To those who read my last article, WWE Character Psychology 101: Case Study: John Cena, the Quelled Beast Inside, welcome back. To the new faces, a short catch-up.
After John Cena's recent feud with The Rock culminated at WrestleMania 27 (John Cena failing to capture Miz's WWE Championship on his own as the match ended in a double-countout, Rock restarting the match and Rock Bottoming Cena's last remaining shred of hope of taking home the title), it's become blatantly obvious to me that Cena's biggest problem is simple.
It's not his good looks, his charm, his goofy sense of humor or his whimsical nature. It's not even that he's, as many would feel, in desperate need of a heel turn. John's biggest problem is two-fold: 1) the actions he takes and the stances he supports on other competitors no longer demonstrate a human level of anger, emotion or self-control. 2) John Cena's lived this on-screen character for so long that the number of people who honestly believe that he's incapable of playing a bad guy, or even a slightly meaner one, is growing in leaps and bounds.
They feel that his genuine smile, his numerous comedic appearances on various late night talk shows and sketch comedy programs, his active and regular participation in institutions such as Make-A-Wish and his over-arcing vibrancy and casual persona don't lend itself to John's on-screen character changing much, if at all, from who he is currently.
This stigma that follows Cena around, that he's a "natural" babyface and that he wouldn't make sense as a heel, seems to be popular among members of the IWC in regard to many of WWE's stars, past and present. Ultimately, we need to remember: whether a character we see on TV is realistic and true to who the person is in real life, or if it's an entirely fictional persona that's portrayed accurately by the man or woman in question, really doesn't matter as long as we're entertained, right?
IWC, let's be really honest here: how many of us actually know guys like Hulk Hogan, John Cena, Kevin Nash, Big Show, Stone Cold or The Rock personally? All of them have had times at the top as personalities that were cheered and praised, yet how many of us know who they really are behind the scenes? They may be just like the person we see in the ring, they may not.
One thing to keep in mind when analyzing WWE stars is the HUMAN aspect. Characters like Kane and Undertaker are largely influenced by kayfabe supernatural forces, but the majority of WWE's characters are humans: beings just like you and me who feel, love, hate, hurt, desire, seethe, loathe, lust and hunger just like we all do.
Yet, many of them don't follow this simple rule anymore. Many WWE stars act in ways that are either inhuman or just emotionless and nonsensical.
In real life, two people get into a relationship, whether romantic or business, and can stay together long after the love or financial benefits disappear. It does happen, this is true. But you'd think, in a world filled with tensions running high, competition, backstabbing, dog-eat-dog mentalities, golden belts and money on the line, that WWE would address these things much quicker in the storylines they present.
After all, in the real world, two best friends can't get into a bloody knockdown drag-out if they have an argument. They can in WWE.
If you ever have a chance to read any of my books, you'll see that I'm a firm believer in the suspense of drawing out the reveal of a crucial piece of the puzzle or the twist that blows everything out of proportion. But let's be real: teasing a specific outcome is never a nice thing, unless the teaser delivers and delivers HARD!
If this were 10-15 years ago, The Hart Dynasty would've had a couple misunderstandings during matches before getting into a shoving contest, fighting and brawling until a PPV and had a PPV grudge match where one guy would come out the clear victor. After the match was over, they'd either go their separate ways, throw fuel on the fire to make their rivalry even stronger, or they'd make up and be friends again and strengthen their bond.
Did WWE do this in the case of The Hart Dynasty? Not by a long shot. The two of them gave each other sideways glances for months before they finally decided to start screwing each other over in at least three whole matches. It took that long before they actually fought outright, and truthfully, I don't feel like any of us got any real payoff from watching the team dissolve.
They're not feuding anymore, Tyson and Natalya have been appearing sporadically on Superstars and DH is nowhere to be found. The team started out having completely human issues with each other, but took far too long to break up. Not only that, said breakup didn't lead to anything special.
In case you didn't see last Friday's Smackdown, Laycool are on their way to "Couples Therapy." Have you ever heard of anything so ludicrous? They're a pairing in WWE. Either be on the same page or fight. That's what the fans want to see. If we were all rooting for them to stay together, if they'd been a team for some three years or more, I'd say a "couples therapy" angle might be fairly interesting to watch. But for now, all they're doing is pissing each other off and hurting their level of competition.
It's not realistic to what kind of artificial environment we're dealing with here.
