Saturday 27 April 2013

Victim of Circumstance

I watched the opening two matches of WrestleMania XX a week or two ago (I was bored while waiting for My Big Fat Gypsy Fortune to start). The second match is an instantly forgettable four team tag match. The opening bout is far more noteworthy, seeing John Cena take on the Big Show for the US championship. There are two firsts there: Cena's in-ring 'Mania debut (he had cut a promo at WrestleMania XIX) and his first title win.

The match is also noteworthy for the incredibly positive reaction Cena receives. He'd been on TV for around eighteen months by this point. He’d spent majority of that time doing his 'Doctor of Thuganomics' gimmick, a heavily modified version of which he still plays today.

It was peculiar viewing. Cena did the routine he still performs today and the audience lapped it up. He powered up Big Show for an FU (or the AA as it’s called now) and the crowd roared with a mixture of astonishment and approval. Moments later that same audience was stunned when 'The World's Largest Athlete' kicked out of the move, the first man to ever do so. Perhaps most interestingly the event was held in Madison Square Garden, a state away from but catering to the same market as 'Mania XXIX.

Cena got a very different reception back in 2004. I'd rhetorically ask what's changed but we all know the answer: nothing has.

In 2003 WWE was mostly directionless, flailing in the wake of The Rock's move to Hollywood and 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin's retirement. Brock Lesnar had become a decent draw but not as big as expected or needed. By the time 'Mania XX rolled around it didn't matter anyway, the show would be 'The Pain's' final WWE appearance for eight years.

Happier times for John Cena

In 2003 Cena was fresh and hungry to make it to the top. Fans appreciated his character because it was different to everything else being presented. That he clearly wanted to succeed and had a knack for effective mic work helped too. New top acts were needed and fans selected Cena to be one of them. He was a limited wrestler but he wasn’t a bad wrestler. Besides, there were guys like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle on the roster. One sub-par headliner wasn’t going to hurt.

Over the years Cena’s inability or unwillingness to change or progress has caused fans to turn on him. He trots out the same routine that helped him rise to the top nine years ago.

The key to staying on the right side of wrestling fans (as told to CM Punk by Raven) is knowing how to tweak your character every so often. Introducing a new move or altered looked are good ways of doing that. Cena has done nothing new in years. The latest move he added to his regular repertoire was the STFU in 2005. New merch every four months and the occasional switch from jorts to camouflage gear isn’t enough.

That he's not changed while fans' tastes have isn't Cena's only problem. Since 2005 he has been the undisputed star of the company. He has outlasted the two other most financially successful headliners WWE has ever had: Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin. 'The Hulkster' did around six years before going part time and eventually leaving the WWF altogether. 'The Rattlesnake' had a surprisingly short four years as the company's top act.

Hogan wasn't hearing jeers by the time he left, but he wasn't as big a deal as he had been when Hulkamania kicked off. The same is true of Austin. Both men got out, for various reasons, before fans got bored and turned on them.

Cena has been at the top for so long that it goes beyond disliking his moves or his promo style or his merch or the fact that he's marketed at kids. People are just bored of the status quo. When fans express a desire for WWE to change or progress or try something new the obvious first suggestion to make is to de-push or get rid of Cena. He's faced everyone and won everything. His continued status as top dog ensures that not only do guys not get a fair crack at making it to the top but that they look worse whenever they interact with the company’s biggest star.

Guys can get away with having foibles when headlining WWE. Hogan was just as limited as Cena. Austin wasn't far off by the time he became a star because of various injuries he'd suffered. Fans will tolerate shortcomings, just not for this long.
Cena could be said to be a victim of his own success. Fans wanted him to make it to the top because WWE was stale. But he’s now been on top for so long that the product has become stale again and it’s largely seen as his fault.

There's no obvious answer for me to point to here. WWE won't make Cena part time until 'The Franchise' himself requests it. Why would they? Working a full schedule means he’s on house shows, TV, pay-per-views, and international tours. WWE can make more money if Cena's full time.

Sending him home for a while to allow others some spotlight would be a good idea as it would create fresh opponents for Cena (and other people) and allow him to rest and recuperate. But that would mean risking a dip in ticket sales, PPV buys, and TV ratings. It's a less radical solution to a part time schedule but carrying the same problems.

Turning Cena heel isn't going to solve things. That would alienate his existing fanbase but encourage people who boo him to cheer him, because it would be the change that the character hass been needing for several years.

WWE's best option is the one they're taking. That is trying to create new megastars while Cena's still working full time. I think they've more or less accomplished it over the last two years with CM Punk. Ryback was doing pretty well before his heel turn, which demonstrates that fans will react to alternative babyfaces. If he can make it to the top and prove a success in headline situations where he isn't supported by Cena that will be a good sign.

But, to borrow a sentiment from 'Big Hungry', they'll need more. By WWE's own criteria John Cena is a success. Whoever takes over from him is going to have some big shoes to fill.

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