As much as John Cena insists that the future goes through him and that he's no part-time wrestler, his actions indicate otherwise.
These days, Big Match John has a low-key presence on SmackDown Live. He wrestles tag matches almost exclusively. He talks more than he fights. His 16th world title reign came and went with little fanfare. There was no new new T-shirt to mark the occasion.
It's all indicative of what smarks have been hoping for, for years: John Cena is winding things down. He's making the jump to Hollywood, and he's doing it incrementally rather than waiting for the perfect, big-budget project. He's hosting American Grit. He's making cameo appearances in movies like Trainwreck. He's hosting awards shows. He's hosting Saturday Night Live.
What do all of these gigs have in common? They're low-stakes, difficult-to-fail ventures that exist to reframe John Cena in the minds of audiences as a comedic actor. Cena has been with WWE for so long—much longer than Dwayne Johnson—that his identity is going to be that much harder to shake. But he's doing it, albeit slowly, and he's going about it in the right way—by building the bedrock of a Hollywood career that will last rather than trying to land a single, massive payday.
Meanwhile, WWE is learning to live without its former top guy, and that makes Cena's latest storyline with The Miz engrossing. Rather than attacking Cena as a character, Miz is attacking Cena as a performer, digging into various backstage dramas that blur the line between work and shoot. Accusations of favoritism. Stories of politicking behind the scenes. Crossovers with Total Divas storylines. It's lurid, it's dishy and it's a sign that the creative team is tapped.
The writers have mined every possible angle and storyline out of Cena. The only thing left to do is to go meta—ask who John Cena is—and ask why he matters, if he indeed still does.
Cena's formidable shadow hangs over WWE. He's beaten every person in the company, and it's difficult for a new wrestler to get over when the bar is set so high. No one can replace Superman. But Cena has gone from superhero to mortal in a short amount of time. He's not perfect. And Miz has made that clear, week after week, with new dirt and more sullying allegations.
"Kill your idols," the saying goes, and that's what WWE is doing. In order for the company to move past Cena, it must deconstruct and destroy his myth.
Scott Woods @moxleyministry
That Miz promo about Cena & Nikki last week on #TalkingSmack was brilliant #SDLive2017-3-15 09:13:46
Cena is complicit in this effort. At one time, he would have shrugged off Miz's insults like mosquitoes, conceded to the criticism and preached his undying values of hustle, loyalty and respect. But something different is happening this time. Cena, for the first time since his Thuganomics days, is dishing back the dirt every time he gets it.
Like in the above promo, in which he eviscerates The Miz by breaking a longstanding, unspoken rule in professional wrestling: When cutting a promo, praise your opponent in some manner, even as you're insulting him. Fans want to see and believe in a competitive fight.
Instead, despite being the babyface in the feud, Cena minimizes his opponent's ability and legitimacy: "If I was really this black-arts manipulator...this close to WrestleMania, you think I'd be standing in a ring toe-to-toe with YOU? I'd be standing face-to-face with Undertaker!"
Cena also dug back into Miz's MTV days to find the cruelest insults possible. Again, this is Cena as a mortal rather than as a corporate symbol and uber-clean boy scout for the kids. No one ever said that killing an idol was going to be easy.
The WWE Universe may never get the heel Cena it has been dying to see. But this new, more vulnerable Cena, with his pettiness, quicker temper and below-the-belt insults, might be the next-best thing.