When I left home to join the military in 2001 Steve Austin was still very much “the guy” in terms of WWE’s fictional hierarchy.
I was unable to follow the product during my tours overseas but in my youthful ignorance I never even considered the possibility of the universe changing while I was away. For the duration of my unavoidable lapse in fandom the state of the WWE universe remained very much in Austin’s image in my mind’s eye. About a month after I returned home to civilian life I watched John Cena defeat John Bradshaw Layfield for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21. Clearly some adjustments had been made while I was gone.
I enjoyed much of Cena’s early run on top. In fact, I found his performances much more intriguing than Batista, who was distinctly positioned as the other ‘top guy in training’ during that period of time. But my enjoyment of Cena had its limitations.
I consciously kept the John Cena character at arm’s length. He just wasn’t my champion. I didn’t get to experience him from day one, follow the trajectory of his career from the mid-card and up the ladder to the main event level as I had with previous heroes like Bret Hart, The Undertaker and Austin. Moreover, something had changed in me personally. My view of the world radically changed after being exposed to some of the world’s darkest offerings. Becoming an active participant of war altered the way I absorbed everything in life. I became a different person, a better person hopefully. I definitely became a different kind of pro wrestling fan. I was no longer interested in the infallible supreme heroes I grew up watching and loving. I wanted someone full of piss and vinegar like Austin and then some, a babyface whose level of fight superseded his status as champion. Cena was not that kind of babyface. Luckily I learned to accept Cena for who he was over time (even when the vocal minority refused).
Ironically, I was also absent when Roman Reigns debuted as a member of The Shield.
Once again a life-altering event had interrupted my regular viewing habits and once again I came out of that event with a different outlook on life and on pro wrestling. This time my reintroduction to the product was an episode of Monday Night RAW; the night Seth Rollins turned heel and dissolved The Shield. Despite my hiatus I knew of The Shield, which is to say I knew a fairly popular trio with that name existed. In the weeks that followed it became clear that Reigns was to be the principal player to rise from The Shield’s shadow.
We all know what happened next; there’s no need to rehash the unavoidable circumstances and the many mistakes made by a great many people, including Reigns himself. Truthfully, without any emotional attachment to The Shield or the character that Reigns portrayed while a member of that faction, I conceded to the passionate protests of the invested audience, who clearly wanted Daniel Bryan and not Reigns. I felt bad for that portion of the audience and through some sort of bizarre version of fanatical reverse osmosis I embraced their frustration as my own. Eventually the character did find its creative footing and has since made significant strides to overcome those first few tumultuous years (just in time for the entire WWE landscape to radically shift but hey, that’s show business).
The reason for this brief history into my own personal fandom is to show that I, like many reading this, have not always been accepting of Cena and Reigns. At times, like many of you, I’ve flat out rejected both characters. My reasons were certainly different, but the rejection itself was the same nonetheless. At one point in my fandom I longed for a bad ass character like Reigns to rule the universe while bemoaning the fact that Cena was assigned that role instead. At other times I desired the comforting qualities of Cena while dismissing the rugged and brutish Reigns. Both characters represented qualities I found compelling, but neither was in the position to represent those needs at the time I needed them. Right guy, wrong place. Right place, wrong guy. Such is life.
The Story That Could Have Been
Today Roman Reigns is precisely the character he should be: an unapologetic alpha; a ferocious warrior conscious of the fact that he sits atop the WWE food chain with few realistic challenges to that claim. He is essentially a modern day version of Achilles from Homer’s The Iliad. The thrill of the fight, the opportunity to prove his superiority on the battlefield, is what motivated Achilles. The son of an immortal goddess wasn’t a good guy, he wasn’t a bad guy, he was the guy.
John Cena, on the other hand, is a character more in line with Hector (Achilles’ primary rival). Hector was a great warrior in his own right, but he was also a man who understood his own mortality. Hector fought to preserve his honor rather than to prove his own legend. Hector, like Cena, lived by a code and refused to compromise the core principles of that code for anyone or anything. In times of triumph or times of trouble, Hector was a constant symbol of honor.
Achilles and Hector were brought together by fate amidst the backdrop of the infamous Trojan War. Hector didn’t want to fight Achilles, but recognized that circumstance made the confrontation unavoidable. He knew Achilles was the better warrior. He knew a fight between the two would likely result in his death. Still, Hector met Achilles on the battlefield. Hector fought valiantly but was no match for Achilles and he was quickly killed. Adding to the compelling drama of the rivalry was the manner in which the epic poem’s author refused to identify a clear hero and villain throughout the matter. Instead, Homer remained neutral and allowed the reader to choose for themselves which warrior they would back.
