A Balanced Story of the Ultimate Pariah: John Cena
Last week, Dan Power wrote an article on this website asking the question, “why is there so much hate for John Cena.” You can find it here:
While I consider his article to be well-written, one that I felt inspired to comment on a couple times, I felt that it was a bit defensive and didn’t capture enough of the timeline that we need to analyze to see exactly how Cena got to this point. It provided great arguments against many of the IWC’s criticisms of John Cena The Character, but in order to fairly ask “why do we hate him,” we need to first ask “how did he get here.”
I was there to see Cena start in WWE, rise to meteoric heights, and fall out of respect, and often times, I’m a good person to give a balanced view of a situation. Keep in mind, this is in no way a Cena rationalization, nor is it a condemnation. It’s a statement of the facts with a pinch of my opinion thrown in.
Here’s how his career pans out for me. Let me know if you agree or disagree.
June 26, 2002: Debut match on Smackdown
I've included video links with these slides, and hopefully the entirety of the YouTube community hasn't posted videos violating copyrights so you can check them out. Nostalgic for the older folks, interesting history for the younger:
Here we see John Cena as a no-music having, no-name rookie who wanted to wrestle with the big dogs, and what metaphorically bigger a dog than Kurt “I won two Olympic gold medals with a broken freakin’ neck” Angle. Everyone watching Smackdown that night had to be rooting for Cena, as we all love to see someone we don’t know upset a huge name like Kurt. This was during the days when Vinny Mac was encouraging “ruthless aggression,” as seen in the video, and John really sold it. His moves were intense, the energy never left his face. He really gave it his all!
In the end, Cena lost, but by his look and gestures, the amount of near-falls, the back and forth nature of the match, everyone knew…Cena almost had him, and we desperately wanted to see them go again so he could have another shot at it. I forget exactly how many matches Cena had after this one (and WWE historians, feel free to comment to fill in the holes), but from what I remember, many of his subsequent matches were with more top rate pros that barely squeaked by, Cena giving them the same look that says, “I’ll get you next time, don’t worry.”
Birth of Thuganomics leads to the Big Face turn
Who could forget that ill-fated Halloween? Cena dressed up as Vanilla Ice, and like many entertainers getting a taste of a medium outside of their comfort zone, Cena ran with it, his new first/only gimmick in the WWE became that of a rapper. For those that recall, this was close to the time that Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor spent their time as Too Cool. I think their gimmick was supposed to be that they were in a boy band, though they definitely came off as old school rap to me. Regardless, Cena’s acting like a heel whiteboy wannabe piqued my interest, as he was at least being hard musically the way you should be, instead of with flashy outfits. His appearance was extremely down-to-earth…basketball jersey, hi-top sneakers, jean shorts, basically what I wear on weekends. At first, his raps were considered largely lame (I’ve never rapped, by the way), but like any good turn, it comes out of nowhere.
As seen here, Cena began rapping about heels like the Full Blooded Italians (to which I did not take offense), using comedy to make fun of them, and after a while of further struggling, capturing the US Title, and even taking on Undertaker to give him that extra oomph, Cena became beloved and respected for his direct, face to face approach when dealing with opponents and challenges. His budding music career may have started badly, but as a character, he was no longer a buster with used up rhymes. He was a clever cartoon, dressed in throwback jerseys and baseball hats. He didn’t need an album or titles to gain respect with wrestling fans. He had it because of one thing…he taunted other wrestlers and backed it up when he needed to.
Thus, when he blinged out the US Title…we weren’t that offended. He was appreciated enough to do it, no problem…but it would still create a precedent.
Feud with JBL and how much bling is too much?
Cena’s battle with John Bradshaw Layfield was crucial in cementing this guy in one of the top spots in WWE. JBL, even during his time as a member of the Blackjacks, was always a huge, big brawler, with a smashmouth style, pummeling guys down left and right. When he changed his gimmick to the Wallstreet superstar, changed his typical attire to nice suits and entered arenas in his bull-horned limousine—not to mention holding the longest WWE Title reign in recent history (before Cena would break it) and doing it almost entirely in thanks to interference, run-ins, and shady tactics—fans needed a hero to take the guy down. Thankfully, we had John Cena, a man who went against JBL’s old soul. A man who appreciated the relevance of things youngsters enjoy, like rap music and the vernacular. With as many victories as JBL had, with as much ring experience as JBL had, and as invincible and unstoppable JBL was, we had faith that John Cena could prevail.
