What if John Cena is heel?
By Rob Maltman
Posted On 18-07-2015 19:53 GMT
Tags: WWE, John Cena

“Chicago fans cheer and boo who they want. They’re great fans whether they like me or not. They show you how they feel. I don’t like crowds that sit on their hands” – John Cena

It’s generally accepted that the opposite of love is not hate – but indifference.  This is particularly true with regards to a performer, where the job relies on the reaction from the audience – those who want to spend their money on tickets to see you.  Within wrestling, the reaction can dictate the wrestlers career path –from a wrestler not managing to connect with the fans and being dropped down the card or released to the situation where a wrestler is portraying a baby face yet the audience are not impressed or enjoying the performance and start booing them – the promotion will adapt any existing plans and turn them heel to appease the audience and maximise any potential sales i.e. Rocky Maivia originally was hated by the WWE audience until he ‘turned heel’ and became the most electrifying superstar that wrestling (and now entertainment) has ever seen. It is this reaction that I believe set in motion the argument that this article presents, this was the point that WWE realised the audience was changing.

Professional Wrestling changed due to the Monday Night Wars (MNW).  In hindsight it has been heralded as the greatest time to be a wrestling fan as there were two companies both at the top of their game competing for the audience’s attention and those all-important ratings.  But despite the peaking of talent that would go on to be household names, the introduction of international talent into the mainstream and a revitalisation of a previous generation – the real story of the MNW was the feud between WCW and WWE. The competition and aggression between the two promotions was the real ‘hook’ that kept the audience interested and for the first time in wrestling the public got to see and discuss backstage and internal politics as part of the storylines.  Wrestling’s biggest feud was a complete reality – which in turn made everything else irrelevant. 

This realism led to the rise of the Mr. McMahon character – a stylised version of the people’s perceptions of Vince McMahon.  An evil megalomaniac out for his own benefit and had the money and sway to achieve it.  Naturally anyone who challenged him became a baby face – but the real success of Mr. McMahon (to take nothing away from the incredible performance from Vince – apart from the ‘big gulp of fear’) was that he really was the boss of the WWE, he achieved a level of believability in the role that no general manager could hope to emulate – simply because he was the genuine owner of the WWE and the public knew it.

Wrestling was changing, the public started to understand the inner workings of the business and the product was reflecting it – the characters, storylines and promotions were playing with these (mis)conceptions.  However, as with every competition, opponents are always looking to one up each other and there is only so far that it is possible to go and after WWE won the MNW what was next? It’s akin to the fable of when Alexander the great conquered the known world; he sat on a rock and cried.  WWE was on top of the wrestling mountain, but had spent so long fighting for survival and defined by competition (even the fabled attitude era was a reaction, designed to compete with WCW) – the MNW changed the WWE, wrestling was defined by this era of competition and the story was over.

It was at this point that the viewers started dwindling.  A combination of lack of interest, the rise of UFC (which provided the desire for realism) and the audience growing up and starting families and relationships.  The attitude era was redundant without competition and the stars of that era were getting older and moving towards ending their career.  As natural all those that had peaked their careers together were slowing down their careers at the same time too

Eventually the WWE reverted back to what made it successful in the first place – a PG friendly product aimed at children.  The attitude era was for the fans that had grown up from Hulkamaniacs as children into Stone Cold / DX t shirt wearing teenage rebels.  As these grew up into 20 something’s and left wrestling behind (or certainly had less surplus income to spend on merchandise) the WWE set about the uphill climb to reinvent itself for a new generation (potentially the children of the original generation) and develop a new long term fan base.  To achieve this, and prove that the WWE had changed and was now a promotion for families and children they needed a new figure head, a man the polar opposite to Steve Austin, a man that would represent the new direction the company was taking, a man that could be a 21st century Hulk Hogan.  Enter John Cena – a huge bodybuilder with smart catchphrases and a limitless supply of child friendly t shirts.  Cena was the federation years all over again – yet the adult fans who had stuck with the WWE hated him, ironically for all the same reasons they loved Hogan 20 years earlier.

