Hi folks! Today, we’re looking at the subject of John Cena and how he became one of the most polarizing figures in wrestling history. In the past year or so, he’s disappeared almost entirely from WWE, as his movie & TV gigs ensure the 16-time World Champion a healthy career outside the squared circle. At 42-years-old, he’s not exactly gone forever, but he knows it’s no longer feasible working a full-time schedule. He’s no longer the face of WWE, so the company is forced to build toward its future. In that regard, it’s become everyone’s best interest to move on.
This piece reflects on several of Cena’s moments which either sparked, or exacerbated his polarizing reactions. You could say it’s like a follow on from WWE’s ‘Ruthless Aggression’ documentary series; which dipped in to the phenomenon without sharing much detail from a fans perspective. It would help if you have seen the documentary, although I’ll retread on some of the points made anyways. And with that little introduction over, let’s begin shortly after Cena claimed the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21.
The Spinner Toy
The documentary shares strong points about the WWE Championship spinner belt; especially the negative reaction from superstars like the Big Show. Many fans felt the same, as the once grand looking (Undisputed) WWE Championship had been reduced to a kids toy. Legends like Stone Cold Steve Austin introduced their own belts, but they were only used for a short time. Nevertheless, designs like the Smoking Skull belt (& The Rock’s custom belt which never made it to TV) proved exceptionally popular with fans. The spinner however, was not so well-received from older fans and wrestlers alike. John Cena shared how he thought of it at the time, saying he felt the previous belt looked ‘bland’ and in need of a makeover.
That comment in itself is a little polarizing. Fans have fond memories of it being held by big names like: The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and ‘Latino Heat’ Eddie Guerrero. Is it right to belittle the title Eddie won after decades of hard work & dedication? Changing the United States title belt to a spinner wasn’t so bad, as it played well in to his heel rapper gimmick. A temporary uplift on a traditional mid-card belt was accepted (although it still had critics), but changing the WWE Championship in the same manner? It felt more like a means to ‘cash in’ at its expense. By doing so, the ‘underground’ rapper gave the impression of selling out. It wasn’t long til fans started referring to him as Vince’s chosen one, or golden boy.
John Cena struggled with a severe identity crisis in the early 2000’s which almost got him fired. Luckily, he was saved when an opportunity arose to resemble (but not as dark) a freestyle, ‘Eminem’-like persona. After a few years portraying this however, he felt obliged to tell Vince “We need to end this rapper stuff”; as he saw WWE’s target audience lean more towards young children. After all, a role model probably shouldn’t rap about genitalia, and teach rude words for kids to use on the playground; although other wrestlers were being ‘bad role models’ only a few years prior.
The bold decision became possibly the most polarizing of his career. Everything the fans loved: ‘Word Life’, the bling, ‘Dr. Of Thuganomics’, all of it was stripped away and replaced with what? A jort wearing marine? He went from delivering new material each week, to being like a dad who uses the same old lame jokes. And it confused many fans, as the change was never explained on TV. Imagine if say, Hulk Hogan stopped saying his prayers and eating his vitamins in the 80’s? What if ‘Stone Cold’ reverted back to ‘The Ringmaster’ in 1999? What is The Rock without his catchphrases?
You can’t put a guy on top, strip away everything which got him over, and expect everyone to love the shadow of what he was before. It’s asking too much, and those who understood the hypocrisy let themselves be heard. Going forward, WWE had nothing better for him, yet naively expected fans to accept this new, squeaky clean version. All he had left was the catchphrase ‘You Can’t See Me”. And also, despite never serving.. he saluted the crowd like the marine he played in a movie? Alright then.
‘You Can’t Wrestle!’
The one thing which struck me harder than anything? Was his wrestling style. Clearly, we’d been spoiled by the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero; so his way of working proved difficult to enjoy. While several wrestlers are known for having versions of the ‘Five Moves Of Doom’, Cena’s was so fake it’s arguably as famous as it is insulting. What Cena managed to do, was make this routine a weekly ordeal for many. Let’s take a look at his moveset:
- Strikes: His punches and kicks look slow and barely connect most of the time.
- Hurricanrana: Rarely used, but doesn’t flow like usual. Scott Steiner still does the Frankensteiner better than Cena has ever done a hurricanrana.
- Dropkick: Compare to Randy Orton, AJ Styles or Dolph Ziggler, and you’ll understand why he should never have used this.
- Running Leaping Shoulder Block: The fact his opponents have to take two weak-looking shoulder blocks in quick succession makes fans groan with anticipation. Seeing him miss was like a little miracle.
- Side Slam: The fact his opponent is required to miss a clothesline to set it up? Takes the fakery to whole other level.
- Five Knuckle Shuffle: When I first saw this, my reaction was “He’s doing a lamer version of The People’s Elbow”. The Rock’s move was flashy, spontaneous, and crowds loved it. This was just a pale imitation of what should have been a one-off.
