In today’s climate, wrestlers face a plethora of challenges every time they step into the ring. However, perhaps more than anything else in wrestling today, the hardest thing is trying to be a babyface. But Toni Storm has already mastered this subtle art.
Being heel is a breeze by comparison. Not only because it’s hard to try and get people to like you without coming off as a pushover, but because heels are cool. It’s never cool to be a righteous babyface begging for the crowd to cheer them – not anymore. The real challenge is trying to get a crowd of people to genuinely like you. Just ask guys like Roman Reigns and John Cena.
More often than not, a face steps into the ring, and the crowd’s first impression is to dislike them, simply because the babyface is unknown to them. How can a fan immediately root for someone they don’t even know?
For heels, they enter a ring unliked, and just give audiences more reasons to not like them; heels start one step ahead.
The babyface business just isn’t what it used to be. There are only a handful of wrestlers today who mastered the art of being a babyface without having to resort to heel-ish antics or having to stick to being in some gray-area middle ground.
One of those few wrestlers is Toni Storm.
Our readers may have gotten familiar with Toni Storm more recently due to her appearances on NXT UK and her historic win at Evolution in the finals of the 2018 Mae Young Classic. Those who have known of Storm just a little bit longer would recognize her for her matches in promotions like STARDOM, ICW, and PROGRESS – the latter of which is where she became the company’s first ever Women’s Champion.
No matter where she is or whose ring she steps into, Storm always enters an arena filled with a raucous crowd belting her name and cheering her on. There’s something about Storm and her character that connects with fans. She continues to be universally loved as a babyface without ever having to succumb to heel antics for a cheap pop.
She’s arguably the closest wrestler we can find to a full-fledged babyface in 2018.
We tried to figure out just why Toni Storm remains so unequivocal beloved no matter the country, arena, or ring she steps into. She never gets a mixed reaction or the dreaded boos that crowds save for the babyfaces they’re bored with. What could she possibly be doing right that so many other babyfaces today are doing wrong? It’s simple: she’s naturally cool, and she doesn’t try to be anything that she isn’t.
Toni Storm’s gimmick is essentially that of a classic rock star. Think Jimi Hendrix when he sacrificed his Fender Stratocaster guitar on the night of the 1967 Monterrey International Pop Festival. Of course, Storm’s desire for arson doesn’t quite match up with Hendrix’s, but you get the point. They exude similar levels of cool, if nothing else.
Like most rock stars, Storm doesn’t go out of her way to make the crowd love her. Most rock stars seem to have a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude when it comes to being liked; they call it “devil may care attitude” for a reason. They don’t dive off stage or smash their guitars into tiny pieces because they think it’ll make the fans like them. They do it because it’s just who they are. It’s a part of themselves that they need to let out for the world to see.
In between suplexing her opponents across the ring and her dives out of it, Toni Storm winks and swaggers her way all over her opponent to the delight of the crowd. She doesn’t try to favor the crowd or motion for them to cheer. Unless she’s posing in the middle of the ring, she isn’t paying them much mind. She just marches to the beat of her own drum, and by chance – if only because she’s naturally cool – the crowd play along to the tune of their own cheers.
For reference, check out Storm’s entrance above of her heading into PROGRESS Chapter 52. Storm enters the arena without feeling the need to play to the crowd. She doesn’t even slap hands with any of the fans at ringside before stepping into the ring, as any other babyface would do in her position. She looks around and acknowledges the wider scope of the massive arena, but that’s all she does; acknowledge it.
The way she walks down to the ring, you’d never know whether she was a face or a heel. Instead, it’s truly the sound of the crowd who decides if Storm’s the babyface they’re looking for. She takes in the roaring cheers raining down onto her, but she doesn’t play to the crowd to get those cheers a little louder. She doesn’t spoil the moment by trying to sprinkle something disingenuous onto it. She just plays it cool, like a rock star walking onto the stage in front of a sold out crowd for the umpteenth time. The rocker’s been here before in a big time setting, and let’s it be known.
For another reference, check out her First Round Mae Young Classic 2017 match-up against Ayesha Raymond. First off, Storm starts off the match by refusing a handshake from Raymond. Anyone who has seen Ring of Honor knows that refusing a handshake is a classic way to let the crowd know who’s the heel. Yet, Storm retains her likability for the duration of the match.
When Storm refuses the handshake and shimmies like she’s too cool to shake Raymond’s hand, it doesn’t come off as a malicious heel tactic. It comes off as just Storm’s “thing” that she does. Keep this in mind for a second.
Also keep in mind that when Storm is playing to the crowd – whether it be through her poses in the middle of the ring or the set-up for her hip attack, Storm plays to the crowd, but not in a way where it feels like she’s pandering to them. There are plenty of moves in Storm’s moveset that – on paper – favor a textbook babyface.
However, it’s how she plays the role that doesn’t make her feel like a textbook babyface whilst still winning the crowd over. When she taunts and plays up her moveset, it doesn’t feel like she’s seeking the crowd’s approval. It just feels like her “thing.” There’s nothing wrong with a babyface playing to the crowd as long as it’s done the right way; as long as the performance is not too over the top.
What make Storm such a perfect babyface ultimately boils down to her performance. Again, rather than begging for the crowd to cheer her on to set up a comeback spot, Storm showcases unique character traits, cues, and mannerisms to win the crowd over. She plays to the crowd, but she does so with subtlety.
To relay sympathy, all she does is rely on her acting ability. Crowds see the pain and desperation in her face while a heel like Raymond brutally lays it into her, and suddenly, it’s hard not to cheer her on. When she finally does achieve her comeback, it feels earned instead of forced. That’s another thing that is essential for a babyface. When it comes to trying to steer the crowd on their side, every moment they initiate in the ring must feel earned, not forced.
Much of this piece has been dedicated to mentioning how cool Toni Storm is, and citing that coolness for why she’s such a beloved babyface. “Cool” is a somewhat of a broad, subjective definition, but for the sake of convenience, let’s say that being cool is simply not trying to be cool.
Being cool is when a character presents themselves unashamedly as their most authentic self.
Wrestlers – regardless of where they fit on the heel/face meter – tend to receive their loudest cheers not when they’re playing to the fans, but when they’re playing up who they are without trying to make the fans feel an emotion. Whenever Roman Reigns put the mic down, stopped hollering catchphrases out of Looney Toons scripts, and just beat the hell out of a horde of competition (i.e. the ending of TLC 2015), he’d get the loudest cheers of the night, even when he was at his most vilified.
Storm understands this formula to being a babyface. She understands that rather than begging the fans to like you, a babyface needs to just give them a reason to cheer. In this era, she’s the perfect babyface.