Verne Gagne, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin. These are just a few men who have been the top stars for their respective wrestling organizations. The skill it takes to be a good professional wrestler is something most wrestling fans cannot wrap their heads around. Being the top act, and doing it for several years, is an astounding feat. John Cena is wrestling’s top star, and has been for a number of years now. For some time there has been a section of the audience that has shunned Cena and rejected his character. Currently, Cena is involved in a storyline with Kane designed to bring out another dimension and change how fans perceive their top star. What it really gets to the heart of though, is what John Cena means to the company. What so many of us lack the perspective on is how lucky wrestling is to have Cena, and that when he is gone, things will change.
Past Nosebleeds columns have made this point and will be reiterated here. John Cena has been the top act in World Wrestling Entertainment longer than anyone since Hulk Hogan. Bret Hart Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock, he has been on top longer than any of them. Hogan was arguably the top guy for eight to nine years. That’s not subtracting his one year absence between WrestleMania VIII and WrestleMania VIX, his sporadic hiatuses, or the company’s Ultimate Warrior experiment. By the time he left, he was past his prime and breaking into his forties. Fast forward to 2012. John Cena has been on top since 2005. He has been the main guy for seven years. He has had minimal injuries that have kept him on the shelf for extended periods of time, and he is only in his mid-thirties. Assuming he stays healthy, Cena has at least another three, four, maybe five years, if not more, as the company’s central character. After that, the transition of fading him out and bringing the next act in will begin. That itself could take another few years.
There are a lot of wrestlers out there, particular top guys, who suffer heavy criticism and have fans say they suck. Most of the top guys, even if they do have shortcomings, are nowhere near as bad as what critics say. It just comes with the territory. The same people who want you to be a champion will be the first to say you don’t deserve your spot when you get there. Cena suffers a different kind of criticism. Aside from the usual critiques about his short repertoire, as if that were true or if the amount of moves you did in one match had anything to do with how good you are, Cena comes under fire for being cheesy. Quite frankly, Cena isn’t as cheesy as he’s made out to be. He is just so different from the antihero that so many became accustomed to during the Attitude Era. There’s a number of fans grew up during that time and that became what they thought wrestling should be, despite the fact that decades of wrestling history have proved that to be false. The Attitude Era was like a supernova that collapsed on itself and created a black hole. It took a few years for WWE to emerge from that. There was significant promise with Brock Lesnar, but he was around for such a short time that Triple H and The Undertaker were reverted to as the go-to guys until WWE could reorganize. In 2005 they came out with John Cena and Batista as the faces of a new era. Cena broke ahead of Batista and has proven to be an incredible asset to the company. He then became the natural target of a mob of fans wondering what happened to their wrestling show. Therein lays the spark and the fuel for John Cena hatred. He was the guy that came after Steve Austin and The Rock. That’s a hard act to follow. Look at Bret Hart when he came up after Hulk Hogan. He didn’t receive a lot of heat from the audience, but the crowd had to be reconditioned to take him as a top guy. Hogan was the guy who slammed Andre and launched Hulkamania. He was the biggest star in wrestling history. Coming after him and trying to live up to that standard is not going to be easy. Some felt that Hogan had changed wrestling for the worst and welcomed Hart with open arms. That’s not the case with Austin and Rock. Austin in particular could do no wrong. To be the next long-standing top act after Austin is going to get you rejection. That being said, Cena is being taken for granted. He is taking the heat now, but it will not be this way for the next guy that slips into that role. Cena will have alleviated the pressure and changed expectations that, by the time the next top act is ready, the fans will welcome him openly.
In the meantime, Cena is still the top guy. His story is so unique in that he’s practically a dream talent. The company spent a few years building him up, inserted him into the center of the show, and has utilized him effectively since. He’s still young and he has a lot left in him and shows no interest in going elsewhere. If all runs smoothly, WWE can take their time transitioning him out and using him to elevate the next guy.
But what happens when John Cena is gone? What then? Should the worst case scenario happen and he be injured tomorrow, there is nobody to slide in and take his place. Randy Orton? He could maybe serve as a transitional figure, but not the central figure. CM Punk? His character only works because of the contrasts with Cena. If all goes well, and Cena is able to ease out of his role smoothly before riding into the sunset, what will people think once he’s gone? Cena might be a guy who’s valued more by his critics in hindsight. That does seem to be the way of things in wrestling. Fans constantly call for something to change or someone to get a push and, when it happens, they revert back. Cena could actually benefit from that mentality as far as his legacy goes. When it is time for him to go, it might just be that the people who rejected him all these years look back on his time on top as the good old days.