The Getting Over series aims to detail the psychological rules that the world of pro wrestling has developed over the past 100 years to draw the biggest houses and biggest fan reactions possible.
Rule No. 1 - It's all about the money
Rule No. 2 - Fans will hate a heel more if he can make them respect him
Rule No. 3 - A baby face should be billed as a believable underdog
Rule No. 4 - Always exaggerate, even when the truth is impressive
Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was arguably the greatest heel in the history of professional wrestling. He drew huge audiences for nearly 20 years, including a then-record crowd of 38,622 fans for his 1961 National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) title match against Pat O'Connor. Sam Muchnick, the legendary NWA promoter, once said Rogers was one of only three people in the history of the business who could draw an audience simply by having his name on the marquee. The battles between promoters over Rogers' booking rights were so intense that it was a primary factor in Vince McMahon, Sr. seceding from the NWA and starting the WWWF (the predecessor to today's WWE) in 1963.
So what made Rogers so successful in his heel role? It was his complete dedication to the next rule in the Getting Over series, which is:
Rule No. 5: A heel should have no redeemable qualities
Why it works
People want to believe in the goodness of humanity, and therefore they will look for any redeemable trait in a heel that can foster that belief. If a heel can convince the audience that those redeeming traits don't exist, the audience will eventually stop looking for them and become convinced that they're dealing with a truly bad person worthy of their unfiltered hate.
Getting unfiltered hate certainly wasn't an issue for Rogers, as he didn't just follow this rule -- he actually lived it. Decorum does not allow for a verbatim quote of Rogers' actual stated life philosophy, but the family friendly version is that he wanted to screw his friends over and be nice to his enemies, so his enemies would become his friends and he could screw them over, too.
This was not lost on his contemporaries. The historical tome "The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels" quoted many wrestlers from Rogers' era as saying he was a back-stabbing con man who wouldn't hesitate to actually hurt someone he was working with. Lou Thesz, the longest-reigning champion in NWA history and a real-life shooter (someone who could actually fight if the situation called for it) hated Rogers so much that he vowed never to lose to him, just out of principle.
Crowds could sense this hatred and knew that Rogers, maybe more than any heel in the business, was someone they actually would hate in real life. It made the audience want to see Rogers get soundly beaten in the ring -- and it led to his awe-inspiring drawing power at the gate.
Rescinding good deeds
Sometimes a heel has to convince the crowd that the redeeming qualities that used to define his character no longer exist.
This was the case with Roddy Piper when he left the NWA for the WWF in 1984. Piper joined the NWA as a heel announcer opposite Gordon Solie, who was the most respected play-by-play man in the business. Solie was also as beloved by fans as most of the top in-ring stars, so when Piper rescued Solie from an attack by Don Muraco, it immediately showed fans a redeeming quality that pushed Piper to top babyface status.
Since Piper was slated to be a heel in the WWF, it was imperative to convince viewers that the sympathetic trait Piper's character showed in saving Solie was an anomaly. Piper achieved this by doing every bad deed he could think of, a list that included forcibly cutting The Haiti Kid's hair, using ethnic slurs to insult Bruno Sammartino, teaming with Bob Orton Jr. to bully Salvatore Bellomo, and kicking pop star Cyndi Lauper in the head after sneak-attacking Captain Lou Albano by smashing a framed gold record over his head.
These acts drove home the idea that, even though Piper's character had redeemed himself by saving Solie, he was now rejecting that redemption and thus was worthy of the kind of pure contempt that draws huge audiences.
A modern-day Buddy Rogers
Ric Flair may be thought of as the modern-day version of Buddy Rogers because he adopted the Nature Boy moniker, and used Rogers' strut to incite crowds, but Flair only copied Rogers' mannerisms and didn't incite the same level of pure, unadulterated hatred that Rogers did.
The modern-day wrestler who best fit the Rogers mold would have to be Shawn Michaels. His character started down the heel path by double-crossing his tag-team partner Marty Jannetty, but the crowd really turned on Michaels after he "lost my smile", which was obviously an excuse to use his knee injury to get out of doing a job that would give the title to Bret Hart. This was not the only time Michaels was adamant about not doing a job, as The Undertaker indicated in a shoot interview that he had almost considered defeating Michaels in a real-life battle when Michaels pushed back about losing a match at WrestleMania.
Add these incidents to The Montreal Screwjob, the most infamous double-cross in pro wrestling history, along with Michaels' drug use, his repeated on-air use of profanity, crotch chops and occasional nudity (when he mooned the camera), and it shows Michaels wanted nothing to do with being redeemed. That isn't the case now, as Michaels has turned his life completely around, but at that time WWE announcer Jim Ross was right when he said Michaels was the most hated man both inside the ring and in the locker room.
Even one redeeming quality is too many
When Kevin Owens won the WWE Universal title in a fatal four-way match in September, he by all rights should have received a heel's reaction. After all, his character has been a heel in the WWE since sneak-attacking John Cena in his Raw debut and he only won the Universal title with the help of multiple Pedigrees delivered by an interfering Triple H. The crowd didn't see it this way, however, as they chanted, "YOU DESERVE IT!" after Triple H raised Owens' hand in victory.
So what accounts for the disconnect? A lot of it probably has to do with the person Owens portrays off-air. Owens comes across a very likable person on social media and it's very clear he is a great family man. The crowd pays attention to these redeemable traits, and it's why Owens got the babyface reaction with the title win; it's also why he will almost certainly be making a very popular babyface turn at some point in the future.