Herb Gerwig – better known to the professional wrestling world as Killer Karl Kox – was a classic heel by all accounts, a master of psychology, and one of those bedrocks of the spot who doesn’t get as much credit as he should, and unfortunately, what he was great at is rapidly fading away in the sport he was so great at.
I’m unable to approach what will be an awesome bio by Dave Meltzer on the man, and my best source for all things Old School in professional wrestling didn’t have the big scoops about Mr. Gerwig, other than the comments that he was a “good guy” and “great at psychology”.
Coming from Bruno Sammartino, a man who set standards for being a gentleman and working matches, those are very strong compliments.
Gerwig’s gimmick was certainly cutting-edge, as those peculiar initials were once, and should be, associated with a group that deserves loathing. It’s interesting to reflect upon the talent and gumption that it took to take a mantle that could clearly be seen as offensive to many people, and mix in a sense of comedy and old school heel activity and remain a top name, a significant draw and a guy who was able to work that gimmick in a lot of places.
Like so many heels of yesteryear, the man who played the role was anything but the role, and it’s likely that this dichotomy is what allowed Herb Gerwig to ply his trade.
(I’m hoping not to be upstaged on that speculation…)
What’s unfortunate is that so many current fans really have no conception of what it means to be a heel.
Today, the notion of the bad guy is reflected in the WWE’s most recent PPV. The top heels? The Miz, R-Truth and Mark Henry, plus arguably Dolph Ziggler. (I’ll set aside Alberto Del Rio for a variety of reasons, not the least being that Del Rio is the prototypical WWE villain, and the prototypical reason why heels really aren’t heels at all.)
Mike Mizanin and Ron Killings are two typical examples of WWE heels. They are afterthoughts, they are ineffectual, and they aren’t anything of the old school expectations. The only reason Miz and R-Truth are no longer on the same side of the good guy/bad buy spectrum as of Monday is because one guy turned on the other guy.
I’m sure the way R-Truth works a match won’t be impacted by his positioning as a babyface. He may talk a little different, he may be a little less aggressive, but ultimately he’s going to work a match like he’s always done.
Which is one great reason why the post-modern age is so weak.
Mark Henry is another example. Actually, Henry isn’t the worst part of it, as much as The Big Show is the clear example of how old school mentality isn’t just twisted on top of its ugly head, it’s morphed and transmogrified into … well, the same thing.
Henry takes out a half-dozen big guys, and The Big Show comes back, and they work a program (which is, considering those two avenues, some awesome old school booking) but Show’s the babyface and his approach to the villain is to try to break his leg.
Not so much win the Championship, not so much selling the injury, not so much ramping up the emotion to the point where you want the babyface to break someone’s leg, but almost an afterthought of it all, something tacked on to keep things moving.
I’m not saying that the babyface can never want to try to maim an opponent, but awesome spots intermixed with plodding wrestling matches intermixed with now-we-see-it, now-we-don’t logic and progression of storylines is above average for WWE expectations. Strangely enough, most of Show/Henry has been very good when grading on the Shawn Michaels is the greatest wrestler in the world scale.
What’s amazing in the year 2011 is that the best proponents of villainy are in the UFC, and a guy like Georges St. Pierre. Aside from the verbal shenanigans of Chael Sonnen and Josh Koscheck, the best bit about heels comes from the UFC’s Welterweight Champion, from an interview with Live Audio Wrestling:
“I’m very intrigued by the villain. I like villains. I like Shawn Michaels because he was very entertaining. Everybody used to hate him; he was cheating all the time. He was like a perfect villain. He was winning, not because he was better, because he was cheating. For me, he was making people mad, and because he was so much of a villain, I used to like him a lot for that.”
Notice how St. Pierre observantly lists the core concepts of villainy: Entertaining, Hatred, Cheating, winning because of Cheating.
Notice how the WWE focuses on the last portion: “because he was so much of a villain, I used to like him a lot for that.”
And for those who watched Herb Gerwig in action, I’m sure you all are noticing that Killer Karl Kox was vastly more of the old school nature than the “I’m cool to be bad” nature.
Everything I’ve heard about Mr. Gerwig indicates that he was entertaining. That he could stir up the fans and generate lots of heat. That he plied the old school concepts of heels being cheaters, and that heels won by cheating.
Like the old school mentality, the concept was that the heels got heat, got the fans to want to see them get beat, and they delivered that in the ring, from the time they established themselves to the time when they did the job and put over the big babyface.
When was the last time the heels in the WWE cheated?
When was the last time when a top name like Randy Orton actually worked a match differently – and I mean observed differently – when a face and when a heel?
Aside from Miz/R-Truth doing a dastardly beat-down, when was the last time someone did something heinous … IN A MATCH, to show that they were heels, and damned proud of it?
It’s something that came around with the tweener and the dismantling of face/heel dynamics, and unfortunately there’s way too much investment in an approach that diminished its returns a very long time ago.
Heck, even The Rock and John Cena is so twisted up in post-modern mentalities that it defies analysis.
But the story of heels is one that intertwines with a guy like Killer Karl Kox. For those who remember him in action, and despite all the fondness for old school, veteran heels that comes naturally, I’m sure the moments and the actions and the image of this fascinating talent are wrapped around someone doing unrepentant and shameful acts in the ring.
For those who don’t know the exploits of the ring mastery of Herb Gerwig, maybe it would be interesting and illuminating to seek them out.