John Cena is never going to turn heel.
I have this idea booked in my head about how it could happen. Push Cena very strong for a few months (as if he needs it), then have him lose, clean, a few times in a row to someone like Rusev, and use that as a launching point for Cena’s frustration and desperation that he may be “losing” it. Eventually this boils over, causing him to cost someone like Daniel Bryan or Roman Reigns the title in a fit of jealousy and outrage. Maybe even attach him to The Authority after that to really sink the heel teeth into the meat of the storyline. There is nobody on the planet who could get more easy heat by aligning themselves with the corporate establishment than the true corporate figurehead, John Cena. Sweet dreams, I know.
It is maybe a more interesting television/Network storyline than a lucrative proposition. Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer among others has often suggested that people who demand that Cena turn heel simply “don’t understand” what it is they’re talking about, or the business aspect of pro wrestling. And from that end the argument is basically that Cena pushes the most business at the box office, drives the most merchandise sales and delivers to WWE its only consistent fan base at the moment: children. And why would you sacrifice your biggest draw for one good, temporary story?
It’s an argument that is fair enough as a safe business decision. With Cena you know what your bottom-barrel margins are, can adjust if necessary, and are mostly safe. With Cena you never have to worry about the Make a Wish gigs and media appearances because John Cena is some factory-produced charisma robot who appears to have been designed to be the most apolitically ineffectual vanilla human being of all time: the absolute grade-A, perfect spokesperson for an image-conscious publicly traded company whose reputation really does turn on a dime. He offends nothing seriously and has made himself a fortune by doing so.
To me, that argument, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, disappears up its own butt hole. If WWE never desires to give full-time, all-hands-on-deck backing to another performer, then of course Cena is always going to be the biggest draw and the best salesman. Of course the back-up Quarterback has never won a Super Bowl. He never gets to run the plays!
When you look at the short roster of people who have been given the same sort of opportunities as Cena, you can understand that there really isn’t an argument there. There was Sheamus, who did not really receive the full-throttle-push that Cena eventually did, and whose gimmick, while attractive to kids, had no shelf life. There was CM Punk, who did briefly outsell John Cena in merchandise, and who when pushed in a similar fashion helped create some of the hottest live gates and stories in his time frame. He also attracted in that time, arguably, more mainstream media appeal than Cena. Cena’s house show numbers outpaced Punk, but house shows are carnival affairs that exist almost specifically for children now. And Punk’s attitude and positioning against the company bureaucracy quickly knocked him out of favor.
There was Daniel Bryan, whose body type, background, gimmick and so on did not (do not) possess the sort of appeal to Vince McMahon necessary to convince him that such a wrestler could have lasting, long-term appeal. Because of Bryan’s injury in 2014, we may never get to see the argument play out. And lastly and most currently, Roman Reigns, the big bodied, former-athlete type that Vince loves, but who lacks the ring and mic prowess to win over the vocal minority of the fan base or to yet carry the torch and deliver solid shows if it came down to being up to him and no one else.
And so we’re left, again, with Cena involved in the main event picture heading into WrestleMania season, shuffling to the ring to bad rap music, throwing his goofball baseball cap off and cutting a promo about the same old challenges and nonsense he always does. Much in the way Hogan traversed though his fading years as super-face in early-mid 90s WWF and WCW, you could basically cut-and-paste one John Cena promo with another for four years past: overcoming the odds against this monster, dealing with controversy surrounding fans love-hate relationship with him and so on. It is baseless, contextless, filler and boring.
For two years now, we’ve heard the now-often-lampooned phrase, “best for business”. It originated, seemingly, as Stephanie McMahon and Paul Levesque’s “clever”, back-handed insult at the internet wrestling community, mocking them by writing into the storyline the idea that the two *really do believe* these things that the IWC accuses them of: that they’re overtly political to the detriment of the product, that they only like big-bodied goons who can’t work, that if you don’t fit the mold or play along, you aren’t going to get a push. The storyline became so intertwined in reality — as often happens in WWE’s weird “universe” — that it has basically become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While we know Triple H now as much for his stellar work with NXT’s program, and much of the blame has shifted to Vince McMahon as being a ridiculous micro-manager and oblivious, senile executive whose last brush with relevant pop culture probably happened before most of his so-called “millenial” employees were out of diapers, the creative problems at the top still remain.