Even if there are distinct and significant correlations between a person's on-screen persona and their off-screen candor, even if the real people behind the on-screen characters channel their own inner strengths and voice to play the part convincingly, they are still TWO different people.
John Felix Anthony Cena at home may be 99.999 percent like the John Cena we see in the ring, but they are still TWO different people.
Before I get into CM Punk, allow me to call up an example of another on-screen superstar who proves my point a bit better. Another man who goes by his real life first and last name. Another man who is a popular topic of conversation among the IWC, yet a man whose on-screen and off-screen personas likely couldn't be further apart...
Never technically a formal wrestler on the roster, yet still a former WWE Champion, Vince McMahon is the perfect example of what I'm talking about.
Just about everyone in the IWC, when talking about Vince McMahon, talks about him as if he's actually that demanding, evil, conniving, overblown, egotistical ass we've seen in the ring. You remember him, the guy who claimed he's "the genetic jackhammer," how his "grapefruits" made him "more powerful than God!"
Seriously, IWC, do any of you see him at home flailing his arms and strutting down the hallway, on his way to getting in bed with Linda, just like he struts down the aisle when he makes appearances on Raw and Smackdown? I'm sure you're smart enough to realize the answer is an emphatic no.
Come on, Vince and Linda demanded they get a divorce on WWE programming and SHOCKER they're still legally married. Nothing you see on WWE programming is real, folks, but that doesn't mean it can't be presented in a realistic way.
This isn't to say Vince McMahon is a lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, cute and cuddly romantic who reads Twilight and The Notebook while listening to Jason Mraz when he's at home. But he's not the same guy by any stretch of the imagination!
Has he fired people in the past? Of course. Budgets and business require him to eliminate staff, he signs the paperwork from Human Resources and a bunch of people lose their jobs. But I guarantee you, he doesn't grab a microphone, jump up on the boardroom table and growl, "You're...fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiired." Never met the guy, but I guarantee, that's never happened.
Just like John Cena, Vince McMahon goes by his real name while on TV, the name he was given at birth, but the Vince you see on-screen and the Vince that Shane, Steph and Linda know off-screen, while bearing SOME similarities, are wildly different.
Last time we saw Vince McMahon on Raw, he announced The Rock as Wrestlemania 27's host. He came out, said a few words, thanked everyone and disappeared. The last time we saw his character?
He was berating Bret Hart leading up to Wrestlemania 26, he was wheeling and dealing the Raw GM situation, then took a beatdown from Nexus that led to a kayfabe coma and a comedic bit on Raw featuring Freddy Prinze Jr.
Vince McMahon, during the majority of his most memorable appearances on Raw or Smackdown, has played an unfathomable heel. One of the best the business has had to offer. But just because he plays the part of the big bad boss, does that mean he's a "natural heel?" What about before that?
What about commentator Vince? What about the Vince McMahon that called play-by-play for Monday Night Raw, sitting between Bobby The Brain and Macho Man? What about the Vince that declared, when HBK won the WWE Championship, "The boyhood dream has come true!" What about the Vince that welcomed people to Wrestlemania and conducted interviews in the ring with the biggest stars in the industry?
That Vince was a smiling, appreciative visage and it was just as naturally depicted as any heel persona of his.
Maybe his heel moments were more fun to watch and lended themselves to far more drama, action and intiative on the part of his superstars. Maybe by throwing his power around, McMahon gave every wrestler he ever employed a great counterpart, whether they were a heel who saught to overshadow Vince's evil, or a face who saught to fight him.
Fact is, Vince has just as much good in him as any face in the WWE. He's only considered a "natural heel" because he's the boss and no one likes their boss. There have been a small (and I'm talking small) handful of times when Vince has come out and made a decision for a match to take place that the fans stood up and cheered for. If Vince wanted to play the good guy tonight Live on Raw, he could portray it better than anyone, guaranteed.
But that's because Vince is a talented TV personality. He's a good actor, he's a good portrayer of a character...
So is CM Punk.
There's no doubt this will easily be seen as my second biggest blasphemy next to saying John Cena would be a believable heel, but I'm really not sure CM Punk should be pigeonholed a "natural heel."
Punk's most recent waves were made in three obvious heel moves: leading the Straight Edge Society, moving to Raw commentary, and taking over Nexus. He acted as a sort of cult leader of SES, making his members take the Straight Edge Pledge.
