John Cena needs to go away — for his own good. I made this argument in a Fair to Flair guest piece way back at the end of November, and while we clearly missed the boat for a pre-WrestleMania absence, I think the sooner Cena takes an extended vacation the better.
The idea of a wrestling star using absence to make the fans’ hearts grow fonder is by no means new. In the old days (pre-Internet) you could simply fake an injury. My personal favorite example is the Earthquake-Hulk Hogan Brother Love Show rib-squashing incident that gave the Hulkster time to film “Suburban Commando.” I was about 10 when that happened, and I’m pretty sure I was still buying everything the WWF was selling. I never sent Hulk a get-well card like all the other little Hulkamaniacs, but I was fairly well convinced the man’s life was in danger.
In the modern era, plenty of stars miss significant time for legitimate injuries. If we don’t see the injuries happen on live TV (Sin Cara, Wade Barrett), the house show reports quickly make the rounds (Ted DiBiase). WWE is part of this process, letting people know when stars will be out of action for medical reasons. That’s fine, as it is important to let people know these performers are actual athletes putting their lives in jeopardy for our entertainment. But it also takes the fake injury out of the writers’ toolbox.
For one thing, it’s in pretty bad form to stage a serious injury (Zack Ryder) for dramatic effect when there are legitimate, life-threatening circumstances at play. Perhaps this could be mitigated by doing away with referees using the “X” sign for fake injuries. The Chris Jericho concussion angle at Elimination Chamber is a good example of going a hair too far in selling a worked injury.
Another problem is the fact you can’t keep a star off TV, especially one like Cena, for the purposes of story. Not only would Internet “news” sites be abuzz with exposing the injury as a “work,” but you’d have to manage the whole thing differently in 2012. If a guy, especially Smiling Superman Cena, is healthy enough to do Make-A-Wish or Jay Leno or whatever, he has to be in the ring competing. He has to be on Raw, has to be at every pay-per-view.
In his Twitter war with the Rock, and during his in-ring promos, Cena has blatantly stated he’s never going to leave the WWE. And he’s proven that to be true. With one notable exception, Cena has avoided the kind of serious injury that has shelved many other top stars for extended periods during his run at the top. That, as much as any booking strategy, is what contributes to the perception he is being “forced” on fans.
But really, what are the writers to do? He’s a huge star. If he’s healthy, he’s in the title picture. Sure, you can put him in the center of the Nexus story, but none of those individuals could match his star power. You can run him with Kane, and then the fans who claim to love the Attitude Era remember how absolutely ludicrous some of the stories from that period proved to be.
His story with The Rock should be a breath of fresh air for the anti-Cena crowd. It’s given CM Punk room to breathe for a WWE Title feud with Chris Jericho. The only reason it works for Cena (as compared to the Kane story) is there is no one on the active roster who is on the same star level as Cena. Not Randy Orton, not Punk, not anyone. Cena transcends, as does the Rock.
(The list of transcendent, bigger-than-the-business stars is very, very small. It also includes Austin, Hogan, Savage, Flair and Andre the Giant. And I put Cena at the very bottom of that list, based on this criteria: find 10 random people, and ask them, “Who is John Cena?” Find any other 10 people, and use the other five names I listed, and see which name gets you a better success ratio.)
The larger point is we can’t miss Cena if he won’t go away. And with no other natural foils, all we’re going to get is the same stories we’ve already seen, albeit with different wrestlers filling the role of the litany of Cena opponents (physical beast, scheming cheater, authority figure, mind games, etc.). He will deliver great matches. He may offer impassioned speeches. He probably will find his way back to the title picture again — what could be more inevitable? But because he’s proven so durable, so willing to be on TV no matter what, he’s simply going to grow stale.
Maybe the kids don’t see it that way. I sure wasn’t ready for Hulk Hogan to walk away after WrestleMania VIII, though revisionist history says we were all tired of his shtick by then. You could argue Ric Flair had a similarly remarkable streak of good health, allowing him to remain at the top of the card far longer than many peers, but he also had the option of switching promotions, not to mention the game-changing shift in the way wrestling was presented in the late 1990s.
What has changed about the way we take in wrestling during Cena’s run? Is the TV and pay-per-view schedule from 2012 as different from 2002 as 2002 was from 1992?
I’ve long argued against a conventional heel turn for Cena. And I don’t wish for him to suffer a legitimate injury. But the more I listen to him promise to never leave, the more it seems like staying around is the worst thing for his character.