On this so-called “new era” in WWE…

Listen to that reaction! Whether they love him or hate him, he gets the biggest reaction of the night!

-JBL, on commentary last week in response to Roman’s typical—antagonistic—reaction.

I can’t help but think, who is he saying that to? Who is he reassuring? Is he trying to reassure the disheartened Roman fans who hate to see their boy get booed? Everyone is booing him, so who needs to be reassured?

Answer: Vince McMahon.

And yes I know Vince is the one feeding him the line. That makes it all the sadder. He’s becoming Howard Hughes.

Welcome to the new era everyone!

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And if you didn’t know this was a “new era” then you’ve been watching RAW with the volume turned down. Good for you, you sly dog. Let me be the first to welcome you to the “new era” in WWE. And though WWE keeps repeating that mantra, as if to say “no seriously guys, we’re going to stop sucking for three hours a week now. See look: Shane’s (still) here!” really there’s enough to get discouraged about if you’re a fan hoping for real change. After a wonderful month of April, the month ended with the return of Stephanie McMahon, followed by Vince’s announcement that—until further notice (read: until he changes his mind)—both McMahon siblings will be running Raw.

None of the McMahons want to run Smackdown I guess. Not coincidentally, Smackdown is usually the better show.

The return of Stephanie was a brutal reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, we knew the whole time she was gone that she and Vince were lurking backstage and that Shane was really only an on-screen TV character. But it felt like the company was really committed to shaking things up and that Shane was going to be the on-screen personification of that. Stephanie’s return basically let the air out of that balloon.

So now we have this quasi-new era, where there’s just enough of the last era’s stink to kind of ruin the good vibrations everyone was getting in the initial few shows after WrestleMania. Just wait till Triple H comes back to start screwing with the champ again. The band will really back together then.

Actually though, this new era has been a long time coming, and I don’t mean in the “we’ve been desperate for it for years” sense, either. I mean in the “Homer’s beer can on April Fools” sort of way. It was always just a matter of time before what was going to happen finally happened. And what is that? What has been the bubbling thing in WWE’s background that has now come to surface?

The end of the “face that runs the place” character.

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If you’re not familiar with the term, the “face that runs the place” is the nickname given to that one guy that sits on the top of the heap, not only in terms of booking, but in merchandise sales, in fan support, in mainstream popularity, crossover appeal, etc. He’s not just “a” face “in” WWE (in that he’s a good guy), he’s “the” face “of” WWE (in that he’s the poster boy for the company). It’s a very exclusive club: Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart (less so), Steve Austin (more so), John Cena (less so, but more than Bret).

This new era is not about storylines or authority figures, it’s about the company fulling letting go of their old mentality that one guy should be the posterboy for all of WWE. Now I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong: This new era is not about Roman Reigns being the next John Cena (though that will probably be the narrative, since that’s the easiest connection to make). In fact, that’s precisely what is so different about this “new” era: It’s not about the guy anointed the next “face that runs the place” and the people’s rejection of Roman Reigns in that role (and Vince’s refusal to change) proves the point.

Keep in mind that the fans’ reaction to Roman Reigns is entirely different from their reaction to John Cena. Though people have tried to say “this is that” the fact is “this” is most certainly not “that.”

Let’s talk about “that.”

Roman Reigns’ boos are not John Cena’s boos.

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When John Cena began his quest to win the WWE Championship, essentially in early 2005, he was one of the hottest acts in pro wrestling. Having blossomed on Smackdown, he grew from a generic looking, awkward performing, blandly characterized performer (likely in line to be fired the next time the company cleaned house), to the thuganomics attitude-era throwback performer. He was a heel for most of this, and quickly won the affection of the attitude era fans still keeping up with the product. With his popularity unable to be denied, the rocket was strapped to his back and he entered a program with WWE Champion JBL, winning the title from him at WrestleMania 21 and putting him and the feud away in an I Quit rematch at Judgement Day that May. Soon after Cena was drafted from Smackdown to Raw and just listen to the ovation:

This was his Sgt. Peppers moment, to use a Beatles metaphor. This was the peak of Cena’s popularity and after this there was nowhere to go but down. It wasn’t Cena himself that was to blame either, and it wasn’t even the booking. Everything done with him was the right call. He was clearly the better choice than Batista (and more popular too) to become the next “face that runs the place” so booking him—still a young superstar—strongly made sense. There really was no way to avoid the backlash that followed, at least not at first (there were always things that could have been done later on when his act had grown horribly stale, but I digress).

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The backlash began with his first Raw-feud. He took on Christian and Chris Jericho in a triple threat at the Vengeance PPV. At the time Christian was a hot performer, similar to the role Dolph Ziggler was in back in 2013 (when Ziggler was the Money in the Bank holder). Fans were ready to see him get a big push, but instead he was fed to Cena. Next up was Chris Jericho, a superstar with much greater pedigree than Christian but still someone that fans thought should have been given more of the spotlight. Instead Cena plowed through him too. Then came Kurt Angle, who at that point in his career, was untouchable. He was a wrestling machine, known for putting on five-star matches over and over. No one believed Cena was his equal in the ring but Cena cut through him like tin foil.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Cena spent the beginning of his title reign going up against a gauntlet of every available attitude era superstar, almost all of whom were adored by hardcore fans (partially because they were still around from the attitude era those fans loved so much, and partially because—since they were still around from the attitude era—they were mostly the guys that had been passed over, developing a cult following among hardcore faithful).

