There are four weeks between Survivor Series and the final WWE pay-per-view of the year, TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs, which comes to you live Sunday, Dec. 18, from 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore, Md. But when it comes to John Cena, there is only one date on the calendar: Sunday, April 1, 2012. WrestleMania 28 in Miami, Fla.
In the interim there will be 19 episodes of “Monday Night Raw.” With two of those shows in the can already, we are starting to see how the WWE intends to treat Cena in the time between his Survivor Series tag match with The Rock and his WrestleMania showdown against The Rock.
When the Cena-Rock WrestleMania match was established in April 2011, it was unprecedented. Never before had the WWE advertised any match a year in advance, let alone the biggest match of the biggest show of the year. On the part of The Rock, this made sense. No one expected him to be a fixture on weekly TV. In fact, his wrestling character is now partly defined by his absence. On the flip side, Cena’s character is defined by his presence: he is always on the show, always saluting, tossing his cap to children and rising above hate, always hustling with loyalty and respect or rising above hate or whatever mission statement his T-shirt du jour proclaims.
Clearly the Rock-Cena match could not be a WWE Title match, because The Rock (the character) has no interest in winning the belt. He is simply consumed with proving the fans still love him more than anyone and that he can still “bring it” as well as anyone. He does not want to have a better wrestling career than John Cena, he wants to prove he remains a bigger star than John Cena. And while this rampant egotism might not seem the type of thing fans are supposed to cheer, it has evolved as the perfect antidote to Cena’s Superman character.
WWE writers gave us plenty of reasons to quibble over how we got to the main event of Survivor Series, but the reality of wrestling is that’s no longer important. (Complain, if you will, about Awesome Truth being made an afterthought, but at least The Miz has even more legitimate reasons to complain about being overlooked. It should be interesting to see him act on that rage, although we could all do with less extreme close-ups of his angry face.) What is important now is the stage has been set for WrestleMania.
As others (including David Shoemaker and Brandon Stroud) have already explained, John Cena is already among the WWE’s top heels. A significant, vocal portion of fans want to see him lose based entirely on the character he presents and the success he has had.
(This was the problem with the Cena-Alberto Del Rio title matches at Night of Champions and Vengeance. Del Rio, as a classic heel, is the kind of wrestler the WWE wants us to boo. We have been conditioned to cheer when rich, good-looking and physically gifted stars get their comeuppance. But when pitted against Cena, loved only by some of the fans, we can be assured of an outcome that will displease about 75 percent of fans. Which is to say nothing of the inability of anyone to present Del Rio as a legitimate threat to a man who has defeated dozens of bigger, scarier and sneakier opponents.)
This is why the Cena-CM Punk feud from the summer was not really about Cena and Punk. It was about Punk vs. The Man and Cena was merely the in-ring incarnation of The Man. Even people who cheered for Cena when he faced Punk are likely to support Punk when he faces Del Rio, because now Del Rio represents The Man.
This is why the Cena-Rock feud works. Because as long as Cena remains true to himself, his loyal fans will continue to love him. The people who already dislike him will continue to dislike him and they will cheer for The Rock because they believe what The Rock believes — that The Rock is, was and will be a bigger star than John Cena and he will beat him on the biggest stage of all (and, oh yeah, The Miz did that too last year, but who’s worried about last year?).
Bringing this back to Piper’s Pit on this week’s Raw (and in-house articles on WWE.com) we are indeed starting to see WWE writers attempt to take ownership of Cena’s dual nature. In the late 1990s, it became cool to cheer for the bad guys. Now, it is cool to boo the good guys. But no matter what, when the company acknowledges there are certain characters who can be simultaneously loved and hated, the potential for riveting feuds is abundant.
The trouble with John Cena, then, is making sure he doesn’t do anything to cause his loyal fans to turn on him. The fans who boo John Cena do not want to cheer him. Rather, they are best served if he keeps on being Boy Scout John Cena because that is the character they like to boo, the one they want to see lose to guys like CM Punk and The Rock. But if all this Cena soul searching (to be fair to Cena, he does not seem to want to search his soul, and he told Piper as much) leads to him attempting a Hogan-esque Bash at the Beach style heel turn, he could be lost forever. No one wants Super Heel Cena. It would not be cool. It would be confusing to those who happily take what they are fed and dissatisfying to those who try to prop up the counterculture.
How all of this plays out between now and WrestleMania and, more importantly, after WrestleMania, is open to wild speculation. Cena has seemingly been removed from the WWE Title picture for the time being, and hopefully will stay away throughout the winter in order to make sure that belt has its own match of extreme significance on the card. The World Heavyweight Title scene is playing out nicely in a more traditional monster vs. underdog feud. The U.S. and Intercontinental titles are held by smug yet talented heels who could easily build programs from here to April that would generate intense fan interest (or just as easily be swept under the carpet, which has been known to happen), to say nothing of the prospect of one more Undertaker WrestleMania classic. That’s six matches I’m already excited for and I only know a handful of the participants.
But the key, as always, is Cena. In the coming weeks, there is worry the writers will try to do to much with Cena, when less really is more. One might suggest a kayfabe injury leading to a pure sports build for his Rock encounter might be the best prescription for capturing the current fan sentiment and bottling it up to be uncorked in mid-March. The Rock is far, far bigger than Raw or Smackdown right now, to say nothing of TLC or the Elimination Chamber, and it might be time to confer the same status on Cena. We know his motivation, we know his next big match and we know who we will support. We are perfectly fine with waiting until April for the payoff, but please don’t muddy the water between now and then.
Scott T. Holland is a newspaper columnist and self-published author with a ridiculous collection of Coliseum Video products obtained on the secondary market and hidden form his wife in a box in the basement. You can find him on Twitter.