Madison Square Garden. Sunday night. It’s body-to-body, 15 minutes to get inside, and once there it’s a geeked-out mob, thousands of people waiting in a line 20 people across to be let into the arena. It’s all wafts of body odor and, above the din, the soprano whine of little kids asking why the line’s not moving. I’m wedged against a guardrail by the will-call window with a mob of people whose promised tickets were nowhere to be found. The natives are restless.
But a call goes out to unite us, to remove us from our ticket-related nightmares. It’s not a protest chant against MSG or a plea for WWE — whose Survivor Series event we’re all there to see — to hurry along the pre-show preparation. It’s one guy, on the other side of the crowd from me, near the front of the line, who shouts first: “Ce-na sucks!” By the second time he says it, half the mob is singing along. Before I know it, we’re inside, and for no reason except our own giddy anticipation the chant starts up again: “Ce-na sucks! Ce-na sucks!”
It has to be said that the “Cena sucks” chant has come to mean much more than the audience’s disapproval of John Cena, WWE’s current megastar. Because as charismatic as he is and as good an in-ring performer as he has become, the perception remains that Cena has been forced down our throats as WWE’s good-guy superhero. He certainly looks the part, but that’s partly why certain wrestling fans hate him — an unbeatable-looking guy who is, in fact, unbeatable. Cena rarely loses, and usually wins in Herculean fashion.1 He’s a hero without drama. This isn’t an indictment of Cena himself; it’s a judgment leveled upon the WWE machers who have given us this Cena character. And so, while the straightforward reading of “Cena sucks!” is accurate, the chant has come to mean something else, too: It’s a universal endorsement of whomever Cena’s opponent is,2 it’s a rejection of the status quo, it’s a means of self-identification, and it’s a not-so-secret handshake between “smart” pro wrestling fans.
Cena isn’t well liked among the older (and more vocal) set of wrestling observers. Message boards have for months (and, in some cases, years) been filled with cries to turn Cena heel — to freshen his character by making him into a bad guy. But as wrestling columnist Brandon Stroud has pointed out, Cena, in many ways, is already WWE’s best heel. He struts unresponsive to the crowd’s mood, he smirks at boos, he throttles beaten opponents and hapless managers with equal disregard.3 Cena’s good-guy-with-heel-tendencies act leads us to a deeper question: Just what makes a bad guy in the modern wrestling world? There was a time when bad guys did readily definable bad-guy things. They insulted fans, they argued with referees, they assaulted in-ring allies and women. But in today’s wrestling landscape, these behaviors have all become standard for good guys, as well.
Look at this past summer’s Punk-Cena feud. Ten years ago, Punk would have been cast a heel and Cena a flawless hero; five years ago the roles would have been less obvious, but one of the two would have done something dastardly enough to brand himself the feud’s dark half. But now WWE allows Punk and Cena to play opposing positions, each cheered by one faction and jeered by another. It’s an open question of whether WWE is embracing more nuanced storytelling, or if they’re just plain stumped as to why their golden boy draws the ire of half the fan base.
Sports fans, obviously, have a habit — a tradition — of booing their heroes. Muhammad Ali was famously booed during the introductions at the Thrilla in Manila. LeBron James was booed maniacally when he returned to Cleveland after jumping to the Miami Heat. (He was booed in plenty of other cities last year, too.) Lance Armstrong was booed throughout many of his Tour de France runs. Philadelphia’s notoriously crabby fans have booed Charles Barkley, Donovan McNabb, Beyoncé, and Santa Claus. Reggie Jackson said that “fans don’t boo nobodies.” He’s right, but he misses the obvious counterpoint to his argument: Teams don’t give playing time to nobodies.
In wrestling, the rubric is slightly different. To become a superstar, a wrestler has to meet the fans’ approval. But to be given a shot at stardom — that is, to be featured on television, and to be given a prime spot on the card — a wrestler only needs to catch the eyes of WWE’s backroom deciders and show whatever potential they deem necessary. This means that wrestling fans are presented with acts that they may hate, sort of like trial and error. Cena’s vanilla hero shtick fell flat when it was introduced, but WWE gave him opportunities nonetheless; when he refashioned himself as a Massachusetts rapper,4 WWE gave him endless amounts of screen time to see if his raps would go over with the fans. That’s not a knock on WWE or any other wrestling federation; every year movie studios spend millions making films that flop, and record labels throw a hundred new artists against the wall in the hope that one or two will stick. But failures in those industries tend to be ignored; in wrestling, failed characters are difficult to write off with a simple wave of the hand. They usually have to finish whatever storyline they’ve started. Which means that they waste fans’ limited TV time — little wonder that booing has woven itself into the fabric of pro wrestling.
It’s also fitting that Philadelphia was a primary source of wrestling’s antiestablishment fan sentiment. When Extreme Championship Wrestling, which was filmed at Philly’s Asylum Arena, hit its apex in the 1990s, fans were as much a part of the show as the performers. They didn’t simply cheer for heroes and boo the villains; they acted as real-time critics of the in-ring product. They chanted when the action was scintillating — “This is awesome! This is awesome!” — when mistakes were made — “You fucked up! You fucked up!” — when matches were poorly staged — “Can’t see shit! Can’t see shit!” — and when they felt like breaking the fourth wall to chide a wrestler who moved on to bigger promotions — “You sold out! You sold out!” This is where contemporary wrestling fans learned their habits. WWE fans, once the prudes of the wrestling world, now habitually break into “Ho-ly shit” chants when the performers execute big moves. Likewise, they croon “Thank you” when big stars announce their (real or fake) retirement. Even Vince McMahon — for years WWE’s most dependable bad guy — elicited a “Thank you, Vince!” chant when Triple H fired him in July.