Cena was the new kid. Fans wanted to know why was he leapfrogging all those guys who had paid their dues. It’s here where the comparisons to Reigns begin, but that only comes after years of Cena rising in popularity and months of his being in the main event scene (albeit on Smackdown for most of it) while still a beloved babyface.

When Edge cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to win the title, the fans responded like a revolution had happened, even though it was only less than a year since Cena won the title. Revolutions usually happen after a despot has been in power for a long time. But Cena quickly won the title back a month later and that portion of the fanbase basically turned against him for good. Even when taking on Triple H at WrestleMania (then the reigning champion of smark hatred), Cena got no love from the Chicago crowd that celebrated every Triple H right hand and running knee like it was a Rock Bottom or a Stunner.

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Comparisons between WrestleMania 22 and WrestleMania 32 were instantly made the moment the Reigns vs Triple H match was booked. And sure the similarities are abundant: both featured Triple H—technically a heel—taking on a heavily pushed character that was supposed to be a babyface but the crowd never went along with the script.

But that’s all superficial. Under the surface there are clear differences between Reigns and Cena. Reigns never had his “hottest act in the company rising to challenge for the title” srtory resonate. When Reigns entered the title picture he was basically the third-most popular member of the disbanded-Shield. Ambrose always got the better babyface reactions and neither Reigns nor Ambrose could work the crowd like smarmy WWE Champion Rollins. By the time Reigns finally got his WWE Championship match at Survivor Series (against Rollins before he went down to injury) the chorus of boos that greeted his every appearance was already a locked-in thing. Cena didn’t lock-in to the boos until a year after he won the title…and even then he only lost half the crowd. Reigns is only getting cheered by maybe 25% of the crowd (most of the kids and their uninterested moms who bring them, basically). But that doesn’t matter anymore, because this is a new era in WWE.

And in this new era the top babyface doesn’t need to actually be liked. He doesn’t need to be the “face” of the WWE.

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Who gets the credit for the 100k that attended WrestleMania this year? You can bet in 1987 Hulk Hogan was claiming sole credit for the 97,000 that packed the Silverdome (brother). You can bet Vince knew which bald headed tough guy deserved the credit for WrestleMania 17’s then-huge PPV buyrate. And it wasn’t Shawn Michaels or Batista that allowed WWE to be big enough, consistently enough, to run WrestleMania in a football stadium every year from 2007-onward.

But who gets the credit for WrestleMania 32? It was the biggest crowd in the history of the company. Do we credit Reigns? Do we praise Triple H? Certainly we can’t thank John Cena this time (the man who carried the company for over a decade). We shouldn’t tip our hats to Rock, either (though he was advertised as though he was the sole attraction in the final weeks leading up to the event). Does the praise fall to any one superstar? Should it?

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Not anymore. Now the credit goes to the silver and red logo. That’s the centerpiece of this new era. The WWE “brand” itself is the “face that runs the place.”

First of all, WWE is the only game in town if you want big production pro wrestling (more on this in a bit). Second, the company has a strong supporting cast of great workers, even if a few are injured. Third, when it comes to Wrestlemania, the show has evolved over the past decade to be a real cross over event, with fans both hardcore and casual, local, national and foreign all converging one weekend a year.

All those factors combined means that, unless WWE loses its mind completely and starts pushing a complete turd as a main eventer (which Roman is not, by a longshot), they will continue to have good support 51 weeks a year and especially on that one week for Wrestlemania.

Back to WWE being the only game in town: Not to repeat myself, but WWE has been “the only game in town” since 2001. That’s 15 years if you old-timers like me can believe it’s been that long. Early on they lost a lot of fans (check out Raw’s ratings and PPV buys from 2000 compared to 2002) because that generation was a mixture of fans from two companies (WWF and WCW) as well as casual fans caught up in the fad of the Monday night wars. Once the WCW vs WWF TV feud ended the fad ended, and as a result many casual WCW fans left and many casual WWF fans grew bored with the product.

Now it’s been so long that a new generation of fans has arisen, which only knows WWE as pro wrestling. They support the company because it’s “the only game in town.” Yes you can watch Lucha Underground, Ring of Honor or even—if you’re brave—TNA, but none of them and nothing else can offer the production quality, diversity of superstar talent, TV pedigree and mainstream association that you get from WWE.

When it comes to the old argument about who should be the next “face,” it’s not about Roman vs Daniel Bryan (then) or Roman vs Dean Ambrose (now) as who should be the top guy for this new, younger generation of fans (aged between 8-18). To them it’s not about any one guy. To them it’s like the NFL in the USA. It’s not about any one star quarterback or any star player from any postiton (the way the NBA is very star-oriented). NFL fans have their teams they root for, but those fans don’t just watch their team play. They watch as much NFL as they can get. It’s about The Shield with the Stars. And that’s how it is with WWE fans. And now the company has embraced that, making their brand the focus, so that stars can come and go and the wheel will just keep rolling.

To that end the WWE owes a tremendous debt to John Cena for being the “not quite as singularly big as Hogan or Austin” ambassador of the company during that transition. He brought in and kept that new generation of fans and hooked them onto the WWE logo (in a way that Hogan and Austin didn’t, because their star shone a little brighter than the company itself).

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So welcome to the new era everyone, where the star of the show is the show.

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  • Onslaught316

    This was a really well-written piece – solid work, extremely interesting points! I’m a little more optimistic on the company as a whole moving forward, but this is one of the more reasonable “state of the industry” type pieces I’ve seen pop up.

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