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Courtesy of WWE John Cena at WrestleMania 29

John Cena, WrestleMania 29, and WWE’s Perception Problem

How WWE manages to prop up its biggest star when so many wrestling fans just can't stand him

On Sunday at MetLife Stadium, in front of a record crowd of 80,676, John Cena finally got redemption. Last year at WrestleMania, the Rock beat him and then walked away from Cena and WWE. Without a chance to avenge his loss, what was Cena to do? He muddled his way through a year of aimless feuds — if they seemed dull to the viewer at home, imagine how they must have seemed to Cena — and became animated only when matched against CM Punk, his recurrent dance partner. But Punk was no Rock, and Cena was never able to defeat Punk for his WWE title, or even to mount a sustained challenge for the belt. At times, Cena’s yearning looked as if it would never be fulfilled. When the Rock returned to WWE last fall, he fell into a feud with Punk and once again left Cena in the cold. One could almost begin to imagine a main-event scene without Cena.

But Cena regrouped. He entered January’s Royal Rumble, a potential ignominy for a wrestler of his stature, but also a sign of humility and a powerful signal that his perseverance and desire were steadfast. Cena won the Rumble — he had acquiesced to the wrestling fates, and they had shown him favor.

Cena parlayed his Rumble win into a WrestleMania match against the WWE champion, who, as the fates had it, was the Rock, who claimed Punk’s championship belt on the very night that Cena won the Rumble. Their mutual ascension and impending collision may have seemed serendipitous, but Cena’s redemption was still not guaranteed. For years, Cena had been trying to best the Rock. Their one meeting in the ring at last year’s Mania fell in Rock’s column — but that was only a piece of it. Cena’s attempts at film stardom couldn’t match the Rock’s celebrity. Repeated wars of words on WWE broadcasts had favored the Rock, with Cena’s battle raps no match for the Rock’s Weird Al–ified rendition of “Jailhouse Rock.” Hell, Cena’s whole career has taken place in the Rock’s shadow, since the period in which Cena headlined paled in comparison — both in viewership and in quality — to the Rock’s Attitude Era. Cena needed to avenge his loss not only to satisfy his own ego but also to legitimize himself and the current wrestling era. He needed to solidify his legacy. Cena had fought villains, he’d battled monsters, he’d stood tall against nefarious bosses, and he’d slugged it out with popular opinion. But never had the stakes been this high. On Sunday, Cena fought for his very soul.

At least that’s what WWE would have you think.

In reality, Sunday’s main event was just another Cena headline match. The obstacles he’s faced in the past year exist only in the breathless descriptions of WWE announcers. Cena’s only apparent infirmities are his own statements of insecurity, which come buried in jingoistic monologues and then get quickly tossed aside in favor of superheroic redemption. No matter how much was made of Cena’s quest for redemption, it was never really in question. His match with the Rock was as obvious and inevitable as its ending.

But the problem wasn’t the rematch — it was that a huge swath of the audience never bought into Cena’s narrative. It’s easy to hear the pro- and anti-Cena chants and say that he’s a polarizing figure (as the announcers often tell us). But the booing masses haven’t just decided to root against him, as if they’ve tallied up Cena’s trials and tribulations and determined that he’s a heel. They boo because they’re not invested in his story. Even worse, they’re sick of hearing about it and they’re fed up with the way WWE ignores what’s behind the boos. It’s one thing to portray Cena as a heroic character. It’s another to say he’s a universally beloved superstar when much of the audience hates him.1 When WWE pretends its narrative is working when it’s clearly not, its dishonesty affects how people view its product. If we can’t even be sure that heroes are heroes anymore, then what’s the point of cheering?

At WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Cena beat the Rock to send the crowd home happy, but they weren’t exactly ecstatic. For one thing, crowd response is always awkward in a football stadium — as awesome as it is to go to WrestleMania, massive arenas are pretty terrible places to watch wrestling. Back in the Golden Era of the sport, wrestling was better attuned to the needs of the stadium; live performance was its primary vehicle, so wrestlers acted broadly for the pleasure of those even in the back rows.2 But with the advent of television — and, more specifically, with live television during the Monday-Night Wars — the vehicle became the broadcast. On prime time, wrestlers didn’t need to play to the crowd, they had to play to the cameras. Fans can spend $300 for a seat and end up watching the whole event on the JumboTron with an extra $25 for headsets that let you hear the announcers. It’s like watching at home, just without comfy seats.