- STF(U): I don’t think Cena ever locked this in properly. He’d loosely place his arms around his opponents face, but never hooked it with any real grip. Watch William Regal’s ‘Regal Stretch’ to see how it’s meant to be done.
- FU/AA: I do like this move. However, compare it to Tommy Dreamer’s Death Valley Driver or Brock Lesnar’s F5 (the set up and original names are similar), and you can see how it’s not overly spectacular. Should be more of a trademark move leading to a finisher.
John Cena had a long way to go in his early days as WWE Champion. He was thrust in to the spotlight, mainly because of The Rock, Steve Austin, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg and Kurt Angle departing; along with the sad passing of Eddie Guerrero. It’s safe to say, he became ‘The Man’ a few years before he was truly ready. He quickly fell in to the pattern of working the same match week in, week out, and fans started chanting ‘You Can’t Wrestle!’. The Rock also had his share of haters for doing the same in his prime, but at least he could fall back on his strong character.
The booking team often masked The Rock’s weaknesses by putting him in No DQ type matches, but PG programming (Cena had his bloodiest match vs. JBL in 2005) meant Cena couldn’t be covered for in a similar way. Not only that, but he had another annoying trait. He’d no-sell offense after being worked over the entire match, quickly execute his moves, win the match, and continue no-selling during the celebration. This repeated display of no-selling became known to many as ‘Super Cena’, and it happened countless times with different opponents. Chants of ‘Boring!’, gradually became ‘Same Old S**t!’
One Night Stand
While the hate had been brewing for months, the one event to cement Cena’s polarizing legacy in stone, came at the infamous 2006 PPV named ECW One Night Stand. Why WWE decided this was a good idea? I’ll never know. Someone had to be smoking RVD’s stash, because it was totally careless and asking for trouble. The year before, WWE aired what I consider one of the greatest PPVs they ever produced. ECW One Night Stand 2005, was the single biggest love letter imaginable to ECW fans. And even with WWE’s Raw & SmackDown ‘invaders’ looking to spoil the party, they served as the perfect heels in a story culminating with ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin leading the ECW originals to victory. It couldn’t have been booked any better, and many anticipated something similar for the 2006 iteration.
Fast forward to a year later.. and suddenly WWE wants to book Jerry Lawler, Kurt Angle, Randy Orton, Edge, Lita and John Cena (in the main event) on the show? The ECW fans wanted none of that, all they wanted were the originals. What could have been another memorable night of extreme action, turned in to a weird half-ECW, half-WWE hybrid with mixed results. Hell, they even had Eugene show up as a heel so The Sandman could scare him off. In the build up, Mick Foley insulted the hardcore ECW faithful with a worked shoot promo, turning heel so he, Edge and Lita could take out ECW Originals Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk and Beulah; which they did for some reason. The only saving grace of this PPV? I’d say it was the main event. However, it came with an unnecessary sacrifice.
‘If Cena Wins We Riot!’
John Cena was set to face ECW Champion Rob Van Dam, with only the WWE Championship on the line in front of a packed out Hammerstein Ballroom. By doing so, WWE set him up as the antithesis of what ECW stood for. Without trying to build him as the heel.. they essentially threw Cena in to the lion’s den with a blunt stick. John couldn’t do anything right, as he kept having his shirt thrown back in disgust by a hostile crowd. I won’t spoil what happened at the end, but it’s safe to say the fans did go home happy.
The aftermath however, was not what WWE wanted. ECW fans confirmed it was ‘cool’ to hate Cena. Before this show, there was a slim chance WWE could have salvaged something. With a few tweaks, they might have been able to find a way to make him more likable. But no, this match shone a harsh light on a underlying problem WWE hadn’t fixed since Cena won the championship a year before. And when fans chanted ‘F You Cena’ at WrestleMania 22? I was somewhat surprised, but I assumed it was a phase which would eventually peter out. With One Night Stand, WWE had effectively dug Cena in to a hole they could no longer get him out of.
WWE wasn’t sure what to do. They tried everything to get Cena over, but the more they pushed, the more fans resisted. It was baffling. I couldn’t understand why they were pushing a guy who was so clearly hated despite not playing the heel. After a while, WWE started ignoring the mixed reactions. Annoyingly, commentators glossed over the fact crowds were hurling boulders of obscenities at the champion. This brought on some frustration of my own, because it felt like WWE was no longer listening. Being a fan for years, I looked for alternatives because it wasn’t right seeing what the company had become.
