#CenaWeek: Essential Viewing

Part of the fun of someone like John Cena is that not only do they get to work with everyone worth working with — by virtue of being the gate keeper for the money part of the card for much of the last decade — they get to have whatever type of match you can think of with them.

Sometimes, that pretty brutal encounters where guys like Brock Lesnar can completely obliterate Cena for as long as they see fit, as long as the hero can eventually come back to steal a victory from the jaws of defeat.

But he doesn’t always win. Like in his Long Island Parking Lot Brawl from 2008’s Great American Bash PPV. While many people remember the uncomfortably brutal Shawn Michaels-Chris Jericho match from earlier in the evening, this match, like many of Cena’s “hardcore” matches should his versatility as a main eventers.

People often complain — and perhaps rightfully so — about the repetitive nature of Cena’s storylines. But when you actually look at the work he’s done, that feeling has significantly less to do with the amount of times he tells the same story and more to do with the fact that every storyline that Cena is, or has ever been involved with, is considered “important” by the WWE.

So, while, yes, John Cena and JBL have fought before in over the top anything goes matches, when you watch them side by side, it’s obvious that while the matches may have similarities, they don’t recycle matches over and over again as much as build on the previous ones. For instance, while their match from Judgment Day 2008 is a surprising look at just how much John Cena can bleed, because of JBL’s character at the time, the match has a significantly different look and pace than the ones that came after it.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than Cena’s relatively brief but undeniably brilliant feud during the build up and aftermath of WrestleMania 23. Michaels, who was at that juncture reaching the apex of his “I’M SO SORRY” tour, brought out the best in Cena, with their WrestleMania 23 main event showdown easily Cena’s best WrestleMania performance to date.

What’s most remarkable isn’t the match itself, but what they did just a few weeks later to top it. With Randy Orton getting sent home from the European tour, Michaels and Cena were forced to turn a Triple Threat match between the three into a two-man match. And not only that, they had to stretch it to eat up the entire second hour for fear of letting down not just the fans on TV, but those in the UK who only get to see the shows live a few times a year. They did that, and much more, putting on easily the best free TV match of all time, and one on the short list of great matches in two of the most illustrious careers in the history of the business.

From there, Cena would enter into a series of feuds with Randy Orton. And, much like JBL, a certain segment of fans would eventually complain about how lame and overdone the rivalry is. While they are pretty unequivocally wrong, there was no argument that when it was hot, it was as hot as an program the company has run for the last 10 years. This match in particular is a favorite of your correspondent’s, performing together in a way not only informed by their characters but the ways in which their characters have interacted over the years. Not to spoil the endgame but the bit setting up, where John Cena’s pleads with the ref that Orton is faking an injury, is the kind of genre savvy missing from most main event matches.

Both showcased not just their in ring skills, but a pretty phenomenal understanding of psychology that has permeated throughout both of their careers. While your mileage may vary, it’s pretty hard to argue that they bring out the best in one another. Orton, the consummate heel, needs to be able to turn Cena’s immense crowd reaction — whether it’s good or bad — into something. Heels like Orton only function properly when there’s someone truly popular on the other side of them.

In fact, much of the complaints about Orton’s style stem from the fact that more often than not, he is the most popular performer in any given match. Restholds and chinlocks only work properly as tools for entertainment if you’re stopping the crowd from getting what they want. And while there is a significant contingent of loud, fully grown men who dislike Cena, they absolutely care about what’s going on with him. And that’s when Orton can make them sing.

Or, like he did in this “I Quit” match from 2009’s Breaking Point, make them want to root for John Cena. While his Patrick Bateman facade was forever altered by this match, the way in which the two of them develop the story within the story — that Orton’s a vicious bully and Cena’s not going to give up — crescendos into a mess of brutality and brilliant pacing with the final moments of this match, from both a performance and crowd reaction standpoint, serving as a master class in making the crowd realize what they want and giving it to them.

But not every feud can be about John Cena overcoming the odds, or being the “good” guy who never gives up.

Sometimes, without directly saying it, Cena has to be the de facto “bad guy” who’s standing in the way of the company’s next big star.

And while there have been many great moments in Chicago wrestling history, John Cena and CM Punk at 2011’s Money in the Bank PPV match stands above them all. With an atmosphere that Jerry Lawler of all people accurately describes as “what it would be like if the Chicago Bears were playing in the Super Bowl in Chicago”, the two of them put on perhaps the definitive match of a generation.

In the unreal world of the post #pipebomb WWE, the match was a seachange from anything that had come before it. Not just for CM Punk or John Cena, but the company as a whole. While he had always been called “controversial”, the crowd reaction to Cena that night’s show forever change the way that he was marketed.

No longer did the distinctions of a “heel” or a “face” mean anything to Cena, who had finally reached the level of the Ric Flairs and Hulk Hogans of the world. No matter whether you liked him, or hated him, you cared about him and what he was doing. Who he was performing with was no longer nearly as relevant for him as much as it was for them.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that CM Punk would have had that reaction in Chicago against almost anybody. But there’s no doubt he was going to get it Cena, who that night entered into the realm of “attraction” that hadn’t been seen in a full-time performer since the end of the Attitude Era.

You argue that, for a specific segment of the viewing population, that had always been the case, if the ECW cretins crowd is to be believed. That’s because much like the guy who keeps hitting the girl he likes, the obsession adult male fans with hating John Cena reeks not just of the type of quiet desperation to be the nice popular guy in school that many of the “40 year olds living in their mother’s basement” that are the type of people who show up to independent wrestling shows, but the type of psychosexual confusion that Freud was talking about two centuries ago.

After making the dreams of many a wrestling nerd fan come true by losing to their favorite performers, Cena was pushed into one of the most popular (and most maligned, because, again, there’s a certain segment of wrestling fans who are narrow-minded, at best) angles of all time: his two-year feud with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
There are legitimate arguments to be made about either match being undeserving of being one of the biggest draws in the history of the industry, but it doesn’t discount that they in fact were.

And in a world where quality doesn’t necessarily correlate with popularity, it’s easy to downgrade these matches as repetitive, overhyped or downright bad. But none of that takes into account how much the part of the crowd that wanted to see that match wanted to see it.

Or that we never would have had this match without the second one:

Or, this:

Or even the passing of the torch that happened with Cena and Daniel Bryan at last year’s SummerSlam.

That Cena would eventually cross paths with Randy Orton on the back end seems to have upset some people, who don’t understand what the writers mean when they say that “the future of the WWE goes through John Cena”. Cena more than any other performer in the history of the business outside of perhaps Flair has been asked to elevate every single person he’s been in the ring with to main event stardom.

In order for the runs of many of the other performers in the company to be “valid” for a majority of fans, they have to face and beat John Cena. John Cena is the man, and while it doesn’t always mean it’s going to be as good as it once was, you’re always promised that he’ll try to give you your money’s worth.

But, John Cena may never seen by some as anything other than the guy that stands in the way of their favorite performers winning imaginary accolades while failing to put a single butt in a single seat themselves. There aren’t any strict criteria for what makes someone great, but the ability to appeal to the greatest number of people while also performer on the highest level should probably be in the discussion. And for those who see him just as character from animated TV show, since when is that a bad thing in the cartoon world of wrestling?

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