John Cena was this week’s guest on Corey Graves’ After the Bell podcast, where he spoke about the current state of the business, and the lack of a singular top star. Here is his response to the question of what this era needs to define itself:
“It needs what I’m not sure it can produce...it needs a front man, or woman. And that’s what will be able to define what the era is, because it takes on those personality traits of its top star.”
“The crowd is so mixed, that if the company puts its faith behind an individual, the knee jerk reaction of the audience, even if they liked the guy last week, is to say ‘fuck you, you’re not gonna tell me who I like’. So the audience is also tipping the scales of this not being able to happen. Universal popularity will never happen because someone will see it and get onto it and be like, he seems to be getting popular, let’s stop this right now. Or she seems to be getting popular, let’s change this right now. And I’ve seen it happen with guys who are really darlings of that underground crew, make it, and then as soon as they make it, the rug is pulled out from underneath.”
Graves cited Seth Rollins as one such example of an indie darling who was rejected after winning the belt. And this is where it’s easy to push back on Cena’s idea that it’s just a knee jerk reaction to reject any heavily pushed star. Rollins was rejected largely because he made a total ass out of himself on social media and dumped on the fans, and then he was part of a truly awful main event match with The Fiend at Hell in a Cell 2019. He wasn’t rejected due to a mob mentality of going against the grain. His rejection is easily explainable without accepting that it was just an inevitable thing in today’s fandom. It’s usually not too difficult to explain why the audience largely rejects certain pushes.
And the idea that we can’t have universally beloved stars isn’t true, though considering how Cena made his success in WWE, it’s not hard to see why he would believe that. But Daniel Bryan from 2014 is proof enough that it’s totally possible for there to be a babyface in WWE who elicits cheers from the overwhelming majority of fans. And there are plenty of other examples in other wrestling promotions.
The problem is that WWE has lost its goodwill with a sizable portion of its fanbase. The company is generally seen as the heel. That’s because WWE is often out of touch with what the fans want. It’s up to WWE to figure out what stars and stories are the right fit for creating that immensely positive reaction from their fans, and it’s something they have generally struggled with in recent years. Accepting that it is not possible is pretty much throwing the blame on the fans rather than the company. I’m not saying fans are completely absolved here, but I think much more of the fault lies in WWE’s decision-making and execution.
Cena then continued with his thoughts on the lack of one star to define this era:
“The audience is so segmented, some people will embrace that underground dude, some people will embrace the top person, some people will embrace the mid-card, some people embrace the cruiserweights...it’s just really difficult to get one definable figure to stand at the front and be like, ‘okay let’s go’...that’s where the business is.”
Moving on, it’s clear that John doesn’t think today’s performers take enough risks in the ring, the kind of risks that are needed to get over at the highest level. Here is what he had to say about that:
“Here’s a message to all the talent out there. Be brave enough to fail. Go out there with an open mind and open ears, and entertain your audience.”
“Because it’s whittled down to only maybe one or two performers able to do this skill, that no one really knows it, and you have to start from the basics of empowering and encouraging these people to fail in what they feel is a safe environment. Even if that’s promo class, even if that’s a practice match at NXT. Fail. And then see if you’re still alive. See if you still have a job. And then look around and be like, ‘was that really that bad?’”
Cena is generally trying to send a positive message to inspire other wrestlers, but I think he wraps it up in the wrong framing when he implies that only “one or two performers” are really listening and responding to the audience at the level required to be a top star. In my view, it’s a problem that is deeply ingrained in the WWE system, which comes from the top at Vince McMahon’s feet. Just in the last six months with the advent of AEW, I’ve seen Cody Rhodes and Jon Moxley excel in ways that simply were not possible in WWE due to the restrictions they were up against.
So I agree with Cena that the performers in WWE need to take more risks to really get over at a high level, but the problem is much more built into the system they are a part of, rather than the stars themselves being inherently conservative with their creative expressions in a WWE ring.
And now comes the part where Cena basically admits that no individual superstar is a draw today:
“When I say ‘oh there’s no one person at the front’, that’s also not bad. I think the business is reaching farther than ever...I think we’re fine with a segmented group of performers - Roman, Seth, Braun, Sheamus, New Day, the SmackDown roster, the Raw roster, the NXT roster. You don’t have one person you go to see. If you go to an NXT show, you go to see eight or nine people. You go to a Raw, you go to see eight or nine people.”
“I do think there has never been more athletic talent under one roof than right here right now.”
John explains that he feels the athletic talent is so exemplary, that if just one or two people can tap into the “be brave enough to fail” mentality and succeed at a high level with it, it will open the floodgates for that model to be embraced by many others on the roster. And when you combine that mentality with their undeniable athletic gifts, that’s when you will see the next resurgence in the business.
I’ve read so many arguments on the internet about current draws in wrestling, and they mostly end up going nowhere conclusive. Some people swear that Brock Lesnar is a draw, while others strongly disagree. Same goes for Roman Reigns, Becky Lynch, etc. Without traditional pay-per-view being a main driver of WWE revenue in the era of WWE Network, the line is more muddled than ever before.
It’s really hard to confidently estimate just how much money Roman Reigns brings in to WWE, and how that compares to Becky Lynch. It’s hard to know how much value is really produced by the part-timers like Goldberg and Brock Lesnar, or whether WWE is throwing too much money away on nostalgia. It’s easy to think WWE has missed the boat with Sasha Banks, or has hurt interest in the product with the consistent upper card push of Baron Corbin. But it’s very difficult to quantify these things, so most arguments just boil down to my word against yours.
Cena’s comments strongly imply that he doesn’t believe that anybody is a draw. If you are going to a show to see eight or nine people, that means one person is not enough to pull you in. Once again, my best guess is that Cena is right, but I think the problem is largely more to blame because of the system rather than the individual performers. There is also the fact that it’s harder than ever to get fans to suspend disbelief as time goes on thanks to social media and just how connected everyone is at all times.
I don’t know what the answer is, or how long it will be before WWE finds their next undisputed major draw. But it doesn’t seem like it will happen any time soon. The brand being the draw goes against the entire history of what works in pro wrestling, but that seems to be the place WWE is in right now. As long as they have that huge television money pouring in then it’s a model that works for them. But is that a sustainable long-term model?
Check out the full interview with Cena to hear his thoughts on what he learned from Eddie Guerrero, how he would react to a beach ball being passed around in a wrestling audience, and more on Corey Graves’ After the Bell podcast here.