But what if WWE had noticed the swing in audience opinion and desires from wrestling.  The audience had thrived on realism and backstage gossip and rumour (particularly with the rising internet community) – what if Vince had the foresight to see this change with his audience, but also the need to appeal to a wider audience (in the way Nintendo had with the success of the Wii – by appealing to an audience of women and children as well as its traditional audience) for all its success the attitude era and MNW was an inclusive period to be a wrestling fan.  With the character that Cena would portray – what if he was designed to straddle the line between heel and face? An acceptable poster boy for the business, who unlike Stone Cold would support his boss and happily represent the WWE, but a heel to those who grew up watching the edgy MNW. What if John Cena’s character is a heel, a purposely annoying mickey take of a 1980s baby face?

Kayfabe was dead and the fans knew more than ever before.  The traditional heels and baby faces model was dead and the lines between reality and fiction had been blurred to the point of no return.  Because of this Wrestling started to experiment with the established ‘rules’ – Chyna reinvented (the Wests) perception of a female wrestler, Mick Foley pushed the levels of punishment that a human body could withstand and Golddust ran with the ‘Gorgeous George’ stereotype.

In the late 1990s Bret Hart straddled the lines between heel and face – a man who had spent built a career on portraying the classic baby face and took being a role model to women and children seriously, Bret was a casualty of the change in wants and needs from the audiences.  Hart was being booed for his traditional ‘hero’ act as it was deemed cheesy and outdated in an age of anti-heroes, but rather than take the easy route and become a traditional heel, Hart stayed true to his character and acted as the defender of a forgotten era, an ambassador for what was right and wrong and whilst he was universally booed in America, he was a national hero in Canada.  It was at this point he had blurred the lines and became both a heel and face dependant on who was listening and how they responded.  Rather than being the antihero / heel who the fans loved – Bret went the other way and was a face who the fans hated.

Eddie Guerrero’s ‘Lie, cheat and Steal’ character put a spin on the traditional heel model.  By doing the actions that were normally associated with wrestling villains, but being open and honest about it Eddie won over the hearts of the fans and worked his way to the WWE championship and became one of the most beloved baby faces of all time

“Even though Los Guerreros did all kinds of heel things in order to be the bad guys, we did it in such a fun and entertaining way that the people liked it. They enjoyed the fact we weren’t hiding it from them, that we were doing our lying, cheating and stealing right there in the open.  Obviously we were hiding it from our opponents, but by making the fans a part of it, they turned us into baby faces, if I had done the things I do – like hitting my opponent with a title belt, then faking out the ref like I was the one that got clocked – back in the 80s – I’d have been booed as the biggest heel ever to hit the ring, but nowadays people go for a character that walks the line between baby face and heel, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the crowd goes off their rocker every time they see me getting ready to lie cheat and steal” – Eddie Guerrero, Stealing Death Cheating Life 2004

Before Guerrero  started playing with the traditions of pro wrestling, Kurt Angle was attempting to play the traditional baby face as a heel.  Angle is a genuine American hero, dedicated his life to his sport and represented his country, successfully, at the highest level.  Kurt should have been a natural baby face in pro wrestling, a natural successor to Bob Backlund’s 1970s all American hero or even an American Cultural icon similar to Hulk Hogan.  However Kurt’s early WWE career he was portrayed as an annoying, preachy and self-righteous character – whilst still maintaining the traits that would have made him a hero in any other generation of wrestling.

“They’d have someone interview me for a TV spot and I would talk about my three I’s – Intensity, Integrity, and Intelligence.  That was the idea Vince McMahon had for me, to bill myself as smarter and better than anybody else in the WWE. So I’d talk about how all my life I’d gone after my dream, and I reached it which makes me an American hero – a role model for kids. But right away they were giving me an odd twist. Vince wanted me to rub people up the wrong way, he wanted them to say ‘there’s something about this guy, he’s always talking about himself’ – Kurt Angle, Its True, Its True 2001

Was the WWE Kurt Angle Character a precursor to John Cena?  It’s no secret that the WWE (and wrestling as a whole) recycles gimmicks and characters, established and familiar roles get repeated and adapted for every generation. It has also been known for them to  sit on ideas until the right wrestler comes along.  From the stories of (Adrian) Neville / Pac being rumoured to have a ‘mighty mouse’ style gimmick that was originally designed for Chris Candido in the mid-90s to the tale Edge references in his 2004 autobiography

“Most of my contact with the writers cane through Vince Russo, who wanted me to be a ‘modern day Jim Morrison’” – Adam Copeland, On Edge 2004

Which as history tells us was an idea revitalised in 2007for a tough enough alumni John Hennigan who became John Morrison.

