Because of an awkward work schedule and a complete lack of cable or satellite television service in my home, I very rarely get to watch Monday Night Raw as it airs live. Now that it has expanded to three hours, I generally watch the beginning late Monday night and the end on Tuesday morning before I head to work.
While I'm finishing Raw on Tuesday mornings, it's generally as I am getting ready for work, so I'm not always giving Raw my undivided attention.
On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, I was picking out my clothes and getting dressed as the last segment began. I watched the whole thing, and it seemed like a pretty standard Cena/Punk promo.
Later that day, as I was scanning my Google News headlines, I came across something surprising. All of the articles under my WWE tab were titled something like "Cena's Best Promo Ever" or "Did Cena Totally Bury Punk?" Everyone seemed to be blown away by Cena's promo, and I just didn't get it.
What had I missed? How did I not recognize the greatness of the promo I had watched that morning?
I'm proud to be a "smark." I love being part of the IWC (and I am thankful that B/R gives me the opportunity to contribute). I've attended the last six WrestleManias. I've been watching Vince's product since I was 8 years old: That's over two decades! How is it that I didn't get it?
I got home from work on Thursday evening just in time to find a live stream of Impact Wrestling. After an acceptable two hours from those guys at TNA, I decided I need to watch the Cena promo again. So I did.
And still, I was unmoved.
I couldn't figure it out. Had the rest of the IWC lost their collective minds? Don't they know we hate Cena?
Maybe it was worse than that. Maybe it was me. Were my pro wrestling opinions and tastes no longer relevant? Had the IWC transformed me into such a jaded and cynical fan that I could no longer appreciate unexpectedly brilliant mic work?
A few hours later, my roommate returned home for the evening. He's a wrestling fanatic as well, to a slightly lesser degree than me. He still had not watched the already-infamous segment from WWE's flagship program. So I decided to watch the segment one last time to see if I could understand what the buzz was all about.
And then it happened: It finally clicked.
Once I had seen the light, I belabored my roommate to sit and listen to my personal epiphany regarding the greatness of John Cena in that segment. And here, for the rest of the IWC, is my three-point analysis of why the promo was truly epic.
Cena's Facial Expressions
This may seem like a minor thing, but I believe it's the small details like this that can take a promo from good to great, or from great to epic.
CM Punk comes out after being called a phony and spends about three or four minutes ripping into The Hitman and the leader of the Cenation. During most of Punk's spiel, especially during the beginning, the camera is on Punk and Hart.
But as they begin to put more of Cena's mug on the camera, he does a great job of selling Punk's promo by silently reacting with body language and facial expressions.
At first, Cena's face simply says, "Shut the hell up." He makes you believe that the words coming out of Punk's mouth truly hit Cena like a pipe bomb. Cena is seething, because Punk's promo is right on target.
But as it becomes clear that Punk is near the end of his rant, Cena's facial expression changes. As Punk begins to argue that he is the absolute best, Cena begins to smirk.
It's facial foreshadowing. You know that Cena has a response, and you know he is brewing a pipe bomb of his own. While remaining silent for several minutes, Cena has built a subconscious anticipation for the viewer, and whether you're a Punk mark, a Cena mark or neither, you can't wait to see how Cena responds.
When you're performing in front of a live audience, timing is everything. Pauses are important.
A clear example of what I'm talking about can be seen on any episode of Saturday Night Live. You can tell which hosts are used to performing in front of a live audience like the SNL cast does every week—and you can tell which hosts are out of their comfort zone—simply by their use of the pause.
When the audience erupts with laughter, you have to wait a few extra seconds for the roar to become a lull. Otherwise, your next line is drowned out by the audience, everyone feels like they missed something, and it feels awkward and uneasy for the next few moments.
The WWE Superstars use similar pauses when giving their promos. After someone with mic skills like Punk goes off on a diatribe, you generally get a five- to 10-second pause in the mic work, because the crowd is responding. And during those five to 10 seconds, the promo you just heard really sinks in. Whether you loved it or hated it, those five to 10 seconds give you enough time to process what was said and quickly build an emotional response, whether in support of the speech or in opposition to it.
But Cena didn't allow that to happen.
I went back and timed it. Less than two seconds after Punk finishes his bit, before the audience has a chance to really respond to his last words, before the viewers at home have a chance to fully absorb what Punk says and get behind him, Cena has already taken our attention elsewhere.
Timing is an important factor toward the end of the segment as well. After Cena renders Punk speechless for several minutes, and it's obvious that Cena is burying the Champion, the Straight-Edge Superstar tries to interrupt Cena with the pathetically unoriginal move of insulting the live audience.
But by that time, Cena can't be stopped. Punk's attempt does nothing to slow Cena's momentum, and the No. 1 contender steals the spotlight back, making Punk look even weaker by emphatically slapping the microphone out of Punk's hand, preventing Punk from even attempting another interruption.
Cena's facial expressions let us know something big is coming. By eliminating a chance for us to fully process Punk's promo, he has commanded our attention, further indicating that we could be on the brink of something epic.
When you continue to raise someone's expectations, you increase the potential for an epic fail. If Cena bombs this promo, he will be showered with hate the next day, courtesy of the IWC. For his own sake, Cena must deliver.
Cena Says What You Would Say
I almost hate to admit it, and you probably will too, but if you were in Cena's shoes, and someone like Punk was calling you out, Cena's rebuttal is exactly what you'd want to say.
First, you have to belittle what is most important to your challenger. In this case, that's the WWE Championship. Cena brings to light what the IWC is constantly bitching about: that Punk is overlooked as Champion, that even holding the most prestigious title in the industry can't earn him a pay-per-view main event spot.
Then coming back to Punk's championship reign at the end, he claims that Punk's "by any means necessary" philosophy simply tarnishes the label of "champion."
And for someone as egotistical as Punk, you have to cut the person down. This point climaxes with the simple statement, "There is no you."
Punk claims to be innovative, but he stole Hart's colors and Savage's move. (Sure, in reality, he's truly paying homage, but Cena's lines totally work in this segment.)
Then, in the end, he talks down to Punk, implying a higher intellect by having to translate his French for the champion, then speaking the English version slowly and loudly, the way you speak to small children who are misbehaving or elderly people who no longer have the mental capacity they once did.
Ever since the first "pipe bomb," it has been universally accepted that Punk has arguably the best mic skills in the industry.
So Cena attacks Punk's words. John makes the claim that even though Punk talks and talks and talks, he was the most relevant when he simply stopped talking. You know how good it would feel to say that to someone. Then later, Cena implies that Punk's words are getting him into trouble, setting himself up for an epic fail at Night of Champions.
Momentarily, Cena seems to take a page out of the Romney campaign's book (although, in my opinion, he's much better at it than Romney). Much like the political debates that you can't escape in this country, Cena rips into Punk's reign as champion, the lack of delivering on a promise of change, making his accomplishments and accolades seem trivial.
Then Cena shines a light on Punk's inadequacy. Punk made claims that things would change once he was champion, but it didn't result in the changes he implied. Rather, Cena claims the only "change" Punk has fought for is to change Punk into something larger than life. He couldn't become a star on his own and had to rely on the machine that is World Wrestling Entertainment to truly reach his peak. He wanted the WWE to make him a star because he failed when trying to do it on his own.
Then Cena brings the focus back to himself.
When you're dealing with a self-absorbed prick like Punk, the best thing you can do is talk about yourself instead of them. In a segment that is centered on an argument about who is genuine and who is phony, Cena lists both his accomplishment and his failures.
Cena is who he is, and he stays true to himself. Love him or hate him, he will always be Cena, through and through. He has found a personality and mentality that work for him, and no one is going to change that.
During his promo, Cena mentions that Montreal is considered the "Bizarro World" of WWE. Could anything be more bizarre than Cena outshining Punk in a promo?