As his career winds down, John Cena may have given out the the key to WWE's prosperity for decades to come.
Upon heeding the call of the bright lights of Hollywood, John Cena has officially entered the ranks of WWE’s “part-time” talents that are spared from its unforgiving weekly schedule. After racking up just shy of 20 years as a mainstay at the top, it’s becoming clear that the sun is beginning to set on his illustrious career. Widely renowned as the company’s “top guy” ever since The Rock and Stone Cold relinquished the baton, the increasing scarcity of his appearances has meant that talk has turned to who’ll lead the charge in his absence.
But in a move that flouts tradition, the former “Doctor Of Thuganomics” has put forward an alternate solution and refuted the idea that the lion’s share of the burden must fall on one set of herculean shoulders alone. Part of a lineage that can be traced from Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund through to Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, Cena’s prognosis for how the future will unfold would make any sort of passing of the torch between himself and the new generation seem futile.
Wrestler Triple H, Vince McMahon, John Cena and Shawn Michaels pose in the ring during the WWE Monday Night Raw, August 24, 2009 - Ethan Miller/Getty Images
“For the longest time, if you considered WWE a band, there’s been one front person of the band. I think that dynamic is changing”, he told the panel at Bookcon ‘19. “It is because the audience is too diverse. I think older males are watching it, younger kids are watching it, females are watching it. The audience is so diverse, so with a diverse audience it’s tough to universally please someone.”
Plagued by a divisive crowd reaction for much of his run at the top, Cena continued by claiming that a collective effort is more conducive to appeasing fans:
“I don’t think there’s a universal figure that will lead the company forward. I think as the company grows, and especially expands globally, you’re gonna have like a ‘Super Friends’ of the WWE. Which is like people who are essentially fighting for equal share of popularity. I think the band, essentially, will have ten lead singers of every different race, creed, color, sex, ethnicity.”
At its core, the manifesto that John Cena has laid out essentially equates to how the Marvel Universe built towards the eventual inception of The Avengers. Instead of hedging all of their bets on one individual that may only strike a chord with one subset of the audience, the seasoned veteran believes that they must nurture unique wrestlers from across the board and draw on their cumulative appeal. As a case-in-point that vividly depicts the old model’s failings, think back to the many lacklustre attempts at the coronation of Roman Reigns. For a period of around four years, WWE’s higher ups did their utmost to make “The Big Dog” into the heir apparent. Touted as the main attraction for three straight Wrestlemania’s, the boos became so deafening that the production truck was accused of covertly lowering the volume in an attempt to mask them from television viewers. During the Raw after Wrestlemania 33, things came to a head when fans were so incensed by his victory over the Undertaker that he stood in the ring and endured chants of “bullshit,” “f**k you Roman” and “delete” for eight minutes straight. By way of an explanation, ECW’s legendary commentator Joey Styles clarified why Vince and his inner circle were so hellbent on pushing Roman despite the outcry from a vocal majority:
“Moms are the ones who bring kids to shows. Kids like Roman Reigns. Moms like Roman Reigns. That’s the reason. Just because some people boo him doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t like him.”
Through the implementation of Cena’s model, Roman— who’s been received with far more warmth by the WWE faithful since winning his real-life battle with leukaemia-- could continue to act as the virtuous role model for the kids while other talents could be positioned as the talismans for other demographics.
Roman Reigns and The Rock attend the premiere Of "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw," 2019 - Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Fresh from firing two of their long-serving senior writers earlier this week, the general consensus that WWE is in dire need of a creative overhaul is finally sinking in for their notoriously stubborn head honchos. No longer content to lurch from one fracas to the next, the decision to implement Paul Heyman as the Executive Director of RAW has already exhibited signs of moving towards a model that bears resemblance to Cena’s schematics. Left shaken by the looming threat of All Elite Wrestling, one of Paul Heyman’s key objectives is to recapture the imaginations of the teenage fans.
Once a key market for WWE in a bygone era, inside sources have told Pro Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer that Heyman sees “The One And Only” Ricochet as the key to ascribing WWE with the cool factor that it once had. Over on the blue brand of Smackdown! Live, Wrestlemania 34 saw Kofi Kingston become the first African-born WWE champion when he defeated Daniel Bryan, prompting a hero’s welcome when he returned to his native Ghana with the belt. The son of a Pakistani father and an Indian mother, Ali has steered clear of the sort of stereotype-heavy gimmicks that wrestlers such as Jinder Mahal and The Bollywood Boys have been hampered by and was in-line for a massive push before he incurred a horrific eye injury at the tail end of last year. WWE’s women’s division, led by Becky Lynch, has proven itself to be just as captivating as the men's roster, and have taken every opportunity to steal the show over the course of a revolutionary boom period. Upon diving into WWE’s developmental territories such as NXT, 205 Live and NXT UK, you’re accosted by even more enthralling competitors of all body types, backgrounds and charisma levels such as Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, Adam Cole, Chad Gable, Shayna Bazler, Kacy Catanzaro, Keith Lee, Velveteen Dream and countless others.
At its best, wrestling has and always will serve the same basic functions of a variety show. For example, take the yearned-for days of WWE’s most critically acclaimed period, “The Attitude Era.” A time period where every wrestler had a sense of identity that stretched beyond the vacuous character sketches that we often see on today’s main roster, the crassness of DX’s sophomoric antics could be divided by little more than a commercial break before the gothic supernaturality of The Undertaker’s Ministry Of Darkness took over without it ever feeling jarring.
Proponents of a more athletic, acrobatic and generally awe-inspiring form of in-ring competition than their forerunners, the combined power of RAW, Smackdown, NXT and 205 Live offers a strong contingent of talents that have all the tools to reach the same heady heights as the top stars of the past. If, and only if, they are developed with care and not side-lined in favour of the archaic notion of an all-conquering hero a la Hulk Hogan in the 80s. For someone that will be fashioning his exit from the squared circle in the coming years, John Cena has inconspicuously offered Vince McMahon the best advice that they could ever receive. Cena knows that the “good guy takes on all the bad guys” tales of the past will no longer suffice. Armed with a more diverse roster than ever before, WWE need to be mindful of their long-time golden goose’s advice and present their product as a well fleshed-out ensemble cast rather than going all in on a single star.