#CenaWeek: Better Know a Wrestler

After spending last month talking about the Hart Foundation, we’ve decided to talk about WrestleMania greats for our Wrestlers of the Week. Our criteria is somewhat nebulous — the performers that are most synonymous with the Grandaddy of Them All — and the order of who we pick has less to do with their actual significance and more to do with how important they are to telling the “story” of WrestleMania, but these are definitely the performers who to us most represent “WrestleMania” outside of HBK, who we covered late last year. From 9-time headliners like Hogan to his opponent from the main event of WrestleMania V, Randy Savage, we’ll be looking at the most immortal parts of the showcase.

In addition to looking at their careers in totality, we’ll also be spending some time going over their work at WrestleMania to go along with what will be a month (and a week-)long celebration of professional wrestling’s Super Bowl. This week, it’s The Champ: John Cena.

Most people don’t like the straight man. Ask a hundred How I Met Your Mother fans who their favorite character is, and you’d hard-pressed to find a single Ted amidst the Marshalls, Robins and Barneys. It’s the same for Star Wars — anyone who says they would honestly pick Luke Skywalker in a world populated with Han Solos, Boba Fetts and Darth Vaders is lying to someone, maybe themselves — and nearly every other story with anything approaching an ensemble. Being the main character, you’re often asked to sacrifice things like nuance and the accompanying dynamic character traits in exchange for being the name everyone remembers.

And while the rules change slightly for professional wrestling — see Steve Austin, Stone Cold or Rock, The — finding a character that works, sells merchandise and puts a butt every 18 inches supersedes any want for a creative outlet or a multilayered story. For guys like John Cena, this is especially true. In an era of 10 hours of TV a week, plus appearances on shows like Total Divas, there’s very little chance for John Cena to change, to adapt to become something new as a person (at least without us watching the gradual shift ourselves.) And that makes it harder for him to become something new as a character. And while it may seem like something like that is a result of bad booking, or of bad characarter development, it’s more a function of the finite amount of time a person has to live their life.

The reason we haven’t seen an evolution in John Cena, the character, isn’t because he’s lazy, that the people he works with are lazy or that they feel that the crowd wouldn’t be able to deal with the change. It’s because it’s entirely possible that John Cena, the person, hasn’t changed in a very long time. Performers in this industry seem to work best, and most successfully, when they are allowed to “be themselves”. Anyone who has ever seen Ric Flair or Steve Austin in their post career lives can see that while the characters were exaggerated, they were exaggerated versions of the performers, not somebody else.

John Cena is busy, and he’s busy because for the last ten years, he’s put a billion dollar company on his back. Or, rather, put his face on the front of it. He did so not because he thought it would be cool, but because he knew, and was told by the people he works for, that it was necessary. And for the last ten years, without complaint, he’s worked every night to be the best at what he does to the greatest number of people possible. That doesn’t mean that we should write ballads for him, or be less critical of the times that he doesn’t do what’s right , whether it’s undermine the people he’s working with with promos that don’t properly tell the story they are trying to sell, or if he decides that he should beat entire groups of up-and-coming stars because that’s what the people want to see (, brother.) But we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

It’s impossible to write about John Cena without sounding like you are defending him. It’s impossible to peel back all the layers of dislike people have for him. That he can’t work. That he’s stale. That he’s just for kids and girls. What’s fun about being  a John Cena fan, though, is that you don’t really have to. As fans who care about the things we care about, liking the person who the company thinks is the best, and the most important, feels like it should be weird. But, it just isn’t.

More so than any other performer of his generation, John Cena understands who he is and what he’s doing. He’s aware of the role he has as the actual face of the company, of the burden that can be and what it means not just for his legacy but the future of the business. And even with the weight of a billion dollar company on his shoulders, he manages to perform like he’s shot out a cannon every night, looking to put on the best show possible for every person in the arena from the people on the floor to the fans in the nosebleeds.  Beyond that, though, he does it to make other people rich, too. Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Sheamus, Zack Ryder, Big E., Cesaro, Roman Reigns and Ryback can all thank John Cena not just for the company he’s helped rebuild, but the support he’s given them backstage and in the ring.

In a subjective world like art criticism, or whatever you call our site and other places like it , it’s easy to look at people like John Cena and say he’s “boring”. That he’s not just boring, but “bad”. That because people like him and like the story he tells, he’s somehow less than others who get less recognition. Because that’s how our minds work. Instead of appreciating what we have, we seek the new, the “better”, the more “awesome”. And we miss what we have while its here. We don’t recognize that unlike Hogan, Austin, or even CM Punk, John Cena has done exactly what was asked of him, rarely changing the direction of what was happening to suit his needs or placate his ego. He’s never took his ball and went home.

He recognized a long time ago that in order to be The Man, you didn’t have to Beat the Man. You have to Be the Man. Someday we won’t have that. We may not have someone willing to take the time for the company, for the fans and for the guys in the back to make everything better. And because of that, it may not be as much fun as we think it will be when Cena is gone. But now, we don’t have to worry about that. Because, The Champ is Here.

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