Back in its late-'90s heyday, the WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) rose to great mainstream popularity due, in large part, to its embracing an edgier tone for its brand of wrestling programming. The exact beginning of this period, known commonly as the “Attitude Era,” is often disputed, and is credited to a few different personalities, but they share similar qualities.
Back in the mid-'90s, Shawn Michaels was a reviled bad guy, hated for his brash cockiness, despite his tremendous in-ring ability. By the late-'90s, however, Michaels was loved by fans around the world for the very obnoxious behavior that fueled the audience’s hatred not long beforehand.
In fact, Michaels upped the ante at this point with the formation of Degeneration X, a loud, immature, anti-establishment stable consisting of himself, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Chyna and Ravishing Rick Rude. The celebration of antics typically reserved for villains was a turning point in sports entertainment.
Around the same time, up-and-coming wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was rising in the ranks. This in-your-face, irreverent, foul-mouthed performer was the ultimate heel, breaking into Brian Pillman’s home and attempting to attack a wheelchair-bound Bret Hart, who was among the most beloved wrestlers of the decade.
Fans despised Austin, until a match between him and Hart at Wrestlemania 13. Hart won the match after beating Austin to a bloody pulp and locking him in the Sharpshooter submission hold. Rather than admit defeat by verbally giving up, Austin passed out from the pain in a pool of his own blood.
This gutsy showing, plus a post-match beatdown by Hart, drew admiration and sympathy from the audience, and Austin became an instant fan-favorite, despite the fact that he did not alter his character.
Michaels and Austin, without a doubt two of the most popular stars in the history of the business, changed the game by making bad guys cool enough to be cheered as good guys.
The creation of the anti-hero in professional wrestling blurred the lines between what had always been a black-and-white separation of heroes and villains inside the squared circle. Some fans continued to hate Michaels and Austin, while the majority loved them.
It was new, it was different and it worked.
Today, the WWE is back to more family-friendly fare, opting for a TV-PG approach to programming instead of the teens-and-above demographic they sought in the past. The result has been the return to stock “good guys” and “bad guys” and a lack of innovation.
Older fans, who have watched the product since the similarly themed '80s which featured over-the-top heroes like Hulk Hogan, have been there and done that, and they prefer the edgier feel of the Attitude Era.
The only star in the business who could be considered an anti-hero is Randy Orton, who was once booed for punting opponents in the head, putting them out of action for months, and is now cheered for no discernible reason other than once facing wrestlers whom the fans detested even more.
He still engages in the same behavior, but now, the crowd loves him. He fits the Austin mold in this regard, but he lacks the charisma and personality of “Stone Cold.”
Dolph Ziggler bears many similarities to Michaels, but is still a heel, despite more and more fans appreciating his work. Time will tell if he follows in the Heartbreak Kid's footsteps with a full-on face turn.
Should John Cena turn heel?
The most egregious example of the blandness of the WWE’s current product is John Cena. When Cena rose to popularity, he was a thuggish, rapping bad guy who taunted his opponents through rhyming promos that were typically vulgar and often pretty funny.
Once the WWE decided to capitalize on his rising popularity by turning him into a good guy, Cena lost the rapping gimmick that gave him personality and appeal, and began using slogans such as “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect,” as if he was trying to deliver lessons to the youngsters watching him in the stands and on television.
It worked, as kids started to love the guy, buying up Cena merchandise like crazy. Older fans weren’t buying it, though, as this new persona never rang true, and the more WWE pushed Cena and his watered-down personality, the more it irritated the more mature segment of the audience.
These days, it’s hard to watch a Cena match without hearing children chanting “Let’s Go Cena!” followed by deeper voices in the crowd yelling “Cena Sucks!” Cena has acknowledged drawing the ire of many fans and responds by saying he loves any reaction he gets, and the fans have the right to chant whatever they want at him.
At one point last year, the WWE embraced the Cena haters and even started selling Cena Sucks shirts at live events. The more the controversy Cena builds, the more fans believe he will be forced to ultimately turn on his supporters.
Wrestlemania 29 would have been a logical time for that to happen. Cena was playing the part of desperate underdog who needed to beat The Rock to prove something to himself.
This echoed the circumstances surrounding The Rock's match with Austin at Wrestlemania 17, where Austin "needed" to win, and opted to enlist the help of the villainous Mr. McMahon to win by any means necessary.
Mark my words, a Cena heel turn will not happen any time soon.
Cena and WWE have a gold mine here, why would they change this? Right now, they have a loyal audience of kids buying Cena apparel in droves, and there’s a rabid anti-Cena base willing to spend money on Cena-bashing shirts and providing energy at live events.
Turn Cena heel and what happens? The kids stop buying, and either the older fans buy into “bad-Cena” and support him, or they continue to dislike him, and the WWE loses so much merchandising potential all for the sake of changing what’s clearly working for them.
By staying the course, WWE has either inadvertently or brilliantly created the anti-villain—a character who acts like a good guy, but is reviled for those actions. Yes, there are those who still love him, just like there were those who hated Austin at the height of his popularity, but the hardcore audience can’t stand him.
Instead of catering to those older fans and changing his annoying personality, Cena just amps it up even more, baiting his detractors.
Say what you will about Cena’s believability in the ring or on the mic. Everyone pays attention when the guy’s on, whether they’re cheering for him to come out on top, chanting for his destruction or just wishing for something—anything—different. It’s genius, it’s different and it works.
Will this ultimately lead to a surge in popularity like the Attitude Era? Not a chance. Cena is not nearly as gifted in the ring as Michaels or even Austin, and he simply is not a compelling personality like they were or like Duane “The Rock” Johnson was and still is.
But by having Cena overstay his welcome in the spotlight for as long he has, WWE has potentially lengthened his ability to stick around longer than anyone would have thought.
Negativity toward Cena reached a fever pitch at Wrestlemania 29 and Raw the following night. No surprise here, as the New York and New Jersey fans notoriously hate Cena and other bland faces.
Typically, when Cena wrestles, half the crown yells, "Let's go Cena!" while the other half yells, "Cena sucks!" At Wrestlemania, you could only hear the latter. When Cena set up for one of his signature moves, 80,000 people booed in unison.
At Raw the next day, Cena opened the show by addressing the crowd. Within minutes, a thunderous chant of "Boring" broke out, followed by a chorus of "Same old sh*t!"
The key is that in wrestling, a negative response always beats no response.
Just like the foul-mouthed, rule-breaking Austin drew cheers in the '90s, the clean-cut, smiling champion Cena gets boos today.
Don't look for him to change his tactics until the reactions stop altogether.