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Over the better part of the last decade of pro wrestling, John Cena has become a lightening rod of controversy. And not in a positive way. The WWE likes to say on its television programs that he is the “Most polarizing figure in the history of the WWE.” To a degree, that is true, but to a larger degree, it is a complete and utter falsehood.
John Cena, at one point in his career, was probably the hottest babyface in the company. He had a wonderfull edgy character: Thug rapper from the mean streets of West Newbury, Massachusetts. Okay, maybe the hometown sucked (why not alter it to Brockton or Lawrence or Southie?), but the character was a hit with all fans, both of the more markish variety and the trolls on the internet. Indeed, at one point, Cena was WWE’s brightest shining (super)star, commanding the raves of two completely different sorts of fans.
Things, to put it mildly, have certainly changed since Cena’s heyday of 2005-2006. The problem doesn’t lie so much with Cena. He has consistently put on some excellent matches in the years, albeit with a slightly unorthodox style. But it has worked for him. He routinely comes off as insanely charismatic on the mic, even, as is often his style, if he is saying nothing of substance. The problem is two fold, and both could be remedied if Cena stepped up and used what has to be at this point some very powerful backstage clout.
The first is this: The John Cena character sucks right now. The CHARACTER. He either is booked as this invincible superman or a guy who seems to be handled title shot after title shot after title shot after he lost the first half dozen or so. And the reason he gets these is truly detestable, and not a characteristic befitting the top good guy of your company: He whines and complains. When Bret Hart did it in 1997, he became a detestable heel. CM Punk is doing it right now. So why to the WWE (un)creative writers feel that this is in the best interest of the character? It isn’t. To boot, Cena has been booked as so invincible in the past that some up and coming wrestlers cannot get anything on him. Just watch Dolph Ziggler today. Sure, he won his match with Cena at TLC, but it took run-ins galore and a heel turn by a 95 pound woman. How does that, or the fact that Ziggler always loses to Super-Cena in subsequent rematches, help EITHER character? It doesn’t. It gives almost zero sympathy to the face Cena, nor the credibility of the heel, Ziggler, to have Cena dispatch him over, and over, AND OVER again. It doesn’t matter how much Ziggler might control the match or get on offense. Vince McMahon and his drones may have subjected you to their view that wins and losses don’t matter in a fake sport. I’ve got news for you, junior, THEY DO. Most, no. But some near the top of the card matter, and then some. The WWE lost a great deal of popularity in the mid 2000’s simply because they did not elevate new stars enough. For every Brock Lesnar, you had botched runs with Goldberg, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, the Hardy’s, etc etc. For many years, WWE main events revolved around Austin, Rock, Undertaker, HHH, Kane, and almost NOTHING else. And for the line of shit WWE gives you right now about wanting to elevate new guys? Its Orton, Big Show, Cena, Sheamus headlining all the big shows. It needs to be remedied. Would it of killed WWE creative to book Ziggler to even get a fluky win over huge favorite Cena? Of course not. But by now, they are trained monkey’s to the ridiculous dogma of “Tippy Top Guys” the WWE fosters. The mid card is no better, as guys trade wins and losses with eachother every week to the point none of them gain any significant steam. And the WWE points to this and says they aren’t over enough to headline! It is truly a self-fulfilling prophecy wrought with idiosyncrasies and ineptitude. I will admit, they are making an effort, but it seems like a futile one.
So the first problem with Cena is the WWE’s shoddy booking philosophies. That’s out of the way. Let’s get to the larger issue, one hardcore fans have been hinting at for a while. Simply put, Cena needs to turn heel.
This is certainly not a revolutionary statement or anything. Prior to his match with Rock last year at WrestleMania, you would not hear me utter it. But the time seems ripe, right here and right now, and here is my logic.
John Cena has been the top face of the WWE for almost ten years now. That is a fact. Ever since he transformed from a detestable white boy poser to loveable “Doctor of Thuganomics” mega-face to the bland wishy-washy character with no former traces to his old dis-rapping self, he has basically following a very similar career path to that of Hulk Hogan. And with Vince McMahon, old tricks die hard. Hogan’s WWF heyday lasted from January of 1984 until, well, it depends on your own take of the man. As a child, I was the biggest Hogan fan in the world, but his act wore thin with me right around Royal Rumble 1992. His retirement at WrestleMania VIII seemed like a godsend to a young Hogan devotee like myself, as I was free from the shackles of “Hulkamania” and went on to root for wrestlers like Bret Hart and, eventually, Steve Austin and The Rock.
