— John Cena (@JohnCena) June 30, 2014
Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
John Cena won his 15th world title this past Sunday in a ladder match at Money In The Bank, defeating seven other superstars and shocking exactly zero fucking people. While most fans are sick to goddamn death of seeing Cena in a ring, much less with two championship belts draped casually around his neck, I find something a little comforting in his presence. The man is a hard worker, is generally well-intentioned, and is a legitimate draw in an era where very few superstars really put asses in seats. On the other hand, his character hasn’t evolved in years, his promos are goofy, code switching pandering to the lowest common denominator, and his entire shtick is overcoming odds, despite rarely ever having actual odds to overcome. Imagine a ten year run on Superman where he never runs into a formidable foe, or worse, he meets tons of formidable foes and fells them all with a wry smirk and a self-satisfied sense of triumph.
Yeah, that’s why you can’t hear people cheer “Let’s go, Cena!” without the equal call and response of “Cena sucks!” screamed with the hate and vitriol only diehard nerds are fully capable of sustaining. It’s also why Forbes (yes, actual fucking Forbes) just put out an article questioning the validity of making Cena champ, again. Their findings are a little inconclusive, since it’s dubious to tether financial success to the arbitrary placement of imaginary title belts, but the fact that someone even wrote that study is further fuel for the “do we even NEED Cena anymore?” fire. With guys like Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, and Dean Ambrose getting over like rover, it should be time for another New Generation Era, right?
There are a lot of great new faces making waves in the WWE, but they’re all in various stages of cookiedoughdom. They’ll be ready soon, but if you try to rush the process you get, well, every half baked, overly pushed superstar who’s failed miserably in the last ten years. I firmly believe that in the next few years we’re finally going to live in a WWE Universe with guys like Cesaro and Seth Rollins as fully made “top guys,” but in the interim, a guy like John Cena is necessary to ease along this transition. Don’t buy it? Watch either of Cena’s matches with Cesaro and Seth Rollins, ostensibly throwaway TV matches that blow their competition away while simultaneously cementing both newcomers as future main eventers. Just being in the ring with Cena elevated their profiles and credibility.
John has been the measuring stick for so long that it seems weird to picture a WWE before him, let alone one going forward without him. Brandon Stroud’s excellent Wrestling Hipster column has reminded us of all the reasons there are to despise Cena (there are, well, a lot) but he also reminded me of Cena’s origin. His amazing debut on WWE television.
A complete nobody put in a position to look strong against someone we already believe in? Weird, huh. That’s all it takes, honestly. I mean, that’s not ALL it takes to make a new star, but it’s a big part of it. It isn’t even always about Beating The Man to Be The Man. Sometimes it’s just proving you can go the distance.
Sidebar: Back in the HDNet Era of Ring Of Honor, Seth Rollins (then Tyler Black) was engaged in a thrilling feud with Daniel Bryan (then Bryan Danielson). They had a series of matches where Black just kept coming up short in defeating the firmly established Danielson. Here, however, in losing, he gained prominence. No longer just a metalhead nerd wannabe, here he was, hanging with one of the best in the world. When he finally managed to pin Danielson, it was a triumph, but it wasn’t the end all be all. He’d already been put over in those other matches. The final victory was just an exclamation point on a pretty clear declarative statement, that Tyler Black Had Next.
The problem with John Cena is that he rarely puts anyone over to that degree. I mean, there’s two avenues of thought here. Either Cena lets you pin him clean (Daniel Bryan at Summerslam ’13) and then Swag Draculas your entire steeze for months on end, or he elevates you by association (Dolph Ziggler in the winter of 2012, Bray Wyatt, this entire summer) but continues to beat you mercilessly in the latest volume of John Cena Can’t Lose. It’s a sad state of affairs. I’m still half looking forward to Roman Reigns beating John Cena via roll-up on a taped episode of Raw, only for Cena to come out in a day-glo approximation of The Shield riot gear.