And sure enough, he did.
Once again, as part of his standing gimmick, he decided to add bling to the WWE Championship Title belt, changing its look to what we know it to be today (even though it no longer spins). Here’s a video of him revealing it on Smackdown, and making a fool of JBL with meat in the process:
Jericho Fired, History Made Right, and The Edge Era Begins
June 6, 2005. Cena gets drafted, along with his WWE Title, to the Raw Brand. Just two months later, during Eric Bischoff’s time as General Manager of Monday Night Raw, and in a slight nod to the Attitude Era when Stone Cold was hounding Vince McMahon, Bischoff’s biggest foe was the foul-mouthed, rap rebel John Cena. This is another crucial rivalry where we see a relatable man of the people, a reasonably average man of the people, feuding with a powerful authority entity like a General Manager. Eric’s strongest weapon against Cena? Chris Jericho. On August 22, Cena shocked the world by defeating Jericho in a You’re Fired match, causing Jericho to be off wrestling TV for quite some time and taking a popular heel away from the fans to either boo or root for.
Another notable date to remember, in the rise of Cena…
November 27, 2005. Survivor Series, featuring the WWE Title match, in fact, a rematch from the past…John Cena, the champion, vs. Kurt Angle, the challenger. Times certainly had changed in only three years, top dog was suddenly not so on-top, and a new face was taking over. Even with Angle’s current buddy, Daivari, as the special guest referee, John Cena still managed to win. Again…
Now, some time before this, Edge had won the Money in the Bank contract, and on January 8, 2006 came New Year’s Revolution, where John Cena would successfully defend his WWE Title in an Elimination Chamber, but right after the cage was raised, he would lose it to the man who would cash in his contract…the man who would become known as the Ultimate Opportunist for such tactics…Edge.
Adam Copeland’s real significance in Cena’s becoming a pariah wasn’t here, however, as Cena quickly won the title back, however it would be seen later after a few other important moments…such as…
ECW One Night Stand Shocker: Cena Booed!
June 11, 2006. Extreme Championship Wrestling sees its (ahem…first) rebirth at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of images of old school ECW, but from what I saw of how Hammerstein was set up, it was very reminiscent of the old feel of the ECW Arena. This is the start of where John Cena’s credibility would really get put under the microscope. He goes from arena to arena, receiving whole crowds worth of cheers and adoration. People loved him…
He then goes to New York and competes in ECW, where it’s believed that real hardcore wrestling fans would tell the real story...he’s jeered and spit on.
With help from Edge, RVD won the WWE Title away from Cena that night, but from that moment on, Cena would go to arenas where half would cheer him, half would boo him. The rift between fans would start here, and get subsequently worse. That July would see Edge win the WWE Title back in a triple threat match with Cena and RVD, thus pitting Edge and Cena back at war for the belt.
Keep in mind a few factors at this point. One, as you saw in the video, Cena saluted on his way to the ring. Four months after One Night Stand, October 2006, would see the release of The Marine, the first of many films Cena would shoot…DURING his regular schedule of wrestling. Other wrestlers in the past would drop a championship and take a little time off TV to shoot a movie. Cena was on TV solidly during most of the shooting. Two, John Cena’s rapping during all this? Part of what made him stand out? Part of what got him over? Part of what made him beloved? Slowly taking a backseat and slowly getting faded out.
