Rob Maltman: In defence of John Cena
‘The opposite of love is not hate – the opposite of love is indifference. John Cena is without question the most popular superstar of the past decade in the WWE; his box office returns and his merchandise sales are both testament to his popularity, and no one even comes close. Yet when you watch John Cena on television, half the crowd is chanting ‘let’s go Cena’ and half the crowd is chanting ‘Cena sucks!’ but no-one is silently sitting on their hands. To me, reaction is everything, so if you bestow it upon us your love, or you bestow it upon us your contempt and disdain, the fact is we are getting you engaged, we’re interacting with you, and we are making you care. And whether that caring is love or hate, as long as it’s passionate, I know we’re doing our job’
– Paul Heyman – FSM issue 95
It seems common convention that people hate John Cena but respect Paul Heyman and his opinions on pro wrestling, yet Paul Heyman respects Cena. Does this create a wrestling smark paradox?
Why does every one hate Cena? The point of this article is to suggest John Cena is playing all the Smarks and his character is playing both Heel and Face at the same time in the same way Bret Hart did during the attitude era when he was a face in Canada and a heel in the United States. Cena is a heel to the smark fans and a face to the mothers and children (the latter of which are the main buyers of his never ending merchandise and new t shirts) he creates a reaction, whichever it is, rather than indifference which is why he will never change and complete the heel turn that the smarks are so desperate for him to do – because to them he is already there
So what makes a good champion? Simply put by being the best in your chosen field, but the best at what? You can be the UFC champion by being the best FIGHTER but what does that actually mean? You can be a champion boxer by having the hardest punch but does that make you the best?
Being the WWE champion simply means you are the best in the WWE, but what is the criteria for that? As much as people’s opinion varies I think common attributes would be Size and Strength, Mic skills, Charisma, 100% commitment to character and importantly the IT factor. Or to put it another way a wrestler needs to be larger than life and aspirational – if people are paying their hard earned money to be entertained they deserve a talented and varied cast of characters
Think back to all the great WWE champions of the past Hulk Hogan, The Rock, The Undertaker, Brock Lesner all big larger than life men – the WWE has always been a big man promotion and we are discussing being the best in the WWE, not the best in wrestling – as John Cena is not the greatest ‘wrestler’ ever – he is not even the greatest wrestler in the WWE – but he is the greatest superstar and as a champion he is adored by children as they think he is the best and hated by the smarks, as they think a more pure wrestler such as CM Punk or Daniel Bryan should hold the belt. Vince and his booking team know this all too well and add it into story lines as Cena is playing both heel and face.
John Cena has also found fame at the right time as the WWE needed a corporate champion that they could trust and rely on. Wrestling goes round in cycles and the children who discovered wrestling in the 80s and grew up with it through the attitude era have gone on to have real lives and families and therefore are less likely to spend their hard earned money on the business. (most people reading this are an exception) so the WWE made a conscious effort to changed their audience to children again to create a whole new generation of fans that will be with them for life.
Since 2001, when WCW was bought, the invasion ran its course, think back to all the men that Vince attempted to make the face of the new WWE – Brock Lesner, The Rock, Kurt Angle, Goldberg all left the company before they were intended to leaving the WWE without a headlining act (they are not too good at building a legit midcard)
John Cena fits the bill, loyal to the brand and hard working – he had the oversized cartoonish body Vince loves in his champions and was willing to dress in bright easily identifiable t shirts that kids would want to by – Cena copied the Hulk Hogan prototype (pun intended) for a new generation – he became wrestling’s new superman and the face to put on poster to sell PPVs
Naturally the backlash happened Cena is not the wrestler that someone such as Bret Hart or Kurt Angle was/is – but this was exactly the same backlash that happened to Hogan, including the rumours that Bob Backlund refused to drop the belt to him as he didn’t have a legit wrestling background. John Cena does however wrestle a virtually flawless ‘WWE style’ of wrestling; he gets his 5 moves of doom in and builds a match that is TV ready. That’s what he was trained to do and he does it well. Stone cold Steve Austin did exactly the same thing yet he is hailed as the greatest of all time
John Cena is capable of having a great match. His matches with Jack Swagger 2009 or RVD 2006 or HBK at Wrestlemania 23 are great matches and whilst there is an argument he is being carried through by a competent opponent – watch his feud with The Great Khali from 2007 and suggest that Khali carried him through that.