It is not out of the question to assume that the John Cena character is a spoof of the 1980s baby face – the line between reality and fiction is blurred beyond the all recognition and the establish wrestling character archetypes have been experimented with and adapted along with the change in audience trends.

Looking at the man himself, it is impossible to give him anything other than credit for his near superhuman commitment to the WWE, Charity work and the fan base.  To the outside world Cena is a great ambassador for the company – an impressive physical specimen, well-spoken and articulate and intelligent.  John Cena is presented as the figure head of the WWE, the personification of the brands ideals in a way Stone Cold Steve Austin wasn’t.  Austin built his career as the rebel and anti-authority antihero who  couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with Vince McMahon at any corporate event.

“There are times when my Olympic background helps the WWE on the corporate end. As much as the fans love the badass characters, they’re not always ideal for doing business. So the company uses me for a lot of promotional campaigns. This year they’ve had me do things like launch Kmart’s and attend the Gladiator movie premiere. In certain settings I give the company credibility. I’m a gold medallist and I can talk pretty well” – Kurt Angle, It’s True It’s True 2001

From the point of view of the WWE as a business – which wrestlers are going to attract the most positive media attention and sponsorship deals? The beer drinking redneck Steve Austin? The perma flannelled Mick Foley? The tramp styled and short Daniel Bryan? Or a clean cut, day glow, Man Mountain who looks like the all American military boy next door that is John Cena? Bear in mind that most potential investors are not going to be wrestling fans, but will have an impression of what pro wrestling is (based in part on Stone Cold and the attitude era) – John Cena is the perfect antidote to that impression, but is he only a ‘good brand ambassador’ to the WWE to those outside of the ‘universe’ in the same way Kurt Angle was? And inside the ‘Universe’ he is playing a heel with the traditional characteristics of a baby face?

To the wrestling fans John Cena is playing the role of the WWE poster boy, the Hulk Hogan style superhero who stands for everything the company, a man who has made a gimmick out of being the WWE Champion and being at the very top of the tree (the champ is here).   But this is the company that they remember being owned by the evil Mr. McMahon and despised as their hero Steve Austin valiantly fought against.  As the new face of the WWE, by definition John Cena is a heel in the eyes of the older fan – a teacher’s pet of Mr McMahon, a chosen one before Drew McIntyre was even in developmental.  Cena has frequently personified the WWE position in feuds from ECW one night stand 2006 where he stood against the clear fan favourite RVD in what was a WWE vs. fan favourite match to his recent United States open challenge series where he faces the fan favourites randomly on raw – they are not facing John Cena, but facing the glass ceiling that the WWE puts above of them which is personified by Cena, the current face of the whole company and the measuring stick of the WWE standard (as Ric Flair once said ‘to be the man, you got to beat the man’)

Cena is often criticized to the fact that he is in the position he is because of his incredible merchandise sales rather than his wrestling ability – so when he finally became the WWE Champion the belt was changed to the Spinner belt which offended the entire linage of the championship and all those who had held it, it looked like a toy and wasn’t changed until a survivor of the fabled attitude era, The Rock changed it back.

Cena is brash, arrogant and put in a position that he (arguably) doesn’t deserve – he isn’t the best wrestler in the company yet frequently he is in a position at the top of the card, regardless whether he has the belt or not. All of his promos revolve around him belittling and bullying others.

John Cena is often cited as both heel and face at the same time – a heel to the traditional male Wrestling audience and a face to women and children.  This is why in WWE films Cena will always play a hero and never a villain.  Yet in the ‘reality’ TV series Total Divas he is portrayed as a domineering and annoying boyfriend – why is this the case if he is designed to be a baby face to this audience?

If it is the case that Cena is a heel masquerading as a baby face then the WWE have pulled off the greatest gimmick of all time and kayfabe is still alive and well – you can’t see me, John Cena is hiding in plain sight

“one thing you can never do is force feed the people. You can try to relay the story you want to tell, but in the end, it’s the fans who decide.  If they want you to be a babyface, then believe me, you’ll end up a babyface” – Eddie Guerrero. Cheating Death, Stealing Life – 2004

Tags: WWE, John Cena

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