Edge’s Rise and Umaga’s Fall
These are points that I’ve found to be severely lacking when it comes to discussing Cena, but are fairly significant. His rivalry with Edge was what further put Cena into the position of being the goody-two-shoes many see him as today. Edge was continuing to live up to his nickname, the Ultimate Opportunist, and was defending his WWE Title in as many shady ways as he and Lita could come up with. He was the exact opposite of Cena, as all of Cena’s wins had been decisive, fair, and not underhanded in the slightest. Cena being Edge’s biggest threat to lose the title, and Cena having overcome incredible odds to win the title himself numerous times, it seemed pretty obvious that Cena would win with little trouble. But Edge would slither out of trouble almost every time. Unable to escape any further at Unforgiven, September 2006, Cena defeated Edge in one of the matches he’s known for making famous today, a TLC match.
After that, their feud fizzled for the time being, as Edge made the shocking move in joining with Randy Orton to claim the Tag Team titles, over which they would feud with DX during their reunion. Though, more on that later…
Cena was quickly becoming well-known for carrying his trademark belt (even though it just so happened that he needed to be WWE Champ to hold it), even going so far as returning the physical belt to HIS spinner form after Edge decided he would make the spinner his own during his previous reign as champion. The odds were stacking against Cena more and more, to the point of seeing no possibility of him winning another match.
Enter WWE’s answer to the Samoan Submission Machine…the more tribal and incoherent version of TNA’s Joe…
Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumaga! After quite a few squash matches, he proved his worth and really got that big push by commentators as having a coveted…undefeated streak. Like many before him with such a record, the question remained of who would unseat him and end his path of destruction. Many came along, many fell. But enter John Cena to save the day. Umaga challenged Cena to a WWE Championship match at New Year’s Revolution ’07, and with Cena retaining, it would mark the end of Umaga’s undefeated streak, and the end of his biggest push.
So, if we calculate things up…Cena, by this time, had gotten Jericho fired, put JBL in his place, made peace with what started his career on WWE TV by finally defeating Kurt Angle, and caused the talented Samoan Bulldozer, who could likely have had a much more successful career before his death had he not been pit against Cena, to lose his steam. Cena had arrived, years ago…to say his push was continuing at this point in time, was a severe understatement.
Like I said, DX fought Rated RKO at New Year’s Revolution ’07, their title match ending in a no-contest, but not only would that particular feud not last, DX wouldn’t last either. More on that later…
The Downward Slope to Wrestlemania 26
Now things get a little faster…little more complicated. First, check out this video, definitely takes me back…
October 1, 2007. During a Raw match with Ken Kennedy, John Cena’s title reign and destruction of everything around him came to a screeching halt as he suffered a real injury during a hip toss and had to have surgery, thus causing him to be stripped of the title on the next night’s airing of ECW by Vince McMahon. See 1 minute and 30 seconds in…
January 27, 2008. This Royal Rumble match marked John Cena’s surprising return, being likely the first ever #30 entrant (or at least one of the very very few) to go on to win the Royal Rumble and earn a championship match at Wrestlemania. Another huge first for him, and another coveted accolade attributed to Cena where others likely would not have gotten over the hump. While he did not reclaim the title at the next No Way Out PPV (where he was somehow allowed to “cash in” his Royal Rumble win), nor at Wrestlemania 24 (where he was somehow placed back into the match that he didn’t have a right to be in), for an entire year he would trade various championships with the likes of Randy Orton, Batista, and Sheamus in a long string of matches, most of which were fairly unremarkable.
While all this is going on, in the background was Edge, in a similarly parallel career path, also traded various top titles with the likes of Undertaker, CM Punk, Jeff Hardy, and Triple H. And Edge also suffered from injuries numerous times, causing him to be stripped of at least one title at one time. While both were proving each other polar opposites in personality and style, Cena keeping true to honor while Edge was aligning himself with La Familia (Chavo, Vickie, and the Edge-Head lookalikes…former Major Brothers turned into Hawk and Ryder, which would later become Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder), both befell similar fates and were taken out of the game for a short period, only to make returns that drew major pops.
Point I’m trying to make is…while Edge had been out of the picture, to offer fans the opposite of what Cena had become, Cena had to carry more of the spotlight on his shoulders and thus, be more of the star and hero.
