John Cena is a conundrum. The man is booed whenever he appears on a wrestling show but adored by thousands (if not millions) of people all over the world. He is the biggest star in the WWE but wrestling fans in their droves flip the channel when he comes on screen. He makes more money for the company than any other member of the roster but a massive section of the its fan base insist that he is the reason they no longer watch the company’s output. It is no surprise then that wrestling fans (and I would imagine, members of WWE’s creative team) continually ask how the problem caused by these contradictions can be solved. For the WWE it represents an almighty balancing act between overall product quality (affecting long term business) and profits made from merchandise and pay-per-view buys (massively important in the short term). One thing is for certain- John Cena isn’t going away.
I am not going to regurgitate the reasons here why Cena is so reviled by certain sections of the fan base, it has been well documented in the past and been the subject of a thousand internet forum thread’s, twitter discussions and ‘expert’ analysis. Whether you agree or not with the differing opinions on Cena, people’s perceptions are not going to change now, this situation has existed for at least 7 years and arguably longer. The problem now is that the elements within the fan base who at times have relished the act of booing him out of the building have started to become indifferent. Rather than boo, or shout ‘Cena Sucks’ the fans who are anti-Cena have started bombarding him with ‘boring’ chants, a situation that if it sticks could be really damaging for both Cena, and the WWE’s product as a whole.
So what does the WWE need to do about it? Some have argued that now is finally the time for Cena to turn heel. During the promo’s Cena cut prior to Wrestlemania 29 he hinted at the idea that he would do just that, which maybe is one of the reasons some fans were so vocal in their disapproval of the final image of the show which saw Cena and The Rock arms aloft in respect for each other and no heel turn in sight. Cena is routinely treated as a heel by some sections of the fans, so why don’t the WWE capitalise on those reactions and build what could be the ultimate bad-guy character? It’s a prospect that has been called for by some sections of the fanbase for some time and now that his programme with The Rock is (hopefully) said and done there appears to be little left for Cena to accomplish as a babyface.
The problem with initiating the Cena heel turn is that presently the WWE really do not have someone who can step into his shoes as the lead face. The reactions to Randy Orton and Sheamus on Raw and Smackdown the past couple of weeks would suggest that if either of these two were put into the position they would come up against the same wave of distain as Cena has had to deal with. Alberto Del Rio has not convinced so far as a face World Heavyweight Champion and can‘t be relied upon to inspire fans to part with their cash in anywhere near the fashion they do for Cena. Which would have only left Ryback had he not just recently turned heel to line up against the leader of the ‘Cenation’.
Don’t get me wrong, the reaction that Ryback got on Raw a couple of weeks ago was promising, though he benefitted from the fact that he was in front of one of the most vocal crowds ever on Raw and that they were likely to cheer for anybody who took out John Cena, no matter who they were. But it’s really very hard to believe that Ryback would be accepted by the WWE Universe as its lead face in such an event. Ryback fills all the quotas that the so called ‘hardcore’ element can’t stand- he has been elevated to the main event picture incredibly quickly which as has been the case in the past is likely to cause resentment, in many people’s eyes he is derivative of the Goldberg character in terms of his size, style and initial monster push and he doesn’t have the in-ring talent synonymous with most of the WWE headliners of the past (Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, Triple H, Kurt Angle etc.) These factors would seem to suggest that Ryback is yet another face that would struggle to not end up being turned on by the ‘smart fans’.
Moving away from Ryback for a second and imagining a heel Cena, are we certain that even in this scenario the fans would react in the way the WWE would intend? Cena’s critics have been so vocal, widespread and passionate in the past that it has driven up the levels of loyalty to Cena of those who love him. In the event that Cena turns heel, are we sure those fans who get behind him would instantly start booing him, or would they continue to back their guy in the same way they do now? Also, is there really any guarantee that those who currently boo him would continue to do so in the event that he turned heel? A heel Cena might actually be very entertaining and dare I say it, even cool. In that event, would the so called ‘smart fans’ be moved to cheer him and give WWE yet another reaction which does not fit in with their creative plans?
Whatever WWE choses to do, in the long term, the company desperately needs to pick a guy from the roster and begin to work him towards the level where he can take over from Cena as the company’s lead face. In the meantime, Cena will have to remain in the position he currently occupies for the foreseeable future. So then the WWE need to come up with a different way of keeping the ‘boring’ chants from the door. To do that, they have to start giving fans a reason to invest their time and interest in the Cena character. In the past, it’s been enough for WWE fans to react to him in one way or another. The noise levels from a crowd split down the middle between wanting Cena to win and wanting him to lose was enough to sell pay-per-views on the premise of whether you were for or against the company’s lead star. Now that is no longer the case, Cena needs an overall career story arc to keep fans from being indifferent to what happens next.
This has, in my view, been the biggest issue of Cena’s entire run in WWE. There has never been an overall direction to Cena’s story, he just seems to float from feud to feud with nothing to link them together, picking up and then losing the WWE Title over and over again. Cena’s career has been not unlike the James Bond film franchise; every time a new threat arises, the WWE goes through the same conventions as always before Cena vanquishes the villain. There is little to connect one story to the next, indeed it’s as if each time a story ends, Cena’s life is reset and started again. Really, think about it, what journey has Cena been on through his professional wrestling career? How many times has his character reacted to events and changed due to them? It is this lack of consequence from one story to the next which makes Cena so hard to get behind for so many wrestling fans.
