First things first…I had such a blast with my “Superfly Effect” column last week, I went ahead and carried out the alternate timeline out even further, currently up to Summer 1986. I also went back and inserted the NWA to reflect what was going on there at the time. I’m thinking about doing a separate “Superfly Effect” to see how far I can go with this timeline.
Okay, so listen…I get that there are a lot of fans who have grown tired of John Cena. I remember as a teenager growing tired of Hulk Hogan. In fact, I was kind-of cheering for Andre going into Wrestlemania III, and was full on nuts for the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI. Not that I got to watch either of those matches as they aired…pay-per-view was a luxury and a technology my parents could neither afford nor understand, but the point is the same – the fans had grown tired of their once-beloved hero. A fact that took another few years to fully sink in when Hogan was effectively turfed shortly after Wrestlemania IX. The thing is – and it’s the thing now – if not Hogan, who? And today, if not Cena as the hero, as the face of the WWE, then who?
From 1992 until the emergence of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in 1998, the WWF really didn’t have a “face of the company,” and it’s no coincidence that those years are considered by many to be among the worst in the company’s history. Now before everyone gets bent out of shape, I’m well aware that this was the period in which Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels emerged as superstars, when Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Curt Hennig and others had great matches, and when the Undertaker was the most awesome thing in the world, but really, no one man could lay claim to being THE man in the WWF. One only need to see exactly ZERO men hold the WWF title during that period for even one year, much less the four years Hogan ran with the belt in the 1980s, or the almost unfathomable six-year reigns of Bob Backlund or Bruno Sammartino enjoyed in their time on top.
No, we got WWF Champs like Psycho Sid, Deisel, Yokozuna and Sgt. Slaughter sandwiched between reigns from Hart and Michaels, while the Undertaker, arguably the de facto top guy, was bogged down in ridiculous feuds and angles that threatened even the suspension of disbelief required of a wrestling fan. These were not heroes. These were not guys you could put in a nice suit and present to the general public in a nice setting if the situation called for it. These were not men that made the top ten list of requested celebrity visits from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
And then Austin came along. Austin was definitely the “top guy,” but a funny thing happened – the WWF hit puberty and Austin was the face of the Attitude Era. Austin was the anti-hero, and the lines between good and bad were blurred. As successful as Austin was, there was no real sustained period in which he behaved as a true “face.” In fact, as the WWF became the WWE and Austin had his run at the top, it seemed as though efforts were made to ensure there were no clearly defined heroes and villains, and as another sign of a shift from having a “top guy,” no one man had a WWE title reign of even six months from 1998 to 2004, and who stopped that trend? JBL, who while decidedly a heel, could at least be taken out in public and paraded in front of stockholders. Not that anyone would say Bradshaw was the face of the WWE, but guess who ended JBL’s nine-month reign? John Cena.
April 3, 2005…that’s when Cena emerged to become THE man on top, the poster boy, the hero, with “Hustle, Loyalty and Respect” becoming the new “Say your prayers, take your vitamins and believe in yourself.” “You can’t see me!” was the new “’cause Stone Cold Said so!” after years of searching, it seemed Vince had captured lightning in a bottle once again. Cena’s cry of “The Champ is here!” was quite true, as with the exception of two brief experiments with Edge and an ill-fated run for Rob Van Dam, Cena held the belt until October of 2007, losing the belt then only when a torn pectoral put him on the shelf for an extended period.
Now let’s not pretend that there was a time during Cena’s run when there wasn’t at least a percentage of the crowd that never really joined the “Cenation.” Cena as the “Doctor of Thuganomics,” threatening to counter Brock Lesnar’s F-5 with the F-U was almost Austin-esque in its anti-hero vibe, but once Cena turned full-on good guy and began catering to the kiddies, the “smars” crowd slowly began to turn on him. This was never more apparent at the ECW One Night Stand event when the admittedly biased crowd chanted “You can’t wrestle!” at Cena during the Cena/Van Dam WWE title match, despite pulling moves out of his ass that Chris Jericho didn’t have on his list of 1,004 holds (although I don’t think Cena managed to hit the moss-covered three-handled family gredunza).
