There's a short shelf life on the John Cena experience.
Fun as Cena's surprise return has been, it's a harsh reality. The legend returned in a way only he could at the end of a recent pay-per-view, interrupting a cocky Roman Reigns' request that fans acknowledge him, kicking off a feud fans have been desperate for ever since Reigns finally went heel last summer.
But as Cena's trumpet-blaring theme music likes to state, time is about up.
Make no mistake: It's Reigns' character shift that has created this incredibly fun dynamic. It's single-handedly turned an old, well-beat-into-the-ground feud into something special. Because to be blunt, Cena hasn't changed all that much.
It's easy to see in the promos already. Cena's still great on the mic and can navigate pretty much any situation well. But none of it is new. He's got the same themes, mannerisms and even inflections of his voice that he's used countless times in the past. Rest assured, a similar thing will unfold in the ring when it comes time to rip off the neon shirt and get to work.
And that's not a knock—it just works. But with each promo and with each match after the first one (depending on how long he sticks around between movies), the magic fades.
It's hard to put into words just how dearly WWE can't afford to mess this up, then. The company is straight up running out of part-timers to trot out for a ratings boost. Goldberg's magic is long faded. Undertaker is gone. Ric Flair just showed up in roster cuts. Brock Lesnar is missing in action. And CM Punk looks like he is headed for a rival promotion.
Now sprinkle in the poor main event scene, and there isn't a realistic challenger for Reigns, in part because his run has been so good it could stretch on for a few more years. Raw's equivalent is a disaster zone, where Drew McIntyre's momentum was cut off at his kneecaps and the midcard is now the main event scene with no end in sight.
WWE has Cena and who else to spice things up? It's pretty much him, barring a Lesnar comeback. So having him stick around for long past SummerSlam—let alone letting him be the one to end Reigns' run and take the title off him—would be a problem.
Should one of, if not both of those things happen, fans would pretty quickly turn back toward disliking Cena. Yeah, he would still move a lot of merchandise and put up big YouTube numbers, but his reverting to getting indifferent or outright hostile reactions from fans would be a disaster. Look at Edge—the big return was amazing, but now that he's stuck around, he's sort of just another guy again.
It sure is a good thing this overarching risk-reward scenario plays in WWE's favor, right? The storyline writes itself. Cena comes back in an attempt to put down a guy he's beaten before, let alone downright embarrassed on the mic. And he loses, maybe badly, on a grade stage like SummerSlam before going away again.
That's a Cena thing to do given the company man that he is. And it also just emboldens the legendary status of this Reigns run. Roman then goes on to brutalize the main roster some more before running into maybe a Lesnar or—all the luck in the world willing—The Rock for a 'Mania moment.
Some of this, of course, hinges on his commitments outside of the wrestling ring. He might not be able to stay for long anyway. But knowing how good Cena is, either way, he will have fans believing he's this close to pulling off an upset against Reigns before taking the loss.
This conversation wouldn't be relevant if WWE hadn't dug itself such a gigantic hole in the main event scene. Ironically, much of the hole wound up being dug trying to get over a different version of Reigns before this one emerged organically and took control of the game.
Now it's on Reigns to help WWE claw out of the hole by putting over other talent. He did that some early in his reign by even propping up The Usos as viable singles stars. But that can only happen again if a guy like Cena shows up for a big event and dips out again quickly.
At this stage of his career, Cena is something of a special attraction. Absences make the heart grow fonder. He would probably admit it too, just like he's suggested some of themes found here.
With any luck, WWE and Cena have already sketched out an idea to make it all work. Because Cena sticking around any longer than SummerSlam would just be another misstep. And if it occurs, there's no easy way to spitball ways to set it right again if a part-timer comes in and ends Reigns' run.