And don’t get me started on the chanting — in a space that big, the audience, whose interaction has become increasingly integral to WWE’s product, is rendered almost ineffectual. It’s almost impossible to coordinate anything more complicated than the most established chants (“yay,” “boo,” “Cena sucks”), and it’s almost entirely free of the excitement that builds organically in a basketball arena.

In that way, the setting was perfect for Cena’s win. The boos upon his entrance were evident but muted, and the ending — which had Cena leaving the Rock on his own for a valedictory round of applause in the ring, and then the two of them meeting atop the entrance ramp for mutual celebration — was met by the crowd with a warble of angst. WWE was hearkening back to the ending of the Rock–Hulk Hogan match at WrestleMania X8, where the crowd turned on good guy Rock in favor of Hogan, and the Rock — despite winning — had to give Hogan a moment in the spotlight. But when Hogan returned the shine on the ramp, the Rock demurred, playacting a beaten-down modesty. On Sunday, though, Cena stood tall and proud as if the cheers were his all along, and he just loaned them to the Rock.3

The crowd only truly came to life during WrestleMania 29‘s Undertaker–CM Punk match. It was a perfectly choreographed bout between one of the most legendary and beloved wrestlers alive and the best bad guy working today. But that’s not the only reason for the crowd’s engagement. As opposed to the main event, the fans actually perceived Taker and Punk the way WWE intended them to be perceived: Undertaker as the wronged hero and Punk as the presumptive villain. (Punk went so far as to smear himself in the “ashes” of Undertaker’s recently real-life deceased manager, Paul Bearer. For what it’s worth, WWE got approval from Bearer’s real-life family before staging this stunt.) The fans weren’t forced to navigate the emotional confusion that came with Cena’s win, so they were able to engage fully. The match was great, but the fact that the fans were alive — and cheering earnestly — made it epic.4

Monday night, WWE moved next door to the Izod Center for what is fast becoming the greatest WrestleMania tradition: Smarkageddon. WrestleMania is a magnet for wrestling fans from all over the world, but not necessarily the grizzled basement dwellers in ECW T-shirts we tend to associate with hard-core fandom. Many of them are busy parents, people with demanding jobs, and locals who don’t care to see wrestling two nights in a row. The remaining cadre of fans who make it to the night-after WrestleMania edition of Raw are the absolute zealots, the kind of people who know all of Dave Meltzer’s five-star matches by heart.5

Last year, they kept the fans locked out of the arena until just before showtime, so the assemblage of diehards did what came most naturally: They started chanting “YES! YES! YES!” in honor of Daniel Bryan, the smart-set hero who had lost ignobly the night before. When the show started, the pump was primed, and fans chanted almost without rest the whole show long. This was no football stadium, and these were no normal fans.6

The highlight of Monday night, by far, was Dolph Ziggler winning the World Heavyweight Championship from Alberto Del Rio, who had successfully defended the strap against Jack Swagger at Mania. Ziggler won one of last year’s Money in the Bank matches, which meant he earned a title shot at any moment he so chose. On Monday, after Del Rio was battered in a handicap match against Swagger and Zeb Colter, Ziggler cashed in his shot and, after a surprisingly competitive match, beat Del Rio. The crowd went wild. It was the purest expression of joy I’ve seen from a WWE crowd in ages. (Ziggler is a heel, by the way.) And sure, these were the sort of wrestling aficionados who have long admired Ziggler’s work ethic and his ability to sell his opponents’ strikes like a Street Fighter character getting hit with magical fireballs. But the fans weren’t just excited that Dolph won, they were excited about the surprise.

For months, fans had been clamoring for Dolph to cash in his shot; after every PPV, fans complained that he hadn’t done it yet. But they weren’t rooting for a Ziggler championship so much as they were rooting for a disruption to the status quo. This tendency has been part of hard-core wrestling fandom since the Monday-Night Wars, when WWF and WCW one-upped each other with surprises. In the modern era, surprises exist only to stoke viewership — and if you’re WWE, keeping a big surprise secret is often bad marketing. More viewers are likely to tune in when they’ve been forewarned about a looming “surprise.” But just like Lesnar’s return at last year’s post-‘Mania show, WWE didn’t need to reveal the surprise before Monday’s Raw. They knew a large audience would tune in after the year’s biggest event, so they didn’t have to lure viewers with promises of a shocking turn. On this night, at least, WWE could afford to let a surprise be a surprise.7

It’s an odd tension: On the one hand, surprises could and should be a powerful part of WWE storytelling; on the other, dragging out things like Ziggler’s ascendance actually served to make the moment feel more important. Fans went nuts when he won because many of them had probably convinced themselves it would never happen. I’m not sure if that’s a positive or a negative — complacency may be an effective setup, but it’s still complacency.

