We are only a couple years shy of John Cena’s fifteenth anniversary as a WWE main-eventer. If you want to get technical, John Cena and Brock Lesnar clashed for the WWE Championship at the Backlash pay-per-view (PPV) back in 2003, but that wasn’t the “main-event” (it was one of those Orwellian “a main-event” matches WWE loves) and it wasn’t the beginning of Cena’s push as a top guy; that came at WrestleMania 21 in 2005. Since then, John Cena has been the top attraction in WWE and if you don’t think he’ll still be around the top—even as a “featured attraction”—in two years, you’re crazy.
It is quite remarkable to think about the length of time Cena has been at or around the top of the pyramid. Sure there have been times when he’s shared the spotlight, but the list of guys who have stood on his level only shows how long he’s occupied the top spot: Guys like Batista, Triple H and Randy Orton were the top stars when Cena first ascended. Edge and Rob Van Dam (for a cup of coffee) came later, then CM Punk and Daniel Bryan briefly took the universe by storm, then Brock Lesnar ushered in the modern era, along with guys like Seth Rollins and now Roman Reigns.
Where are those guys now?
Batista is retired, Triple H is all-but retired, Orton is in the same spot Cena’s in, only one rung down on the ladder, Edge is retired, RVD might as well be, Punk is retired, Bryan is “retired”, and the final three are present-day guys. The point is Cena has outlasted a lot of talent.
So let’s look at this from another angle: Cena has been the top banana in Vince’s Empire for thirteen years.
How long was Hogan on top of the WWF? He ruled the roost from 1984-1992, coming back for a spell in 1993, and again in 2002/3. Even if you combined all those various WWF/E runs together (which you shouldn’t, but lets) you only come up with eleven years as a top WWF/E attraction. Cena has him beat.
What about the New Generation successor to Hulk Hogan? Bret Hart won the title in late 1992 and though he was almost immediately undercut by the very man who gave him the belt, and even though it seems like Vince spent the entirety of the mid-90’s searching for someone to replace Bret Hart, let’s consider everything from November 1992 to Montreal 1997 to be Bret’s run on top. That’s five years, barely over a third of Cena’s run.
On the other hand there’s Shawn Michaels, who’s maybe the only guy to have two non-consecutive Hall of Fame careers; he had a main-event run from 1995-early 1998, then again from mid-2002 to early-2010. Combined, Michael’s run at (or around) the top lasted about twelve years. Cena has him beat by a year (and counting).
What about Steve Austin? The biggest star of the 90’s only dominated from 1998-1999, then again from 2001-early 2003. Obviously Stone Cold is a legend for many reasons, but longevity is not one of them.
If you want to throw the Rock in there, (I would have him just below Austin) he could be considered a top guy from 1999-2003, then again for a few months in 2013. Not even close to Cena.
But Matthew, you say: There were other factors involved with those guys’ aborted runs! Quite right. Let’s consider that...
Hogan still had a decade of work in him when he left the WWF; he went to WCW (by way of Hollywood and Japan) and dominated that company.
screwed Bret Hart was screwed out of what was supposed to be a “lifetime contract” (a deal which would have ended right around the time he came back to WWE to enter the Hall of Fame, funny that).
Shawn Michaels took a casket-corner to the spine and sat out the bulk of the Attitude Era, coming back only after Austin and Rock—two far bigger superstars—were skipping off to Hollywood and Retirement. Funny that.
Austin, as mentioned, retired due to terrible spinal wear-and-tear. Rock, as mentioned, became this generation’s Schwarzenegger.
So what about Cena? What’s different that’s allowed him to continue on, year after year?
Unlike with Hogan, there’s no Ted Turner with cash to burn looking to poach him.
Unlike Bret Hart, John Cena is—by all accounts—a laid back guy who has never refused a job, or seemingly made an enemy he might refuse to job to, ala Hart/Michaels, and Vince’s financial and company security is not what it was in the 90’s, forcing his hand the way it was in Montreal.
Unlike with Michaels and Austin, Cena—who has had his share of injuries—has managed to avoid anything as devastating as what Michaels endured at the Royal Rumble 1998, or what Austin suffered at SummerSlam 1997, and all of his other injuries have healed at a fraction of the expected time, due to his being a secret X-Man.
Unlike with Rock, Cena will never become a movie star so big that Hollywood will become a career bigger than the one he has in WWE.
This really is uncharted territory.
There’s never been a top-top main-event guy working for Vince who it seems will just keep working for him until he retires. There have been lots of utility guys, mid-carders, even upper-midcarders who’ve worked lots of main-events over the years that have lasted twenty years or more (bless you Goldust) but there’s never been a Hulk Hogan or a Steve Austin that just. keeps. trucking. the way John Cena does.
But here’s the real secret ingredient: It’s not his genetics. It’s not the stability of the company. It’s not the irrelevance of the wannabe competition. The reason John Cena is able to be a top guy who can work a six month program in the mid-card, or yield the main-event title scene to guys like AJ Styles and Roman Reigns (and no, an appearance in a title match isn’t the same) is because John Cena is, by all accounts, the most selfless and “company” guy ever to be considered “THE” guy.
More than Hogan or Michaels (guys whose politicking is legendary), more than Hart or Austin (whose stubbornness when it comes to “their” booking is likewise legendary), John Cena has remained the ultimate team player. And he continues to be, and will continue to be for years to come.
For that reason above all, John Cena is the most unique “top guy” we’ve ever seen in pro wrestling.
Hats off (rubs head, says “fine speech”) to you Jern.