There’s a Monster at the End of This Column
Midway through Monday’s Raw, John Cena confronted Paul Heyman in the ring, determined to threaten him to the point that Heyman’s client, Brock Lesnar, would appear to defend his advocate. When it seemed that Lesnar wouldn’t show, Cena grumbled, “There is no beast,” a reference to Lesnar’s nickname. “It’s just you.”
For most wrestling fans, this probably conjured moments of wrestling past, when weasel managers were left to face their antagonists without their burly wards to defend them. But to me, that line brought back memories of a book I read as a kid, The Monster at the End of This Book.1 In it, Grover, of Sesame Street fame, discovers by reading the title page that there is a monster looming, specifically at the conclusion of the very book that he currently inhabits. One can imagine how this would be a jolt to mild-mannered Grover, and how his cartoon terror embodies the persistent scary-movie fears of his audience. Grover implores the reader not to turn each page, tying ropes and building walls to delay the inevitable progress of the story, knowing that each new plot point only brings them closer to the monster. It’s something of a triumph wrapped in embarrassment when it’s revealed that the monster is none other than Grover himself. He had nothing to fear all along, and neither did we.
I was one of those petrified kids turning the pages. I also used to tremble in fear at various monsters on my TV screen — King Kong Bundy, Kamala, the Road Warriors (when they took to using the spikes on their shoulder pads to gouge the eyes out of portly blond men). If I were 5 years old right now, I’d probably fear nothing more than Brock Lesnar, and I’d have nightmares about his sweaty, tree-trunk arms and his crumpled grin. After SummerSlam, I would have been heartbroken, but moreover I would have been frightened for the safety of all other wrestlers as well as that of my family and probably that of the president. Who knows how far Lesnar’s stampede of terror could go?
That’s why I can sympathize with WWE’s decision to have Cena appear on Raw a week after Lesnar destroyed him at SummerSlam, looking none the worse for wear, and then have him demolish the previously potent Wyatt Family with a giant metaphorical F-U (sorry, I mean Attitude Adjustment). The rumor is that Vince McMahon made that call, thinking that the kids needed to see their hero and know he was OK and that all hope was not lost. Of course, it was terrible storytelling, and it reduced the Cena comeback story from a potential epic to a T-shirt catchphrase. But I see why they did it. Maybe, though, they should have given their audience — even the preadolescent segment — more credit. If little kids could wait 24 pages to find out that there was no real threat awaiting Grover, they could have probably endured a couple more weeks of Cena’s journey through injury and self-doubt.
After all, the more jaded portion of the fan base has been waiting with bated breath for years now for an even greater monster to reveal itself, and somehow they’ve survived.
I take back what I said before. If I were 5 years old right now, there’s something I’d dread even more than Brock Lesnar: The possibility of John Cena becoming a bad guy. (We’re not sure that 5-year-old me would fully grasp the concept of turning heel, but it’s safe to say that seeing my hero suddenly doing villainous things would surely feel like a nightmare.) It would mean that everything I believed in was meaningless, that the very idea of good was hollow. Lesnar is a malicious beast, sure, but if Cena were to abandon virtue and honor, if he suddenly blasphemed hustle, loyalty, and respect? Now that would be a real monster.
And that seems to be exactly what WWE’s meta fans want to see. For years they’ve been clamoring for a Cena turn, despite constant reminders that Cena is too valuable in terms of merchandise sales and as WWE’s goodwill ambassador to give up his babyface ways. Meanwhile, I (and several other writers) have argued that Cena is already the biggest heel in pro wrestling. Cena is Bret Hart in his Canadian nationalist character from the end of Hart’s WWF run, except whereas Hart was cheered by the Canadian diehards, Cena’s constituency is made up mostly of kids. And we smarks are like the American rabble who liked DX’s dong jokes better than Hart’s pious uprightness. (We’re still that rabble, to be fair.) Actually turning Cena heel — having him align with the Authority or flip off a Make-A-Wish grantee or hip-toss Daniel Bryan through a plate-glass window — would get an enormous reaction, but it might not change his popularity that much. The people demanding a turn would start cheering for him 30 seconds later. WWE would still have an audience evenly divided between “Let’s go, Cena!” and “Cena sucks!” except the voting blocs would be reversed. Turning Cena heel would only start the clock on his inevitable return to babyface status.