After not watching WWE for about six months or so, I tuned in and saw Cena basking in the glory of his love/hate relationship. And then it dawned on me. WWE didn’t care how we reacted.. it was all about getting any kind of reaction. Saying to other fans “If you really hate Cena so much, don’t react to him”, but it’d fall on deaf ears because that’s how much he got under their skin. There’s still fans who would love to be there when he returns for the novelty of booing him; someone cue the “Let’s Go Cena, Cena Sucks!” chant. What John Cena’s character really taught me, is that silence kills. No reaction is a far greater destroyer than the sound of buzzing hatred.
Here’s a list of six times we may have questioned WWE’s booking of John Cena:
– Cena admitted he made a mistake pushing to change the finish between The Nexus and his team at SummerSlam 2010. Surely, it would’ve been The Nexus’ greatest victory of their careers. Edge & Chris Jericho felt it was the wrong call, but Vince sided with Cena and the team never recovered.
– ‘Once In A Lifetime’ Rock vs. Cena had to be done twice, because Vince and/or Cena felt getting the win back was necessary. After working something similar from the year before, The Rock looked less than thrilled while holding up Cena’s arm in victory.
– Much to many fans frustration, Cena was booked in the majority of PPV main events throughout 2012; despite CM Punk being WWE Champion. *Cena 9-3 Punk*
– After Rey Mysterio won his only WWE Championship by defeating The Miz in a tournament final, Cena demanded a title shot (Punk ‘left the company’ and he was due a rematch) on the very same night and Triple H granted it. Cena defeated Mysterio, and fans shook their heads in disbelief as Rey showed him respect.
– The program with Rusev helped the Bulgarian in 2015, but he lost so many times to Cena that he’s still struggling to be taken seriously five years later.
– After a great run for The Wyatt Family (beating The Shield, and Cena in a steel cage), all momentum died when Bray Wyatt lost his winning streak at WrestleMania XXX. A few months later at Payback, Cena literally buried Wyatt under electrical equipment in a Last Man Standing. The Wyatt Family disbanded and reunited later, but they never again looked a serious threat to Cena, The Rock, or anyone else at the top of the food chain.
JR Blames Overexposure & Lack Of Villains
“Is Cena the culprit why WWE can’t develop a viable, hero or, more importantly, heroes to supplant the 15-time champion who has pulled the wagon for more than a decade?”
Jim Ross became a foxsports.com contributor for NCAA Football and Oklahoma Sooners in 2014. While doing so, he also wrote some pieces on wrestling. This included an article on John Cena, the man he personally signed to a WWE contract in 2001. With an eye for talent, JR told Vince McMahon he’d just signed someone who would main event WrestleMania in the next five years; and that’s exactly what happened.
He discusses some of the reasons for John Cena’s polarizing receptions. This includes being on TV every week all year, along with WWE failing to build viable heels to challenge him for the top spot. Also, he makes an interesting note that turning him ‘heel’ wouldn’t make sense, because 1) it would be bad business, and 2) there would be no one to replace him in said role. You can find Jim Ross’ article at the following link:
WWE continued expanding despite changing to PG, the controversy surrounding untreated concussions, and losing several of their biggest stars. The fans kept flooding in regardless, and profit margins soared. All of this, while moving away from the immense popularity garnered during the Attitude Era. A whole new generation grew up admiring Cena, Orton, Batista, Edge, CM Punk, and The Miz. And in the decades to follow, many will look back and hail John Cena as one of the greatest WWE superstars of all time.
We already know how he helped lift the company in its time of need. And while WWE had to scale things back to accommodate for lawsuits and other complications, Cena adapted to this environment and made it his own. His workload was crazy high and he majestically no-sold any kind of frustration. While he did initially garner some negativity from the locker room, he won them over with an unrelenting work ethic. While much of what he did was repetitive, he was doing as asked and handling it better than most would. And he always stuck to who he was through years of fans pleading for a heel turn, because he didn’t want to let the kids down. He stuck to his guns, and on some level we should all respect that.
What is apparent after looking back on his career, is that John Cena is one of the most loyal workers in WWE history. He may have his detractors, but the proof is there for all to see. Had Cena not been an attraction, his merchandise sales wouldn’t have been enough and WWE executives would’ve started looking elsewhere. His charity work is unmatched, and I’m sure much of the younger generation are sorely missing him. Upon his return, I am hopeful that WWE uses him wisely by putting over the future. After all, a win over a sixteen-time World Champion looks good on any upcoming star’s résumé. Anything less would be deserving of a polarizing reaction.
Cena’s had a storied career, and half the time I tried not paying too much attention. His only crime is taking so long to show us his true potential. I hate the character.. but the man behind the character? Is a cool guy. I’m sure he’ll look back on it all and grin like a Cheshire Cat, just to annoy the haters out there. With that said, if you believe there’s anything I have overlooked? Please let me know in the comments and I’ll consider adding any major exemptions. Much of this may have been common knowledge to some of you, but if it helps even one person to further understand John Cena? Then I say mission accomplished. Thank you very much for reading! And here’s to a solid show at WrestleMania 36.