There is a question that has plagued me since I started watching wrestling again in August of 2011. John Cena: good or bad? In my naivete, I had assumed the answer was simple. John Cena: bad. He’ll never learn more than four moves, he’s been playing variations on the same tired storyline for years, and he doesn’t put younger guys over nearly as much as he should. On paper, he’s the classic example of terrible wrestler; someone who has nothing going for him except an image that makes children want to buy t-shirts. He’s the Hulk Hogan of our time, except Hulk Hogan had Rowdy Roddy Piper to feud with and the good sense to turn heel eventually. Since CM Punk left, Cena has neither.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Hulk Hogan necessarily. For children of the Attitude Era, it’s easy to watch old Hulk matches and decide that dumb ‘80s kids were the sole reason for his success. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but it is important to realize the time he was in. In the 1980s, WWF was the first truly national wrestling federation. For a nation of wrestling fans who had only ever seen regional shows in small, dank performing spaces to suddenly see this insane creature that didn’t look like anybody else and had inhuman regenerative abilities wrestling in Madison Square Garden, it must have been revolutionary. He was a superhero, almost literally. Whatever he was, he was perfect for the time.
The important thing that I had not realized about John Cena is that he is equally perfect for his time. We are no longer in the golden age of wrestling. Nor are we in the Attitude Era. We are in the age of snarks and irony loving hipsters. The rise of the Internet is the biggest change the business has had to contend with since the move to nationalization in the ‘80s and WWE as a whole is only now starting to catch up.
So how does a business that deals in crowd manipulation handle a crowd that won’t be manipulated? You can mix an unprecedented amount of truth into the storyline like CM Punk. Trouble is, that really only works once. Where do you go after the Pipe Bomb?
You could be Paul Heyman, someone so good on the mic that you want to go along with the ride no matter what you know about wrestling, but that doesn’t really address the issue at hand. Paul Heyman is a golden god; you could drop him in the Paleolithic Era and he’d get over with a group of Neanderthals.
Then there’s John Cena. He walks a line that no one else could. Everything does, and I mean EVERYTHING, is perfectly calculated to make the people who love him love him more and the people who hate him hate him more. It’s not just his promos, either (although this promo is great example of that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AusZBl1ztoI). Here’s a little known secret about John Cena: he’s a good wrestler. If you don’t believe me, watch his match with CM Punk at Money in the Bank 2011. Or with Daniel Bryan Summerslam 2013. Hell, even his first Wreslemania match with the Rock was better than you’d expect for a match between SuperCena and Dwayne “Hasn’t Really Wrestled in Over 10 Years” Johnson.
Sure, he could stand to diversify a bit. I regularly think that if I have to sit through one more shoulder block during his matches, I’m going to puke, but when it matters, he puts on a great show. The rest of the time, he’s drawing heat the only way you can these days: wrestling poorly. The fact is, modern wrestling has no place for career heels. If there’s a good heel, the audience gets hip to what they’re doing and doesn’t boo them. When the heels are too over, WWE doesn’t know what to do with them, so it buries them. Or it turns them face and then buries them. It happened to Dolph Ziggler. It happened to Damien Sandow (and it’s probably going to happen to him again). It’s happening to Bo Dallas now. A major heel’s goal is to do two things: make people boo them and get an ass every 18 inches, as Jim Ross once said. A major face’s goal is to do two things: make people cheer and get an ass every 18 inches. Cena does both and neither is any less valid. He gets a reaction and he puts on a show.
People who hate Cena (myself included until recently) like to point out that there is a difference between booing because of effective heel work and booing because they legitimately dislike a wrestler and they’re right. Booing because you legitimately dislike the wrestler is the response the wrestler is supposed to get. People didn’t boo Sgt. Slaughter when he turned because it was a creatively savvy plot twist, they’d booed because he betrayed our country. I am a grown man who is fully aware that wrestling is a planned, staged event and I have spent several years as an anti Cena mark. I love that there is still someone on the company that can do that.
Earlier in this article I compared John Cena to Hulk Hogan. That’s only true on a superficial level. A few weeks ago during a MizTV segment, John Cena and Dean Ambrose joined together to beat on the Miz and when they were done, Cena turned and AA’d Ambrose. Something occurred to me when I watched that. Wreslting loves a rebel. How do you rebel when you come up with a generation of fans raised on sex, violence, and exploitation? You smile a lot, talk about your charity work, and act as the face of the company. An uncompromising idealist, constantly looking to prove his own mettle and unafraid to engage in occasional heel tactics? John Cena is not our Hulk Hogan. He’s our Stone Cold Steve Austin.