Squared Circle Soliloquy 4.20.14: Volume 1, Number 2: The Difference
Posted by Wyatt Beougher on 04.20.2014
John Cena recently discussed the WWE's inability to create new stars, but is he a part of that problem? 411's Wyatt Beougher examines...
Introduction: Wow. Last week's reader response was somewhat surprising to me, in that so many people apparently didn't read the whole column because I had the audacity to suggest that the Hogan/Rock/Austin segment could have been moved to the pre-show in favor of the tag title match. I guess watching so many UFC PPV pre-shows has altered my perspective, but the last thing before the actual show starts has traditionally been Dana White and Joe Rogan yelling about how awesome the PPV is going to be. That's basically what the three legends did to start the PPV (minus most of the yelling, obviously), and I felt like at that point, it was pretty much a wasted effort, because people had already purchased either the WWE Network or the PPV itself. A couple of readers pointed out the fact that it was great to see the WWE's three biggest stars on the thirtieth Wrestlemania as a nod to the past, and I cannot disagree with that. Another reader commented that the WWE will not really show signs of change until they make the Intercontinental and United States championships important as well, and I guess I would slot myself into that group, where I would like to see all of their secondary titles be treated with importance, including the tag titles, which, in theory, should be the second-most important belts in the company, as the highest accomplishment a tag team can aspire to.
At any rate, I apologize to anyone my opinion might have offended, and if you have found your way back here this week, I would like to thank you for the second chance, though my opinion this week is very likely going to be even less popular. Bear with me, though, as this is the first part of a three-part examination of why the WWE seems to continuously fail to build new stars, and the second and third parts should be significantly less controversial. And, just for clarification purposes, I am not actively trying to be controversial, just admitting that my opinion is probably not one that is shared with the majority of wrestling fans.
Squared Circle Soliloquy: The Difference
Premise: Over the past decade, the WWE has simultaneously lamented their inability to create new stars while repeatedly pressing the panic button and slotting John Cena back into the top of the card at the first sign of a ratings decline. Not only is this counterproductive to their future, it also hurts them in the present. Squared Circle Soliloquy presents a multi-part series examining the issues facing the WWE as they try to create new stars, with this installment looking specifically at Cena's role in that failure, however inadvertent it might be.
History: John Cena won his first heavyweight championship in the WWE at Wrestlemania 21 on April 3rd, 2005. Over the past nine years, he has received an unparalleled push and has unsurprisingly become the WWE's top-grossing star and biggest pay-per-view draw.
My Take: Cena was fortuitous to come along right at the end of the Attitude Era, as the true stars of that era, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (injuries) and the Rock (a burgeoning movie career), left the WWE, leaving a vacuum of star power that was too great for wrestlers like Triple H, Kurt Angle, and the Undertaker to fill. Cena was part of a crop of wrestlers who had the fortune of debuting at a time when the WWE was in a state of flux - the Invasion angle had largely been lambasted for being poorly booked, but the huge influx of talent from both WCW and ECW caused management to opt for a "Brand Extension", whereby RAW and Smackdown would be treated as separate brands and each brand would have its own wrestlers. This prevented the same core group of superstars from dominated the entirety of the WWE's weekly television hours, which allowed young superstars the opportunity to shine that they might not have otherwise received. The class of WWE debutees in 2002 was an especially strong one, featuring not only John Cena, but also Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, and Batista.
