Whether they support the change or not, every fan of the WWE, and of wrestling even, is fascinated by the prospect of John Cena turning heel. Around a year ago, Cena was arguably at the height of his powers; though he had been away from the WWE Championship scene, he had been otherwise engaged defeating the most powerful and attention-grabbing factions of recent times – Wade Barrett’s ‘Nexus’. The angle teased us with ‘the winds of change’, but in retrospect, the storyline – which included the farcical ‘firing’ of John Cena during which he missed absolutely no TV time – was never going to offer anything more than empty (though fascinating) speculation. CM Punk took Cena to task regarding his status quo and his over-the-top violent self-righteousness, but this was before he had coined the wrestling ‘pipebomb’ and, apart from some interesting back-and-forth, it came to nought. There was seemingly only one man who could challenge his cultural dominance, the man who had been quietlt feuding with him off air for years, the People’s Champion, The Rock.
At this point, for a large portion of the audience, the roles were set: Cena, the complacent PG face of the company, challenged seriously for the first time by the returning, edgier, People’s Champion, The Rock – and these roles were made concrete when, a year in advance, the main event of WrestleMania XXVIII, in The Rock’s home town of Miami, was set; the battle of generations and of attitudes to end them all: Rock vs Cena. Like at Money in the Bank, Cena will enter the ring to boos, despite being – officially – the babyface face of the company.
Maybe it was the WWE that was complacent, expecting that Cena’s fan-base would support him at least equally to The Rock, but instead, the formerly split and probably mostly pro-Cena crowds flipped to being split at best, and more often than not, anti-Cena. In the first half of the wrestling year from WrestleMania 27 to WrestleMania 28, Rock appeared more on WWETV, be it in person or ‘via Satellite’, and The Rock’s more regular (if not consistent) appearances guaranteed Cena couldn’t rise above the boos. Cena’s role as fading, out-dated hero reached a high watermark when CM Punk shot on him and the WWE in the run up to Money in the Bank, and positioned himself as fresh hero, a ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ who could challenge the stale status-quo of Cena weekly. Cena didn’t change the way he acted, but again, he was on the brink of heeldom, despite being booked as a powerful face.
While this was happening, WWE reportedly planned to build for the WrestleMania 28 main event by splitting the fanbase in a way that aped the marketing for the Twilight franchise: The Cenation vs Team Bring It instead of ‘Team Edward’ and ‘Team Jacob’. The problem was though that that kind of rivalry requires parity of force (which they arguably have) and near-parity of popularity (which they obviously didn’t have). At this point, ‘Team Bring It’ was characterised by a louder, classic wrestling audience of males over the age of 18, while the ‘Cenation’ were characterised stereotypically by screechier (and less informed) women and children. Wrestling has a regrettable legacy of paying lip-service to women and children whilst simultaneously burying them and their opinions on TV, and this was played up to by The Rock with the admittedly funny bullet-points of Frooty Pebbles and ‘Cena’s Lady Parts’ being central to his position. This seemed to be corroborated, again, in the early part of the year when Cena was at his corporate SuperCena optimum.
If WWE wanted WrestleMania to be a real match of forces, something had to be done to raise Cena’s credibility in the eyes of all the fans, including those from The Rock’s demographic. They were helped, whether it was planned or not, by Rocky simply not being there. Even before Rock returned, Cena’s gripe was what it remains: that The Rock left the business and the WWE for Hollywood, and in so doing, didn’t demonstrate the proper respect and recognition for what wrestling did for him – especially when Rocky started distancing himself from the business. Then he came back, said he’d never leave, and then left. It was in highlighting this more forcefully, whilst starting to show genuine passion in edgier promos against The Rock, that Cena started to turn the tide a little in terms of respect and passion from the fans.
This was helped by a recent series of vignettes intended to hype up WrestleMania – a series of vignettes which were the ultimate catalysts for this article; in one, John Cena is shown as a man with a remarkable, powerful, and emotional connection with the fans, and above all, a man of unending sincerity, and that despite this, he struggles to maintain that reciprocated love from an audience who take him for granted. His booking aside, all that is indeed true, and was a powerful reality check for all of us watching, including me.
Compare this to Rock’s promo, and he appears to be exactly what Cena says he is. It’s hardly even about wrestling or WrestleMania; it’s about his Hollywood career and ‘pec pops’ as silly as Frooty Pebbles.
The Rock is so eminently dis-likable in comparison to Cena in these pair of promos that I started to believe that his promo was designed to not be as emotional or impressive as Cena’s, and help even more Cena get on Rock’s level in terms of fan appreciation. While The Rock is schmoozing with movie stars, John Cena is connecting with fans doing the job he loves, the job that matters to us.
This is just part of a dedicated effort to make Cena an equal Sports Entertainment Superpower to The Rock. Rocky mentioned his lurid shirts that were part of his kiddy-pandering stereotype, and so Cena’s new shirt is black. He seemed a tired status quo against CM Punk, so he was paired against a character essentially a decade old in masked Kane; an old-fashioned heel, not ‘cool’ in any way, and someone whose vile acts would only make Cena look exciting and respectable in comparison. Finally, Rock has put WWE on the back-burner, apart from helping to ‘electrify’ Survivor Series, for one night only, while Cena has continued doing what he does best, busting his ass nightly. Even better, Rocky, with his new social media obsession will occasionally tweet something about how Cena is like a girl, which makes him look childish, out-dated, and almost pathetic, while Cena comes out and is increasingly passionate and charismatic in his questioning of Rock’s sincerity towards the fans.
With these changes in motion, Cena succeeded in gaining some sense of parity with The Rock going in to WrestleMania. Not only that, but while Rock’s Team Bring It has stayed the same in character, something about the Cenation has shifted. The Cenation is not just about squeaky clean family entertainment; it is about passion for wrestling, it is about sincerity, and it about always being there for the fans. Cena is now in control of his characterisation, not The Rock, and suddenly, Cena is starting to seem like the fiery, relevant, likeable one out of the two. I, for one, am backing Cena and his nation going in to WrestleMania, at least in his current guise.
Even better, now that The Rock is returning to RAW, and will be there more often in the weeks running up to WrestleMania, there verbal interactions promise to be only more iconic and memorable. Finally, with Rocky fully invested in the match, this battle of icons can live up to its Main Event billing.