His commentary on Raw consistently favored the heels and made fun of faces. And where they were at the time, there's almost no way CM Punk could come out a face after attacking Cena with a chair twice, then being saluted as Nexus' new number one while Barrett was still recovering from the 2010 TLC PPV.
So clearly, we have a little bit of evidence to suggest Punk plays a halfway decent heel. Understatement to say the least. However, what about when he first started in ECW?
He was marketed as a talented up-and-comer, had people chanting his name regularly, really made a great impact with the crowd. If his face had been painted and he'd been a little more colorful, I could almost have seen a little old school Sting in him. Lots of energy and skill, maybe not as animated as a Kofi Kingston, but precise, focused, fun to watch, impressive and came standard with an impact finisher (the GTS) AND a submission (the Anaconda Vice).
Honestly, when I saw the initial vignettes featuring CM Punk introducing himself and declaring that he was straightedge, I said pretty much the same thing I said when the Alberto Del Rio vignettes came on. "Wow, this is going to go seriously bad."
Not that Punk wasn't going to be entertaining (even though I had next to no hope for Del Rio and was seriously wrong about that). It's just that if Punk was going to declare his straightedge lifestyle, especially in a place like ECW, it was pretty inevitable that the guy was going to get kayfabe made fun of in promos, or he was going to get a big head about his lifestyle.
Eventually, instead of just continuing to tell people that his lifestyle inspires him and keeps him focused, he started telling people exactly what most real life straightedgers DON'T feel: that being straightedge means "I'm better than you."
While CM Punk's lifestyle, on paper, seemed like the absolutely perfect character to market to a PG WWE Universe, they instead went with him selling out his straightedge community and turning into a cult leader of sorts.
So, it's okay for John Cena to be "the perfect man" because "that's who he is," but they can turn a far more talented wrestler, whose real life decision to be straightedge is part of his real life identity, into a gimmick hypocrite? Seems a bit inconsistent to me.
I'm not saying he plays the role badly (on the contrary, he plays a villain spectacularly), but being straightedge is simply a means by which one doesn't numb themselves with substances to endure life's stresses and problems, or on the other side of the coin, heighten their senses with substances in order to enjoy themselves.
The disbanding of SES and his move to Raw, his injury and his subsequent seat at the commentary booth, along with his taking the leadership role in Nexus, all saw his specifically straightedge promotion get placed to the side. Yes, he's still referred to as the Straight Edge Savior by many (me included), but it represents much less of his gimmick than it once did.
Who knows? Maybe his morphing into different roles was a way to take spotlight off his being straightedge in some way? He still has "straightedge" tattooed on his stomach, comes to the ring with X's on his hand-bandages and little red dots on his palms, seemingly signifying Stigmata. Hard to escape an association like that if he still has all that going for him.
Though, I guess if enough time passed, people might forget to look at his stomach and forget what the X's mean. It's possible. The WWE Universe has forgotten more important details than that, most certainly. But just because CM Punk plays a good villain, does that mean we can never see him as a face ever again?
Along with the human aspect, another factor I want to shine light on when examining these superstars is the Seven Deadly Sins. It sounds silly, but we should always take into account how many of the Seven Deadly Sins a wrestling character has either given in to or fought to tell just how far they've come.
In many cases, a good fraction of such sins deal in one simple thing: temptation. A person can give in to the temptation to take money that isn't theirs, to eat more than their fill, to long for something someone else has, to find themselves more beautiful than any being on the planet, to engage in sexual practices that are thrown at them even though the partner in question is taken or married, etc.
John Cena's a squeaky clean boy because he's used his superpowers to defeat temptation. When he was a member of Nexus, he could've helped the group be dominant out of pride, been a co-leader with Barrett and no one would've been able to stop them. But he didn't. He could've stayed a member of Nexus because he didn't want to fight anymore and just let the grunts protect him out of sloth. But he didn't.
CM Punk's straightedge gimmick was, initially, all about fighting temptations: the temptations to be a sexual deviant, the temptations to get hammered and high, the temptations to blast his head with chemicals in order to see the world from every angle. Fighting all that off in the name of being clean. Fighting all that off so that people could see who he really was. CM Punk's temptation to keep himself safe with Nexus goons and SES goons, however, his temptation to use his greed for power to be a dominant force, is it possible that these things could go away someday?
After all, power is just as much a drug as heroin, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, and NyQuil. In fact, it's worse.