And when further stars are taken out of the picture, it gets even worse…
DX Reunion Tour Ends with Royal Rumble Hopes
Like this slide implies, even if Cena’s character evolution at the top of the ladder was slowing without us realizing, due to his constantly chasing after the top title, losing it and regaining it and losing it again and regaining it again, at least we had the likes of Triple H and Shawn Michaels to keep Raw entertaining. It was an easy situation to glance over as DX was continuing their antics while giving us great matches…
While many will speculate that DX’s reunion wasn’t nearly the over-the-top, raunchy run that the original DX had, at the very least, it was still providing funny moments, silly promos, and lots of laughs. Say what you want about DX-Rebooted, I’ll never forget the “Vince loves c*ck” sketch and the McMahons getting crap dumped on them after Shawn and Hunter dressed up like Shane and Vince. Here’s another video, split into two parts!
Eventually this, too, would end, as both Hunter and Shawn were entrants in Royal Rumble 2008 and 2010. We saw the two founding members of our favorite faction take separate roads in the days leading up to the pre-big-dance. The possibility of another title reign sparkled in both their faces, and the laughter had come to an end. Hunter and Shawn took (what I thought to be) a hiatus from DX, making me figure that after Royal Rumble, they’d be back together, but it wasn’t to be. In 2008, Shawn eliminated the Undertaker, which would begin a deep obsession with the dead man, and in 2010, Shawn would eliminate his brother in green, Triple H, during the Royal Rumble match, putting chances of DX coming back back together on the rocks.
And on the biggest stage of them all...where everything should have changed…
HBK is retired, Mysterio escapes SES, and Cena is Champ again!
March 28, 2010. Many storylines in WWE have certain ways they could have gone. By this period, in Cena’s case, his time of stagnation was slowly coming together, but it only would be after a number of key elements Tetris’ed themselves into place. For instance…
Sometimes when a heated rivalry between two stars really gets to a breaking point, one of them says to the other that they’re going to have a wager during a match. If I win, blah blah blah, if you win, blah blah blah. The rivalry between CM Punk, savior and leader of the Straight Edge Society, and Smackdown’s babyface, Rey Mysterio is a perfect example of this dynamic. The chemistry between Rey and Punk was perfect, Punk was great as an altruistic villain, goading Rey evilly while getting him to heal his life as part of the SES, and with Rey’s association with Eddie Guerrero and rumors of his own substance abuse, it was all looking to go a certain, perfect way. The two of them had two key matches in which, if Punk won, Rey would join the SES. Rey won the first match, which tends to be somewhat normal, as I said, gives the fans hope that he escaped something dire. However, Wrestlemania is known for major changes, not just good ones, but also many bad ones.
Simply put, storyline-wise, Mysterio should have lost that match to keep him interesting. He did not.
My guess? It’s due in part to Shawn Michaels’ retirement. As I said, Wrestlemania brings about huge changes, it’s a show that’s known for changing the entire landscape of WWE programming, at least until the next one rolls around. But Wrestlemania 26? It not only saw the loss of a future Hall of Famer in HBK (shocking, though, had to have been amazing to watch live), two things needed to happen in order to lift fans’ spirits.
Mysterio and Cena needed to win. And they both did. Additionally, Mysterio’s win not only caused the little guy to be put in the same exact spot on Smackdown that John Cena holds on Raw, but it is a huge example of the lack of risk being taken by WWE Creative. Along with this…
Edge returns as a face…then a heel...now what the hell is he?
Cena’s return at Royal Rumble 2008 was his most memorable, being a surprise entrant at #30 and the subsequent winner, while Edge’s similarly stunning return at Royal Rumble 2010 as #29 was just as memorable, especially since Edge has spent most of his career a heel and the majority of Royal Rumble winners are either faces on their way towards a major push, or super hero stars like Austin, Rock, Lesnar, Batista, Undertaker or Mysterio.
For Edge to come out to cheers was amazing to learn, and to watch him return to being a friend to the fans, riling them into chanting for Spears, really took me back to the days of E&C. It was great to see Edge smiling and having a good time, as opposed to his typical demeanor of being a conniving, sneaky, cheater. A lot of people said that Edge as a face wasn’t working, and maybe I’m a simple guy, but I was pretty entertained. I liked the change a lot. However, as I pointed out, Edge being the Ultimate Opportunist gave fans the alternative from Cena’s honor and Never Give Up attitude.