The interactive tradition in ECW didn’t emerge in a vacuum, though. As far back as the 17th century, theater audiences in France and England were populated in the area directly in front of the stage by a rabble-rousing mob called the parterre — the pit — who, according to Wikipedia, “mimick[ed] performances, ogl[ed] at the women in the boxes, and ma[de] fun of the people.” When an 18th-century audience at Drury Lane theatre in London “pelt[ed] the stage with oranges,” one sees a fairly direct line to ECW fans’ tossing chairs into the ring at Cactus Jack and Terry Funk. These are expressions of the power spectators hold over performers. An observer at an 1840s performance along New York’s Bowery described a similar scene, with “yells and screams, the shuddering oaths and obscene songs tumbling down from the third tier.” One hundred and seventy years later, that sounds very similar to what I experienced Sunday night.
The first match on the Survivor Series card was John Morrison — a good guy — against the devious Dolph Ziggler. Even though Morrison’s shtick has worn thin with the same quarter that boos Cena, it was slightly stunning to hear the volume of his boos and — even more so — the cheers that Ziggler received. Ziggler is becoming increasingly popular with the wrestling intelligentsia, but he’s playing such a straightforward bad-guy persona that I expected the MSG masses to play along and give him the bad-guy treatment.
By mid-match, the audience had course-corrected enough to boo Ziggler’s manager, Vickie Guerrero,5 when she interfered with the bout. This is not terribly surprising, though, because Vickie has a special quality that few performers have — a trait that wrestling insiders call “X-Pac heat.”
“Heat” is a general term for negative crowd reaction as in, “Hey, Ric, you got good heat from the crowd tonight.” There are many variations of heat. “Cheap heat” is when a bad guy goes for the easy boo, like saying, “This town stinks!” The most notorious, however, is “Go Away Heat,” also known as “X-Pac Heat.” It’s named for Sean “X-Pac” Waltman, and refers to his reputation as an unlikable, unentertaining hanger-on. As tvtropes.org puts it, “This is when the audience boos and insults a wrestler not because they hate the character, but because they hate the performer.” Whereas regular heat is a good thing — bad guys are supposed to make us boo — X-Pac made the fans just want him to go away. Because wrestling promoters are largely responsive to the fans, this sort of heat is really pretty rare — it takes a while for it to manifest. Fans were baffled by Waltman’s constant presence before their hatred for him really matured. Once X-Pac heat has blossomed, however, it creates incredible tension.6
In the old days, bad guys were booed because audiences were happy to play along. They were partners in the proceedings. Now, the fans are more interested in expressing their (collective) opinion than in playing a prescribed role. As fans began following the sport with greater sophistication, WWE’s characters have also become more complex. These days, a wrestling “bad guy” is increasingly hard to define.
See the reaction to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. He binge-drank in the ring. He cussed and attacked friends, women, and the elderly, often without any justification. See The Rock, who was a villain for much of his headliner run and who — even when he was playing the bad guy, still had to remind the audience to stop cheering his entrance and repeating his catchphrases (“This is not ‘Sing along with The Rock!'” he’d yell). See D-Generation X, see Kurt Angle, see Chris Jericho — for all the best heels of the modern era, all the guys who were plainly good at doing their jobs, there came a point when boos morphed into cheers. And from WWE’s current crop, see Randy Orton, who kicks prone people in the head for, um, kicks. See CM Punk, who — compared to the villains of yore — is a bad guy who rebels against authority figures and trades in pandering nostalgia.
But if every heel will eventually be cheered for being a compelling heel, there’s no way to build villains. What’s left is X-Pac Heat. It’s a seductive means to an end: Wrestling is built around crowd responses, and when the crowd responds so viscerally to a performer like Vickie Guerrero or Raw‘s new GM, John Laurinaitis, it’s hard to fault WWE for leaning on them to elicit needed boos.
As it stands, Cena is still WWE’s heroic standard-bearer, despite the volume of his detractors. For many viewers, this is precisely the problem. In storylines, we’re used to booing any wrestler aligned with evil CEO Vince McMahon, and now in reality, no one is more affiliated with him than Cena. There are times — Sunday among them — when the boos against Cena make it sound as if WWE fans are trying to turn him into a traditional heel without any help from WWE or its writers. For months — years, even — fans on message boards have been begging WWE to embrace the negative reaction Cena gets from the crowd and allow him to indulge in more traditional wrestling evil-doing. On one hand, this stems from resignation on the part of true Cena haters, who acknowledge that they’ll never be rid of Cena but believe that if they have to endure him, they might as well be entertained by him.
But I wonder if it’s not something more like a plea: Please make Cena a bad guy so we can finally cheer for him.
Previously from The Masked Man:
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