KC Joyner's rules for 'getting over' in professional wrestling: A baby face has to be a believable underdog

Fritz Von Erich had a number of things working in his favor as the NWA tried to determine its champion, but his size and history as a menacing heel were just too much to overcome. Getty Images

The Getting Over series, written by KC Joyner, aims to detail the unofficial psychological rules that have developed in the world of pro wrestling over the past 100 years.

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 babyface should be billed as a believable underdog

According to Dave Meltzer's superb book "Tributes," in the early 1970s, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) -- the premier pro wrestling organization in the United States at the time -- considered making Fritz Von Erich its world heavyweight champion.

There are a lot of reasons this move could have worked. Von Erich was running an NWA-affiliated territory at the time, and he was known as a legitimately tough man. This would theoretically allow some piece of mind, as the Alliance knew its belt would be protected from any double crosses if he were champion. Von Erich had worked many years as a heel, so he was highly adept at calling matches, which allowed him to carry lesser talents he went up against and have great matches with other top names.

In "Tributes," Meltzer points out that the NWA could get around its rule of not having a gimmick wrestler as champion by having Von Erich drop his stage name and instead go by his real name of Jack Adkisson -- something he did for a time in the late 1960s in Texas.

For all those positives, one of the issues in making Von Erich the champion is that he simply wouldn't be a believable enough underdog on his way to winning the title. When it comes to telling a compelling story in wrestling, you can't underestimate the importance of Rule No. 3.

Why it works

David vs. Goliath. Rocky vs. Apollo Creed. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader. All of these are incredibly popular stories in which a hero faced seemingly insurmountable odds and fought back and overcame the odds to achieve victory. All of them are tremendously popular because of how compelling a story the right kind of underdog can tell.

Legendary manager Jim Cornette said promoter Jerry Jarrett taught him that this mindset is ingrained into people. Jarrett said that if a person sees a fight between a small guy and a big guy, his or her natural instinct is to pull for the smaller guy to win. We want to see the babyface in peril, but we want to see that person fight hard and overcome the villain in his or her way.

Can't be too big

A crowd typically doesn't want to see Goliath beat up David.

That definitely would have been the perception, based on a look at Von Erich and many of the wrestlers he would have faced in that era. He was billed at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds. For comparison's sake, consider that the greatest world champions of Von Erich's era -- a group including Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Dory Funk Jr. and Jack Brisco -- all ranged from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-2 and between 216 and 240 pounds.

This size worked because the NWA world champion had to travel around the globe to face all the local territory champions. Because those local champs could be babyfaces or heels, the world champion had to be able to work a match as a babyface or heel to counter whomever he was facing. He thus had to have a frame that would allow the crowd to believe either story, depending on who was facing whom.

That would have been a big problem for Von Erich for reasons beyond his size, as he also spent years convincingly delivering his character in a menacing way and built a reputation as one of the biggest heels in the business.

Gary Hart, who worked as a manager and booker for Von Erich, once likened Von Erich to famed tough guy Johnny Valentine, a bully heel known for his highly physical matches. Given all these factors, it would have been difficult for fans to imagine Von Erich as a babyface in peril, and therefore, it was a tough sell for fans to believe him in that kind of role as the holder of the NWA championship.

Too small doesn't work, either

Danny Hodge is arguably the greatest wrestler in NCAA history. Hodge was a three-time undefeated national champion who set the NCAA career record for pin percentage (78.3 percent), never allowed a single takedown against him in his career and has the amateur wrestling equivalent of the Heisman Trophy named after him. He was the first wrestler to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, won AAU and Golden Gloves national boxing tournaments and had a grip so powerful that he could break apples with his bare hands -- a feat he could still pull off late into his 70s.

Once Hodge made the transition to the pro wrestling ranks, given his fame and legitimate fighting skill, it would have been easy to sell him as a heavyweight wrestling champion, except for one problem. He was only 6 feet tall, and he weighed 185 pounds. Even though he would have likely won a large majority of shoot matches (legitimate fights) against bigger foes, the size differential made it too unbelievable a storyline to make him the champ.

It was even difficult to put him into matches against the champ. Larry Matysik, a wrestling historian who once worked as NWA president Sam Muchnick's right-hand man, said Muchnick once considered having an NWA title match between Hodge and Jack Brisco (himself a former NCAA wrestling champion) but decided against it.

The main reason for this decision was Muchnick couldn't find an in-ring story that these two could tell that would help either of them or the promotion as a whole. If Hodge won, it would make the bigger wrestlers look like they couldn't beat the smaller wrestlers. If Brisco won, it would be a matter of displaying the obvious advantage a larger wrestler has in that type of matchup. If the battle ended in a draw, neither Brisco nor Hodge would look better, and the crowd would be left dissatisfied with the result.

Size is relative

You can see a clear example of this issue in the modern WWE. The relative size of wrestlers in the company plays a bigger factor in Roman Reigns' struggle to get as over as a babyface as the WWE would like him to.

Reigns is billed at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds. That makes him closer in billed size to The New Day's Big E Langston (5-foot-11, 285 pounds) than to Seth Rollins (6-foot-1, 217) or Dean Ambrose (6-foot-4, 225), and it makes Reigns tower over AJ Styles (5-foot-10, 218). Add the size disparity to the body armor Reigns wears, and it becomes next to impossible to buy into the idea that he is a babyface in peril in many of his matches.

As long as Reigns works in programs such as the one he is in now with a super heavyweight such as Rusev, it's possible to buy him as a babyface. Put him in the ring against any of the borderline cruiserweights working at the upper-tier of the WWE's current roster, and the audience is going to react in a similar way to how they've treated Reigns in the past.

They're certainly not going to believe in him as an underdog hero. They're going to boo him like a heel.