John Cena and WWE's Institutional Memory

Michael N. Todaro

It Came From The makes its debut at Cageside Seats. In this week's installment, we look John Cena, Hulk Hogan and how to pass the torch in the WWE without burning the place down.

It Came From The Vault has come to Cageside Seats after a yearlong run at The Classical. Every week, we'll take a look at what's going on in the WWE through an event from wrestling's long, storied and completely ridiculous history, more often than not with help from a friend. This week we look at John Cena, Hulk Hogan, and passing the torch without setting the place on fire.

Fans react to John Cena. Loudly. The commentators, as is their job, often bring this up during his matches, saying things like "nobody elicits the reaction that John Cena does from the WWE Universe" or other equally non-committal phrases that convey "we swear, people just caring about him this much is a bigger deal than you think" without, you know, using those mouthwords. Because, in the WWE Universe, everyone cares and no one is there because of free tickets or a nerdy boyfriend/girlfriend or "the half-naked man circus is town".

The mix -- the amount of "Let’s Go Cena!" relative to "Cena Sucks" -- varies from week to week and from region to region. That’s not because certain parts of the country love the concept of spoon-fed storylines while others like high workrates, but rather that certain parts of the country have more males in their mid-20s with disposable income.

A preponderance of grown men in big cities means the mix often finds the crowd leaning heavily towards the "Cena Sucks" side of the ledger at major events, like when The Rock came back to face him for the second consecutive year, this time in the main event of WrestleMania 29. I was there. Cheering, not quite as loudly, for The (Eventual) Champ along with children, women and Daron "Action" Jackson (the Vault’s internet technician). I’d explain why, but it’s sentimental, complicated and makes me sound like the "It’s Still Real to Me, Dammit" guy.

Less frequently, you get what you had Sunday night: a crowd hungry for a delicious "new" cheering wildly in support of a fresh character that appears to be able to take over as the face of the company. That’s when it becomes a matter of not just telling John he sucks, but voicing approval for a new guy. It began to happen for CM Punk in 2011, but that overwhelming love never seemed to make its way out of Chicagoland, in large part because CM Punk can’t ever be what John Cena was: the guy on the cereal boxes without an opinion, the man who shows up at press conferences in suits, the hero that always overcomes the odds.

CM Punk, or at least his character, is flawed and prone to fits of hubris and blind rage and the man in real life doesn’t seem particularly interested in the more spokesman-y aspect of the position. Daniel Bryan may have had (kayfabe) ‘anger management issues’, but they are of the John Cena "Listen here, Jack" variety, and although he may not like wearing a suit (both literally and metaphorically), he’s willing to do it. Beyond his considerable professional wrestling ability, it’s because of this (and that they’ve never shouted louder than when they were filling the Staples Center with Yes! at the Biggest Party of the Summer) that it appears they -- both the fans and the powers that be -- may have found their cereal box model.

Knowing this, John Cena did what he was supposed to do as the face of the company. He lost. Clean. In the middle of the ring. It was a phrase repeated over and over again last night, by Stephanie, by the commentators and, most importantly, John Cena himself. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you should ask Bret Hart about all that.

***

WrestleMania IX is not a great WrestleMania, but it’s so maligned that it’s become underrated in retrospect. On the list, it’s definitely above WrestleMania 2, IV and V, but minus a great (or even particularly good) match plus its ridiculous theme, it’s perceived as an irredeemable box bomb along the lines of Ishtar or Leonard: Part 9.

A lot of the negative perspective comes from the ending of the show, and the nadir -- or pinnacle, depending on how you look at it -- of the Hulkamania era. For those unaware, following a win in a tag title match by DQ against Money, Inc. while partnering with Brutus Beefcake (AKA Ed Leslie, The Guy Who Carries Hulk Hogan’s Bags), Hulk witnessed a travesty which took him away from backstage (where I’m guessing he was talking about lifting an 8-foot, half-ton Andre the Giant before breaking his back at WrestleMania III) and forced him to ringside, as now-former WWF champion Bret was trying to get the salt out his eyes following the interference from Mr. Fuji that cost him his title in a match against Yokozuna.

Being the upstanding guy he is, Hogan came down to help, and after being challenged by Fuji to a title match right then, being the upstanding guy he is, he accepted. Following a 2-minute match, which included another salt-in-the-eyes spot (this time gone TERRIBLY AWRY!), a big boot and a leg drop, Hulk Hogan became WWE Champion for the fifth time. This, of course, set the precedent for the Money in the Bank contract nearly ten years before it happened, while setting the entire business back about five.

Even without watching anything else, by the reaction of the announcers and the look on Hart’s face you can tell that this wasn’t the first time Hogan had done something like this, but because I don’t have the stomach for it, there was no way I could sift through the entirety of the Hulkamania era just to find examples of the wrong way to pass the torch. You know, where instead of handing it to him, you set the guy on fire while running around saying "Look at me! I have the torch still!"? Thankfully, I’ve found, through DaveTheMark, reinforcements. All the way from the United Kingdom. Or, well, Ireland, but you get the point.