Take Steve Austin, if you plot out his WWE career, there is an overall story arc. His career progresses through the months and years, the encounters he has, the things that happen, he responds to in the unique way that his character would react and in turn they shape his character for the future. Even things that happened because of the very real injury issues he had that stemmed from the botched piledriver Owen Hart delivered at Summer Slam 1997 impacted what his character did and where his story went. In the aftermath of that infamous Owen Hart error, the WWE were forced to keep Austin from competing as he recovered. The WWE at the time worked this into his storyline which was presented as though WWE was keeping Austin out of the ring against his will.
As a consequence of this fictional account, the character reacted by refusing to stay away (although cleverly they still managed to keep him from having proper matches) and abusing WWE officials for doing so. These actions only served to increase his reputation as anti-establishment and eventually led to his 18 month long feud with Vince McMahon. In the story arc of Austin’s career, one period led to the next one and was a consequence of the one before. So whilst, essentially, the WWE was still simply building up a new threat and then having him overcome said threat, they did it in such a way that made the fans feel like they were going on a journey with the character- this has never been the case with Cena and has left him overexposed, furthermore, it has left little legacy for Cena’s story to be told when he gets to retirement.
Take for example John Cena’s feud with The Nexus in the 2nd half of 2010. During this storyline, Cena lost the WWE Title, was forced to become a member of the Nexus group, got fired due to Barrett not beating Orton at the Survivor Series and then rehired simply because Barrett wanted a match with him at the Tables, Ladders and Chairs pay-per-view. Did all this upheaval change Cena in anyway? Did it make him more aggressive, less trusting, more arrogant or more determined? No, just like Cena has always done, he treated both losses and victories as no big deal, and nothing to get too worried about. And then, without any rhyme or reason, he was cast in a new feud with The Miz over the WWE Title. Never mind that Cena hadn’t lost the title to Miz in the first place and was therefore not linked to the ‘awesome one’ in any way. The WWE had decided to make no transition between the two feuds, it was simply the next thing for Cena to do.
If Cena showed vulnerability, or had been visibly affected by the events that took place in his career, fans that are looking for something with a bit more substance might be able to get behind him. At the very least, they might not be rapidly entering a state of play where those fans are indifferent to him. Put it this way, who cares if John Cena doesn’t win his next match, it’s not going to change who he is, or even upset him much, he will just accept it, move on and then take on the next monster heel. Fans need to feel that there is something at stake that is personal to the character for them to fully invest in the matches and scenarios that character finds themselves in. A case in point was the storyline that supposedly led to Cena’s ‘redemption’ at Wrestlemania 29 when he avenged his loss to The Rock.
In the build-up to Cena and Rock’s second match, the WWE half-heartedly tried to tell the story of Cena needing to win this match because of the damage losing the previous year had done to him. They barely expanded on what was so horrible about the year Cena had just had of course. Yes, it’s true that Cena had not held the WWE title for that entire length of time, but less than a month after losing to The Rock at Wrestlemania 28, Cena took a massive victory over Brock Lesnar, the former UFC World Heavyweight Champion at Extreme Rules. How this represented an annus horibilis for the leader of the Cenation, god only knows. It is true that there has been some upheaval in Cena’s personal life in the last 12 months, including in May going through a divorce from his wife Elizabeth. How this off screen development in Cena’s real-life is supposed to relate to the on screen character he displays on screen however is unknown to this writer.
This is what the WWE creative team must work on in the coming weeks and months. They have to find a way of building an overall story arc, after claiming his eleventh WWE Title in his match with The Rock at Wresltemania 29, it is going to be hard for them to convince fans that the lure of defending or winning the title is enough of a driving force for the Cena character. If anything this could be used as the first chapter in this arc, creative could use the idea that Cena has accomplished absolutely everything in WWE as a storyline reason for him to get complacent. Maybe, during his next storyline (potentially with Ryback or Mark Henry) he loses the title against them, with the WWE selling the idea of Cena being complacent during the match. This could continue, as Cena maybe falls out of the title picture after losing in matches against wrestlers a little lower down the card in upsets. This could continue until Cena finds what it is that he can still strive for in his career and eventually lead to the match many have speculated will take place at next year’s Wrestlemania- against The Undertaker.
Okay, so this is just the bare bones of an idea, and one that would need to be fleshed out considerably, but this is just to give an example of how the WWE can use Cena’s victory against Rock at Wrestlemania 29 to start to set in motion the character’s journey over the next year. It is my opinion that merely setting up heel after heel for him to vanquish for yet another 12 month period is unlikely to sell huge numbers of pay-per-views. Indeed, a quick glance at pay-per-view buy rate comparisons over the past few years tells its own story. Despite an increase in the number of people able to purchase the pay-per-view events internationally, the buy rates have (with the exception of the shows that have been helped along by The Rock’s presence) stayed at the same level, meaning that proportionally, less people are taking up the option of purchasing the events, not only that, but television ratings have been trending downwards for over a year, and continued in that vein once Raw was extended to 3 hours per week.
In my opinion, John Cena being pushed as a face, but still facing half boos and half cheers is less of a problem than people becoming indifferent to him. If Cena is being booed and people are desperate for him to lose then that means they care (and consequently might actually be persuaded to buy the pay-per-views in the hope that he gets beaten), but if people feel that win, lose or draw, Cena will not be bothered, then what justification is there for anybody else to care what happens to him? This is the problem that the WWE has to solve now, otherwise WWE will continue to see a drop in television ratings and PPV buy rates until next year’s Wrestlemania season, which seems a hell of a long time away right now.