How WrestleMania 29 Could Solve ‘The Cena Problem’
WWE has a huge problem, and that problem has a name: John Cena.
Yes, I and numerous other writers have talked about ‘The Cena Problem’ in the past. I know all about the problems with the Cena character itself; just click the ‘John Cena’ tag at the bottom of this column for proof. This time around, however, WWE has a different ‘Cena Problem’: the future of WWE’s on-screen product hinges on what happens in the WWE Championship match at WrestleMania 29.
Eight Years of Cena
Before discussing the present, I need to take you back to the past; specifically, I need to go back to 2005 and WrestleMania 21.
One year prior to WM21, Brock Lesnar left WWE after a two-year run that saw him dominate the company and rack up an inordinate amount of accolades for such a brief career. WWE had invested in Brock to the point where it called him ‘The Next Big Thing’, and its investment busted. WWE still had viable main eventers, but it didn’t have that appeal-to-everyone ‘megastar’ that captured audiences in the same way Hogan and Austin did during their runs on top.
Enter John Cena.
A year prior to WM21, John Cena won the first of numerous championships in WWE by defeating The Big Show to win the United States Championship. (It also marked the first of Cena’s numerous wins over Big Show during the next eight years. Poor giant bastard.) WWE saw potential in Cena to take the place of Lesnar as the ‘megastar’ investment it needed to take the company into a new era.
At WM21, Cena would take the reigns by dethroning John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield as WWE Champion. From then until now, WWE has defined itself via John Cena, regardless of how fans feel about the man or the character he portrays on-screen.
Cena’s extensive run as the ‘megastar’ of WWE comes with a cost to his on-screen character, though; to explain this problem, I need to bring up Alberto Del Rio.
In late 2010, Del Rio debuted on SmackDown after having boasted about how ‘destiny’ would lead him to win the World Heavyweight Championship. After failing multiple times to win the title, ADR went after (and won) the WWE Championship, but he never changed as a character between his debut and the end of his title reigns. WWE needed him to play the part of a villain, but his character had no motivation for acting ‘evil’. ADR shuffled around the card and never went anywhere as a character, even as he put on solid performances in the ring.
At the tail end of 2012, this changed as WWE had Big Show beat up Del Rio’s personal ring announcer and constant companion, Ricardo Rodriguez. While WWE had only hinted at ADR and Ricardo having an actual friendship instead of a employer/employee relationship, it didn’t come into play until Big Show assaulted Ricardo. Driven by a new purpose (avenging his friend), Del Rio cut Big Show down to size in a Last Man Standing Match in early 2013. The victory gave Alberto what he wanted all along: his destined World Heavyweight Championship.
Del Rio looked genuinely elated to win the title, as did Ricardo; as both men celebrated the victory, Del Rio changed from an arrogant villain who wanted to win the title for egotistical reasons to a heroic figure who found true happiness in celebrating his victory with his friend (and, by extension, the audience). He had a defining moment that propelled him into a new character arc, one that continues through to now as Del Rio prepares to face Jack Swagger at WrestleMania 29.
Why bring up Del Rio, you might ask? I do it for a simple reason: to show that John Cena hasn’t had a similar sort of character arc in the past eight years.
Every time WWE puts Cena in any sort of ‘peril’, it neuters said peril by making sure it has no consequences. Cena loses a title shot, then gets one again just for showing up on Raw. Cena loses ‘the match of a lifetime’ and appears to have finally started an actual character arc, then spends the next year main eventing pay-per-views and wrestling for world titles during what WWE will call ‘the worst year of his career’. It even happens during matches, to which anyone familiar with Cena’s ringwork and his Superman/Wolverine act can attest.
He also has no real friends or allies that can humanize his character. Whereas Del Rio has had Ricardo by his side for over two years, Cena has only had temporary alliances and relationships with other characters. WWE pushed the idea of Cena and Zack Ryder as friends in early 2012, but as soon as the ‘Embrace the Hate’ storyline involving Kane had run its course, Cena went right back to his usual friend-less self while Zack Ryder…yeah…
This lack of character progression has left Cena in a static, unchanging state. (His ring work doesn’t help matters much in that regard, either.) Combined with his position as ‘the best thing ever’ and WWE’s inability to credibly push talent to main-event-level status, Cena’s flat character has left fans apathetic. WWE needs to freshen him up or risk losing more fans to either its direct competition within the wrestling industry or other avenues of entertainment.
So, what makes WrestleMania 29 important to solving ‘The Cena Problem’? In a way, the solution has to do with two separate interviews involving The Rock: one from this past Monday’s episode of Raw and one from twelve years ago.
'I Need to Beat You, Rock'
Back in 2001, Steve Austin found himself in a vaguely similar situation as John Cena: heading into WrestleMania 17, he had reason to doubt that he could reach the top of WWE again. Austin had come back after undergoing neck surgery, and despite winning the Royal Rumble, he lost a month later to Triple H in a Three Stages of Hell Match that tested the limits of his now-weakened physical abilities. With that loss fresh in his mind, Austin had a bigger challenge ahead of him: he had to win a WrestleMania main event against a fully-healthy Rock to regain the WWE Championship.