Using the basic blueprint I just explained, WWE’s brain trust could have manufactured one of the more compelling WrestleMania main event’s in recent years, if not this entire decade. The foundation has already been laid and set for months if not years.
The roles of each performer are as obvious as the outcome, as WrestleMania 34 fades to black from New Orleans the proverbial torch is pried from Cena’s cold dead hands and secured in the imposing grasp of the guy; an epic story worthy of the epic position that is the main event of WrestleMania.
The Story We All Deserve
Prior to their now infamous confrontation on this past Monday’s episode of RAW, WWE announced that Cena and Reigns would square off for the first time ever at the upcoming WWE No Mercy pay-per view. Despite Cena’s proclamation that he invoked his free agent status for the precise purpose of challenging Reigns one week prior, the announcement appeared to catch many fans off guard. Why would WWE be willing to give away such an epic match on a B-rated ppv show? How could this match not be booked for WrestleMania?
The main event of WrestleMania is the absolute height of the WWE creative calendar, it’s reserved for the most important story with the most influential creative ramifications for the year to come. Of course it doesn’t always go as planned, but the intent remains the same year after year. With that obvious truth in mind, the more compelling question to ask is: why on earth would Vince McMahon ever be so bold as to book John Cena and Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania? Is 50,000 fans screaming ‘You both suck’ compelling drama worthy of such a revered stage? Are the distracting antics of an audience determined to hijack the show such a lasting image of previous WrestleManias that we can’t help but want to see it again? Do any of us actually believe that a storyline exists, no matter how creative or compelling, in which either of those two scenarios will not take place?
Let’s be honest with ourselves, folks.
The story so eloquently presented this week on RAW is a compelling story for sure. It’s the very best parts of Vince Russo’s idea of pro wrestling storytelling combined with the sly reality of an Eric Bischoff with just enough Vince McMahon sprinkled in for good measure. That incredible segment of television may have been the best material to air on a Monday night wrestling program since CM Punk’s pipebomb promo in 2011. It was a fascinating exchange that didn’t just acknowledge the elephant in the room (or ring as it were) but shined a spotlight directly over it. The segment was both exciting and uncomfortable (in the best kind of way); a worked shoot that echoed the voices of the passionate audience with astounding clarity. But a story centered on a ‘worked shoot’ is not worthy of the main event of WrestleMania, it’s worthy of the main event of No Mercy.
Andre vs. Hogan; Hogan vs. Warrior; Bret vs. Shawn; Austin vs. Rock, even Hogan vs. Rock and Rock vs. Cena — these were stories firmly rooted in traditional pro wrestling themes that stand out in our minds when we think about epic WrestleMania matches. These were the stories that allowed us to forget, even if just for a moment, that the whole thing was just one big show. Those are the stories that belong in the main event of WrestleMania.
Pro wrestling requires continuous evolution if the phycology of the medium is to remain effective. That said, the industry does enjoy an underlying consistency; creative patterns that fans inherently learn to expect or even depend upon. The passing of the torch is one of those creative patterns. A large portion of WWE’s audience is just now coming to the realization that it’s not going to happen here, at least in the grand fashion provided by the WrestleMania stage. WWE’s master puppeteer shoulders most of that blame. But we all had a part to play. The fans who slowly recognized that Cena didn’t actually suck, but continued to chant it anyway. Immature rebels who would rather be ironic than formally admit that they’ve had a change of heart. The fans who understood the creative malpractice Reigns was saddled with, but chose to reject him anyway. Fans like me, who constantly wanted something I couldn’t have until I got it and then I wanted something else.
The match between Reigns and Cena will probably be very good, great even. But rather than the epic story of one generation submitting to the next it will serve as but a single chapter in the greater story of the respective characters. Reigns will likely move closer to a rematch against Brock Lesnar. Cena may eventually march back to attempt to break Ric Flair’s record of 16 championships in a single career. These things happen. In a weird way it’s another one of those underlying patterns we’ve come to expect from the medium. I think a lot of people realized this week that it was a story they actually wanted to see, even if they couldn’t admit it to be true. I can certainly admit it. Instead we’re all getting the match at No Mercy. That’s the match we all deserve…and that’s a shoot.