John Cena isn’t a real super hero, but he does play one on TV. Actually that’s all wrestling really is…people that can do physically amazing things all within the context of a storyline or angle. John Cena happens to do this very well. Maybe a little too well. Because even though he has risen to the top of the largest sports entertainment company in the world, it seem like everybody hates him!
Well, obviously not everybody “hates” him, because when you look around the crowd is full of fans wearing Cena merchandise. Sure many of them are kids. But in general people react to John Cena. Many negatively. Many positively.
In pro wrestling we all have our favorites. Wrestling lends itself nicely to supporting certain individuals and then following them through their entire career, regardless if they are a babyface or heel. It’s different than team sports. I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan, and although I have certain players I like more than others, at the end of the day I’m really just cheering for the blue and silver helmet.
But pro wrestling is more raw and personal. The wrestlers are so exposed in the ring. We notice everything from their ring gear to their facial expressions to their promo ability to their work rate. In wrestling we love a little too much, and we hate a little too much. That adds to the pressure. For years now John Cena has been able to handle the pressure that goes along with his standing in the company. He answers the bell every time. Vince can count on him to deliver a good match whether at Wrestlemania or a small house show. Maybe he isn’t Ricky Steamboat in the ring, but how many people are?
So why are there so many people that hate John Cena?
It’s interesting to me that Hulk Hogan was so beloved in the mid-1980’s. Both Hogan and Cena are the prototypical “heroes” and the undisputed main attractions for their company. Yet Hogan’s act was universally celebrated when in reality he was not half the wrestler that John Cena is. You want to talk about Cena’s “Five Moves of Doom”, Hulk Hogan basically had 3 moves, that’s it! Cena DOES look like Ricky Steamboat when compared to Hogan.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Hulk Hogan because of the emotion he could generate in an arena. His charisma was tremendous and it taught me that “good professional wrestling” comes in all shapes and sizes. There is no absolute. But make no mistake, Hogan was every bit as forced on the audience as John Cena. He was the top draw, the company’s meal ticket, and everybody knew it.
So why did it work so well for Hulk Hogan, who’s matches were ever MORE formulaic than Cena’s? Well, for starters, Hogan was protected by not being on TV as often. The business was so different back then. Hogan rarely had televised matches. There weren’t as many pay-per-views and he rarely wrestled on the weekends. So the audience didn’t get as burned out on his formula. Most of the time he just gave interviews to promote upcoming events, and there’s no doubt Hogan was great at that!
In fairness to Hulk Hogan he did deliver some memorable matches. Not every match was a clinic, but his Wrestlemania matches with Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior were pretty special. I loved Hogan’s steel cage match with Paul Orndorff on ‘Saturday Night’s Main Event’ (I always thought they actually touched the ground at the same time, I was too young to understand the magic of television editing…). Usually I had no problem with Hogan’s performance.
It’s interesting to note, though, that the whole “yellow and red” Hulkamania gimmick eventually did run its course. People DID start to get tired of Hogan’s act. It’s almost awkward to watch Wrestlemania IX; Hogan looked so different at the time (minus the steroids). Then, at just the right time he switched companies, going to WCW, and when his act started to feel dated again, he switched gimmicks to the brilliant “Hollywood” Hogan.
It seems like John Cena could learn something from this. Maybe that’s what Cena needs to freshen up his career. Cena has been on top for so long, using basically the same gimmick, that people are just tired of the narrative. He actually did this once, starting out as a rapper and then transforming into today’s superhero. That was exciting at the time but that was many years ago. Now Cena is stuck in a rut – gallantly fighting off one monster heel after another, using the same catch phrases, and debuting a new t-shirt set every few months.
I believe this is why so many people “hate” John Cena and why it became “uncool” to like him. They know he is capable of much more. They know he could be repackaged into an interesting character, one with more layers who could produce riveting television. But week after week, year after year now, the same John Cena experience is forced down our throats. Maybe you loved Cena’s matches with the Rock at the past two Wrestlemanias but I found them fairly pedestrian. Both guys worked hard, but the outcomes seemed predictable. We don’t like wrestling stars that are predictable.
Ironically, kids don’t care because kids don’t expect their wrestling stars to evolve. Kids like the same routine and the same catch phrases. The familiarity is comforting to them. As they grow up, they might then view John Cena differently, much as Hogan’s fans did. That is why Hogan had to change his persona so dramatically.
I don’t think all aspects of John Cena’s character need to be modified. There are actually aspects I really like, such as his intensity in the ring and his ability to work a lot of different opponents (Batista, Randy Orton, Triple H, and Ryback to name a few). Cena is always in great physical condition. He works injured. He works every week. His promos are fine. Sure some are better than others but how many wrestlers are truly great talkers anymore (where have you gone Roddy Piper?!).
But to me there is no question that John Cena needs a makeover. He just doesn’t seem modern. He doesn’t connect with today’s mature wrestling audience like C.M. Punk does. Punk looks and feels current, even though he is marketed much like Cena with new hats and sweatshirts on display every few weeks. But Punk’s character is complex and he brilliantly walks the line between face and heel. He feels “real”. Wouldn’t John Cena also benefit from these shades of grey?
I discussed this topic recently on OWW Radio with Wrestlespective’s editor Jason Mann and he made a great point. Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura was anti-Hogan when he was a WWF broadcaster and in a sense he became the “voice of the dissenters”. He was highly critical of Hogan in a way that nobody within WWE is allowed to be towards Cena. Jesse helped the WWF present Hogan to their audience in a more balanced way. Everything with Cena feels so…protected.
I understand the WWE is a business and John Cena makes the company a lot of money. If I owned WWE I would push him too. But does Vince think that people really can’t separate the man from the character he plays on TV. For example, if Cena turned heel would he lose his standing with the “Make a Wish” foundation? I would hope that people aren’t that shallow (although I guess it is fair that children may be impacted the most by a Cena heel turn). I was actually shocked that the WWE acknowledged his recent divorce.
When I talk to wrestling fans about John Cena many of them really do seem to hate him. I just don’t get it. I understand being frustrated by his character, but love him or hate him, you should respect somebody who has achieved as much as he has in a very difficult business.
Recently John Cena defended his WWE title in a “Three Stages of Hell” match versus Ryback. I imagine some people were upset that Ryback didn’t defeat Cena and capture the championship. Not me. I think you should pay your dues before beating the champion on pay-per-view. Maybe I’m old school that way. But Cena has paid his dues, and for that he deserves our collective respect.
One last thought – I met John Cena at Wrestlemania Axxess this past April in New York City. In addition to the autograph people paid for, Cena gave everybody an extra 8×10” signed photo…for free. He didn’t have to do that. It was a nice gesture by someone who, at the end of the day, seems like a good guy. I gave the photo to my son and he was so excited.
So, thank you John for being a classy champion and a great representative for the company. I respect your place in wrestling history. But now, let’s find something deeper than Fruity Pebbles and colorful t-shirts. Let’s get rid of the jean shorts and tennis shoes.
It’s time to remove the cape and stand alongside your fellow wrestlers instead of flying over them.