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The rapidly-concluding career, and the rightly-appreciated legacy, of John Cena

John Cena's fourteen year WWE career seems to be approaching its conclusion. As it does, it's right for fans to pause and reevaluate our once-disdain for the "Face that Runs the Place."

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John Cena is not invincible. He is not unbeatable. In fact, at SummerSlam in particular, Cena is a pedestrian 4-9. His four wins are against Booker T (which, in 2004 meant little), against Chris Jericho in 2005 (as Jericho was on his way out), against Randy Orton in 2007 (alright, that's a good one), and against the lolNexus in 2010 (

Other than that it's been meh-city for "Tha Champ."  Edge beat him, Batista beat him, Randy Orton beat him, CM Punk beat him twice (though, famously, not cleanly), Daniel Bryan beat him, Brock Lesnar squashed him, Seth Rollins beat him (with assist from Jon Stewart...and not the Green Lantern John Stewart either), and most recently: AJ Styles beat him.

Looking at those losses there are a few constants, with a few notable---but explainable---exceptions. All the losses between 2006-2012 happened against either cheating heels (Edge, CM Punk x2) or wrestlers positioned as near-equals to Cena (Batista, Orton). The same can be said for the 2015 loss to Seth Rollins (cheating heel).

Things get weird in 2013: Daniel Bryan became the first babyface to notch a clean victory over John Cena in as long as I could remember at the time. A year later, Brock Lesnar defeated Cena---then the champ---in the most lopsided WWE Title match victory since Diesel beat Bob Backlund. Bryan's win was shocking but not in hindsight: Cena needed some time off to heal an arm injury and Bryan was going to get a push to see if he could cut it as a main-eventer. Passing the torch, even if it was a short-term move was necessary. As for Lesnar: He's the great anomaly; he's the most unique superstar (in terms of talent and positioning) Vince ever had. Anyone---even Cena---losing to him carries with it an understood asterisk; Lesnar beats everyone.

At first glance you might see Cena's SummerSlam loss to AJ Styles as just another in a long line of August defeats, but this was not a clean loss to a long-time contemporary. This was not a torch-passing moment to an upcoming babyface. This was a defeat at the hands of a rising heel, and it was a defeat that came without any egregious cheating, outside interference or otherwise shenanigans.

The circumstances are one of a kind.


Consider the fact that Styles previously beat Cena exactly the way most heels do: He had his posse overwhelm and he stole a pin (at Money in the Bank). He then spent the next month bragging to any and everyone that he "beat" the "face that runs the place." A month later, they went at it again in a tag match and this time Cena got the one-up on the "young" superstar. That led to the rubbermatch at SummerSlam. Styles' ego, however, refused to see Cena as his equal or better. He viewed Cena as his lesser; he had beat him once before one-on-one and he vowed to do it again. Cena, to his credit, vowed likewise to defeat Styles and "shut his mouth once and for all."

The number of times this scenario has happened would require NASA computers to calculate, and they all had ended the same way: Cena's prediction comes true, the heel gets vanquished, happily ever after, the end. In recent history see Kevin Owens, Rusev and Bray Wyatt. Leading up to his rematch with Styles, the one constant that everyone harped on was the fact that no one ever wins a feud with John Cena. You might win a match, but there will be a rematch, and if necessary two or three, as many as it takes for Cena to win decisively enough to walk away the ultimate victor.

But then SummerSlam 2016 happened and Cena lost clean 1-2-3. He lost cleanly to a heel. He lost to a heel who promised he'd beat him. He lost to a heel he promised he'd beat. He lost a rematch (which, again, has always been the bane of any who took on Cena; his PPV rematch record is stupid-good). And when the dust cleared, Cena took off his "Never Give Up" branded arm band and laid it in the middle of the ring, leaving the (highly entertained) crowd stunned.

Now granted, he returned like a month-and-a-half later and competed on PPV for the title...where he lost. To Styles. Again! Styles had to use a chairshot this time, but still, Cena lost the rerematch! Exclamation marks!

He's been MIA since then, but the next big story for him is pretty clearly laid out: Cena vs Styles, for the the title, with Cena's career perhaps on the line as well. That will be the big win for the hero and Cena's 16th World Championship victory. When that happens I wouldn't be surprised if he's retired within a year.

And even though nothing's been announced, it already feels like we're in the midst of a retirement run for Cena. This year he's only worked about 50 matches, the lowest he's worked for the company...ever. Now you say "but he's been injured for most of the year." And you're right, but it's clear that the days of Super Cena, healing from injury like Wolverine (remember his surprise 2008 Royal Rumble return) are behind us.

And that's kind of the point here: Cena is getting older. Cena is not what he once was. Cena is nearing retirement.

And as he approaches that day, we can already start looking at his whole legacy and recognizing it as one of---if not the---greatest of all time.


Sidebar: You know how when Michael Jackson was alive, especially in the final years, he was nothing but the brunt of late night jokes? He was a punchline, oddball out of his era musician that didn't make much music anymore. His last living album---Invincible--came out in 2001. He died in 2009, never releasing another studio album.

But then he died, and suddenly everyone was a Michael Jackson fan.

How many people talked about Prince before April of this year? Then he died, and suddenly everyone's weepy and playing Purple Rain and so forth.