To quote every Mr. Show sketch lampooning informercials, there’s got to be a better way! There is. Are. Several. I have three directions Cena can go in over the next 12 months.
1. The Bret Hart Heel Turn
This is the least likely, but we need to address it. ’90s legend Bret Hart suffered a similar trajectory to Cena heading into the dawn of the Attitude Era. His stoic, good-natured babyfacery got old real quick in a world cohabitated by Steve Austin. Fans got bored of Hart’s nice guy routine and wanted a dude who would kick his boss in the gut on live TV. Hart and Austin made perfect foils, culminating in the infamous double turn at Wrestlemania 13, and Bret got to work as a villain for awhile.
Fans always want to see Cena turn heel, but the best time for that would have been the Summer of Punk, as Cena and CM Punk had a similar relationship to Hart and Austin. Punk transitioning from Chaotic Neutral to Lawful Good while Cena Embraces The Hate would have been fun, but it wouldn’t quite work now. He’s dug his heels too deeply into the “some of y’all like me, some of y’all don’t” rhetoric that him turning on the fans would be hard to buy. That and there’s the old theory that he already is a heel, just one meant to piss off Internet fans, not casual viewers.
2. Old Man Cena
This, to me, makes the most sense. Cena’s a vet now. When he’s not making fart jokes for twelve year olds and pretending to be from the streets, he’s taken to openly telling the younger stars in his promos that he’s here to stay and that the future of the WWE will go through him. I don’t know about you, but Gatekeeper “Get Off My Lawn” John Cena sounds like the best thing ever! “In my day, we didn’t have a fancy performance center. You ran around OVW getting belittled by Jim Cornette until Vince thought you were ready.”
This is what we need. A Cena who firmly believes he knows what’s best for business (since he’s been at the top longer than anyone in the modern era) putting newbies through the paces, being vicious and stiff in the ring and giving into his inner AJPW, lariat-throwing hoss tendencies. You can already see hints of it in that match with Cesaro. Cena asserting that this is still his house while plowing through motherfuckers without remorse is literally all I want from him as a character. That kind of transition would render the need to protect him from losses moot. He wouldn’t be here to win championships and headline shows. He’d be here to test the next generation, a Sphinx riddle wrapped in a Five Knuckle Shuffle, separating the Adam Roses from the Big E’s. Maybe he could have an eyepatch.
3. The 12 Labors of John Cena
If Cena is Superman, then this option, the least realistic, would be All-Star Superman. Earlier this year, Jeffrey Paternostro wrote this amazing piece on Tom Holzerman’s The Wrestling Blog about Japanese promotion Dragon Gate’s 2013. It chronicled CIMA, DG’s enduring Ace, and his last run as their Open The Dream Gate Champion and how his reign was like a swan song of him teaching each of his predecessors how to be the ace of the company. It’s more complex than that (please read that link), but it got me thinking: how cool would it be to see Cena do something similar against WWE’s newest graduating class?
Cena taking one last (probably record breaking) run as champion, defending the gold against younger, hungrier stars, each filling in as a metaphor for the previous foes of his storied career. Rusev essaying the part of Umaga. Luke Harper playing the role of Kane. Dean Ambrose rebooting the CM Punk feud. Cena would remain a babyface, but this would be his Final Act. He wouldn’t retire afterwards, but it’d be the last see of him climbing ladders and pulling down championship belts. The matches wouldn’t be about Cena “overcoming the odds,” but rather providing the spotlight for his future replacements to shine the brightest, much the way Kurt Angle did for him in his debut. One calendar year of main eventing every PPV against a different star, culminating in a “dying King” Cena passing the torch to the next ace, is something I can get behind.
If they’re going to keep putting him in this role, something beautiful may as well come of it.
 Another fun play on this dynamic would be Davey Richards and Kevin Steen’s rivalry in ROH two years ago.
 Dragon Gate has odd names for their championships. Just go with it.