(I’ve written a few columns this year for some other online sources and now I’m making those available here, so you might have already read this or it’s subject might be dated. If you’ve already read it: THANKS! If you haven’t: here you go!)
To be regarded as “the top guy” in the wrestling business is something all wrestlers aspire but few actually achieve. In the ring, the wrestler must be charismatic to both adults and children, possess the gift of gab, and be technically proficient enough to have good matches with competitors of all shapes, sizes, and skill sets. Outside the ring, they must be able to carry the weight of being the ultimate brand ambassador and able to withstand the additional scrutiny that comes with heightened visibility and expectation.
John Cena carried that weight for the better part of 15 years for WWE. Night after night, day after day, Cena worked tirelessly to live up to the expectations thrust on him as WWE’s standard bearer. Appearance after appearance, charity event after charity event, town after town, all over the world, John Cena came to epitomize what WWE is as a company, both inside and outside the squared circle.
Young Cena shifted his persona to reflect his status. Gone were the chains and hip hop lyric insults. No more rap albums or edgy promos.
Just hustle, loyalty, and respect.
The new Cena wore brightly colored shirts to appeal to his younger fans. He kept the jorts, but they became less baggy. He learned Mandarin, so that he could speak to his fans in China. Super Cena even re-invented himself somewhat in the ring, learning some new tricks along the way to mix in among his infamous “Five Moves of Doom” in order to have more exciting matches with new, younger opponents. Cena evolved and it paid off handsomely for WWE and Cena.
But Father Time is undefeated and the tastes of wrestling fans change.
Physically, Cena is fit as ever. He has stayed relatively injury free throughout his career and his commitment to maintaining himself has clearly benefitted him. But his youthful looks are trending toward middle age and there is now a bald spot struggling to be masked by even the most closely cropped fade.
More troublingly, fan patience with and interest in the Cena character has waned. The former 50/50 “Let’s go Cena/Cena sucks” chants skew far more negative. Time off to make WWE financed movies that served as expanded marketing ventures was once ok because fans loved to see Cena in action movies like “The Marine”. Today, fans question his commitment to the WWE and deride him as a part timer who only comes back to WWE to promote his films, shade a younger Cena once threw at the Rock.
While the clearest path back to relevance seems to be Cena finally giving in and turning heel a la Hulk Hogan 20 years ago when he found himself in a similar place, Mr Make-A-Wish has refused. As a result, Cena’s position at the center of the WWE Universe has drifted.
Consider his last 3 WM appearances: an injury limited appearance at WM32; a WM33 appearance hinged on completing a storyline from his girlfriend Nikki Bella’s reality show by finally giving in and asking her to marry him in the ring after their match with The Miz and Maryse; and at WM34, a 3 minute squash match loss vs the seemingly retired Undertaker. The Undertaker match felt especially weird in that it left everyone confused as to what exactly the point was of the build which featured Cena seeming less like a tough guy calling a reluctant opponent out but more like an entitled, petulant child whose parent won’t get him the toy he so desperately wants.
Cena’s spotlight, one that burned brightly and only for him, has dimmed.
So what does Cena do?
He works. He hustles.
But this time it’s the fans who are being hustled and worked, with no respect for the fans intelligence to be found.
To the surprise of no one paying attention, Cena and Nikki announced on April 11 that they would not be getting married in a matter of weeks as planned. This announcement came just 6 days after a promo for the upcoming season of “Total Bellas” teased that there was trouble in paradise and also before the release of Cena’s movie “Blockers”. All of it happened so quickly and so seemingly coordinated that not even the most cynical of fans began to wonder if something was afoot.
Still, a certain contingent of fans immediately threw around phrases like “this is heartbreaking”, “poor Nikki”, and “we must respect them during this difficult time” because “this is real life stuff, not wrestling stuff”.
In light of all that has occurred since, I’m going to go ahead and tell the Bella Army that they need to stand down, because they all just got WORKED along with the rest of the WWE Universe.
Three weeks later, it’s even more clear that the probability of all this being a work is closer to the truth than not, despite consistent denials otherwise. As the premiere of “Total Bellas” drew near, Nikki released a heartfelt vlog, makeupless and emotionally drained. Cena then made a few statements in interviews claiming he still loves Nikki and always will. Cena upped the ante when during an appearance on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda, John stated that “I still love Nicole, I still would love to marry Nicole, I still would love to have a family with Nicole”. Later, during a red carpet interview on Extra, Nikki would be informed of Cena’s comments and reply with an unconvincing “Wow. I’m speechless.”
Nikki might be speechless, but I’m not.
This is garbage.
Furthermore, neither is a skilled enough actor to convince me that any of this was ever real.
While I am absolutely in favor of personal, real life situations being kept out of the wrestling realm, all of this has taken place very publicly in front of the WWE Universe. Everything that has been presented for consumption within the confines of WWE produced television is subject to criticism and speculation. Anyone saying otherwise is engaging with the product on a level that makes me uncomfortable.
Fans were right to question the entire Cena/Nikki engagement from the beginning. Cena had long portrayed himself both on “Total Divas” and “Total Bellas” and, most tellingly, IN REAL LIFE as someone who’d rather set all of his cars on fire than subject himself to marriage again or children. I think John Cena’s nightmare’s all begin with him finding himself on the set of “Maury” with the host hanging on the verdict of whether or not he is a father.
So why the change? Certainly not for love, but instead for the love of one’s self and the spotlight. Plucking at the heartstrings of easily manipulated fans landed Cena a heavily promoted spot at last year’s Wrestlemania, so mission accomplished. Maybe a breakup will pop “Total Bellas” ratings and help push along those pesky contract negotiations with NBCU. Heck, maybe Nikki can even sell some more Birdie Bee product by playing the clueless girl one more time!
Either way, the warm spotlight Cena loves and has come to crave so much returns.
There is a famous line uttered in an equally famous scene by forgotten and delusional starlet Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) in the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” that comes to mind when I consider where John Cena is now and what track he seems to be willing to take in effort to return to the spotlight.
In my mind’s eye, I can see today’s Cena backstage at RAW, the Cena who continues to stick with the jorts and bright tees because that’s what his fans used to love, the Cena with a fuller bump card and less full hairline, the Cena who apparently traded loyalty and respect for notoriety and a paycheck. He marches with purpose down the hallway, flings the door to the room where creative meets to discuss upcoming storylines open and announces to Vince and everyone inside: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr McMahon.”
Thanks for reading!