That’s probably one of the main reasons fans want to see Cena turn — they secretly want to cheer for him. When he was an insufferable Superman with little to show other than his biceps and his meager battle-rap skills, it was fine to groan and try to ignore him. But as he’s improved in the ring and added more compelling real-life wrinkles to his character,2 many meta fans have been craving an excuse to cheer for him. The irony is that calling for Cena to turn heel arguably represents a simplistic view of the rasslin’ world that many fans assumed had been extinguished during the Reality Era. The truth, however, is that the fans’ need for him to turn heel is evidence that they’re hung up on wrestling’s old tropes, even as they beg for high-concept storytelling. But part of the beauty of wrestling is its repetition of archetype, and in that sense you can hardly blame the Turn Cena caucus. We love the sport partially because of its rules and its predictability, especially when the “predictable” is an unforeseen left turn.
An even bigger reason to wish for a Cena turn is that it would shatter the monotony so many WWE fans sense. The addition of old WCW Monday Nitro episodes on the WWE Network has reminded fans of a time when unpredictability was pro wrestling’s guiding principle — when wrestlers changed employers overnight, when “heel” and “babyface” were secondary to “cool” and “boring,” and when the greatest, staunchest hero in the world could turn his back on his fans, exchanging his Demandments for the privilege of being just too sweeeeet. It’s fair to question, however, whether the volatility a Cena turn would represent would lead to anything bigger, or whether it would just be the exception that proves the monotonous rule.
It’s no accident that the calls for Cena’s turn are loudest now, when we’re on the eve of Night of Champions, a pay-per-view that has perhaps the best top-to-bottom card — and one of the least compelling buildups — in recent memory. Chris Jericho vs. Randy Orton is a perfect legends match that WWE has failed to make seem even slightly epic. Goldust and Stardust vs. the Usos should be a coming-out party for the next great tag team; instead, it’s standard-fare mid-card pantomime. Paige vs. AJ Lee vs. Nikki Bella could be a modern high-water mark for the Divas division, but it has been overshadowed by an interminable string of Bella twin shouting matches. Mark Henry vs. Rusev fell victim to a similar fate that crippled many promising Clashes of the Titans before it: Arm-wrestling contests make everything seem trivial. Sheamus vs. Cesaro might be the match of the year, but you would hardly know it from its cut-and-paste assembly. Dolph Ziggler vs. the Miz is the exception here — the addition of R-Truth and Damien Sandow as respective “stunt doubles” for the two competitors has been hilarious, but the token comedy feud can’t save an entire event. Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns is a showcase for the next generation of WWE superstars, but WWE literally gave the match away on Raw this week when the two wrestled and Reigns won clean.3 I’m looking forward to Sunday’s show more than I’ve anticipated a card in a while, but it’s not because WWE has made me care.
Perhaps WWE has neglected the Night of Champions card because the wrestling world’s attention remains fixated on the event’s headliner, the Cena vs. Lesnar rematch.
Whether the grumblings of fans on Twitter have finally gotten loud enough to reach Titan Tower or whether the network has sparked memories of Hollywood Hogan or whether the Media Hype Era is really WWE’s guiding ethos now, WWE has been teasing a Cena heel turn in recent weeks. With Lesnar rarely appearing, Cena has been left to deal with Paul Heyman on a weekly basis, and the two have done an admirable job advancing the plot. Two weeks back, when the two met in the ring, Heyman teased a truce: Cena couldn’t beat Brock at SummerSlam, but Cena could get to Brock’s level if only he would cast aside the kids and the heroism. This week, when Heyman beckoned Cena to “become my vision of you as a Paul Heyman guy,” smark fans chanted YES! YES! YES! in approval.
