It was a little over one month ago that WWE made the bold choice to officially book a match for WrestleMania XXVIII, one year away. The bout scheduled is the current WWE Champion, and main star of WWE programming, John Cena versus the legendary Rock. Thus far the decision to announce the match so far in advance has drawn both praise and criticism. Some say it is a perfect way to build up one of the biggest matches that will ever happen, while critics worry about the feud not holding interest for a year. Others worry that a Cena injury could destroy all hopes of having Rock-Cena at WrestleMania XVIII. Right now spectators must sit back and take the story one day at a time. After all, the match is quite a ways a way. Where intrigue lies at this time is in the build and how things take shape in the coming months.
Booking a match for WrestleMania months in advance is not unheard of, but this far away is insane. I personally have always wanted WWE to try something like this. The brand extension makes it ways to keep guys apart where you can have your combatants run in to one another at pay per views, but kept on separate shows every week to avoid overexposure of the program. The company tried something similar in 2007 with Mr. Kennedy when he won the Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania XXIII, and announced he would cash in his title shot at the following Mania. He never cashed in his shot as an injury forced him off television and left his future up in the air. Even though they didn’t announce the match at the time, one could make the argument that the ending of WrestleMania IV was an unofficial signing for a match the following year between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. The Hogan-Savage alliance was designed to build Savage up as a Hogan opponent. The two spent months watching each other’s back until the split came. The main event of WrestleMania V had been booked to perfection.
Speaking of Hogan, John Cena has several parallels to the iconic Hulkster. Cena’s run atop the WWE mountain began in 2005. He has now been WWE’s top guy for six years. Cena has officially been the top guy in WWE longer than anyone since Hogan. Hulk was the man from late 1984 to 1992, with a brief return in 1993. After Hogan came Bret Hart, who had his time in the sun for the better part of five years. Shawn Michaels was really only the main star for the few months in 1996 when Hart was off of television, then again in the months after Hart left in 1997, before Steve Austin claimed the spot in March of 1998. It seems so strange to think about how huge Austin was, but he was really only on top for four years. That’s being generous since he spent nearly one year on the sidelines while he recovered from neck surgery. He left in 2002, only to return for one month in 2003. What’s stranger than Austin’s short run on top was how much brief Rock’s was. Rock was only the top guy in 2000 because Austin was on the sidelines. After Austin left, Rock came back and passed the torch to Brock Lesnar. After a few years of building new guys, Cena emerged above Randy Orton and Batista as the new focal point of WWE. Cena is still young and healthy. If he stays healthy, there is no doubt he will surpass Hogan’s time atop the WWE mountain.
Getting back to the Savage-Hogan program, that whole feud seemed designed to show a new side of the Hogan character. Hulk was unstoppable for years. After he beat Andre there really didn’t seem like there was much more for the guy to do, but the company dug deep into the Hogan character. At one time a demigod, the spilt with Randy Savage humanized Hogan. He became tangible. He also showed his flaws. Savage and Hogan pulled off the alliance and the split so well because you could see both sides of the story. Savage had justification for his feelings. Once the split happened, Savage could launch into a full heel character while Hogan stayed true. He came out of the whole feud as a more complex character, yet still admirable character. The Nexus angle did the sane for John Cena. There wasn’t a lot of interest to see Wade Barrett and Randy Orton square off. The intrigue was in what Cena would do. John had lost a match to Barrett, which forced him to join Nexus. Barrett demanded Cena help him defeat Orton for the gold, or Cena would be fired. The moral conflict in which Cena found himself created the interest in seeing Barrett and Orton fight. As troubled as Cena was, he cemented his place as the conscience of roster by sacrificing his career to prevent Barrett from being champion. While not as well executed as the Hogan-Savage story, Cena still added new dimension to his character.
When Hogan returned to WWE in 2002, he was placed in a match with Rock at WrestleMania XVIII. It was perhaps the biggest Mania match in over a decade. Hogan returned and had one more huge match where he put over Rock. The Great One now finds himself in Hogan’s shoes as he heads to next year’s WrestleMania to take on wrestling’s top star. Make no mistake about it; Rock will lose to John Cena. There was no reason for Hogan to win, and there is nothing to gain for Rock in victory. Hogan had his big Mania victory over Andre, Rock had his over Hogan, and while Cena’s win over Triple H in 2006 was important, conquering the Rock will be the single biggest triumph of his career.
Part of announcing a match so far in advance is keeping the build steady. A Rock-Cena match is so big that a typical one or two month build is not going to do it justice. That was part of the problem WWE ran into this year, it was just too late to stick Rock in a match. A fair criticism of the booking thus far would be that Rock cost Cena the main event of a WrestleMania, yet Cena refrained from declaring all-out war. He resigned himself to be respectful, and maybe came across as a pushover. That’s a fair shot at the booking so far. The problem is that going full throttle too soon would burn out the program long before next year. A good comparison is the Hulk Hogan-Sting feud in 1997. WCW managed to keep those two apart for so long without killing or overexposing the program. WWE finds itself in a similar position now. Not having Rock on television very week helps a great deal. The build will be very gradual for the next several months before it starts to simmer, and eventually boils over early next year.
A very smart move on WWE’s part was to not book the match only a couple of months out. The reason for that is Rock’s in-ring status. He is still in great shape, but it would be pretty hard to swallow if he just hopped in the ring after being gone for how may years, and then dominated Cena. Announcing the match so far in advance allows WWE to do something similar to the Rock-Brock build in 2002, where they show the men train for the match. WWE could shoot vignettes of Rock training to get back into shape with his Hollywood buddies, prompting Cena to taunt him. Rock may have his celebrity trainers, but Cena is the man out in the ring every night. It’s just one aspect to the build that will contribute to the boiling point.
There are son may ways this could turn out. At best, this could take on a life of its own and become a spectacular build, rivaling that of Hogan-Savage. It will undoubtedly be the most hyped WrestleMania match yet. Living up the hype could be an issue come match time, but again, that’s a year away. As wrestling fans we can sometimes get ahead of ourselves and demand too much too soon. Patience is very important for critics right now. What has been laid out in front of us is merely a book cover. Over the next several months the story will be told to us. There will be heroes and villains, twists and turns, and action along the way. All we need to do is sit back and enjoy.