So, he fought Christian and went back to being a heel. Then he joined Team WWE, and he was cheered again. Now, he’s still fighting Nexus AND Cena and now I can’t put my finger on what he is, but regardless, he’s no longer a unique character in Cena’s way. He no longer solely represents everything that Cena isn’t, reminding us of what a really crummy heel can be if they strive and fight and think! Right now, he’s merely another competitor in a sea of competitors, not really making any waves in any direction…
Triple H still out with an injury
April 25, 2010. Coming off of an Extreme Rules loss to Sheamus, Triple H was attacked on Raw. Originally, I thought it was from Sheamus’ kick, and then I read it had to do with an aggravated arm injury and due to surgery and recovery, Hunter is looking at a late 2010, possibly 2011 return. While WWE will still be going by the time he gets back, his absence is still placing more emphasis on Cena. Many also speculate that Triple H needs to make a heel turn and that he’s weak as a face, again, I disagree. His promos are still more topical and clever than Cena’s, and his smile is still cocky even if he’s not pegging himself a king anymore. This isn’t immediately assuming that Cena isn’t interesting, as I rather enjoyed his picking apart of the Nexus on last week’s Raw. However, the fact still remains…
We are truly saturated with John Cena. Despite his being out a number of different times on injuries, we’ve been overburdened with John Cena dominating the title game, the main storyline game, coming out with yet another new movie in Legendary…everything is about John Cena. And unfortunately, we’re at a point where John Cena is so emphasized, I find it hard for WWE to just “bring him back to the mid cards” all casual and make it look like they did it on purpose.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard for me to picture Raw without John Cena appearing at either the beginning or the end or both of a Monday Night broadcast. Although, this past Monday's Raw did have him taking on Miz around the middle of the show, so maybe it can happen. Of course, Cena did appear at the end, so maybe nothing’s changed at all.
This isn’t to say it can’t happen, but I think they need something new to occur, something huge. Could it involve Nexus? Probably. Even with Skip Sheffield injured, and Darren Young exiled (from Nexus, not necessarily from WWE), I believe they still present a threat, and that by culling the herd, they’ll bring in stronger allies. Many have speculated those stronger allies will come in the form of NXT Season 2 rookies. They could, but I don’t want that to be the precedent that’s set, that everyone from NXT just appears in Nexus as new allies…maybe unless Nexus makes threats and orders it, that would be interesting. They speak with the new GM or Vince that NXT will not be used to find the new WWE breakout star, but new Nexus recruits, and they made it very clear. That’s another thing the NWO didn’t have…their own hour long program. The younger guys could definitely get some better pushes, too.
The Future? Don't ask...
All in all, we’ll have to see, but hopefully this sheds some light on where John Cena has gone and how he got here. His raps disappeared, his focus has been solely on the WWE and World Heavyweight Titles, his best feuds are relegated to who has a top belt, his outfits went from regionally relevant throwback jerseys to being literally COVERED in up to five pieces of John Cena purchasable merch (hat, shirt, arm bands, wrist bands, and occasionally the chain, which he doesn’t do anymore because it was too reminiscent of his days as a rapper), and even many of his matches with co-pros can be classified as squash matches.
However, let’s be honest in the other direction. In the past, John has proven to us that he’s extremely valuable an employee, a tremendous actor (I’m talking in the ring, I haven’t seen any of his movies, though I imagine in his movies…he plays John Cena) and if Creative utilizes him better in the future, we could see a major rise of popular stars, new faces, and even some old ones rising to new heights. JBL (and now Ric Flair) call themselves Wrestling Gods. Well, looking at John Cena’s record, he could easily say the same thing. While The Miz has been complaining about being passed over by Cena to be part of Team WWE at Summerslam, Cena’s own character certainly lends a lot to wanting the overarching respect HE feels he deserves, and has a resume that tells the story of a guy who earned many titles and accolades, only to receive lukewarm responses from fans and be turned into an internet pariah.
WWE fans…keep the faith, ;-)
Thanks for reading...
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