The loudest ovation at WWE's SummerSlam event last Sunday didn't happen when Roman Reigns finally dethroned Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship. It didn't happen when Finn Balor dusted off his Demon King body paint to squash Constable Corbin. And it didn't happen when Daniel Bryan stopped The Miz from cribbing his corner dropkicks with an uncharacteristic chokehold.
No, what made the Brooklyn crowd shout its approval the loudest was when Becky Lynch sucker-punched her best friend after losing her shot at the Smackown Women's Championship fair and square.
In pro wrestling terms, Lynch's heel turn got the biggest face pop of the show.
There are two reasons for that. First there's the fact that today's WWE crowds are so used to seeing the same meaningless formula — several hours a week of the same moves, the same matches, the same snail's pace storytelling — that they reflexively cheer for any moment that means something. SummerSlam was four hours long and less than four things happened. Lynch's turn was one of them.
The second reason, however, is more specific to that moment. Since anchoring the Smackdown women's division after WWE split its roster in 2016, Lynch has quietly become one of the most universally liked wrestlers in the company. She's terrific in the ring and on the microphone, with goofball charisma and natural babyface fire as the situation demands. That she's only a one-time champion is a travesty.
So going into SummerSlam, where she earned a shot at Carmella's championship by defeating her in a nontitle match, fans were eager for Lynch to have her moment. But a few weeks before the event, WWE added Lynch's friend and six-time champion Charlotte Flair to the match, making it a triple-threat. Lynch's fans might have experienced a sudden sinking feeling: She's long been depicted as Flair's sidekick, so her chances of leaving Brooklyn with the championship slimmed to less than the purely mathematical 33 percent. Meanwhile, the second-generation star's abundance of title shots despite her passionless crowd support, and her simply not being as good as Lynch, makes Reigns look like Daniel Bryan.
That's why emotions were charged in Brooklyn when Flair, in disappointing but unsurprising fashion, broke up Lynch's Dis-arm-her submission on Carmella with her Natural Selection face slam to claim her seventh women's championship. It was abrupt, declarative. Perhaps by design, it was much of a gut punch as WrestleMania 34, when Flair snuffed out another fan favorite in Asuka.
It sucked, sure. But it was fair. So when Lynch finally snapped and attacked her best friend, she was, theoretically, turning heel. But not to Brooklyn, and not to 99 percent of the WWE audience. It was reminiscent of Eddie Guerrero's 2003 turn on tag partner Tajiri, a vicious assault designed to draw boos but met with riotous cheers from fans refusing to be emotionally manipulated.
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Lynch went further on Smackdown Tuesday, claiming the fans never supported her and other stock heel talking points. It seems, so far, that WWE is sticking to its plans for her feud with Flair and not flipping their moral alignment to match the fans' sympathies. And I'm not so sure they should. While I don't think they should cheapen Lynch's character by feeding her lines like they did on Smackdown, I also think they should continue to let that character drive the story, not some desired reaction to it. Because, as SummerSlam proved yet again, the heel-face thing really doesn't work anymore.
Decades ago, heels were heels if they cheated, if they bragged, if they brutalized. But that's not why they were heels. They were heels because the audience didn't want to see them do those things. Fans wanted clean matches, humble characters, bloodshed only when it was deserved. About 20 years ago, though, they started to want more. Between them wising to the inner workings of the business and a more subversive social climate, they started to want the cheating, the bragging, the brutalizing. They started to want anything that entertained them, and what entertained them could be anything.
That's why "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Guerrero were two of the biggest monster babyfaces of their day. And that's why Lynch was cheered like a hero for making her virtuous best friend cry.
Also, in the last few years, fans have gotten even more fickle about what entertains them because WWE has gotten more forceful about making that decision for them. That's why John Cena and Reigns have been booed out of buildings despite being skilled, charismatic wrestlers who deliver great marquee matches. And that's why the tide is starting to turn against Flair.
So neither she nor Lynch needs to wear the conventional black hat for their story to be one of the most compelling in WWE. The fans flat-out like Lynch, so if WWE tries to coax them into booing her, at best they'll keep cheering and at worst they'll become so offended that they stop paying attention. But if WWE reverses course and tries to make Flair bad, fans might welcome the move and warm to her, if only because she's better that way.
And if Smackdown wants proof that the heel-face thing is futile, they can look to Raw. Monday saw Reigns, a (nominal) face, beat Finn Balor, another face. Then Braun Strowman, also a face, attempted to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase, only for Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, another two faces, to thwart the attempt and reunite with Reigns as the Shield, solidifying him as even more of a face.
There wasn't a heel in sight. And yet it was the hottest conclusion to an episode of Raw this year. It was meaningful. It was entertaining. That's all wrestling needs to be for fans to react to it.