Two weeks ago, John Cena returned to SmackDown Live—and right from the onset, something felt different.
Normally there are two versions of John Cena we get in the ring, determined by the kind of feud he’s booked in. The first, most-well known version of Cena is the Cena we get when he’s facing off against a young up-and-comer, a heel who’s on everyone’s radar but Vince McMahon deems too insignificant to notch a win against the Face That Runs The Place: the jokey John Cena who constantly slanders and puts down his opponent and doesn’t take them seriously until they catch him off-guard once. After that, he gets even more slanderous and jokey, and more often than not launches into his usual babyface hero Hustle, Respect, Loyalty script.
The second John Cena is reserved for nemeses that he and McMahon deem serious. You’ve seen it against guys like the Rock and Daniel Bryan—it’s the John Cena that justifies his good-guy alignment by drawing from John Cena, the Face of the WWE, instead of John Cena the Pro Wrestling Babyface. It’s the John Cena that endlessly proves his passion and drive for the business, showing exactly why he’s praiseworthy in the first place. When you face off against this Cena, you know that he’s both taking no shit and taking you seriously. (You’ll also know you’re getting this Cena when he starts talking like a rapper.)
It’s the John Cena we’re getting against AJ Styles who, I should remind you, beat Cena decisively back in the summer on his way to the top of SmackDown.
Somewhere in his passionate promo on this week’s episode, I had a realization: this John Cena—the guy who is both cocky toward people he feels aren’t on his level and loves wrestling enough to “do so much they tell him to stop” because Hustle, Loyalty, Respect—should have been the Cena we got for much of his main event career.
Think about it. The moment he was getting boos from the adult crowd in his first run as WWE Champion, everyone knew the Hulk Hogan archetype of pro wrestling heroes wasn’t gonna work for him. While yes, pro wrestling still needs its Hulk Hogans, its clear-cut good guys to unilaterally conquer the bad guys and bring some hope and instill values in kids around the world, there will always be other people to fill that role. I realize now that it wasn’t impossible for Cena to veer toward being the anti-hero; like he showed this week on SmackDown Live, he could have been both arrogant and a dick but still be hardworking, powered by a solid understanding of his HLR mantra. Like the stereotypical varsity coach who pushed you by showing you the toughest of love.
It’s that kind of fully fleshed-out internalization of a character that guys like CM Punk completely understood and utilized to get fans to fall head over heels in love over them. (I mean, did you hear RAW in Chicago?) One other thing working against Cena was the fans’ internet-enabled knowledge that even though he did things like visit Make-A-Wish kids, he wasn’t exactly the good guy the story always portrayed him to be. It should’ve been a matter of honest self-awareness to just straight up embrace Cena’s mixed reputation.
If Vince McMahon and Creative just threw him that bone, that ability to head toward the middle, to be the guy who does media appearances and grants wishes to sick kids and still gets up to wrestle on the level he wrestles every damn day and make all of that an example for kids to follow, but still be the standoffish gatekeeper to the new blood and be self-aware of that role, we might have saved ourselves almost a decade’s worth of trouble. If peak Cena had only been a combination of Hogan and Triple H, we’d have saved ourselves the stress of debating back and forth on whether Cena truly is a good wrestler (hint: he is, haters in the extreme of the spectrum just refuse to blurt it out loud). The WWE might have found their next Rock long before Cena followed in Dwayne Johnson’s footsteps (something they’re also self-aware about now). It may have been easier to propel the stardoms of contemporaries like Randy Orton and CM Punk, without all the baggage that came with them.
But you know the story. Vince McMahon gets what Vince McMahon wants. I don’t like blaming Cena for always giving us the first version of himself, at least not entirely, because at the end of the day, he’s still a soldier. It’s Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect after all, after all this time. It may be too late, no, moot for Cena, but it’s a lesson they could all remember for the next big thing, whether it’s Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, whoever. – Rappler.com
Do you listen to podcasts? Would you want to listen to a local podcast about pro wrestling? If the answers to those questions – especially that last one – are yes, then you should check out the cleverly-named Smark Gilas-Pilipinas Podcast, featuring Mellow 94.7 DJ and PWR General Manager Stan Sy, wrestling writer and Wrestling God Romeo Moran, and all-around multimedia person and former voice of PWR Raf Camus! This week, Stan and Ro have PWR stars Rederick Mahaba and Jake de Leon over on the first episode of the new year (and New Era) to discuss what exactly went down with “Classical” Bryan Leo!