You see, the bigger thing looming here was a young boys coming of age. Hogan retired initially when I was about 12, and Bret Hart, a different breed of wrestler, but yet the exact same style of virtuous babyface, filled my void until those terrible teen years, when the hormones run wild on the body of a young man. That was 1996, and the three men who initially spurred the rebel in this teen? Kevin Nash, Scott Hall…and a freshly repackaged “Hollywood” Hogan, the biggest rebels and coolest heels in all the land.
You see, Cena has been the barometer for the young WWE crowds for years now. Indeed, probably the most popular chant at a WWE event these days revolves around very high pitched male (and female) voices chanting “LETS GO CENA,” while very deep male voices spit “CENA SUCKS.” This same phenomenon happened to Hogan. But Hogan, who had been THE babyface of a generation, was afraid a turn to the dark side of the force would effect his merchandising sales. And, make no mistake, that is a significant chunk of a wrestler’s money intake. Sound familiar? Well, Hogan, after much resistance, decided to turn and become that cool heel. And, you know what? Given the immense popularity of Nash, Hall and Hogan as the newly formed NWO, I would bet dollars to donuts that the NWO shirt was probably the most lucrative piece of merchandise Hogan ever had. I will admit, I eventually moved away from the NWO once Bret Hart ALSO turned heel and formed the Hart Foundation in 1997, and with the ascensions of both “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the Rock, but the fact remains that Hogan, a lily white babyface for most of my formative years, became an adolescent bridge to teen angst and the cool heel of the late nineties.
So lets get back to Cena.
Cena has been toiling, and I mean TOILING as the top babyface of the largest wrestling company in the world for quite some time now. In his tenure as top face, many, MANY men have turned from both the good and dark sides of the force. Batista, Kane, Orton, Jericho, the list is neverending. Cena remains the one guy who could legitimately spark a revolution in the stagnant WWE. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy…some…of what WWE does. Some. But Cena is a tough pill to swallow at this point. I really tried to stop watching with a discerning “smark” eye sometime in 2008, when I realized, at 28, there were infinitely more important things in life than the shell of pro wrestling. But I still watched, and still watch. I just try, operative word here, TRY, to watch it like I did in, say, 1995, when I was not privy to the Internet guys. (IWC is such a horrible term. Worse than “Trending now!”) Watching the last 12 months of WWE action, I feel the time for Cena to turn is RIPE. First off, he is now at that Hogan level of face-dom. He has been Mr. Tippy-Top Smiley-smile for an indeterminate amount of time now. Hogan, when he was still trying to press on as the super duper good guy in WCW, was getting lukewarm, mixed reactions from the crowd. Sounds familiar. WCW had to give out Hogan merchandise to the crowds to provide the illusion of Hogan popularty. Hmm…have you listened to the taped Raw or SmackDown broadcasts lately? Its insufferable the amount of canned heat WWE places in there. I was watching a Brodus Clay-Tensai match a few weeks ago and responses to headlocks in that match sounded like Kane had just sodomized Shane McMahon with a screwdriver. Its BAD. So Cena seems to be, in what I call, The Hogan Zone: Where a face, while still popular with some young kids and females, is actively detested by developing pubescent teenagers and older men. What is THE key demographic in wrestling? Men 18-34. My peak wrestling enjoyment came in 1997 when I was 17. Does Cena attract these demo’s right now? I think not. He attracts a teen beat, WWE Magazine buying crowd. For us now older, the Apter-Mag guys (not a slight on Apter…loved his publications as a kid). Most people knowledgeable on the interweb state that WWE and Cena don’t want to lose their merchandise sales. I cry foul at that. If Cena turned now, and did it at even 50% of the capacity Hogan did it, he would be a MONSTER. The coolest guy in pro wrestling, to a jaded smark like myself, lately, has been Brock Lesnar, and its the little things. Kicking Cena’s hat after F-5ing the everloving shit out of him. That is ANTI ESTABLISHMENT. And in Brock’s limited few WWE appearances, as a HEEL, he has gotten more over with 90% of the audience than any other established WWE face. And that, from crowd reaction to PPV buys, is FACT.
So what is to stop Cena from taking a similar path? Certain people say certain superstars are untouchable in their personas. Were Hogan or Austin? Brock? The Funks? NO. WWE is just hamstrung by one of two things: an unwillingness by creative, or an unwillingness by the performer, Cena, to do the right thing. And this is the right time: Have him turn heel to beat Rock at WrestleMania. The then WWF was foolish enough to do it with the biggest drawing superstar of all time, Steve Austin, IN HIS HOME STATE, in 2001. Why not Cena in a neutral site 12 years later?