Yesterday, April 29th, was World Wish Day. It’s a day that celebrates the legacy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation “with wishes being granted worldwide. It’s a day to think about how wishing makes our world better.”
Those are the words of John Cena, WWE Superstar, and the man who has granted more wishes (over 250 now) than anyone in the history of the charity. He is the man who eschews the more self-aggrandizing or nonsensical slogans of his counterparts in favor of positive mantras like “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect,” “Never Give Up,” or “Rise Above Hate.” And he out-sells all of his colleagues with those messages.
But he is also the same man who has spent the better part of five years being booed by half of the audience members who pay to see him perform.
Yesterday was also the date of WWE’s “Extreme Rules” pay-per-view. The climactic match saw an already banged-up Cena battered and beaten at the hands of a seemingly-reckless Brock Lesnar. Cena ultimately “won” the match—his first meaningful win in some time—but he was legitimately injured in the process. Whether those injuries were limited to lacerations and bruises remains to be seen. This was all in service of making sure that the returning Lesnar looked like a dominant force of nature.
Once again, it was up to Cena to make that possible. Once again, the WWE left another Superstar’s career fortunes in the hands of the company’s most trusted performer. Once again, that performer delivered.
In other words, it was just another day at the office for John Cena.
His recent history is littered with evidence that the unbeatable “Super Cena” character that so offended “smart” fans is but a distant memory. To review:
Following a year-long feud in which he (correctly) pointed out that an absentee Dwayne Johnson was primarily using the WWE to bolster his movie career, Cena dutifully lost at WrestleMania 28. This defeat came despite Cena never having ceded the moral high ground in his conflict with the Rock. Cena was defeated, but he was also, in a word, right. Cena also had to carry this all-important feud, since other commitments would allow the Rock to appear live (or at all) only a handful of weeks.
An uncharacteristic shakiness marked the Rock’s occasional appearances on television, particularly as WrestleMania approached. Despite Cena having the better of the argument, and despite his more impressive face-to-face performances on the mic, crowds throughout the country chose to side with Cena’s opponent more often than not.
And, so, the night after WrestleMania—the night after Cena, as always, was the hard-working loyalist and consummate professional—he addressed the “WWE Universe” as to the previous night’s events.
Cena took that opportunity on RAW to attempt to discuss in honest terms what had been a difficult year. Here are some of the things he said to the crowd in attendance and at home. Look closely at the content of his message:
– (Pauses to allow crowd to boo) I never thought of losing. But, now that it’s happened, the only thing to do is to do it right. That is the obligation to those who believe in me. (Crowd boos)
– I’ve talked so much that anybody else in my shoes right now would be making excuses, backtracking, saying that it wasn’t their fault. That is not me, that will never be me. I meant every single thing that I said. (Crowd boos)
– I meant it then, I mean it now. There is not one second in the year-long buildup to WrestleMania that I ever thought that I was going to lose. Because, if you think like that, then, my friend, you have already lost.
– But no one goes undefeated in life. And a true champion retains the will to win, even through their most disappointing loss. Now, with that being said, there was a lot of speculation on how I would react to all of this. (Crowd boos, soon chants “YOU’RE…A…LOSER”)
– I am a man. I was beaten. So, as a man, I will own up and admit defeat. Last night, at WrestleMania, I lost to the Rock. (Crowd cheers, then chants “YES! YES! YES!”)
– If I have let [my fans] down tonight, I truly apologize. The only thing I can do to make amends is wipe the slate clean, work my ass off, and try to be the best that I can be. (Mixed response from crowd, light “Cena Sucks” chant)
– I am not here to call out the Rock. Because, when you call someone out, you want to fight. The Rock and I have been calling each other out for a year, and we settled it last night. (Crowd begins to boo, then shifts to a “WE WANT LESNAR!” chant. Cena looks mildly irritated, but half-smiles and continues)
– I say we have one more moment of celebration for Miami, Florida’s own Dwayne Johnson right in the middle of this ring. And, Dwayne, on a personal note, and I know you’re watching, this past year has been exhausting. We let it all out on the line physically, and, often times, way over the line verbally. (“WE WANT LESNAR” chant begins again. Cena looks sad and legitimately, justifiably disappointed in the crowd)
– I understand the excitement in the air, but I put my heart and soul into last night (crowd boos yet again) . . . and, to be quite honest, I came up short, and the Rock was the better man. (Crowd chants “YES!” and Cena actually joins in)
– All kidding aside, I just want one second to publicly acknowledge that the Rock was the better man at WrestleMania, and I would really like to congratulate him on his victory. (Cena turns toward the entrance, and silently waits for a few seconds until Brock Lesnar’s music plays. The crowd explodes, and Lesnar slowly walks out. Lesnar does his entrance routine, then saunters to the ring to interact with Cena, who applauds Lesnar. Lesnar extends his hand for a handshake, but, instead, hits Cena with his signature “F-5” finishing move. The crowd pops again. Off the air, the crowd chants “F**K YOU, CENA” at him as he lies in the ring.)
So, summing up: John Cena owned up to his defeat, congratulated his opponent, and said many honorable things. For this, the crowd booed him. For this, the crowd mocked him. For this, the crowd cursed him. When he was beaten down and punked down by Brock Lesnar (just as the Rock did to Cena at Survivor Series), the crowd cheered.
