It’s not often I find myself in a unique position when writing a column but this one is an exception. You see, I don’t want to write it. I’m on an absolute hiding to nothing here and the chance of me offering a cogent argument is unlikely at best. Apart from anything else, I appear to be fighting the cause of something about which I feel completely dispassionate. I’ve learnt through my song-writing experiences that it is far easier to find the words when the subject is closer to heart than something that doesn’t seem to matter. Add to that the fact that the universality of this stance is almost total and the groundswell of this opinion has gathered such steam over the last year that its root is nearly indestructible. You see my problem? I’m dealing with two little words that cause more angst and bile than any other in the WWE right now and, according to comments made in forums all over the Internet, could be the best recruitment drive reason for watching TNA since it started. Those two words? John Cena.
I guess I’d better answer the obvious question first, why am I writing this if I don’t want to? I wish I had a simple answer for you. If I thought that the best I was going to manage over the coming paragraphs was the standard “he’s not that bad” or “it’s his gimmick that’s wrong” then I definitely wouldn’t be bothering because he does have a minority of Internet supporters who do a good enough job of that already. I can’t even say that I feel sorry for the guy because he’s receiving an awful lot of money for his efforts and if a grown man can’t accept the possibility of negative voices about him then he shouldn’t be in an industry where those voices are so loudly and immediately discernible. Maybe it’s my indifference that is the motivation. I know I say it a lot but having no particular favourite wrestler in the WWE means that my passionate allegiance is not as strong as in other people and I like to use my sanguinity as a measure against what I see as unrealistic hatred (or worship in other cases). Whatever the reason, it is a ship that has left me quietly waving goodbye from the shore and I see no need to ruin that tranquillity by ranting and raving now. So please feel free to read this column in a slow, reflective tone like the captain of an aeroplane giving the altitude and estimated time of arrival over the intercom (not the bit when he screams “engine number three is on fire and we’re all going to die with red hot bits of metal in our faces!”). You know the one.
It was at this point that I was going to write what I think of Cena. But if you’d wanted to know that you would have asked. I’m more interested in addressing what everyone else thinks of him and how that affects not just the direction of his career but the general direction of the WWE product when he’s carrying the gold or the number one contender to get it back. Rather than what each individual person is, it is their audience perception that makes or breaks them as a performer and if Vince persists with this idea that half and half is better than none at all then when Cena’s usefulness as champion runs out he is destined to sink to the bottom faster than Mark Henry at a swimming gala.
I think we can all agree that, while it is a close run thing, it’s his gimmick that winds people up the most. Pandering, clichéd garbage using promos penned by ageing WWE creative staff telling us how cool and ‘street’ Cena is when his target audience actually appears to be pre-schoolers and moist women who scream a lot when his shirt comes off (mind you, didn’t they used to do that when the scrawny, pale figure of Jeff Hardy was alleviated of its clothing?). At least the general disdain for his character demonstrates some sort of progression since the 90’s when ‘circus’ gimmicks were the main gripe and ‘athlete’ characterisations were desired. It’s ironic that, during Cena’s least popular period, a classless, base gimmick like The Boogeyman is receiving positive reviews, doubly so considering the likelihood of him being a decent wrestler is slim at best. As in the examples of HHH and, most notably, Kurt Angle when he was reported to be quite the politician backstage, fans will turn on anybody who becomes as close to the embodiment of WWE machinery as possible. Cena’s willingness to soften the edges and become a ball-playing member of the system makes him public enemy number one and an easy target for those who are ‘too cool for this shit’ and attach themselves vicariously to any and all heels in the vain hope it makes them look tougher in the mirror. Most people seem to think that a heel turn would go some way to correcting this problem but as I remember it his initial run was littered with little more than gay innuendo, toilet humour and the sort of mediocre sledging that can be heard in any school playground anywhere in the world. Regardless of face or heel, the only thing that can save Cena’s gimmick is to have his character stop looking to us for answers, grow a set and do some work.
The other complaint I hear quite frequently is that he can’t wrestle. Taking those words in their literal sense, that’s not true. Heidenreich couldn’t wrestle. Warrior couldn’t wrestle. Cena has more than enough talent to get him into these situations but not enough dedication to the physical application of his craft when he gets there. Several months ago in a Raw review I noted just how badly John’s workrate had plummeted since his pre-gimmick stint. To make sure of this I decided to dig the tape out of my collection and watch his debut match with Kurt Angle again and apart from the wrestling gear and some opening amateur exchanges it was pretty much the same guy doing the same moves at the same speed. I thought it was a given amongst fans that Cena was “a better wrestler before the gimmick” but that theory doesn’t hold water and is probably a stronger indication that most viewers will bastardise their own memories just to find another slant on disliking him. I also find it unlikely that his weak brawling technique is to blame seeing as a large percentage of Internet users produce a small amount of pee whenever Rob Van Dam enters an arena and his punches are lighter that Maria’s brain. It is more likely that the converse is the cause of the consternation. While Cena has been champion, wrestling with a character driven, showboating style, a great technical wrestler like Angle and a good pro-wrestler like Jericho were forced to concede the mat on numerous occasions as an endorsement of Vince’s chosen company direction and, as the months were forced down our throats, the taste became bitter rather quickly. This is nothing new. Hogan was the unbeatable leader for years in the WWE and far superior performers like Rude, Savage and Roberts were subdued to protect his lack of talent. I’m also dead against the idea of giving Cena a submission finishing move. This is a blatant attempt to legitimise his style without addressing the existing problems and will only serve to weaken the standing of his opponents, who will always be ‘wrestler’ types so as not to steal any of his promo spotlight.
In trying to assess what has gone wrong, it first has to be realised that the numbers that turn up on Vince’s desk every week aren’t showing much of a problem. PPV buy-rates have levelled, Raw ratings are way up and merchandise sales, most of which relate to Cena, are as good as they’ve ever been. And all this with John as the company franchise. But then us fans don’t really give a crap about figures anyway. We care about the product and, as figurehead, Cena takes the bulk of the blame when bad shows are offered. Overall, the main criticisms seem to be these: saturation of Raw, too long as champion and too commercial. In truth, his ubiquity is a product of the push but the title reign and its mainstream aggressiveness has been done in-spite of his popularity rather than because of it. When Vince hears that you hate something, he spreads it on twice as thick, three times as often. Of course, if Cena was the type of performer that most people wanted as champion (like Austin was in his day) then the three aforementioned points would be positives and not negatives. Something about hating the player and not the game maybe?
The other drawback with not feeling passionately about this subject is that I don’t need to close with a tidy solution. Why should I tell people not to write “Cena sucks” when I couldn’t care less if they do or not. If anything, I’d be more inclined to suggest that fan’s criticisms should consist of more than just two words, especially when one of them is his name. But then it’s also not my place to tell shit that it stinks. The joys of capitalistic freedom and democracy adhere to the idea that if there is a demand then a supply should be provided and John Cena is that product. If his mere presence drives you to contemplate abandoning the WWE then you weren’t much of a fan in the first place and a weakness as basic as that is just the sort of fragility that needs weeding out at each evolutionary stage of humanity. Everything in life is a mirror, a chance to see a reflection of yourself and your beliefs, and your hatred or adoration of John Cena says as much about you as it does about him. If my opinion on this subject says anything about me, I hope it DOESN’T show whether I like him or not. That would make me a part of the problem too.
If that didn’t work for you, try this … ‘he’s not that bad’ … ‘it’s his gimmick that’s wrong’.