John Cena: See more or Cena-nough?
John Cena has returned, and somewhat surprisingly to a rapturous response from the WWE Universe. Cena himself seemed confused, and this led our resident "Belt Guy" to ponder why. Paul now give us his thoughts on the whole scenario.
It seems to be an argument as old as time itself. How much do people really want to see John Cena?
Obvious jokes aside (No one can see him hur hur hur) it seems to be a hot topic of conversation ever since his return at the end of Money in the Bank. Everyone has an opinion on John Cena’s return, and no one is shy about making it known.
For those unaware (have you been living under a Rock? No, not Dwayne...) John Cena came out to a rapturous response at the close of the Universal Title match at Money in the Bank, after Roman Reigns had retained over Edge. The following night on RAW, Cena came down to the ring, again to a roaring ovation, and explained that he was back for one simple reason; to win the Universal Championship.
But in a network exclusive video shown on WWE social media after Money in the Bank went off air, Cena grabbed a microphone and got into the ring, and said something that has stuck with me since;
“It’s so weird, cos I’m used to hearing you guys tell me how much I suck! This feels pretty good!
I see this guy's sign over here, it says; ‘If Cena shows up, we cheer’ is this like Bizarro World what’s going on?!”
Cena received an absolutely huge pop that night, easily getting the most cheers he has gotten in at least ten years, but the question for me is “why?”
What’s changed? Go back a few years and Cena was booed out of most buildings even though he was the main babyface, and it’s not like this was a flash in the pan reaction, this was a sustained period of hatred and vitriol towards a performer who is a sixteen-time World Champion. A performer who has given his all to this business, and despite going on to do other things, says he will never completely walk away from the WWE. He loves the business, he loves the fans, and he loves to entertain, and yet he was booed vociferously for years.
Now obviously, despite the heavy disdain towards him, it didn’t derail him as he has had phenomenal success in the squared circle. Winning sixteen World titles over a twelve-year period is an incredible achievement, and is not too dissimilar to that of the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair’s record, yet Ric is revered and Cena is vilified. Granted, Ric’s World Title reigns came at a time when there was more prestige and legitimacy to wrestling, as many people still believed it was “real”, and obviously Cena doesn't even come close to Ric in terms of in ring skills, but even so, it seems strange.
But at Money in the Bank this past Sunday (18th July 2021) if you were a first-time watcher, you would not have guessed that was the case. The response was deafening.
Now, it can of course be argued that this was the first big PPV show, aside from Wrestlemania, where fans were allowed back in since the start of the global Pandemic, and that of course will have played a part. But to understand what the issues were with Cena, it pays to talk to the people who decide who is over and who is not; The fans.
So, that’s what I did. And the response I got was largely one of appreciation at his return. The general consensus, at least from the majority of the people I spoke to, is that Cena seems like a good dude, that he gives his all for the fans and genuinely loves performing for the WWE, with his "Doctor of Thuganomics" days receiving particular praise.
But that’s not to say that I didn’t speak to his fair share of detractors. One person said that;
“Although I can see why people like him, I think he’s boring”
Another said it was his overall personality he disliked, but there was one person who went a step further and essentially said that backstage:
“They literally have to rent a special RV or private plane for him. It’s like he’s too good to ride with the guys up and down the road.”
Some even said that in the "Reality Era" and in his appearances on Total Divas, that he came across as "unlikeable, self opinionated, and a bit of a bully towards Nikki Bella".
Obviously, no one is ever going to be 100% loved, but this seemed contradictory to what the majority of others had said about him, which confused the issue more, with one person even saying;
“I like how much work he does for charity, and how good he is with fans, and more than that, how good a worker he is, people say how bad he is but; I think they’re just mad because of how consistent he is, he isn’t the most entertaining, but he sure as hell knows how to work.”
And I think this is one of the key factors. John Cena, if nothing else, certainly from an in ring perspective, is consistent. And that can be translated one of two ways. Either he is consistently good, which his fans will believe, or his matches are all the same, which I will come on to shortly.
Is he the most entertaining guy to watch in the ring? Absolutely not, but can he turn it up when necessary? You bet your ass he can!
His match with CM Punk at Money in the Bank in 2011 is still revered to this day as an absolute classic, with the raw emotion of the match plain for all to see. Yes, CM Punk walked away, literally, with the WWE Title, but who did he share that ring with? Mr Consistent himself. John Cena was the perfect foil in that match to create the euphoric atmosphere that prevailed after Punk’s historic WWE Title win. One person stated to me that they believed that this match changed Cena and proved that, rather than just having a good "John Cena Style" match with anyone, he could adapt his style to match whichever opponent he would have and still have a good match.
Another aspect of this is Cena’s move set. A lot is said of Cena’s “Five moves of doom”, but one person I spoke to said; “who doesn’t do that?”