And while Lesnar would enjoy the most early success of the group, he quickly lost interest in the rigors of the travel associated with being a WWE superstar and left the business, flirting with the NFL before moving to the UFC, where he remains the biggest draw in the history of the promotion in spite of fighting only a handful of times. Batista, too, has left the company to flirt with interests outside of the WWE, having won his only MMA fight (which took place on a much smaller scale than Lesnar's) and also appearing in a handful of movies, most notably RZA's love letter to the kung fu genre The Man with the Iron Fists, the third installment of Vin Diesel's Riddick series, and the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe project Guardians of the Galaxy. Orton and Cena have both had movie roles as well, but primarily in films produced and distributed by WWE Films; however, they've also enjoyed more consistent success within the WWE than either Lesnar or Batista, with each man holding both of the WWE's world heavyweight championships on multiple occasions. Which brings us to today - Orton was the first WWE World Heavyweight champion, holding both the WWE Heavyweight Championship that he won at Summerslam in August from Daniel Bryan (who had won the title from Cena only minutes earlier) and the World Heavyweight Championship that he retrieved in a ladder match against Cena in December. Lesnar and Batista have both returned to the company - Lesnar on a part-time basis, Batista on a full time basis - and both were featured prominently in this year's Wrestlemania, with Lesnar ending the Undertaker's undefeated streak and Batista featuring in the main event, a position that he earned by virtue of winning the Royal Rumble. In spite of all that (and essentially being featured in an upper midcard match at the same event), Cena remains the company's most visible and marketable star thanks to his staggering merchandise sales, his popularity with sponsors, and his truly impressive commitment to charity work.
Now before we get into the crux of my argument, let me lay out some caveats:
- I do not hate John Cena as a person or as a performer. I do feel that he's grown stale and the way that he's booked is a significant reason as to why I feel that way. Cena, to me, is pretty much the prototypical "main eventer" that any wrestling company hopes to have on their payroll: handsome and well-built, charming and funny, competent in the ring and capable of being a part of some fantastic matches with the right opponents. Most of all, he's incredibly dedicated to the WWE, which, in the wake of so many stars just leaving the company (Austin, Rock, Lesnar, Batista, Bobby Lashley, to name but a few), I can certainly understand why the WWE would continue to give him the ball.
- I do dislike certain things that John Cena does. His homophobic and/or misogynistic promos, which are coming from someone that a lot of children look up to, the way that he'll brush off opponents verbally and either ruin their character or make them seem insignificant (the most glaring example of this was telling "Mexican playboy" Alberto Del Rio that he doesn't even own the cars that he drove out to the ring, but singing "Margaritaville" to Bray Wyatt a few weeks ago was nearly as bad). As much as it warmed my heart to see Bray completely no-sell Cena's tired Photoshop jokes on Monday, only to come alive when Cena suggested a cage match, I just can't bring myself to believe that Bray's going to come out of this stronger. I cringe every time Cena gets a microphone, because I'm just waiting for the inevitable joke about Bray being a "husky man" or something along those lines, which will bring back the "Hus-ky Har-ris" chants in full effect. Also, the fact that Cena's terrible at selling, which hurts my enjoyment of a match, but honestly, I respect the hell out of him for how many Make-A-Wish requests he handles and for the fact that he seems to very much love the business that has earned him the level of celebrity that he currently possesses.
- In order for this column to make any sense, you have to accept three basic tenets: a) John Cena is a fan of the business and wants to leave it on better terms than when he started in it, b) John Cena is actually concerned by the WWE's inability to create another Superstar that's on his level over the past decade, and c) John Cena has some amount of backstage pull. When Cena appeared on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's podcast, he made some statements that pretty much clarified the second and third points, and the first point is a seemingly widely held belief amongst people in the business.
With the history out of the way and my personal feelings divulged, let's look at the matter at hand: the WWE is at a loss for how to create stars, especially ones on the level of John Cena. While the WWE creative team certainly should receive the lion's share of the blame (and they will, in future installments), I personally think that a significant part of the problem is Cena himself. As it currently stands right now in the WWE, there's a pretty clearly defined hierarchy when it comes to the pecking order of the company. At the very top of the food chain is John Cena, who has lost completely cleanly only a handful of times over the past three or four years. Then you have guys like Orton and Sheamus, who really only lose in multi-man matches, tag matches, or to Cena. I'd place the recently returned Batista into that category as well. From there, you could make the argument that there's another tier that consists of guys like Bryan and the now-departed CM Punk, who can be generally expected to win until they run into anyone who's been previously mentioned. What separates this tier of guys from the previous one though is that they often lose to the next link down the food chain as well, and, even if they do beat the guys on the higher levels, they generally aren't made to look strong enough in doing so that they could actually take the next step and join those guys. (Yes, Bryan won decisively against Cena at Summerslam, and yes, he just beat Evolution at Wrestlemania, but I'm still not comfortable picking him to win against any of those guys going forward, so I'm keeping him in the group that Punk was in for now.) From there, we jump down into the midcard, where guys wrestle each other for fifteen straight shows and just trade wins, never really getting anyone anywhere. Then you have your Khalis and Santinos and 3MBs, comedy characters that really only win against one another (if they win at all).
