I love a good heel. Honest, I do. Despite my criticisms, at times, of King Mo's behavior in and out of the ring, there's a yearning in me to root for an asshole above all else. I'm the consummate evil character in any deed-rewarding/punishing video game, and I could be found chanting "Rocky Sucks" along with everyone else in the early 2000's. Heels make it interesting. Heels make it a compelling fight when it isn't. Heels add a certain fire to a fight that you just won't find when guys want to trade sneakers after the game. Heels make it better.
So how can you be the ironic heel-- one that is loved despite his abrasive behavior? I will provide examples of three heels that are successful in this method, and three which are unsuccessful (by my subjective estimation). All opinions on the matter are welcome, and I'll refrain from adding my many honorable mentions to leave the topic open to discussion.
Mohammed "King Mo" Lawal
King Mo can talk. There's little doubt about that. But what King Mo can't do, as a heel, is work his crowd. Like a guy who makes a comment that wouldn't normally be perceived as sexist, but subsequently provides a disclaimer that he's not sexist. It's not a good look. Mo could learn a few things from the Chael Sonnen School of Heat. If you're going to be unshakably confident, and cocky beyond measure, you need to be unapologetic. Mo seldom does an interview in which he doesn't pine over the fact that some people don't like him. He should adopt the unspoken "love me or hate me" approach to his act, and people are likely love him for it.
Tito Ortiz, unlike many of my other examples, is an unfortunate heel-- one that wants so badly to be loved that people hate him for it. Let's call him the reverse-face. This subset is a lonely one, but you can see the signs from a mile away (see; Carwin, Shane-- ease up on the flag-bearing, my man; or it's you and Tito on an island now that Timmay has accepted his fate). Acquiring this unique distinction almost certainly requires the individual in question to be oblivious to the developing negativity, which is an attribute that would make Tito a poster-boy for this affliction. Tito once had a strong following, peaking after his coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter 3 opposite a pretty unlikeable Ken Shamrock. Tito was the inverse of his peer-- an attentive and caring coach that seemed genuinely invested in the successes and lives of the fighters on his extremely-successful team. But Tito has spent the years since then squandering all of that goodwill via poor grammar, attempts to speak more intelligently than he is capable, a dated sense of self-importance, unsolicited personal attacks on his peers and a deluded propensity to make scores of excuses for his recent failures in the octagon. Tito's going to have a near-impossible time getting off of this island. I'm interested to see if he can do any sort of repair to his image during his next stint as a coach on TUF opposite former friend and accused alcoholic, Chuck Liddell.
This is perhaps the most arguable of all of my entries, and I'm perfectly okay with that. Frank Mir, to me, is an unsuccessful heel (in the regard detailed) because his cockiness is almost certainly real. Why is that a problem, you ask? Because playing a heel and being one are worlds apart, and when you're as cocksure as Frank, you'd like to think it's an act. From his Ecko commercial, to the passive little smirk on his face whenever he's discussing his opposition, Frank Mir is Dan Hardy if Dan Hardy discredited all of his opponents, was passive aggressive, and continually admonished fighters he isn't scheduled to fight. Add to that a case of MMA-stalking in his often-times unsettling obsession with taking revenge on BROCKLESNAR (see also; BJ Penn/GSP), and you've got yourself the makings of a pretty unlikable character. Granted, he still has a great deal of fans, but so few of them are fans because of his success as a heel-- most of them are fans in spite of that behavior, often defending or disregarding it. Is Frank Mir one of the biggest heels in MMA? Yes. But is he a heel you can love? Not so much.
The method to Lesnar's madness is simple, really-- he caters to a his demographic and has, bar-none, the widest rift between lovers and haters. Minnesotan's, college and pro wrestling enthusiasts, reluctant converts and early prospectors of his success love Brock Lesnar unconditionally. Pro wrestling detractors, men with sword penis envy (the individuals that say it's unfair that he's "too big and strong"), often-unreasonable MMA purists, Mir fans and stubborn doubters that will never convert, hate Lesnar unconditionally. The result is that Lesnar can do and say whatever he wants and his supporters will defiantly champion his words and acts, while his detractors will angrily display their dissatisfaction. Is everything Lesnar does defensible? Of course not. Is everything he does offensive? No way. But that schism is an element of divergent passion that Lesnar brings to MMA that nobody else can-- and he'll always keep us talking.
Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy
Dan Hardy's method of heat is quite subtle, and is based in his confidence and ability to frustrate his opposition. He exudes a slight cockiness without resorting to chest-beating-- generally directing all of his attention towards his impending opponent, rather than towards as broad a range as his entire division. His feud with Marcus Davis was not only his coming out party as a heel, but it made him a rising star and multiplied his marketability ten-fold. Hardy's distinct ability to frustrate his opponents, pre-fight, to the point that they will grow angry and fight with their heart, while he remains calm and calculated, is heel-psychology at its best. It does just enough damage to get him where he's going, while endearing scores of fans to him.
Chael Sonnen might be the most impressive of all of the heels in the positive column, and is mostly responsible for my desire to share my thoughts on this matter, because he carefully toes the line between shit-talker extraordinare and alienating whole masses of fans with his barbs (cough, Matt Hughes, cough). Members of BE have begun referring to Sonnen as "The Troll", due to what is widely considered well thought-out, but often barely-sensible, heat building. Sonnen's style feels hostile and unfiltered, with so many tiny morsels of shit-talking goodness, he doesn't let you settle in on any particular point-- like a casino buffet of insults. It's a level of measured craziness that deflects serious criticism from his more controversial quotables. And you know what? People are starting to love him for it, even though they love Anderson Silva more. Count me among them.