“You’ll never turn your back on the Cenation,” Heyman said in an earlier episode. “That won’t be the trigger. But me? I can be the trigger. To beat a beast you have to become a beast. And it has to be deep inside you, that hatred, and I’m the one to bring that hatred out of you. Oh, you won’t hit me because that would make you a bully … Brock Lesnar is a bully, and you won’t be Brock Lesnar, which is why you won’t beat Brock Lesnar.” It was — as Emperor Palpatine might say when he’s trying to convert somebody to the dark side — Cena’s destiny.4 But Cena wouldn’t do it. He said he loved being the guy who was a dying kid’s last wish, the guy who inspired injured veterans, and that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet despite Cena’s demurral, the seed was planted — in the minds of fans if not for Cena himself. This week, Cena promised to beat up Heyman if Lesnar didn’t meet him in the ring, but Heyman called his bluff: John Cena would never beat up a helpless lout like Heyman just to prove a point. He was too good for that — and that was his problem. Going contrary to all established wrestling logic, Cena basically admitted that Heyman was correct. It was only when Heyman insulted his mother (or his masculinity; the line was an uncharacteristic Heyman flub, but whatever)5 that Cena was compelled to bum-rush the Advocate and send him tumbling outside the ring.
It was then that Lesnar finally appeared. It was, it should be said, a subtle reversal of wrestling conventions: It should be the heel holding the manager hostage and the crowd waiting for the babyface to come to the rescue. But intimations aside, when Cena and his rival finally came to blows, Lesnar was quickly victorious, just like he’d been at SummerSlam. This time, however, Cena made a comeback. He renewed the brawl and — if the announcers are to be believed — broke Lesnar’s nose, and stopped only when he was pulled off by security. On one hand, this was the Cena we’ve grown tired of over the years, standing defiant in the face of adversity, immune to insurmountable odds and poised for ultimate victory. On the other hand, this was a Cena who had perhaps begun to embrace his dark side to finally reach his potential. On Sunday, we’ll learn if the rage he showed was just another hiccup on Cena’s heroic journey or if, as Heyman put it, we’re on “the precipice of an all-new John Cena.”
Monday, when Heyman told Cena that he plays the hero better than anyone in WWE history, it was a backhanded compliment. When Heyman said, “You’re my son’s favorite wrestler,” it was meant as a slap in the face. And yet a turn seems unlikely. Cena’s character has been uncannily steadfast, shrugging off injury and seemingly personality-altering events with an inhuman steeliness. He will say that he’s facing something he’s never faced before, but you wouldn’t know it by his demeanor. But just as Cena’s character has evolved by our realization that he’s basically playing himself, perhaps his inability to modulate betrays a deeper uncertainty. It’s not steadfastness. It’s him dreading the progress of the story. It’s him pleading with us, Don’t turn the page.
The Wikipedia page for The Monster at the End of This Book skips over any notion of teaching kids not to be afraid of the unknown and says that the story was “written to introduce young children to the concept of reading a book from beginning to end.” This raises the obvious WWE-related counter: Cena may already be as much of a heel as he could ever be, but that doesn’t address the necessities of a narrative arc. What’s a story, after all, without an ending? That’s the story they’ve been telling over the past couple of weeks, or months — or years, really. WWE may be loath to turn Cena heel for practical reasons, but certainly WCW had similar ambivalence before they turned Hogan, and WWE has faced equivalent situations before with the Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and those situations worked out well for the business. As Grover himself might have said if he weren’t obviously overqualified to be a pro wrestling executive: “I told you there was nothing to be afraid of.”
There’s a reason I remember that book more than any other from my childhood, and there’s a reason why Hulk Hogan’s heel turn is a flash point for every wrestling fan under the age of 40. And it’s the reason why the voices calling for Cena to turn heel may finally be right. The monster that Cena fans are afraid of is the prospect of Lesnar winning again on Sunday.
The best way to end a story is with the monster being the guy we always thought was the hero.