We’re (mostly) far gone from the days when wrestling heels would have to look over their shoulder in the parking lot in case some deranged (mark) fan was looking to be a hero. Nowadays the biggest real-life detriment to being a wrestling heel might be a dint in t-shirt sales. To some extent, wrestling in the 21st century has mirrored society’s increasing individualism. While it was always a journeyman’s endeavor, wrestlers in the neoliberal age must put brand above character, which means that the art of the heel, which is to be the obstacle that the babyface must assail to get over, is sometimes lost. Some of wrestling’s alleged top heels are little more than pantomime villains, booed by smiling fans who are too quick to acknowledge it’s all part of the show. Yet despite these rumors of its demise, true heels do exist. These are the wrestlers who acknowledge that their function is to “get over” only so far as to help the babyface talent soar.

For the past three years in Impact, Sami Callihan has epitomized the true art of being a heel.

Cast your minds back to the heady days of 2018. It was not long after Anthem had brought in Don Callis and Scott D’Amore to right the good ship Impact. After the extended hiatus of cult hit Lucha Underground, many of its stars made their way to Owl Land, with Pentagon and Fenix firing up the main event scene and Drago, Brian Cage and El Hijo Del Fantasma hitting the X Division. In-between that was the one-time Jeremiah Crane, now once again Sami Callihan.

What made Callihan stand out was his refusal to play the cool heel. Callihan is not the guy you want to hang out with; he’s crude, dresses like a douche and eschews flashy moves for route one violence.

It almost went wrong from the get-go. When a Sami baseball bat ricocheted off a chair into Eddie Edwards’ face…

It was a certainly not a feather in Callihan’s cap, but to both him and Edwards’ credit they managed to turn it into the angle of the year. Edwards had always been a brilliant wrestler and as part of the Wolves had put on numerous classic tag matches in ROH and TNA. As a singles wrestler, he thrived too, having a banner year in 2016, winning the X Division and World Title. Still, there had always been something missing with Eddie. His gimmick was always “good wrestler guy” and while it didn’t hold him back, he was in desperate need of a retool. It was the feud with Callihan that gave Edwards a new lease on wrestling, and as Callihan, who had stuck doggedly to kayfabe in and out the show, continued to taunt him, Edwards grew more and more deranged in his quest for revenge. He even drove to Ohio in a vignette that resembled a Liam Neeson b movie.

At Redemption, his transition was completed as he tied handcuffed a bloodied Callihan to the ropes and savaged him. The two emerged from the feud as upgraded characters Edwards was now the soul of Impact wrestling and Callihan was the yang to his yin whenever they would cross paths. It was proof positive that ‘getting over’ in wrestling is not always just about individual wrestlers putting on performances-at least if your in a promotion that concerns itself with storytelling-but about the dialectic that wrestlers create with each other. Edwards won our sympathy on the strength of Callihan’s heel work, and Callihan became a threat because of the way in which Eddie had to evolve to beat him.

From one perspective, then, when you look at Callihan’s win/loss record at big PPVs, it’s not exactly great. Yet, wrestling is an art form and the art of wrestling is to create emotion, and Callihan is a master of that and he has a string of wrestlers who have come out looking stronger through fighting him.  Coming out of the Edwards feud, Callihan had earned himself an upgrade in the card and a feud with Pentagon Jr. One of the most memorable moments in the build-up was Callihan disguising himself as Pentagon to take out Fenix (an angle that was lamely copied by Chris Jericho a few months later for a cheap pop).

The Mask vs. Hair match at Slammiversary was the definition of a show-stealer packed with notorious brutality and a stunning rebuke for those who doubted Callihan’s ability in the ring. Callihan does not just run through a move list like many of his generation, at his best he saunters through wars of attrition like a half-drunken pirate fighting for nothing else but some misplaced notion of honor. He’s the sort of wrestler you can recognize by their gait and swagger and it gives an x-factor to his performances. Callihan lost the feud with Pentagon, but in the process, he had gained a reputation for violence and crucially, fulfilled his role in helping cement Penta’s spot as a major force. Callihan would later do business with Tessa Blanchard in much the same way, and while the Blanchard title reign that ensured was cut short in unfortunate circumstances, you can’t fault Callihan for not only putting over Blanchard, but doing so in a brilliant duology, beating her at Slammiversary 2019, before unselfishly succumbing at Hard to Kill 2020. Heels aren’t there in wrestling to win, well at least not in the end. We don’t watch movies to see the bad guys win, we don’t watch wrestling to see the heels go over, we watch to see time-honored tropes of morality tale play out in satisfying ways.

Still, there is a danger that a heel can get burned out from too many losses and become a perfunctory gatekeeper to the main event, with ever-decreasing returns for the babyface who “overcomes the odds.” Kane in WWE and Abyss in TNA are examples of this and by the end of their runs, a win over them meant little. While the well of Callihan has not by any means run dry, recent booking decisions could have probably gone the other way. Sami vs Trey at Rebellion was a chance for Miguel to prove himself worthy of a singles spot. The match was a typically great Callihan hardcore affair, but putting Miguel over Callihan seemed premature and didn’t correlate with the trajectories of either since.

There does come a time when great heels go from earning grudging respect to eventually switching to a pillar of the company.

In the past three years, Callihan has arguably been Impact’s MVP, the rock on which you build a story or put over a future main eventer. So in some respects, the current feud with Kenny Omega seems like a logical outcome if you see that Sami Callihan has been slowly moving from Impact’s outsider to its core defender. Because Impact has been running fanless shows, we can’t really gauge whether it’s working for the audience. At Slammiversary, fans come back to the Impact Zone for the first time in a long time.

We’ll see if the hard work has paid off.