John Cena's Best Potential Feuds Upon Return to WWE SmackDown Live
Since the dawn of the WWE Brand Extension in July 2016, John Cena has served as a cornerstone of SmackDown Live, yet he has been far from the focal point of the program. This has allowed him to elevate several stars from AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose and The Miz.
However, Cena has spent the better part of the last year off WWE TV exploring other endeavors, including hosting television shows and acting in movies. His most recent run saw him capture his historic sixteenth WWE Championship and propose to his girlfriend Nikki Bella at WrestleMania before taking another hiatus.
As of now, no return date is set in stone for Cena, but he could be back at any point within the next few months. Although the SmackDown scene has been able to support itself without him, he will be an excellent addition to the roster once he returns.
In fact, the landscape of the blue brand has changed quite a bit since Cena was last seen at WrestleMania. Not only is Randy Orton the new WWE champion, Kevin Owens has brought the United States Championship over to Tuesday nights and the Superstar Shake-up resulted in a number of notable names coming to SmackDown.
Whether he rekindles rivalries or creates new ones, the self-proclaimed "face that runs the place" has a handful of fresh feuds and compelling characters awaiting him upon coming back to the blue brand.
Baron Corbin has carved quite the path of destruction in his 10 months as a SmackDown Live Superstar. In that time, he has stacked up several victories versus the likes of Dolph Ziggler, Kalisto and Dean Ambrose, among others.
These days, he has a bone to pick with Sami Zayn after being suspended for roughing up a referee on Talking Smack two weeks ago. Once that rivalry runs its course, Corbin would be an excellent adversary for a returning John Cena.
There is little doubt that Corbin is a future main event player on Tuesday nights, especially in the absence of Bray Wyatt and The Miz. Thus, who better for him to gain experience against than a 16-time world champion?
Cena and Corbin have crossed paths only once in singles competition, that being on the January 10 edition of SmackDown Live. The bout was far from an instant classic, but Corbin had a strong enough showing to prove he could hang with a competitor the caliber of Cena.
Before ultimately challenging Randy Orton for the WWE Championship down the road, Corbin running through Cena and beating him at least once would certainly cement him as a star on the rise.
After undergoing a much-needed heel turn at the onset of 2017, Dolph Ziggler has been stuck in something of a purgatory in recent months. His seemingly never-ending feud with Apollo Crews and Kalisto didn't do him any favors, and his latest rivalry with Shinsuke Nakamura hasn't exactly been lighting the world on fire.
That said, Ziggler's passionate promo on the May 9 edition of SmackDown when he ripped into the fans was shades of when he was at his peak as a heel in 2012. In fact, it was around that time that Ziggler was on the verge of super stardom in his storyline with John Cena.
Lest we forget Ziggler owns a victory over Cena in the main event of a pay-per-view, but you would never know that based off how he has been portrayed in the last few years. He needs a high-profile program to get him back to an elite level, and perhaps rekindling his rivalry with Cena would accomplish that.
If nothing else, we know their matches would be nothing short of spectacular considering their chemistry as opponents. It would a fine way to bring Cena back into the fold in having him face off with someone he knows fairly well.
At this stage of his career, Ziggler likely won't be winning any more major matches, but a feud with Cena would at least lead him to returning to the limelight one final time on the blue brand and finding his footing as a heel again.
Speaking of Superstars John Cena has history with, few competitors in WWE right now know him as well as Kevin Owens. Granted, their 2015 rivalry lasted all of two months, but it was among the best work Cena has done in his entire career, both promo-wise and from an in-ring standpoint.
Cena was the first person Owens set his sights on when he arrived on the WWE scene almost exactly two years ago, and targeting the top dog did wonders for Owens. He went on to beat the face that runs the place in his debut match on the main roster in clean fashion at Elimination Chamber and never looked back.
Aside from humiliating Cena, the one goal Owens never accomplished over the course of that rivalry was beating him for the United States Championship. It wouldn't be until WrestleMania 33 that the Prizefighter would finally clinch the star-spangled prize, having since proclaimed himself the new "Face of America."
Cena had a career year in 2015 as United States champion, and instead of contending for the WWE Championship once he returns, going back after the belt he helped bring importance to would only be logical. After all, he unquestionably would have a thing or two to say about the way Owens has been representing the United States as its champion.
This time around, it would be Cena in chase mode, potentially culminating in another epic encounter between the two at August's SummerSlam pay-per-view. The U.S. title already feels like the most prestigious prize on SmackDown at the moment, and having Cena vie for the gold would further solidify that.
Earlier this year, pitting John Cena in a rivalry with Jinder Mahal would have sounded like a laughable idea on paper, but the last month has been quite kind to SmackDown Live's latest acquisition.
In a mere matter of weeks, Mahal has become the No. 1 contender to the WWE Championship at Backlash, beaten Sami Zayn and pinned Randy Orton in tag team action. That's an incredible upgrade over what he was previously doing on Raw as Rusev's right-hand man, to say the least.
When all is said and done, there is a decent chance Mahal walks out of Chicago next Sunday as the new WWE champion. If he does, there will be a target on his back, and Cena would without a doubt want a shot at the strap.
Even if it wasn't over the title, a Cena vs. Mahal feud would at the very least be a refreshing change of pace for both competitors. Mahal has quickly proved to be more credible than most fans ever thought possible, and having him take SmackDown's top talent to the limit has helped him come across as a viable threat to the main event scene.
If WWE is indeed all in on Mahal as a main event player, placing him in a program with Cena could be the best thing for him. The chances of him scoring a victory versus the 16-time world champion on pay-per-view are slim to none, of course, but it would be a fresh feud that would allow Mahal to continue building momentum against an established star.
It was fairly evident from the moment Shinsuke Nakamura debuted on SmackDown Live two days removed from WrestleMania 33 that he was destined to be a major star. Before even speaking a single word, he was already one of the blue brand's most beloved babyfaces.
WWE made the wise decision to hold off on his in-ring debut on the main roster until next Sunday's Backlash pay-per-view, where he will face Dolph Ziggler. It isn't often that happens with the current crop of talent, so that alone is an indicator officials should have grand plans for him going forward.
If he is ever going to breakthrough to the main event scene, however, he first needs to beat the best SmackDown has to offer. He followed that formula in NXT when he went up against Sami Zayn, Austin Aries and Finn Balor before capturing the NXT Championship, and it is imperative his path to the top of the Tuesday night program is no different.
Needless to say, Nakamura vs. John Cena is a dream match waiting to happen, and there is bound to be electricity in the air when they inevitably share the same ring together. That is a marquee match worthy of being held at an event such as SummerSlam or even WrestleMania, and it wouldn't need a world title on the line in order to feel special.
The feud writes itself with Nakamura being the hot newcomer on SmackDown and Cena proclaiming he is the face that runs the place and that all aspiring athletes must go through him. Whether it be immediately upon Cena's return to the ring or a little later down the line, this eventual rivalry is guaranteed to be great.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is a digital journalism major at Endicott College. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.