Prior to the pay-per-view, Austin and Rock sat down for a face-to-face interview with Jim Ross to talk about their upcoming match. In one of the most retrospectively infamous moments in WWE history, Austin laid the groundwork for what would happen at WM17 with two simple sentences:
I need to beat you, Rock. I need it more than anything you can ever imagine.
We all know what happened next: Austin, in his desperation to defeat Rock and reclaim the WWE ‘throne’, made a deal with longtime archrival Vince McMahon to take Rock out and ensure victory. Austin had ‘sold his soul’ to win; in the process, he became a full-fledged villain who would do anything to stay on top. (The change didn’t work in the long run, but the point remains: the change happened.)
Those two sentences Austin spoke foreshadowed his change in character, much like John Cena’s dialogue in the ‘Legends Q&A’ segment from Raw this past Monday did the same for him. Cena talked all about how he made ‘one bad decision’ that he wouldn’t repeat again, how Rock had become the only person to ever get inside his head enough to force him into making such a bad decision, and how he would walk into WM29 and beat The Rock. He even said this during one of his bits:
I know I am better than The Rock…and more importantly, The Rock knows I am better than The Rock.
While Cena didn’t out-and-out repeat Austin’s dialogue, the intent of his words and the dead-serious delivery of his dialogue rang true of the same foreshadowing that preceded Austin’s turn to evil. Fans feel as if this promo has become Cena’s ‘I need to beat you, Rock’ moment: the start of a true character arc that will evolve the Cena character.
How The Change Could Happen
Now that it has teased a change in Cena’s character, WWE has a number of scenarios it could put into play at WM29.
It could book Cena to lose the match in any way, at which point Cena could go crazy and take out Rock, WWE personnel, and anything or anyone else that gets in his way in a storm of furious anger akin to the ‘NXT Riot’. This plan could backfire, though: fans might actually get behind the idea of Cena as an Austin-type ‘take no prisoners’ anti-hero and cheer him, thus ruining the effect of Cena’s turn. This ending doesn’t seem probable, considering Rock’s schedule and WWE needing to put the WWE Championship on someone else. (On the other hand, a loss could give WWE the chance to let Cena take a much-deserved break so it can bring him back later; absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that jazz.)
It could book Cena to win the match via outside interference from another villain, which would align Cena with the villain and make him look evil. Much like the above plan, this could backfire depending on with whom Cena allies himself. This ending seems probable, considering how WWE goes out of its way to avoid having Cena appear to have a relationship with any other character, but I don’t buy it as likely.
The two most probable endings both involve Cena winning, but the decision in how Cena wins will ultimately shape his character and WWE’s on-screen product over the next year.
In the first ending, Cena defeats Rock clean and ‘redeems’ his ‘awful’ 2012 by getting back on top. While this would keep Cena’s family-friendly ‘superhero’ image intact, it severely limits WWE’s options for the on-screen product: with no other credible villains on the roster than Cena hasn’t defeated in one-on-one matches before (The Shield notwithstanding), who could WWE put in Cena’s way that presents a credible threat to his WWE Championship reign? It could call up someone new, but the inevitable defeat this new villain will suffer at Cena’s hands might prevent fans from investing in this new villain. It could even go back to CM Punk, but even with the quality of Cena/Punk matches taken into account, how much more can WWE get out of that particular rivalry?
In the second ending, Cena defeats Rock after cheating in a blatant manner (i.e. hitting Rock with the WWE Championship). This ending would fulfill Cena’s turn to the dark side by making him look desperate to get back on top, and WWE could run with that by turning him into someone willing to do anything to stay on top. WWE could present a whole character arc of a paranoid Cena doing everything possible to keep anyone from getting their hands on the WWE Championship, with the climax involving a whole new hero (or one relatively new to the main event scene) toppling Cena and winning the title. WWE could also go back to CM Punk and continue that rivalry if it felt it couldn’t take the risk of putting someone new in the position of beating Cena.
(WWE could also go with a mixture of endings where Cena beats Rock clean, but something happens after the match that changes Cena’s alignment. I don’t consider this one likely, but WWE has surprised me before, so who knows.)
What This Means
As a wrestling fan, you might ask why you should care about Cena turning evil or simply refreshing his character. The answer lies in the length of Cena’s career up until now: after over a decade working for WWE, Cena has little else left to give that would benefit WWE over the long term. Cena has nothing left to accomplish ‘in-universe’, either, given his multiple world title reigns, Royal Rumble wins, and victories in WrestleMania main events. He also has to worry about his long-term health; as his injuries begin to pile up and he continues to age, Cena will face retirement sooner than both he and WWE might expect.
WWE has to know Cena, both as a wrestler and a character, now stands on his last legs. Refreshing his character in a major way could draw out how much longer WWE can market him as a character people will pay to see wrestle, even if it can’t refresh Cena in terms of physical health. One last major run could give WWE time to prepare for a post-Cena existence by building up the next generation of stars who will take over after Cena leaves.
Whatever WWE does at WrestleMania 29, it has to do it with the intent of solving ‘The Cena Problem’ once and for all.