?  Chris Leben, Josch Koscheck, Brock Lesnar, Nick Diaz, and Junie Browning are the first few that pop into my head.  And Matt Hughes, Matt Serra, and BJ Penn straddle the line between face and heel.

As a diehard fan of MMA I don’t need anything special to keep me watching, but I have to admit that I love the dynamic between a face and the heel.  In my opinion, MMA needs a new group of heels to spice things up.

Tell us who your favorite heels are!

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