< Part #4
John Cena: Mania-Made Man?
John Cena’s rise—from vanilla nobody an inch away from being released, to vanilla somebody making more money than any current full-timer—is a fascinating look at how the WWE Machine is able to make a star, but only with help from the star itself. I think Vince and co. like to think of themselves as carpenters and the performers who come to work for them as formless molds of clay. But no matter how hard or how many times they have tried, their track record for actually making a star all on their own is actually quite poor.
Every now and then you’ll have a guy like Kane who debuted unable to speak and with almost his entire body covered up and yet, because of the story and the booking around his character in late 1997, he became one of the biggest stars of the Attitude Era and is still going strong almost 2 decades later. There’s no doubt that Glen Jacobs deserves some of the credit for making it work in the early days, but most of the success of the character goes to the creative team led by Vince McMahon himself.
But for every lump of clay they mold into a monster, you have someone who ought to be a superstar multi-time champion yet never makes it out of the bottom of the pack. Why? Don’t they want to make money with him? Sure they do, but usually you need the star to give 50% while Vince gives the other 50%. John Cena was this close to being let go in late 2002. He had the look, he had a good moveset, he was a hard worker, he was clean, he was well spoken, but as the old saying goes “creative had nothing for him.”
It was John himself who came up with the “Vanilla Ice knock off” character. John worked the gimmick, tweaked it, made it manageable as a pro wrestling character. He wrote his own theme music and freestyled his way to the ring with his own talent driving him. Today he is the ultimate company champion. He has a superhero physique without the superego (Hogan), he stays clean and has never been a PR headache (Michaels), he’s healthy and has shown incredible longevity (Austin) and his passion is pro wrestling with no desire (or maybe, opportunity) to leave for greener pastures in Hollywood (Rock). He’s exactly what Vince wants. But without John Cena there would be no John Cena.
By the time WrestleMania 21 rolled around, Cena’s “Thuganomics” character had been toned down ever so slightly to make him more consumable for mass audiences, but he was still the edgy sometimes-foul mouthed anti-hero that won fans over as a heel and a face in 2003. His winning the title on the same night Batista captured the World Heavyweight Championship signaled that a new era had dawned.
Batista is another interesting study in making a star, as Big Dave did little to hone his character. He basically played the same no-nonsense brawler that defined his time as a main event player. He was exactly as he was molded to be, no more. It wouldn’t be until the very end of Batista’s first run with the company that he really came alive. How? By doing what Cena did in late-2002, taking more of a role in the formation of his character. By then, however, it was too late: Batista was the #2 guy behind Cena’s #1.
Cena may have won the belt in lackluster fashion at WrestleMania 21, but it was undeniable that he was on course to be the biggest star the company had since the departure of the Rock and Steve Austin in early 2003. He won his rematch against JBL at the Judgment Day show in May and soon after was drafted to RAW.
His first title defense as a RAW superstar came in the undercard, however. At the Vengeance PPV in June, Cena worked a triple threat match against Christian and Chris Jericho while Batista and Triple H faced off inside Hell in a Cell. It’s a scenario that sounds similar to Chris Benoit’s, who took on Kane while Triple H and Shawn Michaels worked a HIAC match. But everyone watching back then knew Cena was not being marginalized. His crowd reactions, unlike Benoit’s, were intense and consistent wherever they went (Benoit always struggled keeping casual crowds in middle-America interested). Soon after Vengeance, Batista left Raw for Smackdown, Triple H took a hiatus and Cena was left with the lone spotlight headlining the flagship show.
At SummerSlam he again missed out on main-eventing, but you can hardly blame Vince for bumping Cena v Jericho in favor of Michaels v Hogan. Cena and Kurt Angle feuded that fall and main evented in September and November. He did not main event Survivor Series in late November, however, but he did put away Kurt Angle for good. He then lost the WWE title to Edge and began a new program with the Rated-R superstar. By the time WrestleMania 22 occurred, Cena was a two-time champion, passionately adored by some and passionately despised by others. He wrestled Triple H in an epic main event and, after winning, solidifying himself as THE top guy (a position he seems to have only recently vacated, almost a decade later).
The story of John Cena’s first title run saw the new champion slowly conquering bigger and bigger challenges. It started with a JBL rematch that had everyone supporting him. Then, on Raw, he turned his attention to a gauntlet of Attitude Era superstars: Christian was dispatched with ease. Jericho was conquered at SummerSlam, drawing the ire of a few. Kurt Angle was overcome that fall, deepening the divide between old fans and new. Edge was defeated and the Championship reclaimed, which outraged the fans who were happy to see the mid-carder they grew up with win the big one. Finally Triple H was vanquished on the grandest stage, and the “boo/yay” split was cemented.
With each new challenge there was a (growing) segment of the fanbase that anticipated his fall. Each new big title match was met with excitement: “This is the time he loses” was the hope, but each time Cena prevailed. Throughout 2005 Cena was neck-and-neck with Batista, co-holding the title of “face of the company.” By the beginning of 2006 it was clear that the spotlight belonged only to him and his WrestleMania 22 win proved it.
Now Daniel Bryan is the champion. There’s no reason to think he will be losing the belt to Kane this Sunday. What then? Whomever he faces there will be a segment of the fanbase nervous that his fall is coming. Each new big title match will be met with anxiety: “This is the time he loses” will be the dreaded call. But what if he prevails? What if he keeps prevailing?
Daniel Bryan has a connection with the crowd akin to John Cena in early 2005. He has taken what Vince and co. have given him and injected his own personality into it, developing a character that is universally loved by both casual and hardcore fans. Why not give him a push similar to Cena in 2005? Will he main-event every show? Probably not, but Cena is proof that your match position doesn’t equal your standing with the company. Unlike Cena, Bryan has not shown any diminishing returns with his fan support. There is no growing anti-Bryan movement. He’s just a guy everyone likes and roots for.
A match with Kane may not be the ideal first-defense that fans were hoping for as WrestleMania drew to a close, but that doesn’t change the fact that the future is (potentially) very bright for the hot young superstar. Who knows; as WrestleMania 31 approaches we might look back on WrestleMania 30 as the start of a new era.
In the meantime, let’s just enjoy the ride. It might surprise us how far it goes.