That was an exceptionally verbose way of me saying that John Cena has been extremely protected by the WWE creative team, and why should he not be? Per a recent report, he's the top merchandise seller at both live events and on the WWE Shop Zone web site, the pay-per-views he missed last fall due to injury had significantly lower buy rates than the ones that he was featured on, and, as recently as last month, he was pulled from live events to appear at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards, so his crossover appeal isn't in question. It is my belief, though, that at this point in his career, Cena is securely established in WWE Canon and this protection just isn't necessary anymore. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it works to the detriment of both Cena and the WWE.
Y'know, you remind me of a championship thoroughbred racehorse, one that's been running for a long, long time. And he races, and he wins, and he wins, and the people, they just cheer for him. But one day, this championship horse, he starts to slow down, and that is when reality sets in. And he finds himself not just looking for the next finish line, he is now sitting somewhere in the back of a barn, laid out on a slab. And when, oh when, will your reality set in, John? - Bray Wyatt, WWE Monday Night RAW, 2014.03.03
In a recent podcast appearance with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin back in February, Cena was asked if he has any kind of backstage pull within the company, to which he more or less revealed that he does have some sort of input as to his character direction and such. In that same interview, Cena also remarked about the WWE's inability to create new stars, though he put a lot of the blame on his fellow Superstars and a lesser measure on Creative. Cena strikes me as both a student and fan of the industry, and also as a man smart enough to make the connection between the way that he's been protected by Creative and that same lack of stars, so why has he not been more outspoken about giving other talent the rub? Now that The Streak has been broken, the biggest accomplishment that a Superstar can aspire to in the current landscape of the WWE is earning a clean victory over John Cena in a singles match (specifically those on the more important PPVs). Even if those wins start happening more frequently, it is not going to cheapen them, at least not for a few more years. And, to be clear, I am not suggesting Cena lose cleanly at every pay-per-view, but three or four times a year, rather than maybe once per year, is hardly going to be the equivalent of putting that racehorse on a slab. Simply put, Cena is going to be a main eventer until he's broken down and/or decides he can't work the schedule anymore, at which point he'll become an "attraction", not unlike the Undertaker.
The above passage that I quoted from Cena's Wrestlemania opponent, Bray Wyatt, highlights the direction that I think Cena's future should traverse - Cena starts losing the big matches that he's always won in the past, and he starts to doubt himself and question his legacy (this part is seemingly already happening, with Cena's "the future of the WWE goes through me" revealing an apparent inability to accept change). There's a multitude of ways that the story can progress from there, all of them far more entertaining than the bulletproof "Super Cena" booking we've seen for the better part of the last decade. Unfortunately, that didn't happen at Wrestlemania, as I mentioned in last week's column. To go back to my pecking order analysis from a few paragraphs back for a moment, Wrestlemania provided exactly the type of contrast between Cena and guys like Daniel Bryan that I was trying to outline; at the Royal Rumble, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan were ejected from ringside during the early goings of Bryan's match with Bray Wyatt. At that point, it seemed fairly obvious that Wyatt would be picking up the win to prove that he could beat a Superstar higher on the food chain than himself without the help of his followers. At Wrestlemania, Rowan and Harper remained at ringside for the duration of the match, and they each made their presence known during the course of the match (with Rowan playing directly into the finish). Unlike the Rumble, though, they were just an excuse for Super Cena to overcome all the odds and beat Wyatt.
