There is an argument that Jerry Jarrett made on the ‘Booking Memphis’ podcast that suggested that if a wrestler was good enough, they could turn whatever fan interest there was into either face or heel heat no matter what. If they did the right things to garner the support of the fans, they’d be well enough positioned to have that same audience booing their every move further down the line. Whilst there is merit to that argument—who am I to argue with a booking legend—there are still some wrestlers who were born heels or faces, with any deviation from the norm unnecessary or plain ill-advised.
Sometimes, this is because it was never really required of them. Look at Ricky Steamboat: a natural face that could well have done a fair job as a heel, but it is hard to imagine as it was never required of him throughout his long and storied career. However, there are times when the genetic make-up of the person themselves just doesn’t lend itself to being a person who gets booed or cheered. It might be the swagger and the sneer for the bad guy; the fire and determination of those on the side of good.
For Rick Rude, it was the body and the arrogance that exuded from every pore.
Though not always someone who delivered in the ring, as a closer examination of some of his late 80s work would attest to, Rude was definitely one of the greatest heel characters that have existed. No-one likes someone who is full of themselves, nor someone who is willing to shove that in your face in the process. When he was calling people “sweat hogs”, there was an element of truth that left the fans apoplectic with rage as Rude gyrated his hips for the ladies in attendance and those watching on television.
Like many gimmicks, the “Ravishing” character that would be his calling card in the WWF was a tweaked version of what Rude had already been using in other territories. In particular, a move from Mid-South to Memphis would see him go from a babyface jobber to the stars to a main event heel. With a woman called Angel on his arm and Jimmy Hart in his corner, he would deride the locals and the Memphis wrestlers in equal measure.
First, Dutch Mantell, then Austin Idol would clash with the newcomer. Rude would comprehensively lose these first two feuds, even ending up wearing a dress due to the stipulation of the feud ending cage match between him and Idol. However, having joined forces with Jim Neidhart and as a prominent member of the First Family, Rude would gain a measure of revenge over Mantell in May before winning the Southern Championship off of Jerry Lawler two weeks later.
Between the title change and Hart’s involvement, it was the feud that carried the region’s business throughout the summer. On television, intimations were made about Rude’s physical abuse towards Angel; in the Coliseum, there’d be no doubt about abuse when Lawler would drop her with a right hand when she got in his business one too many times. Between June and October of that year, the men were opposite each other in a ring fourteen times, an even split between singles matches and tag matches. When Neidhart went to Florida, it was King Kong Bundy who took up the position of Rude’s partner, whilst Lawler teamed with Jimmy Valiant, the Fabulous Ones, Ron Mikolajczyk and old enemy Randy Savage throughout the course of the summer.
Gimmicks, title changes and turns were the currency that kept Memphis exciting and allowed the same combinations to be utilized time and again. Rude and Lawler met in a match that saw the loser get ten lashes (won by Rude); later on, a cage stopped any outside interference (a Lawler victory). Whilst the Southern Title was on the line in their first encounter, the Mid-America title was successfully defended further down the stretch as Lawler defeated Rude via disqualification.
In the studio, the feud also made for great television. One particular example saw Rude walk out into the parking lot during the show and smash Lawler’s car with a baseball bat as the fans spilled out to watch the attack as it happened.
In what can only be considered a chance to squeeze every last ounce of juice out of Rude as a performer, the decision was made to turn Rude face. A loss to the Road Warriors and the Fabulous Ones in consecutive weeks at the Coliseum, coupled with a loss on the loop that was aired in the studio (once again to the Fabs) saw Bundy jump his partner. Hart, the man who bought Bundy into the territory, sided with the bigger man.
Rude, having been a potential woman beating tyrant the whole summer, was suddenly someone the fans were expected to cheer for. It was never going to work.
Alongside a feud with Bundy and the Dirty White Boys, Rude also was the special guest referee in a match between Bundy and Lawler. The booking the week prior to the match had Lawler mistakenly hit with a fireball; the booking within the match saw Rude pocket some money from Hart before making the legitimate three count that saw Lawler regain the Southern Title. Each step was calculated in order to make it seem like Rude might go back to his nefarious ways, yet he was one of us now: no longer a cheat.
Videos showing him working out in the gym were supposed to make fans warm to him as a tough guy, someone who could get the job done and had some legitimacy to his combat skills, even though it lay in arm wrestling. The push was definitely there to make it work, but when you have the natural smugness of Rude and the fact that they had spent the past four months making him a tyrant in the territory, the fans were never going to flock to the Coliseum in order to cheer him on, no matter who you teamed him with (Lawler and Savage both had matches in Rude’s corner at this time).
The experiment lasted a little over a month. Realizing that Rude just wasn’t going to work as a face, as well as his planned arrival in Florida in the New Year, the promotion went back to the well one last time. Stoking the fires from before, Lawler and Rude ended up arguing on a studio show prior to a big Bundy versus Rude “loser leaves town” match, one in which the King was due to be the referee. Echoes of the previous baseball bat attack saw Rude attempt to do the same, only to be thwarted by Lawler as the two brawled on the concrete.
Surprisingly, Rude did end Bundy’s tenure in Memphis even with Lawler as the guest referee, but he wasn’t long for this loop either. One week later, Lawler defeated Rude (admittedly only by disqualification), and the Ravishing One was on his way from the promotion.
Jarrett may have stated that the best wrestlers are capable of working both heel and face, and that might be true. What is also true is that his own experiment to turn Rude into a good guy was never going to work.