And when you think about it objectively, there is some truth to that. Every wrestler has a sequence of moves that they use which signifies them coming out on top, such as Jeff Hardy’s “whisper in the wind”, which is often followed by a side effect and then a Swanton bomb, or Daniel Bryan’s sequence of kicks which often led up to the running knee, not to mention Hulk Hogan’s “Hulking Up” routine (brother!). Every wrestler has signature moves, and its these that get them over with the fans. So why did Cena get so much hatred for his whereas others didn’t?
Well, that could be down to the fact that all his matches were “cookie cutter” matches. Matches that followed the same basic formula that we grew accustomed to, and to the older fanbase, that translated into dislike, but for the kids in attendance, this was like seeing a real-life Superhero right before their eyes. The guy that fights back from adversity to win and “save the day”.
So, this led me to ask people “Why do you think so many fans hated on him?”
Again, an obvious trail of thought is that he was effectively “rammed down our throats”, but what we have to remember is that WWE is a business, and therefore keeping your main attraction on top brings in the money through merchandise sales, ticket sales, and even sponsorship. Can any of us honestly say if we were in that position, we would have done anything different? The old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly seems to apply here.
For the hardcore, older fans, sure, John Cena being on top didn’t appeal, but to the hundreds of thousands of children who were influenced by his mantra of “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” and “Never Give Up”, these translated into positive life lessons and reinforcement of core values that children can, at times, be sadly lacking in these days. Hardcore fans may not agree with it, but that’s the reality.
Another theme that cropped up was that “It’s cool to rag on Cena”, indicating that, over time, booing Cena was just accepted as the norm, to the point where it became a point of endearment almost, much in the same way everyone chants “You Suck” at Kurt Angle. It’s cool to be part of the crowd all doing the same thing, whether you believe it or not. Others pointed to the fact that he is, essentially, a hypocrite now that he is “part time”, going back on his word to never do such a thing when he was feuding with The Rock and calling him out for the same thing.
But I believe there is another angle to that particular argument. John Cena has become something of a Hollywood star, and that gives credibility to the wrestling industry as a result. Whenever he is on TV, people know who John Cena is, and where he came from, and if they like him in the films, there is an increased chance they then may tune into or reconnect with wrestling as a by-product of that. Whilst he may be “part time” now in an in-ring capacity, he is still flying the flag for the WWE on a daily basis, a torch that was, essentially, passed to him by The Rock.
A lot of the people I spoke to are worried that John Cena coming in and getting a Universal Championship match at Summerslam means a record seventeenth title for the leader of the Cenation, and whilst that is a possibility, let’s not forget that Cena did the right thing on the way out with the United States title, by giving opportunities via his “Open Challenge”. So many superstars got a chance to step up and gain some rub from him in those matches.
Personally, I see it going a different way at Summerslam.
Roman Reigns is Vince’s guy now. He has been for a long time, and in many ways had a similar early career trajectory to John Cena, in terms of crowd reaction and response. Roman went from beloved to hated almost overnight, as John Cena did too, but he has emerged from it to go on the best run of his career.
Why is that? Simple. He turned heel.
That’s the lesson that has been learned, WWE capitalised on that hatred and turned Roman into the biggest heel they have going for them, and people are eating it up! Going into Wrestlemania this year, Roman Reigns was only behind rapper Bad Bunny in the top merchandise sellers list, and given that Bad Bunny has a list of awards longer than Ric Flair’s Championship record, it's easy to see why he shifted so much merchandise. Had WWE taken the same approach with Cena, it may have had the same effect, certainly in terms of crowd reaction. But its dollar signs that they are predominantly interested in, and at the time, turning your biggest merchandise seller heel was tantamount to business suicide. In the years since, people's attitudes towards heels has shifted dramatically, which has allowed WWE to take that gamble and turn Reigns heel, and still have him be the cash cow they wanted.
But going into Summerslam, John Cena, arguably the WWE’s biggest babyface since the 80s, possibly ever, facing off against the tyrannical, manipulative Roman Reigns, is not only a huge money match, but also, in terms of storyline, a massive opportunity to make Roman Reigns an even bigger heel.
If Reigns beats Cena, in front of a capacity crowd, he has beaten arguably the biggest star in the WWE. The rub that Reigns would get from that would transform him, and whoever then goes on to beat him for the title, will become the new biggest babyface that WWE have, just by association. In that respect, John Cena would, once again, be doing the WWE a massive service.
So, is Cena coming back a good thing? It’s hard to say conclusively. I personally have never had a problem with John Cena, and whilst I believe he will get that seventeenth World Title, I don’t believe it is coming at Summerslam. There are many good points, and also many bad to this equation, but ultimately, it will be the fans who decide if his return is to be celebrated or denigrated. If this is the only time that John Cena gets cheered in his career going forward, it will once again be in service to giving WWE the opportunity to capitalise on his name, and to pass the torch onto a new name to carry the brand forward in the years to come.
Say what you will about John Cena, but, love him or hate him, he will always be a big part of the WWE.