The John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt feud has taken an interesting turn in the last couple weeks.
Two weeks ago on Raw, WWE fans were given three choices of opponents for Cena: Luke Harper in a singles match, Harper and Erick Rowan in a handicap match, or Harper, Rowan, and Wyatt in a handicap match where the deck was even more stacked. As WWE tried to explain it, the idea was that you could give Cena a fair match, give him a match where he's at a disadvantage, or give him an even bigger disadvantage in a match where he at least has a shot at Wyatt.
Still, in Cena's promo about the vote, he explained he was trusting the fans not to choose the three-on-one match.
The majority of fans went with the three-on-one match. In spite of the tease that the fans might have to take a calculated risk to give Cena the chance to get his hands on Wyatt, which was heavily played up after the show on Raw Backstage Pass, Cena reacted it as if the fans had just thrown him to the wolves and he was not happy about it, to say the least.
It plays into the ongoing story of Wyatt trying to get Cena to let his dark side take over ahead of a potentially heel turn.
It's not nearly that simple. In the latest edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (behind the F4WOnline.com paywall), it's explained that John Cena is the biggest merchandise seller in WWE and sells five times as much merchandise as Daniel Bryan in second place. Cena turning heel would be reduce his paychecks drastically and could have a domino effect for WWE as a whole. Remember, while Cena comes off fairly unpopular on TV, there are a lot more kids at house shows, where he routinely gets huge babyface pops.
Still, it's possible to make Cena darker without turning him heel. Teenage and young adult males hate him because he has no edge. It's not a matter of babyface vs. heel—he comes off like a squeaky clean, artificial person.
Arguably, it's even worse on Total Divas and in talking-head interviews because he's always overly polished and sounds like he's rehearsed every single word he says. The steady stream of new, brightly-colored t-shirts makes his image too "kiddy."
These problems are fairly easy to solve. Cena is a great off-the-cuff speaker when he allows himself to cut loose, so ask him to cut loose and not always walk on eggshells during his promos. Take his t-shirts in a different direction—even the most ardent Cena haters loved his shirt that was based on the box art for the original Pro Wrestling Nintendo game. It simultaneously appealed to younger and older fans without being gaudy.
Would young adult male fans react better to a John Cena who used blood to get sympathy?
In the ring, Cena being darker is a little bit trickier. Historically, the way promotions got young adult males to cheer babyfaces who pandered to women and children was by having them as hard-nosed tough guys who won bloody brawls in the ring. Whether it was Tommy Rich in the late '70s or The Fabulous Ones in the early '80s, it was a huge benefit to teenybopper good guys that they had a variety of ways to come off as tough guys. Fans turning on Shawn Michaels in 1996 can be attributed to the relative lack of matches where he got to look like a tough-fighting champion.
Nowadays, there are less shortcuts. Blood is gone—and with good reason. Even when WWE still used blood, it was usually reserved for Triple H and Shawn Michaels' matches instead of Cena's. It requires careful booking to get Cena over as a real man, not a superhero, who has vulnerabilities and is willing to get his hands dirty to overcome evil. Without blood as the shorthand, a lot more care in the creative and the performances is needed.
More than any other Cena feud, this one needs to be grittier. With there being a cage match involved, I've got my fingers crossed.