His addiction to power could be the final straw. He led SES to failure, he got injured, he took over Nexus and has largely led Nexus to failure as well. Where he's going, now that he's lost to Orton at WrestleMania and lost again in last week's Raw's "Wrestlemania Revenge" tag match, isn't clear, but what is clear is that he's at something of a low point, at least as far as his win-loss record is concerned.
What if he were to join another heel group, or another heel group was to bring him on, not as a leader or a top member, but as a grunt. He sees how the new leader bosses people around and finally makes the connection. He's able to see through window both ways. He's able to see parts of himself in his new guide and realizes his error.
He claims to be straightedge, and yet he's been addicted to power for years. In one fell swoop, after taking down everyone in the stable with carefully placed martial arts strikes?
One GTS could set him back on the right track and turn him face almost instantly.
Then again, Punk's focus is solely on getting justice for Orton's punt at Unforgiven 2008, leading to Punk needing to vacate the World Heavyweight Championship. None of us can honestly say that Orton hasn't been looking a teeny bit more "heelish" these days.
Punk pointed out a completely fair and honest wrong that Orton has committed against him, and instead of being the goody goody face and apologizing, not only did he say he should've kicked Punk harder, but he eliminated his friends in Nexus and put them all off TV indefinitely.
Randy's not like Austin. Austin is a fun-loving Texan that has a good time raising hell and drinking beer for the fans. Orton is a sadistic, mean, psychopath, and although that can be marketed in such a way to make him a face, Orton's looking more and more to be in the heel role in his feud with Punk with each passing week.
If Orton were to diverted slightly from his feud with Punk and go full-on heel, and Punk were to continue pursuing justice through defeating Orton? Would that not show a certain amount of honor to help put Punk slightly more on the side of right?
After all, Punk doesn't have to be the same goody goody that Cena is in order to be a cheered face. He just has to stand up for getting cheated, to defend him successfully and cleanly. For Punk to defeat a newly reborn heel Orton cleanly would not only further their feud and lead to them having more great matches together, but it would deepen their situation and change things greatly.
There are all sorts in this world that play the villain perfectly, but that doesn't mean that's all they are. CM Punk is great as an evil personality, but like everyone else in WWE, he's still human.
As people grow old, they tend to realize many of their faults. They look back more often and see where their lives went wrong. They spend decades being angry, sullen, bitter, they end up on their death beds in the twilight of their lives and say, "what have I done with my life?" Hell, even before that, they reach middle age and start asking such questions.
Punk is still a young'un compared to guys like Edge, Undertaker, Triple H and even Christian. But he still has time to shock us by doing the right thing for himself.
Am I specifically calling out for a Punk face turn here? Not at all and in not nearly as simple a way as that. I'm merely trying to point out CM Punk's humanity. He's a person, just like us. His character is a person, just like us. He may have a very manipulative and persuasive way about him, but he can change.
Right now, his character seems very comfortable playing the sneaky, slippery, twisted leader of a group that currently has no discernible members, and I'm thoroughly enjoying his use of clever turns of phrase and underhanded tactics to exert his power over others. But be reasonable.
You can only fail so many times before you start thinking a different way to go might be in order.
A change worked for him when he was winning the WHC and feuding with Jeff Hardy. When faces are doing badly, people usually call for them to turn heel, because they won so many more titles as a heel. That doesn't always work for everyone. Not every heel is a champion winner.
In the wrestling business, competitors need to walk a fine line. Faces and heels can't always win, unless they're on a marketable undefeated streak, a la Goldberg, Andre the Giant or Undertaker at WrestleMania. They also can't always lose. To be blunt, I feel like WWE has making certain characters that have incredible marketability lose far too often, and those with very little marketability win far too often.
These days, it seems a lot harder for WWE to commit to changing a wrestler's on-screen personality, when many years ago, the chance of a competitor's personality changing was part of what kept fans watching. The idea that you might not know when a person's MO for competing could go from chasing titles one night to decimating an arch-enemy the next was part of what made the business so fascinating!
Your favorite star could go from a glorious hero to a glory hogging villain in the blink of an eye. You had to appreciate every single second you could spend cheering for your favorites, because very soon, they could be entirely different people.
