In a recent editorial, Jason Powell of prowrestling.net suggested what seems to be a popular suggestion these days on wrestling comment boards—to turn John Cena heel. Powell believes the time is right to cast Cena in "the same role that Hulk Hogan played when he turned and joined the original NWO." But is it?
When Jeff Hardy wrestled his last match for WWE in August 2009, he was arguably the second biggest draw in the business. Drafted to the SmackDown in mid-2008, Hardy was a fixture in main events until he eventually captured the WWE Championship, for the first and only time, that December in a triple threat match against Edge and Triple H.
He feuded bitterly with his brother Matt through WrestleMania. He traded the World Heavyweight Championship with CM Punk in a series that began when Punk cashed in his "Money in the Bank" title shot at Extreme Rules—where Hardy had just won that venerated championship for the first time.
Watch any event from that run, and find legions of young admirers wearing Hardy merchandise. Fans across all demographics cheered Hardy's long-awaited title wins in storylines that drew on real life demons and tragedies to make those matches seem like redemptive quests. The Hardys and Lita possessed an undeniable "it" factor throughout the new millennium, and WWE's patient grooming and expert booking of the oft-troubled Jeff paid dividends with their first "counter programming" superstar.
TNA was in a position to build on Hardy's fanbase and reach the elusive WWE audience share the promotion so desperately competed for in 2010. However, within seven months of his return to the Impact Zone, the decision was made to turn Hardy heel, if for no other reason than the bookers felt the need to turn someone heel at Bound For Glory.
Since Rob Van Dam felt it would be out-of-character, Hardy was deigned to join the new Immortal faction at the PPV, in what was a step-by-step recreation of Hulk Hogan's NWO heel turn 16 years earlier—right down to trash being thrown into the ring. TNA succeeded in shocking Internet fans, many of whom remained optimistic about the story, actually, but the major heel turn with its less-than-original execution accomplished little else.
Would turning John Cena heel ruin WWE's business?
Heels sell tickets, no doubt about it. However, with the exception of Gorgeous George, wrestling's boom periods which saw new audiences brought to the product have traditionally been led by faces, notably the Von Erichs, Hogan, Steve Austin and Cena.
John Cena's popularity among kids brought in such an influx of younger viewers that WWE adjusted its entire programming to a family friendly rating. Another barometer of his heroic appeal is the fact that within six years, he had already granted an astounding 200 wishes for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and also received their Chris Greicius Celebrity Award for his dedication to that endeavor.
A John Cena heel turn, at this stage in his career, would only succeed in breaking many kids' hearts and discouraging them from participating anymore in the WWE product.
By the time Hulk Hogan had turned heel in 1996, his career was in its third act. Audiences had already seen him pass the WWE Championship torch to Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior. He had suffered pinfall defeats, however controversial, to pass said torch to the Undertaker and Yokozuna. By his own account, Hogan was content being away from the wrestling life as he filmed his syndicated television series, before an enterprising WCW producer named Eric Bischoff compelled him to return to the ring.
In sum, it had been 12 years, time away and two promotions before Hogan traded his red and yellow for black and white. By that time, the majority of Hulkamaniacs were college age or older—and the heel turn still stung them to such a degree that they (not the production team) hurled vitriol and garbage into the ring, resulting in a piece of flying debris breaking announcer Gene Okerlund's nose.
WWE would lose more than they'd gain turning Cena heel on the very fans he brought to the product. Instead of booking Cena to turn heel like WCW Hogan, it makes more sense to book him like WWF Hogan—put him through the wringer!
One couldn't turn on an episode of Wrestling Challenge without seeing the Hulkster being betrayed by one of his friends, or brutalized by the Bobby Heenan Family or having his championship belt destroyed. When the Undertaker promised to end Hulkamania, and a manipulative music video followed attesting to that fact, he reduced audiences to tears!
For a superhero, Hulk Hogan was far from invincible, and that emotional connection was part of the reason people kept tuning in and selling out arenas.
Likewise, much of the electricity of the Steve Austin/Mr. McMahon feud stemmed from the one-upmanship between the brash, devil may care employee and the embittered boss who kept screwing him out of things he rightfully earned—made all the more believable (and obviously inspired by) the chairman's real life actions as documented in Wrestling With Shadows.
Austin's character had the fighting spirit and McMahon's character had the power to send him to jail, blatantly stack the odds against him or secretly undermine him, such as with the surprise debut of the Big Show during their PPV cage match.
At WrestleMania 17, WWE made the inexplicable decision to turn Austin heel in front of a hometown Texas crowd, a disastrous piece of theater that managed to suck all the air out of the Astrodome. By all appearances, Stone Cold enjoyed his new role, and audiences who stuck around enjoyed him doing it. However, if Austin ignited the Attitude Era inviting blasphemy with his "3:16" promo, he all but signaled its demise six years later strumming a guitar and warbling Kumbaya.
CM Punk compliments John Cena mystique-for-mystique, in much the same manner Randy Savage complimented Hulk, but Punk has also risen, and proven to be, the "counter programming" superstar WWE TV can benefit from. Part of what engaged audiences on the road to Money in the Bank 2011 was that, for the first time in a long time, Cena's character appeared to be in genuine jeopardy. That is the heart of drama.
A Cena heel turn, at this stage in his career, would be a drastic and desperate measure; a short-term shock that would offer no long-term gain. That said, unless WWE starts booking the hardest working wrestler in the business with more vulnerability, they'll continue alienating his character to older fans—and risk losing the younger ones who will realize it's no fun to root for a guy who has no competition.