For months—check that—for years now, fans have been waiting, hoping and practically begging WWE for a John Cena heel turn.
There are a number of reasons for this. There’s the nostalgia for how well Cena played his “Doctor of Thuganomics” heel character in the early 2000s. Then there’s the thought that Cena could be the next Hollywood Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart circa 1997, guys whose heel statuses were elevated because of how loved they had once been by the fans.
But the overwhelming reason fans want to see Cena become a “bad guy” is because of how stale and boring his superhero character has become after six years of the same old thing.
Cena, now a 10-time world champion, is guaranteed to go down as one of the greatest of all time.
Alberto Del Rio can talk about destiny all he wants; John Cena’s destiny is that of a first ballot Hall of Famer, and a guy who will forever be mentioned in the same breath as Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
It’s entirely feasible that Cena may be the man who breaks Ric Flair’s record of holding 16 world championships. It’s also very possible that Cena does hold the WWE Championship from now until next year’s WrestleMania, as he promised The Rock he would. It’s not only possible but likely that Cena defeats The Great One and retains his title.
How does reading that paragraph make you feel? If you’re like a lot of the wrestling fans I know, it kinda bothered you, didn’t it?
You were a little ticked off that I said Cena was up there with Hogan, Austin and Rocky. It bothered you that Cena could become the most decorated champion in history and that he could very realistically hold the strap for the next year uninterrupted. It’s irritating beyond words that he can and probably will pin The Rock in the middle of the ring on the grandest stage of all.
If you’re like a lot of the wrestling fans I know, you don’t like “Super Cena” very much. You tune in to see him lose, to fail and get the next generation over.
I suppose I should expand on exactly who the wrestling fans I know are.
They’re guys, like me, in their 20s or early 30s that grew up with wrestling. They’re guys that idolized the Hulkster and the Ultimate Warrior as kids, then matured into fans of the Attitude Era and the Monday Night Wars.
They’re guys that miss the original ECW, remember where they were when Vince McMahon called for the bell in Montreal and can recite the entire New Age Outlaws’ introduction by heart.
They’re guys who realize that era is over and isn’t coming back, but wish it had never left.
Call it sentimental, idealization or just nostalgia for lost youth. It’s also a yearning for a creative, innovative and truly entertaining product.
John Cena is the anti-thesis of all that once was a decade ago.
He, by his own mouth, is for kids and about kids. He’s not about the wrestling fans of the late 90's. He’s about being a good role model, about doing the right thing and about doing the right thing in a PG way.
He’s a superhero, a cartoon character in a world that used to seem realer, grittier, and used to have an edge. The wrestling fans I know hate him for that. The crowd reactions—the vehement boos from male fans over 12, the “Cena Sucks” chants—all speak to that.
If you tuned in to WrestleMania XXII from Chicago with no prior knowledge and heard the reaction of that crowd, you would have thought Cena was the most universally hated character since the early days of Mr. McMahon. Fans were tired of the goody-two-shoes gimmick then.
And that was five years ago.
And so we come to the great irony of this strange era in professional wrestling. The fans who most want to see Cena turn heel are the older ones who long for the days of anti-heroes like The Rock and Stone Cold.
Yet, these are the same fans who already boo Cena mercilessly everywhere he goes, chant “Cena Sucks” and can’t stand it when he pulls off another win out of nowhere.
Isn’t that already typical fan reaction to a truly great heel?
Back in 1997, as attitudes changed and the wrestling business matured with its fanbase, WWE created a fantastic heel character out of former all-around great guy Bret “Hitman” Hart. Bret’s biggest gripe was that although he did things the right way, he got neither respect nor reward from the fans and the company. As the crowds continued to cheer guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret constantly found himself screwed over because he refused to stoop to that level.
Eventually, Hart’s whining and eventual descent into anti-American rule-breaker transformed him into the top heel in the WWE.
In many ways, John Cena’s current character parallels Hart’s character prior to the heel turn. He’s an all-around great guy. He’s a winner and a champion. No matter what, he won’t compromise his values and stoop to the level of the stereotypical “heel,” but he still gets the job done just about all the time.
Those are attributes that fans grew tired of seeing in their babyfaces in the mid-1990s, and it’s obvious that many fans are tired of seeing those attributes in Cena and have been for a while.
What sets Cena apart is that no matter how much hatred he receives—especially it seems from the crowds in larger, “tougher” cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc—, he’s not changing a thing.
You can boo and hate and chant all you want, Cena is still going to win in the end. He’s still going to have the love and adoration of at least half the crowd. He’s still going to be the face of the company and he’s still going to get the job done with hustle, loyalty, respect and by never giving up.
John Cena is an entirely new brand of heel.
Everyone except his fans has a vested interest in watching him lose. Yet all he seems to do is rack up improbable victories and championships. He wins not by cheating or taking shortcuts, but by simply being the very best in the business.
John Cena is the New York Yankees of professional wrestling.
There are no chair shots in baseball. The Yankees win because they have the most money and the most talent, and many baseball fans tune in each October just to watch somebody knock them off their pedestal.
John Cena wins because he has the most talent and the WWE has the most money invested in him, and many wrestling fans tune in to each pay-per-view hoping he’ll go down for the one-two-three. In both cases, these fans are routinely disappointed.
In professional wrestling, the “heel” is the guy fans want to see get beat up and ultimately lose. As far as the wrestling fans I know are concerned, that guy is WWE Champion John Cena.
There’s contempt for him unlike anything we’ve ever seen. He doesn’t do anything wrong, yet that’s exactly what many fans see as the problem with him. He’s loathed for being good, for being great and for being nice.
Randy Orton became a face without changing a whole lot to his basic character. He doesn’t really come across as a nice guy. Many of the fans who boo Cena cheer Orton because of the edginess and danger added to the “Viper” character. Cena lacks that trait of shades-of-gray realism and, as a result, isn’t accepted by fans who want that element in their wrestlers and wrestling.
Do I think WWE manufactures it that way? Not really.
I think they like the split reactions and the “love him or hate him” aspect of the character, but ultimately they push him as a superhero face and nothing more. It’s the fans’ desire to see this character finally fall from grace coupled with their anger over feeling ignored by WWE’s creative team that spurn the venom spewed at Cena.
It’s odd that these fans who can’t stand “Super Cena” are clamoring for WWE to turn him into someone that they, well, can’t stand.
They want a character to hate when they already have one.
It’s simply a matter of perspective, and the redefinition of what constitutes a “heel” in the world of pro wrestling. John Cena is not a heel in the same vein as the Million Dollar Man, Triple H or Mr. McMahon.
He’s a heel in the same way the Yankees, Lakers or Cowboys are heels in their respective sports. He’s a guy who wins all the time simply because he’s better than everyone else. That’s his gimmick.
For a lot of fans, it doesn’t get much more loathsome than that.