I'm not a fan of Shakespeare, but look at stories like Caesar and Macbeth. The title characters died before the end of each story, meaning the time they spent alive needed to be that much more meaningful. If Caesar and Macbeth had lived to the end of their tales, and Shakespeare had written Caesar 2 and Macbeth 3, the meaningful parts of their existence would have been seriously watered down.
Anakin Skywalker's character lasted six whole movies until dying in Return of the Jedi, but at least things changed for him along the way. Chronologically, we can see him dreaming as a little boy, nurturing his skills as a teen, falling in love and impregnating Padme, embracing the darkside as an adult, losing the battle with Obi Wan and getting set on fire in the most impactful climax of the timeline, then rising to the right hand of the Emperor as a grown-up and addressing the son that he sired before passing away.
In essence, the biggest factor of the prequels ended up being that Star Wars, as a series, was less about Luke (like some of us older kids initially thought when watching Eps. four, five and six) and more about Darth Vader. But again, at least Vader's life took major turns along the way.
He wasn't born a mask-wearing villain (a "natural heel, if you will), there were steps necessary to lead him to that, to motivate him into being evil. Furthermore, if one were to watch the Star Wars movies in chronological timeline order, one might think Anakin was going to grow up to be the hero!
Instead, he chose to embrace his darker natures and his son ended up being the real do-gooder hero. Anakin grew up! He changed with his age. Just as he was poised to be a great Jedi warrior, he was tempted by the dark and made a choice to give it a try in order to fix the sad state his life had become. He was enraged at his parents being killed, he felt like he had no other choice to save Padme. He was desperate!
And it was only until much later, when he knew that the younger and stronger progeny had defeated him in battle, that he decided to show his humanity, remove his mask, expose his dark secret and die with some level of dignity.
Miz isn't anything like Cena's son would be, but just like Luke continued the bloodline after Vader passed, the torch needs to be passed to The Miz. It's his turn to be the hero for a change.
I realize that in the economy we're currently working with, WWE doesn't feel like taking drastic measures with their characters like they did during the Monday Night Wars. They don't want to risk losing what ratings they have by moving this or that character from a good position to a bad one or vice versa, but as PPVs have been compelling less and less people to buy them each year, something has to give eventually.
The next time you analyze a character in WWE, and say that they lack personality, that they offer nothing to competition and that they simply take up space on the roster, do yourself a favor.
Ask yourself how many of the Seven Deadly Sins they've committed, and how many you've seen them fight off.
If your numbers are high, then ask yourself...why exactly do I feel like they don't have personality if they've done so much good and bad in their career?
If your numbers are low, then dare I say, that's not entirely the performer's fault. They can act certain ways in the ring, yes, but they can't tell every aspect of the story all on their own. WWE needs to be far more creative in putting these people into situations where either sinning, or fighting off sin, can be an option of theirs.
That's not speaking from the perspective of religious sin either. More like generally ethical sins.
John Cena is WWE's top babyface (aside from The Rock and Austin, whose appearances are very likely going to be less and less in coming months), and although I'm not compelled by his on-screen persona any longer, I do always acknowledge how much value he has to the company and how much he can still offer. I've never said he should be fired outright and I've never said he wasn't a talented wrestler. He just needs to do more interesting things on camera.
At only 34 years of age, when is Cena going to have his proverbial mid-life crisis (because being a 34- year-old full-time WWE Superstar/Movie Star is like being a 60-year-old office jockey), where he starts saying to himself, "man, my life is flashing before me. Is this where I wanted to be? What else do I have on my bucket list? Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?" Sixty-year-olds ask themselves that all the time, and many of them decide that they need to pursue other interests before it's too late.
For Cena to never go there is a crying shame. All it does is keep bottom lines in order. It doesn't present fans with a believable product featuring relatable human characters.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, WWE used to attempt to present its product as "real" to the viewers. Every move, every hold, every match, it was all marketed as "real." The days of fooling consumers into thinking wrestling is just as 100 percent real as they were 10-15 years ago are pretty much over, but that doesn't mean the people we see on TV need to represent concepts that don't act, think, feel and react the way real people do.
A character like The Heartbreak Kid may have had an overblown ego that was far bigger than most civilians walking down a street, but the way the character reacted to problems was real, and Shawn sold that to us brilliantly. No one says wrestlers need to be 100% realistic, but come on. Certain moments have required severe turnarounds and they haven't been coming as often as they should.
One particular opportunity for such a turnaround will be the central topic of WWE Role Reversal Vol.2...I promise, it will be pure perfection.