Roman Reigns is right. I’m not talking about his opinions on the missionary position and its lack of excitement. Although, yeah.
No, the Tribal Chief is correct when he states John Cena is the same guy today as in 2006. The same look—minus the new shirt to sell—the same run to the ring, the same pretty much everything. Like death and taxes, Cena’s persona is a sure bet each and every time his music hits. In this regard, Cena is an anomaly.
If we went to a wrestling library and looked up a list of big names, the one thing they all have in common once they hit it big with the public is change. Whether it was new music, a new attitude, a different morality, or even a new look, they all evolved. To paraphrase a Matthew McConaughey quote, WWE gets older, Cena stays the same age.
His lack of evolution has little to do with John’s abilities as a professional wrestler and everything to do with being a symbol of WWE’s complacency.
By the time John Cena entered our lives, and Vince McMahon declared the era of Ruthless Aggression, WWE was already the only place in town for North American wrestling. Settle down, TNA fans. That’s not a diss, just a fact because TNA wasn’t as accessible then as it kinda is now.
There was no competition breathing down McMahon’s neck, but Cena offered a different flavor than Steve Austin and The Rock. Eventually, Cena ditched the rapper persona and looked like his generation’s Hulk Hogan. What is “hustle, loyalty, respect” if not a new-age version of “prayers, vitamins and training” minus the shoutout to God?
And in that mold as the new millennium’s superhero, WWE sanded down its rough edges and expanded its reach into places not even remotely possible when Austin drank beer and Rocky talked about pie. Even if the company’s popularity waned, its mainstream cache increased thanks to a formula that “put smiles on faces.” Cena’s look, wholesome attitude, and never-give-up mantra led that charge, and it’s one reason SmackDown is on Fox.
I get it. WWE became less about wrestling and more of a corporate entertainment brand. Despite how much people on the internet complained and ratings that damn sure weren’t what they used to be, the company found a way to keep its bag overflowing despite the headwinds against it. Who better to front that than the guy who always smiles for the camera and overcomes the odds?
Even as the world around him shifted, Cena remained the same. CM Punk recognized John as a symbol of what WWE became: an entity too big to fail that will never change with the times. Don’t get it confused, though. WWE, when it wants to be, is sharper than an icicle. But far too often, we get the same song on repeat. It’s the same criticism thrown at John and what Reigns echoed last Friday (July 23, 2021).
Austin added more layers to Stone Cold as the years went on and even turned heel. The Rock constantly shifted gears after a long hiatus from the ring, even to this day. Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Ric Flair, the Undertaker, and a list of other names knew when to start throwing lefts when the audience got used to their right hooks.
Sometimes, not all the time, familiarity breeds contempt. The most famous example of this is obviously Hogan. Hulkamania felt like a novelty act in the 1990s as those former Hulkamanics grew into teenagers who wanted something edgier. WCW had its finger on the pulse of its audience, and as a result, we got the nWo and Hollywood Hogan.
When those same fans who loved Cena as kids started to boo him as teens or young adults, WWE doubled down. And they kept doubling down no matter what. When you’re the only game in town and can do million-dollar deals before lunch, I guess stubbornness comes with the territory.
For WWE, this is bigger than wrestling. Cena’s character consistency isn’t about what’s best for the story or even what’s best for him as a wrestler. It’s about the next licensing partner or finding the right advertising partner. What’s best for the wrestling business ain’t always what’s best for the business of wrestling.
Even if they never reach those heights, they do a great job at marketing brands and nostalgia in the same way those two giant companies do. Much like there are certain things Batman, Superman and Spider-Man are always going to do, the same goes for John Cena. He has his signature lines, standard outfit and most of his stories hit the same beats over and over.
Where WWE misses the mark is in letting their superhero experience different events that affect him in profound ways. Batman was engaged to Catwoman, Superman revealed his secret identity to the world, and Spider-Man became the CEO of his own billion-dollar company.
Did all of this stuff stick? No, of course not. But the stories played out and shaped these pop culture stalwarts for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Cena gets trapped in the Firefly Fun House and treats it the same way one treats a gnat at a cookout. Nothing bothers him, nothing hurts him, and nothing will ever change him.
Ironically, Roman almost found himself in that same position. All it took was a real-life health scare and a once-in-a-generation pandemic for WWE to realize maybe, just maybe, change isn’t so bad after all.