When it comes to the business of professional wrestling, there is a magic number.
Just bring up the number and the record attached to it, in a conversation among fans, and everyone knows what the reference is—there is no question.
Of all the records broken over the years, this is the one that has stood the test of time, and only now has the threat of someone breaking it become a very real discussion in pro wrestling circles.
The number is 16. The record is World Championships. The man responsible was Ric Flair.
The number has been repeated so many times over the years, that it has become ingrained in our collective consciousness. We have heard it so often, in fact, that it perhaps has begun to lose some of its significance.
Think about it—on 16 different occasions, Ric Flair was chosen to carry the banner of three separate pro wrestling companies. The powers that be in the NWA, WWE and WCW decided that of all the talent in their locker rooms, of all the guys who could draw, work and represent the company, that Flair was the best man for the job. There was none better.
Today, the number 16 is mentioned in a way that it never has before. Instead of celebrating it, and the man who carries that distinction, many now utter the word with much hesitation.
Now, rather than the number conjuring up great stories of pro wrestling’s glory years, it is used as an ominous reminder that someone else is quickly approaching the record that many believed would never be broken.
The man is John Cena. And they’re booing already.
There are not enough words to describe Cena and his polarizing effect on the business since the moment he won his first World Title in WWE. The massive love/hate relationship that fans have with the man who is now 12 time WWE/World Champion is on a level all its own, and seems to only grow stronger with each passing day.
How strong is it? Kurt Angle is sitting at 10 World Titles, and Triple H is one better than John, at 13. Where’s the controversy there?
The fact is, there is none. When fans look at Angle and Hunter, they see two professionals who are capable of having a main event caliber match with anyone in the locker room at any time.
Each man is continuously applauded for their skill in the ring, and their ability to be the commanding ring generals that they are.
When fans look at Cena, many see a guy in a red T-shirt who keeps getting handed the top belt in the company, and who has no business being pushed to the top spot of the company.
For me, attempting to compare Flair’s epic 16 World Titles to John’s 12, is like black and white.
They’re two totally different accomplishments, in two radically different eras.
Flair’s monumental run came during a time when professional wrestling was still viewed by the majority of fans as being real. The man chosen to hold the World Championship in any successful promotion had to be able to go in the ring, as the primary focus was still on the wrestling.
The drama surrounding the champ, including the storylines, the spots and the interviews—all of those things were important, and necessary, to his success. That is certain.
But, the marquee said “wrestling,” and that’s what fans paid to see.
The NWA put its World Championship on its best worker, the guy who could get it done in the ring, could talk a streak and who could put over the company by his sheer presence alone. Flair was all of these things and a lot more.
This is the era that Flair thrived in, and one in which he had no equal.
John Cena’s era is the show business time of professional wrestling, with all of his success coming under Vince McMahon. The focus is no longer on the wrestling, and has not been long before the word was removed by WWE.
The focus now is on the entire program, the total presentation of the product itself. Cena is arguably the most hated, and most loved, WWE Superstar ever, and his perceived overall lack of true ability in the ring keeps him out of the "greatest of all time" discussion for many fans.
Yet, he is still the guy. He is still the man, the one that, despite all the negative buzz around him, the company keeps building on and pushing to the moon.
He is the bizarre love child of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair. He has all the respect and love of the business that Flair had, but many of the shortcomings and hollow Hollywood flash that Hogan had. He, like Flair in the 80’s, is a product of his times.
Will John Cena one day break Ric Flair’s record of 16 World Championships? I believe so. Will it signal the end of the business, as a time honored legacy will forever be overshadowed by a smiling, squeaky clean manufactured Superstar? Of course not.
It will disappoint me, in many respects, as I am an old school pro wrestling fan. I love the old NWA, those days hold a special place in my heart and, as a fan, I will never forget them. That is the greatest era of professional wrestling, and nothing will ever change that.
But, that was then, this is now. Fans have to choose if they do or do not want the product that is given to them by Vince McMahon. The choice to either watch or change the channel is up to them. There are alternatives out there, no one is forcing anyone to watch.
For me, I am a true pro wrestling fan, and I want to soak in as much of the business as I possibly can, and that includes WWE. John Cena, and their insistence on pushing him, is not going to change that.