Another critique of Cena is that his character is stale – whilst I firmly disagree with this and think people are missing the point entirely – how many other wrestlers have had stale patches in their career, Ric Flair spent most of the 90s on autopilot, HHH the same in the mid-2000s and even recently RVD on TNA and Jerry Lawler has got away with it on commentary for the past decade – the list is endless, all wrestlers considered great have gone through stale periods, yet at least when Cena does it he creates a reaction like no other, just as Paul Heyman says.
John Cena represents the WWE in the same way Mickey Mouse represents Disney and whilst he hasn’t quite transcended the genre in the way Hogan and The Rock did you could argue it’s because he hasn’t tried to (the WWE films don’t count as they are just an extension of his character – after all Vince would never of let him play the villain in 12 Rounds would he?) Cena’s dedication to the WWE universe is outstanding he holds the record celebrity wish for the Make a Wish Foundation at over 300, he appears on nearly every TV show required of him, gives his time to autograph hunters – in fairness to him I can’t recall any stories of bad behaviour, arrests or backstage politicking at all. He is the perfect face of a multibillion dollar corporation with a target audience of children
And it’s that role that the WWE are keen to exploit and often is placed in the role as ‘face of the WWE’ against fan favourite opponents such as RVD 2006, CM Punk in 2011 and The Rock at both Wrestlemania 28 and 29. The interesting thing with the Rock feud is that it was portrayed as a clash of styles and eras with the Rock representing the attitude era that the smarks so desperately miss and the new PG era that Cena headlines. During the attitude era, the main man Steve Austin represented the anti-authority figure and was lauded as champion and headlining act whereas Cena is the complete opposite – and again I believe it was a conscious effort on the WWEs part that they have made an active change in ideology and Cena is playing his role in that perfectly.
With certain groups of the audience chanting ‘Cena sucks’ and plastering it all over the internet – you are playing into the WWEs hands. You are not part of a radical counter culture movement defending the rights of the attitude era (which in itself was hit and miss) – you are playing to the Cena character, he is both heel and face at the same time and it’s a testament to his talent that he can play both character styles which compares him to Bret Hart. Rumour has it that the ‘CENA SUCKS’ T shirt were his idea and every time you buy them he makes money, and the crowd in the audience are paying tickets to boo him and even buying opposing wrestlers gear to spite Cena, again who acts a heel to the fan favourite counter culture, Indy wrestling hero – the man who represents the multibillion dollar corporation that is damaging to the art of pro wrestling.
John Cena is the WWE poster boy and most of his stories revolve around this, going back to Batista in 2010 and their feud over who was the face of the WWE. And people hate him for that – but do they hate Cena as the man, wrestler and champion or do they hate the WWE and vent it through him as the face of the corporation?
Cena is doing what’s told of him and doing it to great success – he is playing a character that gets a reaction to every single member of the audience, how else can you say that about. Ever. He has remained at the top of his game for nearly 10 years and is one of only 7 men to have held the WWE championship for a full year (can you name the others?)
What do you call someone who watches wrestling and buys into the storylines and ideologies believing they are real? Who falls for the characters and vents their opinions on them online? Yet along buys and wears a T shirt with it on? By chanting Cena sucks and telling people about how useless he is online – you are playing into a character – it’s just as bad as believing the Undertaker is really a zombie or that Barry Darsow really repossessed people’s property. You are basically being a mark and doing EXACTLY what Vince, Cena and the WWE want you to do.