It happens all the time. Death, or to a lesser extent, retirement, has a way of consolidating our views about someone. We no longer think of them in present terms, when the present might not have been great. Suddenly we see the sum-total of their work and we appreciate the overall accomplishments achieved. It happens not just to musicians, but also sports stars: Bret Favre was hated by Green Bay for the final years of his career, but eventually the dust settled and last year his #4 was retired at Lambeau and he was celebrated by the crowd.

Cena's not retired yet, but already that sentiment is spreading over a WWE universe that, once upon a time, was vehemently opposed to his every action. So what are fans now seeing about Cena that they---we---refused to appreciate back when he was the number one guy, on TV constantly?



Even with this year being his lowest in terms of output, the man has given a solid decade to Vince McMahon as a main-eventer/featured attraction. And before that he was a prominent mid-carder and before that a promising newbie dating back to 2002. For 14 years John Cena has been a constant presence on WWE TV.

Starting with the weekly TV era of Wrestling, there has never been a superstar command the spotlight for as long as John Cena did. When you think of longevity in the modern context of wrestling, you can name people like Hulk Hogan, Undertaker, Ric Flair, even lesser guys like Big Show and Kane, but Hogan had long stretches where he wasn't even on Nitro due to a cushy contract, Undertaker is basically retired but for a handful of appearances each year (and while a full-timer was rarely the centerpiece), Ric Flair was often shoved to the side by WCW management, and Big Show and Kane were never guys who commanded the center-stage, though their own longevity is incredible.

John Cena has been the sun around which the WWE planet has orbited for over a decade. TV, PPV, press conferences, media appearances, magazine covers, commercials: WWE has been the John Cena universe more than its been anyone else's (again, in the modern era; no one will ever touch Bruno's time atop the WWWF). Warrior, Hart, Michaels, Austin, Rock all tried to replace the steady hand and reliable box office power of Hulk Hogan but none could. Warrior was a fad, Hart never had Vince's support, Michaels never drew (it's true!), Austin's neck was his undoing, Hollywood came calling for Rock. John Cena has been the man that none of the others could have been. The kind of consistency that 10+ years on top brings may have worn down fans who longed for fresh faces, but it was just what the doctor ordered for Vince McMahon and his increasingly "corporate-minded" WWE. Fans are only now starting to appreciate what we had in John Cena for so many years, and how we took his weekly appearances for granted (the way fans of my generation took for granted Shawn Michaels 2002-2010 run).



Some guys have it, some don't. Some never get it, some suddenly find it. John Cena for a long time was a guy who didn't have it. He had charisma like few others. He elicited a reaction like no one else on the roster. But for much of his tenure as a full-time performer, his in-ring work was mediocre at best. Give him the right dance partner and his big personality could make magic happen (see his 2006 work with RVD as well as with Edge). When his opponent was likewise limited, the matches often struggled, but even then they were buoyed by the passion of the crowd (see his 2007 work with Umaga and later Bobby Lashley).

Sometimes a limited performer stays a limited performer and that's just that (JBL). In the case of Cena, however, age and experience combined with a remarkable passion to better himself and a drive to out-"hustle" everyone else. The result was a performer who, looking back, got better year after year, before our eyes. Between 2002-2015 there was never a year where Cena's talent in the ring diminished or ever plateaued. Remarkably he continued to get better and better, at psychology, story telling, pacing; even his so-called "limited" moveset expanded every year, to the point that he's now tossing out springboard stunners, hurricanranas and more on the regular.

After years of being mocked as the worst-working "face that runs the place" in WWE history (seriously, someone said that to me one time...someone who never watched Ultimate Warrior vs Sgt. Slaughter), Cena has proven every doubter wrong, regularly putting on four-star matches with everyone. During his reign as US Champion, Cena was a staple of Raw's second hour, as he put the US title up against any challenger (Stardust, Dolph Ziggler, Sami Zayn, Cesaro, etc). By the end of the 20-minute encounter, the fans were giving him standing ovations, the days of "you can't wrestle" chants long behind him. Nowadays a Cena match (not just Cena himself) is an event unto themselves, worthy of a PPV buy watch on the network, no matter the opponent.



Loyalty is a scarce commodity in wrestling. No one will accuse Vince McMahon of it, but on the other side he's seen many a money-maker walk away. Hulk Hogan turned WCW from an also-ran into the company that almost put the WWF out of business. Others like Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Roddy Piper and more joined him during the heyday of Nitro. Steve Austin saved the company but then infamously "took his ball and went home." When he did it was the Rock that stepped in to help carry the company, but that only lasted a year or so before he left to become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Granted, there isn't a wrestling company today big enough and wealthy enough to even try and make John Cena a deal he couldn't refuse, but that doesn't change the fact that Cena has had many opportunities to walk away from 300 days on the road. And yet, he has remained with WWE. He's doing more outside ventures than ever before, but these are his pre-retirement days; before this year, if he wasn't on the road he was in rehab, working to get back on the road. His reputation as a "machine" that just keeps working and training is well-earned, but don't forget that he has that reputation because he constantly worked and trained SO THAT HE'D NEVER MISS A DATE. His combination of genetics, grit and gamesmanship is unlike any other in the history of the sport. It took a while for fans to appreciate it but it's time we start: We spent years lamenting that Cena would never just go away.

Be careful what you wish for.

The day he goes away is rapidly approaching, and when it does a lot of fans are going to pine for "the good old days" when you could count on The Face that Runs the Place to "brrrappledough" his way down the ring, drop an AA on some evil-doer and mug for the cameras.

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy him while I have him.

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