Take, for example, Randy Orton and Sheamus. The two had teamed up with Big Show at WrestleMania in a loss to the trio of newbies called the Shield. After the defeat, Show beat up his teammates, as wrestlers are wont to do. When Orton and Sheamus fought on Monday to see who would get to have a match against Show, the crowd revolted. These two are milquetoast heroes, sort of Cena-lites, and it often feels as if they stay in the mix only because they remain in the good graces of the WWE front office. The crowd didn’t even boo them. Instead, fans chanted for whatever else they could think of — the announcers, wrestlers not employed by WWE, and for Big Show to come and end the match. The audience even did the wave at one point. (The announcers were giggling along as the crowd chanted their names, confusing the open revolt for mutual euphoria.)8

The moment was a microcosm of the WWE Problem. The company positions Sheamus and Orton as infallible heroes, but to most superfans Sheamus is a blowhard and Orton is a prick. For too many of the wrestlers at the top of WWE’s roster, the gap between how WWE portrays them and how fans perceive them is distractingly vast. By the time Big Show came in and upended the match, everyone seemed to feel relieved, not least Orton, who probably has never been so happy to get beaten to a pulp.

The strangest example of the WWE Problem might be a performer named Fandango. Formerly known in the developmental ranks as Johnny Curtis, Fandango is a ballroom dancer, a deliberate rip-off of the pros on Dancing With the Stars. That makes him the latest in a long line of ill-conceived pop-cultural references in a wrestling world that has stood opposed to mainstream pop culture for decades. From the earliest promo packages announcing his impending arrival, Fandango looked like a disaster waiting to happen. When he finally debuted in the run-up to WrestleMania, the crowd despised him. When he was shoved into a feud with the living legend Chris Jericho, fans were outraged that a rookie — and such a detestable rookie at that — would get a spot on the big show when so many others were left off the card. But a funny thing happened on the road to WrestleMania — the fans decided to start loving him. They took a novelty act and made him into the first wholly postmodern pro wrestler.

If CM Punk and his forebears, who pecked away at the fourth wall with worked-shoot promos, sought to bring wrestling unreality more in line with the outside world, they largely succeeded. Even the most casual wrestling fans now are exposed to online rumors from the moment they learn to click a mouse. It doesn’t matter whether or not reality-wrestling acts like ECW caused this; the worked-shoot style served to let fans know that the wrestling company knew that they knew what they knew. Increasingly, fans cheer for wrestlers based not on their actual worth — their in-ring ability, their mic skills — but based on the way WWE manages that worth. Fans so detested Fandango the character that they started pitying Johnny Curtis the actor, then cheering for him. They started detesting Fandango so much that they started loving how much they hated him. They supported him because he was such a terrible idea.

During Monday’s Orton-Sheamus match and throughout the rest of the night, the crowd somehow managed to sing Fandango’s silly theme song. When they left the arena they were still singing it. Before Raw, I assumed that Ziggler would get the Daniel Bryan treatment, with fans chanting in his favor. And that certainly would have been the case. But after Ziggler won, fans were left grasping for a new unsung hero, and they almost accidentally fell upon Fandango. Somewhere, some WWE higher-up is probably sitting at his desk, saying, “See, I told you the dancing wrestler was a good idea! It worked with Ricki Starr!” But that has it exactly backward. The meta fans in attendance Monday night had booed too many WWE stars over the years and had gotten nothing in return — Cena and Sheamus and Orton remain atop the roster, after all. They decided to cheer for Fandango because cheering was the only thing they had left.

John Cena opened Raw on Monday night, ready to take the abuse from the crowd, in a valiant attempt to suck the snark out of the air. He didn’t succeed, but he went a long way toward getting into their good graces by joking about making a “heel turn,” which many fans have been suggesting for ages. He didn’t go that far. But in the last segment, after Mark Henry beat Cena down, Ryback ran in to make the save. That is, it seemed like he was coming to Cena’s aid, but Ryback turned on his former ally, leveling him with a clothesline and his signature Shellshock maneuver. The crowd went wild. It might have been a heel turn for Ryback, and it might not have been. What mattered to the fans was that they didn’t see it coming.

And they got to see Cena take his licks. For all the fans who booed Cena when the curtain went down Sunday night, that was redemption.

Filed Under: Magazines, Sports, Star, Wrestling, WWE

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan