Let’s set the scene.
I was in Siem Reap trekking through the various temples.
I finally made it to the top of Angkor Thom with sweat pouring down all over my body. I was fighting exhaustion in the sweltering Cambodian sun. I’d been at this for hours and still had many more sites to visit and I was feeling a thirst and an exhaustion that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
And just when I thought I didn’t have enough energy, just when I thought I was going to give up, there he was.
Just in time to give me the strength I needed.
When I needed him the most he appeared.
Actually, it was just his image on a little Cambodian boy’s t-shirt.
But I mean that in itself is pretty remarkable. In a part of the world where most familiar touchstones of my existence in Toronto are nowhere to be found, the champ was here.
I could see him.
It really speaks to the unprecedentedly broad appeal of Cena that I could travel halfway around the world and there he would be.
And why not?
Pro wrestling has never had a figure that had more universal appeal for this long of a time as John Cena. Not Hulk Hogan. Not Steve Austin. Not The Rock. Nobody.
To put it in perspective, John Cena has firmly and squarely been the top draw in all of professional wrestling for almost 15 years. Hulkamania came and went in the WWE in 8. It was running on fumes when the Hulkster was jobbing to Yokozuna in 1993 and was such a disaster in WCW that they turned him heel and the nWo was born.
Sure there has been a few nostalgia runs and 80s kids can’t let go of their red and yellow hero, but Hulk’s run at the top was surpassed by John Cena almost five years ago.
Wrestling’s hottest period in terms of merch sales and TV ratings was during the attitude era main evented by Stone Cold Steve Austin. His main event run lasted about three and a half years.
Yet here we are heading into the Royal Rumble in 2017, almost an entire 12 years after John Cena first won the WWE title, and he is still the biggest draw in the company and still a main event draw with no end is sight for the one time Doctor of Thuganomics.
Cena’s mantra of Hustle. Loyalty. Respect has long eclipsed Hulk Hogan’s training, prayers and vitamins and Stone Cold’s Austin 3:16.
Not bad for a guy who was almost released from WWE until he did a random backstage segment on the 2002 Halloween episode of Smackdown dressed as Vanilla Ice. That segment introduced us to Cena’s rapping ability which lead to him rapping his own theme songs which lead to every wrestling fan’s favourite rap song which is still in use today.
Admit it. You mark out for “The Time Is Now” and so do I.
How many other professional wrestlers have dropped an album of original material that debuted at number 15 on the billboard charts?
“You Can’t See Me” did it.
Nobody really talks about the Doctor of Thuganomics era of Cena’s career anymore but it was fantastic and looking back on it, it’s easy to see why John Cena eventually launched into the pro wrestling stratosphere.
He rapped – literally rapped – pretty cool and edgy promos calling out stars the likes of Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker.
Even when he didn’t win, he made it clear that he belonged with those guys. It’s why he became one of the few midcard acts to make the transition to the big time by getting the upper hand on The Undertaker a few times in their feud.
Although the hip hop trappings of that era of John Cena’s career were kind of painful at times. In particular when he needed to take time off to film the first installment of WWE Studio’s “The Marine” and in order write him out for a while, it was announced to fans that Cena had been stabbed in a club by Carlito Colon’s sidekick Jesus.
It was absolutely as tasteless as it sounds.
There was also an infamous backstage segment where Vince McMahon dropped the n-word while interacting with Cena and Booker T.
That one continues to come back to haunt the WWE and probably will forever given Linda McMahon’s current position in the US President’s cabinet.
Yet like Teflon all of that nonsense slid off John Cena. In fact, he thrived during it by not only honing his craft on the mic but also in the ring working with technicians like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit (I’m not going to pretend he didn’t exist as much as I wish I could) and Kurt Angle.
By the time Cena was ready for the main event, he was more than capable of carrying his end in the ring and largely carried the matches in the feud that gave him the title for the first time with JBL.
And that’s when many hardcore wrestling fans turned on him and never went back.
It’s easy to see why people shit on John Cena. Especially why wrestling fans do.
You know that guy who bullied you in high school? You know the one. The jock who was captain of the football team, pulling down straight As in class and sleeping with the head cheerleader, the cute nerdy chick in your homeroom and likely your girlfriend. Probably all at the same time. That’s what John Cena looks like.
Plus he’s from Boston. Land of Tom Brady and the Patriots, the hated Red Sox and birthplace of Mark Wahlberg.
Fuck Mark Wahlberg.
I have literally never in my life met anyone that was a fan of Mark Wahlberg and for a lot people Cena puts out that kind of vibe.
Except he shouldn’t.
It probably didn’t help that Cena was programmed with two darlings of the serious wrestling fan in Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle immediately after winning his first WWE Championship but it also shouldn’t have generated the backlash it did back then.
John Cena more than carried his share of the ringwork in both feuds and at no point had to be carried by either man. Quite the contrary, he soaked up what he learned in each feud and became as good a chain wrestler and anyone and made the matches even better for no reason but what I have to imagine is a sheer love of wrestling.
Seriously, Cena was getting the rocket push. He had no reason to want to or need to improve in a ring that pushed Hulk Hogan and his kick-punch-legdrop offense and post-broken neck Steve Austin as the biggest stars in company history.
Not only that but it wasn’t like he was going to lose to either guy. Jericho was about to take a two year sabbatical to tour with his band Fozzy and Angle was headed down a very dangerous path of reliance on pain killers that eventually lead to his departure from the WWE on less than amicable terms. Thankfully he turned his life around and is now headed to the WWE Hall of Fame this year.
Yet John Cena was shit on by the fans anyway.
To the point where when Edge, who was at the time playing one of the biggest dickhead shitheel characters in wrestling history, cashed in the first Money in the Bank to end Cena’s first title reign at least half the crowd reacted with pure joy.
Now here’s where I might lose some people. I like Edge. Edge was good in the ring. Great on the mic and like John Cena showed a never-ending commitment to improving in every facet of the wrestling business. Edge had a great career and would probably still be a top guy if it wasn’t cut short by a terrible neck injury.
But John Cena totally made Edge.
Look back at that feud. Cena looks like a ring general in there even at that point in his career. He carries his load and takes as many insane bumps as Edge at times. Furthermore, without the victory over Cena, Edge is best remembered at a tag team guy.
That feud absolutely cemented Edge and the fact that Cena put him over as much as he did was the first indication that he was a top star who would do the right thing for the business before he would do the right thing solely for himself.
It’s still remembered as being the defining feud of Edge’s career. For a lot of people it is also considered one of Cena’s best feuds. One of because John Cena went on to have even bigger and more memorable feuds after Edge’s career was ended permanently by injury in 2011 while Cena is still the biggest star in the company today.
Cena’s durability, beyond anything else, is probably in my view the most impressive thing about him.
He spent almost two decades working 300 nights a year in very high impact matches, taking some very big bumps. Very big. Seriously look at any of his matches against Brock Lesnar or even the beating he allowed himself to take in a seemingly throwaway feud with Umaga and marvel at how this guy can take that pounding night in and night out
The fact that he’s been able to avoid a catastrophic and permanent injury is pretty remarkable.
Even when he’s suffered injuries – injuries that would put lesser men on the shelf for months or even years – Cena bounces back quicker than anyone ever has.
One of my favourite moments as a wrestling fan was the 2008 Royal Rumble when he shocked the world as the 30th entrant when just three months before that he had torn his pectoral muscle completely off the bone.
The recovery for a normal man would be 8-12 months.
If you didn’t lose your shit for Cena in that moment, you have a heart of stone.
That kind of durability proves that “Never Give Up” is more than just a catchphrase for his character but also a way of life for him. It’s well documented that the guy works on his body harder than anyone. Pushing himself to the limit in gruelling power lifting exercises that make even actual powerlifting champions like Mark Henry and Big E Langston impressed.
He does this and then goes out and has top level matches.
The SuperCena nickname is well earned.
Never Give Up also is a message that Cena brings with him to the people on this planet who need it the most: children with terminal illness.
I don’t care how cynical, jaded or above sentimentality you think you are. If you aren’t moved by the fact that John Cena has granted over 500 wishes to dying children than you aren’t human anymore.
There’s something that drives that level of dedication to such a cause and that is goodness and compassion on a level that few possess.
He has every excuse not to meet with those kids with the impossible schedule that he keeps, all the time on the road, all the matches, all the personal appearances, press in every town and everything else that he is required to do.
But he does it.
Because he’s a good man.
He’s literally hundreds of wishes granted above everyone else in the top five.
On that basis alone John Cena could justify never doing a job and playing politics whenever it suits him.
He never does.
He famously did a very high profile clean job to Rob Van Dam at the 2006 One Night Stand PPV which was WWE’s first show in the full blown revival of ECW at the ECW Arena. Could you see Hulk Hogan walking into that hostile of an environment and dropping the title clean while the most hardcore wrestling fans around spit on you and throw shit at you?
Cena did it.
He jobbed to Sheamus to make a new star and give fans a shock at an unexpected new champion.
He jobbed to The Miz in the main event of WrestleMania 27. The fucking Miz in a WrestleMania main event.
He then lost at the next WrestleMania at the very next WrestleMania to the man who cost him that match – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This job in particular was seen as an especially big slap in the face to Cena in that The Rock had left wrestling behind years ago to become a Hollywood star.
He was coming in for one match and would disappear while Cena would work his usual 300 days a year.
Cena jobbed anyway.
He jobbed to K-Fed on Raw one week.
If you don’t know who K-Fed, better known as Kevin Federline is, bless your heart.
He’s even done some jobs to wrestlers brought into the WWE and pushed to the moon on the basis that they were the opposite on John Cena.
In what is undoubtedly one of the best feuds, best storylines and hottest angles in WWE history, WWE blurred the lines between reality and fantasy when they publically acknowledged that in 2011 that CM Punk’s contract would be coming to an end.
His last match would be against John Cena for the WWE Title which Punk threatened to win and take to New Japan Pro Wrestling or Ring of Honor in one the absolute best promos in Monday Night Raw history.
During this promo, he also ripped Cena as a company man, the New York Yankees (a huge insult to Boston-born Cena) and the antithesis of everything the wrestling business should be. A guy who never paid his dues in the way that Punk had.
The two had one of the best main events in not just WWE but pro wrestling history at the Money In The Bank PPV in CM Punk’s hometown of Chicago.
Cena jobbed clean as a sheet and Punk storyline bolted with the title after completely undermining John Cena on the mic.
Less than two and a half years later Punk would be gone to try his hand in the UFC and Cena would still be there.
Who wasn’t a real wrestler again?
That was the question of another major match John Cena had against yet another internet darling: Daniel Bryan who made his name toiling away and putting on five star matches as “The American Dragon” Bryan Danielson in the indies.
Bryan caught fire with WWE crowds in a way that few superstars ever had. He turned often terrible storylines and often directionless booking into an amazing character to back up some of the best in ring work in the world.
The result was that crowds got behind him and his “YES” chant in massive ways. Demanding that he get a shot at the title.
The destination as it always is for someone who wants to cement themselves at the top of the WWE was a date with John Cena for the WWE Championship.
In likely an intentional mirror of the CM Punk feud, the build up to their match at SummerSlam 2013 included a series of promos in which Bryan poignantly dismissed Cena as a fraud while citing his own time as The American Dragon and his successes in independent circuits all over the world and the acclaim he’d won even in the mecca of pro wrestling: Japan.
It was a resume that John Cena could never hope to equal and it was why most wrestling fans viewed him with disdain in comparison to the bearded indie darling Daniel Bryan.
Just like the Punk feud, Cena lost the match to Bryan clean as a sheet.
Just like the Punk feud, John Cena is still here while Daniel Bryan was forced into retirement due to repeated concussions and neck injuries.
John Cena is still here.
In the face of all that it is absolutely laughable when people complain about Cena’s lack of jobs.
He absolutely deserved his WrestleMania victories against Triple H and Shawn Michaels. He absolutely deserved his win back from The Rock.
I always get a kick out of fans who think that Cena should have never went over in the 2010 feud with The Nexus (all of the stars from the first iteration of NXT who came up to the main roster in a very hot invasion angle). As good as that angle was and as much as it stayed hot throughout the back end of 2010, Cena but hindsight being what it is you couldn’t have used John Cena to get any of those guys over beyond the angle.
Despite having the rub of a main event program, look at where they are now.
Wade Barrett – The leader of the Nexus who many saw as a future star player. He got hot a few times with the King Barrett and Bad News Barrett gimmicks and even got a few Intercontinental title runs. He kept getting injured at key times though and was never able to cash in on that momentum. He left the company last year to pursue a film career.
Darren Young – Found success as one half of the Prime Time Players with Titus O’Neil and is currently being made great again by Bob Backlund. He also is the most high profile LGBTQ star that WWE has ever had. He’s a solid midcard act but can’t seem to break through to even the upper midcard with his singles push.
Skip Sheffield – Got injured and wasn’t seen until he returned as Ryback. Initially received a monster push in a feud with CM Punk, but the company never pulled the trigger with putting him on top. He turned heel and got his chance with Cena, but it was clear that he was pretty outclassed in that feud and after it went down to the midcard in a tag team with Curtis Axel, turned heel and face a few times and had an IC title run that was ended by Kalisto. The highlight of his WWE run was probably when he cradled Paul Heyman like a baby and kissed him on the forehead. He had a very public split from the company and has since had a lot of negative things to say about everybody including John Cena.
Michael Tarver – Injured his groin and was never seen in WWE again.
Justin Gabriel – Hung around the company as a very solid midcard act but was largely exiled to Superstars and Main Event. He’s since popped up in TNA and Lucha Underground.
David Otunga – Terrible wrestler, but great father and the husband of Jennifer Hudson so he’s not going anywhere. He currently part of the terribly crowded four man (!) announce team on Smackdown.
Heath Slater – The MVP of the midcard. Slater is capable of taking the shittiest of angles and gimmicks and turning them into solid gold. The one man band, 3MB, Social Outcasts and his feud with Flo Rida were amazing. His current run with Rhyno is massively over and Smackdown. I love Heath Slater. I really want an “I need this job, I’ve got kids” shirt, but there’s no way he was ever going to go over Cena and no way he should. Some dudes belong in the midcard.
I won’t spend much time on the later Nexus members because Curtis Axel was never going over Cena and Husky Harris became a much better character that did have a solid feud with Cena.
So are you really going to complain about John Cena being put over any of these acts?
Sometimes the company knows what it’s doing. We’ve gone over how many times Cena does put people over and yet people think he should be laying down for guys who have since left the company.
He’s there and they’re not.
You can say it’s because he didn’t give them decisive wins, but why should he? I mean the guy has to beat somebody.
Even in recent feuds, the guy working with Cena has gotten a rub from working with him.
I think Bray Wyatt (the former Husky Harris) is one of the best characters in all of wrestling. I love the Wyatt family look, the gimmick, the entrance and everything about it. I wish Bray would have went over Cena in a lot of ways but he couldn’t have just because of the way the feud was structured.
It was based entirely on the concept of Wyatt stealing the hope Cena gives children both metaphorically and literally (a creepy kid in a sheep mask was used as a prop) to play off Cena’s real life involvement with the Make A Wish kids. It was actually one of the more powerful and compelling wrestling feuds in a lot of subtle and powerful ways given all that each man represented.
There was no way that Cena could lose a feud with little kids souls at stake.
Wyatt should have went over The Undertaker for sure, but the complaints about him losing to John Cena completely ignore the story being told.
Rusev is another guy I am an absolute mark for. He has completely subverted the concept of the foreign heel in new and highly entertaining ways by turning old tropes on their head for comedic effect. The Bulgarian Brute also has a gorgeous wife (in wrestling and real life) who often is the catalyst for feuds due to being insulted, slighted or hit on by other wrestlers.
Really Rusev should be the de facto face in almost every feud he’s in.
That definitely wasn’t the case with Cena where he played the role of foreign monster to perfection. Lording the US Championship overall while singing the praises of Vladimir Putin and Russia.
Cena was fresh off getting his head absolutely kicked in by Brock Lesnar in the single worst defeat I’ve ever seen a top guy take in wrestling. He needed to be rebuilt after that and Rusev was an unstoppable monster up to that point.
Would Rusev had benefitted from a victory at WrestleMania over John Cena? Absolutely. Was the time right for Cena to job to him? No. He needed to be kept strong as the main event program was, for the first time, veering away from him and focusing more on Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.
Cena needed to stay strong in case the future main eventers faltered and also to be in a position to transition into one of my favourite phases of his career and elevated the US title in an upper midcard run that saw him take on all comers and put on absolute classics with Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Dean Ambrose, Cody Rhodes (under his Stardust guise), Neville and even Zach Ryder.
Working with the midcard really seemed to rejuvenate Cena as his matches were crisper and more energized than they’ve ever been with fresh opponents and different types of wrestlers to work with.
The biggest beneficiary of his period was Kevin Owens, formerly Kevin Steen of ROH fame, who came up from NXT and immediately went gunning for John Cena. The result was a back and forth feud which saw Owens pin John Cena clean as a sheet.
The continuing momentum from beating John Cena in his first high profile WWE feud is largely why Owens is the WWE Universal Champion on Raw today. Instant credibility is the gift that you get from working with the face of the WWE.
After cementing Owens, Cena put over Seth Rollins in a WWE title match to help cement the young star as a cornerstone of WWE’s future.
He concluded his US title run by dropping it to a returning Alberto Del Rio in hopes of once again getting him over to have a big star for the lucrative Hispanic market. He, like so many others is gone, while Cena is still here.
Then something weird happened.
John Cena took a break. Nearing 40 and battling a variety of injuries he shut it down for the first time in a long to film a reality series, do some movie work and really pursue other things that weren’t wrestling.
This is the first time in his career that it’s becoming apparent that he won’t be around forever. To be honest that’s an unsettling thought.
There has been nobody with as long as a sustained run at the top of professional wrestling because nobody else has been John Cena.
Nobody else has the work ethic, the drive or even the values.
John Cena is a good man. His Make-A-Wish work proves it and increased exposure to the off work John Cena through his guest hosing the Today Show, his appearances in WWE’s reality programming (where he really comes across as the saintly boyfriend of Nikki Bella), his hosing of SNL and other ventures where he’s able to show other sides of himself, it’s clear that he’s a genuine down to earth guy who isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself.
He’s well adjusted in ways that other professional wrestlers often aren’t.
Maybe that’s because he’s always John Cena.
Where Hulk Hogan is really Terry Bollea – a fact made embarrassingly clear in his recent lawsuit with gawker wherein he assured us all that while Hulk Hogan has a ten inch penis, Terry Bollea does not – John Cena really is John Cena. It’s his real name and the values he’s putting forward on screen are clearly the ones he is really living.
He never gives up.
Given his length of time at the top of the food chain, Cena is closing in on a very important milestone (as important such a milestone can be in scripted entertainment), he’s won the top title in the WWE 15 times, which puts him one shy of tying Ric Flair’s record on 16 set over his years in NWA/WCW and WWE.
I love Ric Flair. I watch old Flair WCW Saturday Night interviews on a regular basis and my friends and I can recite lines from them to each other verbatim. Ric Flair is and always will be the man.
But John Cena absolutely needs to break his record.
Flair represents everything the wrestling business used to be but shouldn’t anymore in so many ways.
The man who couldn’t let go. The man we saw become a shadow of his former self as he tried to wrestle well into his 60s and descended into self parody both in the ring and out of it with his slew of divorces, bankruptcies and embarrassing incidents of public intoxication.
He’s basically a real life Randy The Ram.
Say whatever you want about John Cena but he won’t be pissing himself in an airport bar after having too many drinks while living the gimmick.
In fact he’s working on settling himself up for a smooth transition out of wrestling that will allow for him to leave with dignity and on his terms.
That’s the man every wrestler should aspire to be.
It’s absolutely laughable when bitter former WWE stars like Ryback, Alex Riley or Kenny Dykstra shit talk John Cena as if he owes them something. He doesn’t. In fact, they probably should thank him for all the money they made wrestling on cards that he headlined and he drew the fans to.
Ryback had the audacity to say that John Cena is “poisoning” wrestling.
I doubt there’s anyone who loves it more and the twilight of John Cena’s wrestling career is proving it once again.
One year ago, John Cena used his Instagram account to post a picture of AJ Styles. One of the biggest wrestling stars in the world who never worked for WWE.
Styles went on to show up at the Royal Rumble, work a program with Chris Jericho and then set his sights on the man he once said he wanted to wrestle more than anyone once he got to WWE: John Cena.
The result was yet another in the a seemingly never-ending series of instant classics involving Cena at this year’s SummerSlam. A match that saw Cena lose absolutely clean and completely made Styles forever in the eyes of WWE fans who were for the most part unaware of his amazing body of work outside of McMahonland.
After a brief hiatus to film his reality series, Cena returned to WWE programming and is once again feuding with Styles with a much anticipated title match coming up at the Royal Rumble.
He’s also hinting at bigger things on social media where he recently shared a picture of Kenny Omega on Instagram. Just like Styles, Omega is one of the biggest wrestling stars outside of WWE in the world. Also just like Styles, Omega has stated time and time again how much he would love the opportunity to work with John Cena.
Kenny Omega is also coming off arguably the greatest professional wrestling match of all time against Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
Imagine the possibilities.
It’s hard to believe that almost 15 years ago that three men were positioned to be the future of WWE: Randy Orton, Dave Bautista (Batista) and John Cena.
Batista was given a rocket push which included him being put over Triple H three times in a row and many high profile matches included all-time classic feuds with The Undertaker and, of course, John Cena. Sadly he was injured seemingly as often as he was healthy and when Hollywood came calling in 2010 and besides a nice part time run in 2014, he’s steered clear of the wrestling business as his star rises in Hollywood with big time roles in movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy”
Randy Orton was also given huge pushes. Even a gimmick as “The Legend Killer” where superstars of old were brought in just to put him over. He’s had some great feuds with The Undertaker, Triple H, Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins just to name a few. He’s also a living meme due to his RKO (outta nowhere) finisher.
He was once seen as the Ric Flair to John Cena’s Hulk Hogan and the two have feuded and wrestled so many times that it seemed as though they would fight forever, but unlike Cena, Orton’s stay at the top of the card seems to be over. He’s currently enjoying a nice midcard run in a great angle with the Wyatt Family, but repeated injuries have likely insured that he’s going to be more of a feature player than a main attraction as his wrestling career winds down.
John Cena, meanwhile, is still the face of the company.
Even guys the WWE is trying to push as a means to replace him like Roman Reigns aren’t connecting with fans the way Cena does.
Yes it’s popular to hate both of them amongst the smart mark crowd but you can’t help but get the feeling that people are chanting “Cena Sucks” after a higher pitched segment of the crowd chants “Let’s Go Cena” more because it’s part of the show rather than any genuine animosity for the guy at this point.
Seriously, as a wrestling fan it’s impossible to hate John Cena at this point. He literally has great matches with everybody and has spent the past few years getting over indie and workrate darlings all while a lot of hardcore fans unfairly ignore the fact that he’s part of these great matches too because he’s a great worker. One of the best ever in fact.
Sorry but it’s true. Accept it.
John Cena does not suck.
As we head into WrestleMania, it’s still unclear what role Cena will be playing there. There is a rumour that a program with The Undertaker might be in store which is intriguing because Cena hasn’t worked with him since the Doctor of Thuganomics days. And because the stakes are never higher for The Undertaker than at WrestleMania – even with the streak a thing of the past, it’s still The Dead Man’s biggest stage.
Tons of other intriguing possibilities are out there as well – Samoa Joe, Shinsuke Nakamura or (dare I hope) Kenny Omega.
Whatever happens, you can be sure of one thing. It will be entertaining as hell and John Cena will give it everything he’s got in the same way he has for almost 20 years as a professional wrestler and almost 15 as the biggest draw in the business.
The champ is here and hopefully will be for a long time spout the virtues of: Hustle. Loyalty. Respect and never giving up.
As corny as these mantas once sounded to some, it’s becoming clearer or clearer that they are more than just catchphrases for a wrestling character but who he really is.
We can see him