Where the truth exists in all that, who knows. But what we do know is that Cena exists in there in every conceivable scenario, endless, inexhaustible and totally without reason or direction. Through the last few years, the other attempts at top babyface acts have at least existed with a reason: Daniel Bryan was pushed on the storyline that executives didn’t believe he was an actual draw in spite of overwhelming fan reaction. Roman Reigns is being pushed on the notion that he is the natural successor whose raw power and talent makes him “the one”, and that his former ally Seth Rollins only went sour because his natural talents couldn’t lead him there like Reigns’ could.*
(*Given Rollins tendency to outshine Reigns in every way, this is a bit of a tough sell. But at least it’s something.)
Cena, meanwhile, just exists. He shows up in main event matches and it’s generally agreed upon by the heels that they don’t really like the guy, but it’s never really explained why anymore. He’s just there. He’s just the, “Well what about….?” guy. Basically, it seems that the last several years — probably at least since CM Punk’s leaving-the-company angle — Cena has only existed as the heel foil: The guy who is the obstacle and simply won’t “play along”.
This is a one-trick pony that has been brutally beaten to death and dust and now they’re just slapping the heap of dirt where the pony once existed. You can only for so long have a hero battle evil “just because”/”it’s the right thing to do” without ever really explaining what the right thing is or why it’s happening. You can only for so long have a guy just show up whose motivations are noble but non-descript or don’t make any sense.
From a heel perspective, the Bryan/Reigns things work because they are essentially pretending they want to sacrifice these people for what they think the people actually want to see. In other words, the heels know better what the fans want than the fans. It’s a tricky storyline, because it risks go-away heat (which Stephanie gets as often as she gets heel heat), but when it works, like it eventually did with Bryan at WrestleMania 30, it can really pay off.
With Cena, however, this story doesn’t work because there is a pretty vocal base of fans who really don’t want to see the guy anymore, and in as many or more cities than not, they’d actually rather he was putting the other guy over. But moreover, it’s because Cena is just such a tired character. Most people — even Cena fans — would generally agree that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he went away for a while.
But here we are, John Cena still playing the face and pulling the same virtuous good guy act as he has forever. He is the super-face, the guy wearing the “brass ring”, lofted forty feet off the ground with no route to him.
As long as Cena is around and as ridiculous as it sounds, it is probably always going to be that way.
In late 1992, early 1993, the writing was on the wall for a longterm split between the World Wrestling Federation and Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s epic face run had lasted the better part of nine years, but his star had diminished, and he had sold himself out in the then-pending controversies surrounding WWF superstars and steroid abuse. Vince McMahon was under legal and financial assault by a litany of ex-employees and federal prosecutors, accusing him of everything from steroid distribution to rampant sexual assault. The economics no longer made sense for McMahon/WWF to pay for an aging, fading star like Hogan, who had slimmed down out of necessity and checked out emotionally based on his fractured relationship with the company. Hogan was going to take some time off, try his hand at a Hollywood acting career that he believed (but didn’t really) he had waiting in the wings, and maybe make a little money again as the brawny American in Japan.
Had Hogan stayed in the WWF though, it stands to reason that he may never have turned heel. When he returned to the American wrestling scene in 1994, he lingered through two and a half years of haphazard, easy-bake storylines in WCW, once again playing the do-good hero overcoming the odds against a laundry list of nameless, faceless monster villains. But the whole thing was played out and Hogan was no longer the draw, or even the in-house pop machine that he had been just four or five years earlier. The face run, it seemed, was over.
And by the by, the perfect storm was happening. Hogan’s contract with WCW was set to expire, and WCW was just then heating up in it’s intense promotional war with the WWF. Hogan returning to the WWF could have been a death knell for Bischoff’s WCW, just then gaining momentum. But Hogan’s fading star also proved for him an insecure position: maybe the WCW didn’t need him anymore, and with the WWF now fully invested in “future” stars such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, maybe the WWF would not be so keen on hitching their wagon back onto him, either. Timing and situation considered, Hogan eventually and begrudgingly agreed to make the turn, spending the next 3-or-so years as professional wrestling’s predominant bad guy.
In the WWF, it’s impossible to know if this would have happened. Bret Hart has frequently lamented on Hogan’s unwillingness to put Hart over as the next big star, and we saw years later in Hogan’s return to WWE that he was still willing to play politics with Shawn Michaels (so much so that Michaels made a cartoon-like mockery of Hogan’s offense in a match where he was asked to job to the Hulkster).
The years directly proceeding Hogan’s departure from the WWF were some of the companies darkest in its history, not only because of the loss of talent through attrition to WCW and the literal “deflation” of the roster due to the steroid scandals, but also because Vince McMahon had pushed his product in the direction of a children’s program well beyond the point of absurdity. The creative direction was in tatters, the roster was a mess, and the cartoon/super-hero contingent was at an all-time high. This was the era of the wrestling hockey player, dentist, diesel engine mechanic, cowboy, fitness guru and so on.
In McMahon’s effort to hide his roster’s shortcomings by making his product campy and relatable, he had done exactly the opposite by becoming so trite, cheesy and ridiculous that even youngsters found the whole charade a bit unbecoming. But the thing was, it’d worked before.
Hogan’s final, truly successful run in the WWF was in the late 80s and early 90s, when the WWF roster was admittedly deeper but still full of goofy gimmicks and bad caricatures. Hogan wrestled prison guards, lampooned South African royalty, lampooned North African savages, men whose fatness apparently allowed them to create tremors, bizarre criminal super powers from B-rated movies, non-enlisted military industrial complex people who inexplicably wore war fatigues and sympathized with the enemy, and undead crypt keepers.
The creative genius of Vince McMahon was never exactly in dressing up and polishing a turd. Instead, he was really, really good at finding the guy who everyone wanted to root for, regardless of the circumstances. And when he whiffed, he was a professional enough businessman that he could always lure back his old standbys. When Hogan had “passed the torch” to the Ultimate Warrior in 1990, there were a litany of problems. Warrior had a poor reputation for selfish and limited in-ring work among other wrestlers, was rumored to be less-than-welcoming to kids, and frequently argued with and held up Vince McMahon for more and more money. And so McMahon brought Hogan back, who — at least for a little while — stabilized the situation on top.
So it stands to reason that in 1994 and 95 with the product sinking and McMahon’s wallet shrinking, Hogan maybe would have been used as the great dragon slayer against an endless army of bad gimmicks once again, and maybe so in perpetuity until McMahon was either financially forced into doing something else, and even then, maybe not.
The effects of that idea could have changed the face of wrestling. If Hogan had stayed and hung on to the spot light, maybe Michaels and Hart never broke out beyond his shadow. Maybe Hall and Nash never reached the heights where they could leverage themselves deals into the WCW. Maybe Steve Austin and Mick Foley, then toiling away in WCW and eventually ECW, would never have got the opportunities necessity allowed in the WWF’s most financially troubled days.
When McMahon and the WWE finally did pull the trigger on turning it’s super-hero into a heel, it wasn’t Hogan, but a bald, bad-ass anti-hero with a penchant for cussing and kicking ass, who was still over with the fans even if his momentum was slowing somewhat. That man, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, was only five years into his career-defining babyface run that alongside The Rock propelled the WWF back into first place and ultimately won the wrestling war. It was a shocking turn insofar as being a paradigm shift in the middle of the companies hottest era, with arguably its biggest star.
And overall, it failed. Fans were not yet ready to truly boo Austin, and though Austin had successfully played the heel many years prior in his career, his gimmick as a bad-ass was so over as a face by that point that there was virtually nothing he could do with enough malice to generate heel heat. By the time the fans began to come along to the idea, Austin, and the companies creative, were no longer really putting all of their heart and energy into making it work, and Austin’s turn back — basically marking the heel turn as kind of a pointless non-sequitur — took place.
In short, while you couldn’t call the Austin turn a complete failure, it certainly failed to live up to the expectations that it presented, bogged down by fan disbelief and the storylines surrounding it.
So what had Vince learned through the years, or what at least does he *think* he’s learned, and how does that pertain to John Cena?
First, Vince’s understanding of WCW’s collapse seems more juvenile and shallow by the day, and every time WWE releases another “documentary” around the subject, the WWEification of the WCW downfall becomes more and more ridiculous. McMahon has recently said that he believed the mid-90s WWF product was better than WCW (a virtually indefensible position), and that it had just taken the fans some time to recognize that and come back. What’s more, McMahon has on countless occasions remarked that the WCW stories became “played out” and “stale”. This position is certainly more defensible, and echoed by many wrestling commentators throughout the years.*
(*What we know about the truth of WCW is a little more complicated. Their demise was likely a combination of stale and eventually destructive writing, guaranteed contracts with creative control, and a change in principle ownership that no longer wanted a pro wrestling brand.)
But that belief is also somewhat telling about what Vince McMahon likely thinks is the cost of turning his heroes into villains. Combine that with his experience with Austin being a heel and being mostly unsuccessfully and definitely temporary, and it stands to reason that the economic risk and storytelling risk that McMahon perceives is simply too great for him to try it again.
There is a quote, most frequently attributed to William Faulkner, that in writing you must kill your darlings. The premise behind this is that within a great story, no one single entity can be so sacred as to be truly immortal, or the story lacks within it the necessary conflict. There must be some possibility of peril, or what you have is not a story, but propaganda. Something has to be at stake.
Vince McMahon has a terribly tough time these days killing his only darling, and as a result has created an environment where he can’t really create new darlings, either, because Cena is the only gateway to that promised land, and Cena the hero is not about to be killed. The answer to “what would have happened if Hogan never turned heel” is one we are facing now, and in the next few years with John Cena.
The situation, though, seems even more dire. Though Hogan was around for roughly the same amount of time as a face as Cena has been now — and though Cena is actually probably in slightly better physical shape and is a bit younger, the stakes are higher, and the exposure is astronomically higher. Whereas Hogan had, by cunning choice, reduced himself mostly to Pay Per View events, the rare special television performance and occasional house shows by the end of his final successful babyface run, John Cena is a never-ending, nonstop, week-to-week multi-show brand ambassador, never slowing down, fading away or allowing his appearances to be digested by the viewership. It is a constant force-feeding of John Cena babyface-in-peril and buy my new merchandise nonsense. Every appearance is filled with more frustration, disdain, and pointless promos.
That’s a reality of the changing business, which has necessitated more appearances in shorter order by the company’s top star. It’s also a much worse thing for the palatability of the company’s talent, and highlights the necessity for WWE to create more stars faster, not slower.
There certainly is the possibility that Cena will turn heel at some point, though I just can’t see it in the immediate future. There’s thousands of miles still left in that guys engine, but at some point, the sun has already set on the possibility of it making a difference. At some point, there is so much cynicism and indifference about a guy that it is not a matter of the story we’re being told about him, but rather that we don’t want to hear any story about the guy at all. We’ve got to be getting close to, “You know what? Who cares anyway,” territory with Cena, and they must know that. Cena must. Vince must but might force himself to ignore it. Triple H certainly must.
Fast we approach that day when Cena is no longer the draw he is now, even to children, and there is little that can be done to stop it. The WWE sits with one star, Daniel Bryan, whom they refuse to give the keys, and another, Roman Reigns, whom is not yet ready to take the wheel. And if this all collapses at once? Well, Bob Backlund has made a good transitional champion a couple of times already….