Now, I’ve got no problem with Cena. I do think his act has gotten a little stale in the past year or two, and his shtick was on the verge of getting monotonous until the CM Punk feud last year brought a spark of life back. That’s also when the crowds really began to turn on him. Not for another hero, mind you, but for another Austin-like anti-hero in Punk. The other default “top guy,” Randy Orton is even less heroic. In fact, Orton as “The Viper” is basically doing all the crazy things he did as “The Legend Killer,” he’s just doing them to heels now.
So, I ask again…if not Cena, then who? The WWE needs a hero. Now, that the puberty era, the Attitude Era is over, the anti-hero isn’t going to do. As hot as CM Punk has been (and I would argue some of that heat has already faded), he’s just not the “face of the company” type, and he’s probably just fine with that. Whether anyone likes it or wants to admit it, at the heart of the WWE’s fanbase is kids, pre-teen to young adult males specifically. Yeah, Mom and Dad are footing the bill, and yeah there are a lot of college age and adult fans, but most if not all of them became fans as kids, so the WWE has got to have its young fans. And young fans want a hero. They need a hero.
I get that some older fans who grew up with Cena, the Rock, DX and “puppies” automatically make the connection of Cena = PG, and hate him for it. But, and I’m not the first to say this, I feel like we have “romanticized” the Attitude Era. Yes, it redefined the industry, brought it to the mainstream in ways that even Hogan didn’t, and made lots of money while bringing a lot of memorable moments and great matches, but lest we forget – there was a LOT of crap in that time period. I won’t go into it all, but I will say that for a while there, I watched WCW exclusively, because I didn’t want my kids to see some of what was going on on Raw (and I’m no prude by any means).
I hope that group who longs for that era is enjoying the road to this year’s Wrestlemania. With Austin unavailable, the Rock is the next best guy from that time, and HHH-Undertaker (with HBK in the mix) seems like a fitting final curtain for those performers and that era, so enjoy it, guys.
But remember, there’s an episode of Raw the day after Wrestlemania, and like it or not, Rocky is going to be headed back to Hollywood sooner or later. HHH and Undertaker are not going to be regulars any more. Even guys like Chris Jericho, Kane, and Big Show (sort of the “second wave” of Attitude guys) won’t be around much longer. Rey Mysterio has had just about all he can take, too. Edge is already gone too soon. If Cena isn’t THE guy, who is? Punk is not, for a number of reasons. Orton? While my wife assures me he’s quite pretty, his character is pretty static and he is not the face of the company material any more than Punk. I’m at a loss.
Let’s just say for the sake of argument Cena turns heel. What then? A feud with Punk again? Maybe that gets you a pay-per-view or two. Then Orton, maybe or Sheamus? Let’s say that gets you to SummerSlam, a year removed from the Punk/Cena angle that was fast-tracked and over way too soon. Now name one more credible face to match Cena up with. Some have touted Cena-Undertaker as the big match for Wrestlemania next year, so I guess you could fill the gap there with someone like Big Show or Jericho or a feud with HHH or HBK to see who gets the honor of facing the Dead Man at ‘Mania, but then what? Does Cena win back the fans with a win over ‘Taker to end the streak?
So, really, who do you want as the face of the WWE? Like it or not, history has shown they need one. Without a key guy to build the franchise around, the business suffers. I personally think Cena works in this capacity on every level. Maybe, and if his promos with the Rock are any indication, it could be true, the WWE will loosen the reins on Cena and the rest of the roster on the whole PG thing. I don’t mean going back to middle fingers, moonings and giving birth to hands again, but let’s have some adult language, some mature storylines, and for God’s sake, some blood! Let Cena cut loose on the microphone. He’s funny PG. He’s even funnier when he’s allowed to mix in some innuendo and more edgy content. The same goes for Punk. If the WWE is willing to meet the Cena-haters halfway, I bet they’d buy into John as the top guy. And then they’ve got to figure out who the heir to the throne is and make sure they’re ready to take the torch when Cena is ready to pass it. And they had better get a move on, because I don’t think that guy is currently on the WWE’s roster. I look up and down the line-up and I don’t see more than say seven guys (ten at the most) that will even be there in three to five years’ time.
Thanks for reading.
Tags: attitude era, cm punk, Hulk Hogan, john cena, randy orton, Steve Austin, The Rock, undertaker, WWE