Why do they hate him? Because he champions values they deem to be cheesy throwbacks to a time they see as less-sophisticated. The WWE spent the better part of a decade establishing a new paradigm in which the anti-hero was king, and it did so quite well. Transcendent performers like Steve Austin and the Rock facilitated that. The crowd had become enamored with the idea of booing Hogan-style faces (even Hulk had turned heel by this point). There was also the undercurrent of anti-traditionalism fomented by groundbreaking promotion ECW that began to bubble up to the mainstream by the mid-1990’s.
The WWE made a lot of money off of “edgy,” renegade characters the fans loved to cheer. When the business cycle ran its course, and the massive ratings of the late 90’s and early 2000’s declined (and Linda McMahon decided to run for Senate), the company interjected some more traditional ideas into the mix.
Cena stopped rapping about his opponents’ genitalia. His “F-U” finisher became the “Attitude Adjustment.” The “STFU” dropped the last letter. His was the flagship character in the company, and, like the company it represented, it became far more kid-friendly again in the wake of the end of TV-14 programming. There was a decided effort to revert back to pre-Attitude-Era norms in certain respects.
The WWE has found that this is a very difficult bell to unring.
But there was another “1980’s Hulk Hogan” quality Cena possessed that made him unpalatable to fans of a certain vintage: Perpetual winning.
But is that even fair? There was a time when the perception of an unbeatable Cena matched reality. Is it still the case now? As I mentioned at the top, that doesn’t seem to be valid in 2012.
Cena’s performance at major shows over the past year-plus, prior to last night:
2011 Royal Rumble: LOST; Eliminated by The Miz.
WrestleMania 27: LOST WWE Title match to champion The Miz via pinfall.
Money in the Bank: LOST WWE Title to C. M. Punk via pinfall.
SummerSlam: LOST WWE Title match to champion C. M. Punk via pinfall.
Survivor Series: Won tag match, but partner (The Rock) made him look very weak.
2012 Royal Rumble: Undercard match vs. Kane ended in a double count-out.
WrestleMania 28: LOST main event vs. The Rock via pinfall.
Cena also lost WWE Title matches at two other, lesser PPVs in 2011: Hell in a Cell and Vengeance, and, for the first time in memory, did not appear on a PPV card (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs) when healthy.
For a guy who has been derided as “Super Cena” in the past, the booking at the biggest shows of the year no longer support that label.
More troubling to Cena fans is the most recent trend. Cena lost to the Rock cleanly at WrestleMania 28. Brock Lesnar took Cena out with ease the following night on RAW. The next week, Lesnar again got the better of Cena, taking him down and legitimately bloodying his mouth. The week after that, Cena got pinned by “Lord Tensai,” previously known as Albert (or “A-Train”) in his first WWE stint. While Cena technically won at Extreme Rules, the match unfolded in such a way creatively as to make sure that the audience understood that Lesnar dominated Cena.
What that means is that Cena has been beaten down by not one, not two, but three guys who have been absent from WWE for eight, seven, and eight years, respectively.
One of the chief criticisms lobbed by the anti-Cena crowd is that, from either the “smart” or “mark” perspective, the wrestlers of the prior era are superior to the current crop, of which Cena is the standard-bearer. Lesnar has explicitly stated as much in his promos since returning, saying that Cena is only on top because he left. Lesnar adds that his presence “legitimizes” the WWE again.
If the WWE’s goal is to defecate on the last half-decade of its own product, then let me be the first to say: Mission accomplished.
The message sent regarding John Cena is troubling. No one questions his work ethic or his devotion to the business. Yet, the company, in an effort to accommodate the portion of the crowd that hates him, have rewarded his dedication by having him appear weak over and over during the last year-plus.
He is, by all relevant accounts, the genuine article. He perpetually adheres to his onscreen principles, even in—especially in—the face of adversity. Off-screen, he moves more merchandise than anyone else. He has never had a wellness issue or a run-in with law enforcement. He is a dedicated supporter of the military and various charities. He relishes the opportunity to be a role model. By any objective measure, he is a massive success.
And, still, they boo.
Cena will announce tonight that he’s taking some time off to heal the wounds suffered at the hands of Brock Lesnar, who, thanks in part to Cena, is now positioned to become the next WWE Champion. In reality, Cena will also be filming the next installment of The Marine during this hiatus. Even his “time off” from WWE is in service to the company, however, as the movie will be another WWE Films production.
There will come a time some indeterminate number of years from now when John Cena’s departure from wrestling won’t be temporary. Part of me believes that only Cena’s eventual retirement will be enough to make his most strident critics respect his contributions to the business, even if they didn’t happen to like the presentation of his character.
Whenever that day comes, I think the perspective necessary to appreciate John Cena fully will come with it. People will realize that he was right about a great many things. They’ll understand the significance of the fact that the first item he addressed when he arrived at the WrestleMania 28 press conference podium was the Make-a-Wish pizza party he was hosting that weekend.
Maybe Cena is the flipside of “Superstar” Billy Graham. Perhaps Cena’s career retrospective could be titled “Twenty Years Too Late.” Even if he is, and even if he was, his critics may someday realize that the character Hulk Hogan portrayed so adeptly was little more than who John Cena is in real life. They might realize all of this.
And then they’ll miss him.