Throughout the history of the WWE there have been countless figures that have changed the landscape of professional wresting, both in the ring and out, into the product we have today.
From the days of the AWA, NWA and WWWF to the wars between WWE, WCW and ECW, countless creative minds and colorful performers have molded this form of entertainment into the weekly soap opera we watch on a near religious basis.
From the Von Erichs and Bill Watts, to the McMahons, Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman, there have been numerous entrepreneurs that have helped turn wrestling into the global phenomena that is.
The traditional mat wrestling styles of Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Curt Henning and Jack Brisco were carried on by the likes of Bret Hart, Dean Malenko, Kurt Angle and a “Crippling” force from Canada who we can no longer name.
The brutal beat-down styles of Dick Murdoch and Harley Race found new life in the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and John “Bradshaw” Layfield.
The colorful personalities of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair were manifested in the likes of The Rock and Hulk Hogan.
For every Andre the Giant, there is a Big Show that has taken his place.
For every Brooklyn Brawler, we find a Santino Marella waiting in the wings.
Every generation has had a giant, and every generation has had a jobber.
Factions have run rampant throughout history, and they have helped groom some of the brightest stars of their days; The Four Horsemen evolved into Evolution, and the Hart Foundation was rivaled by DX.
One of wrestling’s most despised figures, Rowdy Roddy Piper, eventually became one of it’s most beloved, whereas one of wrestling’s most beloved, Edge, ultimately became one of the industry’s most despised.
Where Sting worked to become the franchise in WCW, going from the colorful charismatic character he was to the dark black and white figure we now know, he was met by a young tag-team specialist who reinvented himself as the “Heartbreak Kid” and became one of the greatest performers in wrestling history.
The cocky and arrogant poses of Rick Rude into his mirror have become the cold and calculating poses of Randy Orton.
Wrestling has had a wealth of characters, that much is certain.
Throughout history there have been a couple superstars who have transcended their generation, and are primarily responsible for where wrestling is today.
Ric Flair created a new dynamic in pro wrestling which helped turn the sport from a black and white match, to a colorful and charismatic form of entertainment.
Hulk Hogan, who is widely credited as the primary reason wrestling is what it is, took the sport to heights that were previously unthinkable. Hulk Hogan not only transcended his generation, he transcended his sport; Hogan is primarily responsible for wrestling entering the mainstream media.
Wrestling is what it is now because of two figures that dominated the 90’s and early 2000’s. That, of course, would be Stone Cold and The Rock.
The attitude era made wrestling “cool” again for many fans that seemed to have grown out of the “drink your milk and eat your vitamins” stage.
Everyone wanted to flip off their boss, have catch-phrases that involved “insert your name here” 3:16 quotes, call a friend a “Jabroni” and “layeth the smacketh down” on a “roodie-poo candy-ass”.
With DX raiding arenas in a tank, The Rock and Stone Cold captivating crowds across America and Vince McMahon becoming the world’s most hated boss, the attitude era had arrived.
With the days of Austin and The Rock well behind us, it was time for this generation’s superstar to step forward.
Wrestling was made, brought to where it is and now needed someone to carry it into the future.
That individual came to the forefront by slapping Kurt Angle across his face, and signifying his arrival.
Love him, or hate him, John Cena is the individual that has, and will continue to, carry wrestling into the future.
Success in the world of pro-wrestling is based on three factors:
1) In-ring ability
3) Generating a fan reaction
Few people in history possess all three of these measures for success. In fact, the four greatest performers in history, using this criteria, would be Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle and the Rock.
They are, and were, rare breeds of the total package.
Typically, if you have charisma you are going to generate a fan reaction, and these two matter most, which is none more evident than in the cases of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold and yes, Ric Flair.
With Hogan and Austin you got nearly the same thing night in and night out. Punches, kicks, clothesline and leg drop or stunner respectively, highlighted their offensive arsenal.
Until Hogan “Hulked-up”, or Austin hit a “Lou Thez press”, they would typically spend most of the match exchanging blows or absorbing punishment.
With Flair, he was more technically sound yes, but countless matches were highlighted by him getting beat to a crimson pulp, then pulling out a win, by any means necessary, right at the end.
***As a brief note, I’m fully aware that Flair’s in-ring ability was limited after his plane wreck, and by no means do I attempt to discredit his accomplishments. Flair is, and will always be, rightfully deserving of his place in history. He is one of the greatest performers in history and every bit deserving of his 16 World Titles, he did earn the monicker of “Dirtiest player in the game” for a reason though, and was better at absorbing, as opposed to dishing out, punishment.
What these three men had, that individuals such as Shelton Benjamin and John Morrison lack, is the ability to control the emotions of a crowd as if they were their very own.
They had “it”, and that is something you can’t teach.
The primary reason for Cena’s rise to the top is based on him having “it” as well.
No superstar this side of The Rock has ever generated so much emotion, from both ends of the spectrum, as John Cena.
Watch and listen to the crowd during his matches. Fans are rarely sitting, and chants of “Let’s go Cena” are promptly answered with “Cena Sucks”.
Vince McMahon has been quoted as saying that it’s all about audience participation; that is what makes or breaks a superstar. No superstar generates as much excitement amongst the fans as the current World Champ.
Again, love him or hate him, it is impossible to deny his ability to generate a frenzy amongst the masses when his music hits.
Something else, that would go overlooked unless you had someone point it out, is the unparalleled public speaking skills of the champ.
One thing that made Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair so good was that they were flawless on the mic; you never heard them stutter, pause to correct themselves, or repeat themselves.
These two individuals spoke so fluently, and with so much emotion, that you were never deviated from becoming immersed with what they were saying.
The Rock and Austin were close, granted both ad-libbed much of what they did, but often stalled by repeating themselves to draw upon what was said.
Cena not only speaks fluently, but he speaks with emotion and clarity. When trying to pull someone into a story, as well as a speech, nothing is more important; believe me when I say that, as I know from first hand experience.
While not too many people will argue with the charisma of John Cena, it is often his in-ring ability that is called into question.
Common criticisms include:
“He does the same moves every match.”
“He’s just a big strong guy that would be nothing without his muscles.”
“He’s always hurt then gets a second rush of energy out of nowhere.”
There are many others, but most criticisms revolve around these three in principal.
By no means am I here to say that John Cena is on par with Kurt Angle, Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart. What I will say, however, is that his in-ring ability is very comparable to that of The Rock.
When chants of “you can’t wrestle” began to echo from the masses, Cena added the STF to his arsenal; by comparison, what makes this so different from The Rock and the sharpshooter?
When criticism rang out that, that was not enough, Cena added a leg-drop off the top to try and calm the masses.
I could fill this page with a list of comparisons ranging from “The People’s Elbow” to “The Five-Knuckle Shuffle”, but that would be a bit redundant.
Fact remains that few superstars possess as wide an array of moves as Cena, and pound for pound there is no one outside of Mark Henry that can equal his ability to generate memories based on strength.
If Hulk Hogan will forever be immortalized by his body slam of Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III, then you can surely expect that John Cena’s FU of the Big Show, with Edge on the Big Show’s back (near 750 pounds of human), will be a memory that we see in every WrestleMania promo from here on out.
As for doing the same moves every match…well…I hate to be the bearer of bad news for the critics, but every wrestler does the same moves every match; that kind of defeats that argument right there as every wrestler perfects a certain unique array of moves that separates them from everyone else.
The one thing that I remain critical on is that yes, Cena does pop up with his series of shoulder blocks a bit fast, but in the end, this barely differs from Austin’s “Lou Thez press”, punch, punch, kick, stunner finish.
Of course, if that is not enough, just watch five HBK matches from his “nip-up” and on. You’ll notice a striking similarity.
In the end, every wrestler is virtually the same in principal.
Superstars perfect specific moves, and utilize them to the best of their abilities. It is their ability on the mic that separates them from everyone else.
Cena may never reach the same status as Flair, Hogan, The Rock or Stone Cold, but he is the biggest superstar of this current generation, and his place in history has been set in stone.
While his change from hoodlum white-rapper to family-friendly hero has cost him fans in this era of scandalous attitude, the nay-sayers are going to need to do a bit more than just say “he can’t wrestle”.
Based on the criteria, I’d venture to say that if he refines his in-ring ability to sell a story just a bit better, Cena will go down as one of those rare total-packages that will one day find a place in the WWE Hall of Fame based on what he did for wrestling, and the level that he looks to be taking it.