I’m, of course, talking about Steve "V1" Roe from the Old School Wrestling (OSW) Review show, who along with Steve "OOC" and host Jay Hunter have done the Lord’s work by chronologically critiquing the Hulkamania era so the rest of us don’t have to. According to V1, while WM IX (the brilliant OSW episode on the event is embedded below) may have been the lowest point, it wasn’t the first time that Hulkamania appeared to be running on fumes.

In fact it had happened years earlier, after one of the biggest stars of the era (and Hogan’s biggest competition) came into challenge for the title of "Real World’s Champion". As he puts it, "When Ric Flair made his debut in the WWF and cut some amazing promos, it just seemed like such a breath of fresh air in the stale title scene," something that had been building for months (and likely years) before the June arrival of Flair’s Big Gold Belt that prophesied his arrival. Citing it as a "‘Oh God, not this shite again’ moment", V1’s first notice of the decline of Hulkamania came with "Hogan regaining his title from winning his 3rd WWF Title from Sgt. Slaughter in front of 15,000 quiet fans at WM VII, just a huge step backwards for the WWF".

Which means, of course, while the first inklings of imperial decline occurred over two full years before the bottom dropped out, Hogan was still able to (needlessly) main event at WrestleMania (VIII vs. Sid Justice). But why?

***

We forget as smart marks that not only do people not watch as much wrestling currently, they have no idea of the historical precedents set in nearly every match. As Jeb Lund put it in his awesome piece on returning to watch SummerSlam after several years away from the IWC, "The history of the sport, the psychology, the idiom that promos and even match booking and plotting rely on -- all those can't be learned in one show, at least not enough to be enjoyable." They exist in a state where, as Lund says, fans are told "Anything Can Happen", but they have no idea what that means, both in terms of execution and extent. Most fans don’t understand backstage machinations, and many of the ones that do use them more to see where things are going than anything else.

And, most of all, the fans who move the product forward -- the ones whose parents pay for the t-shirts and buy the PPVs -- couldn’t even comprehend what being over or having heat was, let alone incorporate into their feelings of the product. As V1 says, "only after I began to read wrestler autobiographies & wrestling newsletters did my opinion began to sour on Hogan, when I was younger I was a huge fan. All I wanted to see was Hogan make his awesome ring entrance, pose, win & pose again." Which does a lot to explain why Cena is where he is, both good and bad.

Cena is insanely popular among children, the lifeblood of the pre-and-post-Attitude era, just as Hogan was. Because of this, he is seen by more than half the audience as a hero. But when older fans see him, they see the other things: a stale act, a smug smile and politics holding down "their" superstars. This is not because of John Cena, but because men like Hogan and the internet’s least favorite wrestler/corporate executive (but so totally MY favorite wrestler/3rd favorite COO) Triple H.

We’ve developed an idea of what being the top guy is, at least when it’s not "our" guy. This, too, is Hogan’s fault. As Steve explains, it’s things like "Hogan’s absolute refusal make another wrestler & to put anyone over himself when it mattered, with the best example of this being his ‘loss’ to The Ultimate Warrior at WMVI," that have made him, and by association, John Cena, Public Enemy No.1 to an entire generation of smart marks.

The WrestleMania VI match sticks out, because, as Roe makes clear, Hogan was in it almost entirely for himself. "He kicks out of the Big Splash at exactly three, then gets to his feet, completely no-selling the finish. He refuses to leave the ring to let Warrior celebrate his first title win and makes the moment all about his loss," especially ironic, "for a wrestler who still talks about Andre's generosity at WMIII, something he NEVER once showed anyone else."

Which, of course, is where -- among many other places -- Cena and Hogan’s stories (if not their legacies, which we’ll get to later) begin to split. For all that’s been said about Cena, it’s hard to argue that he’s not, as Steve says, "one of the most dedicated performers in the history of the business and a genuinely nice guy who does wonderful things for children with the Make-a-Wish program". And from someone who watched the entirety of Hulkamania, he has been, "most importantly from a wrestling fan’s point of view always willing to do the job for business, rarely letting his ego harm the company."

But even with his tainted history, according to Steve, Hogan’s legacy will never be what he’s done, because, "everything we have today stems from Hogan's tenure. His shoulders were the shoulders upon which McMahon built his national expansion, WrestleMania, merchandising, expansion into Hollywood, mainstream attention and God knows what else."

All we can do as wrestling fans is go out of our way to make it that not only do we appreciate John Cena for being a latter-day version of all of those things -- helping the WWE expand into the WWE universe, serving as the best ambassador the company has ever seen, becoming an honest-to-God cereal box model -- but when it was his time to pass the torch, the only thing he set on fire was the crowd.

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