Now, I want to take a moment to reflect on Daniel Bryan's career trajectory since losing that match against Bray Wyatt. Prior to the match, he was getting verbally berated and held down by the Authority, and many fans protested that the angle with Wyatt was a demotion to the midcard. Since the Rumble, he's been almost exclusively involved with the Authority, he headlined the Elimination Chamber PPV and was made to look as strong as any competitor in the match, and then he faced the man who is currently the "big bad" of the WWE for an opportunity to compete in the main event WWE World Heavyweight Title match at Wrestlemania. Not only did he win that match cleanly and decisively, he went on to overcome a post-match injury and mid-match interference from Triple H to defeat the other two active members of Evolution and win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Oh, yeah, and there's also the fact that every arena across the country chants Bryan's "Yes" chant until they're blue in the face, that same chant has crossed over to college basketball, and Bryan was honored by his hometown football team, the Seattle Seahawks, after they won the Super Bowl! It is incredibly hard to argue that Bryan's loss to Wyatt at the Royal Rumble had any negative effect on his current standing in the eyes of the fans or to the zeitgeist of popular culture, and he's nowhere near as bulletproof a character as Cena.
Surely Cena has realized that, and ideally, if he's as committed to helping build new stars as he has claimed, he will petition management to allow him to lose more matches cleanly when the possibility of elevating a young Superstar is on the line. Cena has competed at ten Wrestlemanias and he has only a single, clean, one-on-one loss in those ten matches, at the hands of the Rock, the only man even tangentially associated to the WWE who is more popular than Cena and still capable of working a Wrestlemania-caliber match. If a movie star who occasionally returns to the WWE to promote his latest film is deserving of that kind of win, are there not several other full-time Superstars who also deserve that honor? Sure, Wyatt will eventually get his win back, either by actually beating Cena or by forcing Cena to become the monster that Wyatt has painted him as, but a win at the biggest show of the year would have done more for the Bray Wyatt character than at whatever point in the future that it actually does come to pass.
At this point, the only way that I want to see this angle play out is for Bray Wyatt to call Cena out for all of the things that he's done to his opponents over the years (slamming Ryback through the roof of an ambulance, putting Wade Barrett through a stack of chairs and dumping the TLC stage on top of him, choking Umaga out with the ring rope to win a Last Man Standing match, to name but a few), making him out to be even more of a monster than Bray himself. Then, every time that Cena comes out to the ring, Rowan and Harper just absolutely destroy him and leave without giving him time to make his comeback. Bray sells these beatings as him enacting karma for Cena's past misdeeds, and Cena actually starts to buy into it, vowing to beat Wyatt at Extreme Rules without resorting to the kind of violence that Bray has chided him for, even though their match inside the cage would allow it. During the finishing sequence of the match, Bray introduces a chair to proceedings while Cena is trying to climb out of the cage. He swings at Cena, who drops down on top of him and wrests the chair away from him. Wyatt drops to his knees, begging Cena to hit him, and Cena hesitates…
...only to absolutely destroy him with repeated shots from the chair. Cena works over Wyatt's entire body with the chair, taking out Rowan and Harper when they climb into the cage to try to save their leader. He beats Wyatt so badly that the cameras pan to little kids in the crowd, who had been cheering for Cena after the first few shots, but are now looking on in confusion and/or disgust. Cena climbs out of the cage and the official has no choice but to declare him the winner. I think that could be the first truly successful double turn since Austin/Bret, but of course it'll never happen. Cena is too valuable as the ultimate good guy/walking cereal advertisement and it involves way too much simulated violence for the current PG Era of WWE programming. But a guy can dream, right? That would certainly create a new star, plus it would eliminate the biggest complaints the WWE audience has about Cena.
Instead, I would imagine that we will get some tepid culmination of the angle at a throwaway pay-per-view that leaves Wyatt directionless and still in the midcard, while Cena will get shuffled back into the main event, effectively returning us to the same status quo that has failed to create a truly marketable star in the last decade. And that is a shame, because Wyatt has all the qualities that a main event star needs in the WWE today - he is charismatic, he plays his character as well as (if not better than) anyone on the roster, and while his build is not that of the prototypical WWE Superstar, it's perfect for the style of wrestling that he does and I do not believe there is another Superstar on the roster who uses their mass more consistently or more effectively to make every move in their repertoire look more impactful.
It was such a euphoric experience for me to see you out there standing next to "the Immortal" Hulk Hogan. It was almost like I was looking at your future. Can you see yourself in him, John? Two men out there, so self-absorbed - they refuse to just...let it go. - Bray Wyatt, WWE Monday Night RAW, 2014.03.10
Cena, perhaps unfairly, draws a lot of comparisons to Hulk Hogan (and the criticisms that they entail). Yes, they are far and away the biggest stars of their respective eras, they both appeal primarily to small children, they have both had lengthy runs as the all-but-unbeatable babyface, and the basic formula for their matches are very similar (especially the no-selling comeback to win the match), but Cena stands apart from Hogan in two very major ways. One, he is actually a competent wrestler, as I mentioned in my caveats, and while his move set is fairly limited compared to someone like Daniel Bryan or Antonio Cesaro, it is still vastly more diverse than Hogan's was during his reign at the top of the wrestling business. Two, he does not appear to be the same kind of self-serving egoist that Bray Wyatt's quote would have you believe. While the entire point of this column is to question whether or not Cena should be doing more to help the WWE build new stars, the fact remains that any time Cena has been asked to put over another wrestler, he has done so. Hogan, on the other hand, used the creative control clause in his contract to ensure that he and his friends were protected by the booking committees, even when it became a detriment to whichever promotion he was working for. However, is Cena just as guilty as Hogan, for the simple fact that he doesn't seem to flex his creative muscles backstage to benefit the promotion by helping other Superstars to take that next step, instead choosing to put it all on them for not "taking a leap of faith"?
I will leave that up to you, the reader, to decide. Personally? I don't think Cena deserves the same level of vitriol that we reserve for Hogan, because while I obviously feel like he could be doing more to help the WWE create new stars, don't think he has ever gone out of his way to purposely and consciously hold other talent down (not even with calling ADR out about the cars and "Margaritaville" singing), something that Hogan was notorious for. Even if you do lump Cena in with Hogan, just remember that historically, wrestlers like Hogan, who have gained some measure of control over either their own booking or the promotion's and have used that to further their own career rather than helping build the overall business of the promotion, are the rule and not the exception. Remember Kevin Nash breaking Goldberg's undefeated streak in WCW? What about Vern Gagne booking himself as the top star of the AWA from its inception in 1960 until his retirement in 1981 at age 55? Chris Benoit leaving WCW less than a day after winning their heavyweight title because his wife's ex-husband had taken over the booking? There are a myriad of examples, and while some of them aren't particularly bad (Dusty Rhodes during his time as both booker and talent for JCP and WCW), some of them are worse than others (Triple H, the "iron hand that ruled over the Attitude Era", anyone?).
In summation, John Cena has spent the past fifteen years building his legacy, and he has secured his place as one of the most successful professional wrestlers not just of this era, but in WWF/E history. With injuries coming more frequently and his career likely reaching its apex (or possibly even starting to decline), I feel as though it is time Cena becomes more vocal about helping to build new stars. With the influx of talent from NXT and the Performance Center staking their claim on the future, it still comes down to Cena being willing to pass the torch. While I believe that he will not hesitate to do so when the time is right, if he doesn't speak up and continues to allow himself to be booked as the unbeatable "Super Cena" character, when he does finally pass the torch, there won't be another superstar even near his level to pass it to, which draws us back to the Hogan comparisons - Hogan passed the torch to the Ultimate Warrior, but because Hogan had been booked as being so vastly superior to the rest of the WWE roster, Warrior just wasn't as marketable as Hogan had been, and that allowed Hulk the opportunity to regain the title and take another extended run as the most important guy in the promotion.