This is a story, about a little girl who loved wrestling. A little girl who tuned in to WWE Raw every Monday after school, excitedly awaiting her favourite Superstars to walk down the ramp. A little kid who begged her parents for all the newest WWE merch, and sat up in the nosebleeds of the rare Australian tours, chanting until her voice caved in.
At Summerslam 2016, a piece of that little girl died. Entertainment icon, John Cena, took off his arm band, almost kissing it “goodbye”, and with a defeated look in his eye, left a piece of himself in the centre of the ring this past Sunday.
For a brief moment, the relentless boos disappeared. Chants of “John Cena Sucks” subsided, and the WWE Universe paused to thank quite possibly the most influential wrestler of modern times. Or maybe they were just happy to see him put Styles over.
Now second to one Roman Reigns, Cena is one of the most perplexing Superstars in WWE history in terms of his relationship with the fans. He’s the mainstream face of professional wrestling. A household name. An Internet meme sensation, with or without his direct consent. He’s the good guy that everyone loves to hate.
Fans are evenly locked in a love-hate affair with “The face that runs the place”, but it hasn’t always been this way.
Cena got the call up from Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory in 2002, arriving on Smackdown and confronting Kurt Angle as “The Prototype” ideal athlete. There’s no denying that this stigma is still very fitting. The guy is a machine, recovering in record time from various injuries over the course of his storied career.
He would then become the much-fabled “Dr. of Thugonomics”, adopting a faux gangster wannabee rapper gimmick that got people talking. Some would say it was his polarising in-ring presence and showmanship that made him a star. I’d like to think his rap album and hefty chains lit the fire.
After Cena captured his first WWE Championship from JBL at Wrestlemania 21, there was absolutely no stopping him. He became the “People’s Champ”, the ultimate underdog on a steady rise to the top. His time was now.
John Cena gave me hope that anyone could achieve their dreams, if they set their mind to it, and started lifting 650 pounds. He always did his part and more, especially in his work with the Make A Wish Foundation. Who isn’t a sucker for happy kids? His compelling promos and incomprehensible resilience in the face of adversity gave me a reason to tune in every week, and fork out pocket money to watch the pay-per-views he would consistently main event. His epic surprise return from career-threatening injury to the Royal Rumble in 2008 boasts one of the biggest pops in WWE history, and I’ll never forget how star struck I was when Cena hoisted the Big Show and Edge on his shoulders for the finish at Wrestlemania 25.
“Big-Match John” has graced us with many wonderful things (some will detest the brilliance of the spinner belt… never forget). But a few years down the road, and things were different. We were all older, and, we like to tell ourselves, a little wiser. The five moves of doom were well-worn, and the famed mantra of “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect”, was stale.
This generation’s jort-wearing Hulk Hogan, the now 15-time World Champion, always won. Always. A decade of seeing the golden boy rise up against the odds time and time again, undoubtedly became dreadfully tiresome, especially when it was at the expense of rising stars.
The Summer of Punk, and particularly the months prior to it in the lead to Money in the Bank 2011, were moments definitive of the angst that existed in the zeitgeist of the wrestling world. With the ever-increasing popularity of social media, and the ability to discover wrestling from elsewhere around the globe, men like CM Punk, and of course Daniel Bryan, left wrestling fans with an acquired taste for their favourite indie darlings.
We thought we were all grown up, too cool to listen to what our seemingly-ignorant creators wanted to shove down our throats. We rebelled against the system, and hate was everywhere.
We’ve eased up on big John as the years have gone by. Times have changed. And there’s no professional wrestler that epitomises that revolution, other than the Undertaker.
The only lasting kayfabe centric gimmick of the late Golden Era, The Phenom will live forever in the hearts of wrestling fans. His elusive mystique and unprecedented streak cemented his legacy as the most iconic wrestling figure of the last 30 years. The Deadman, who’s not actually dead. But the kids today, they don’t understand that.
The Superstars of today are real people. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens grew up together, and scratched and clawed to get to where they are now. The purpose of the fourth wall is transformed, with wrestlers regularly breaking kayfabe and taking to social media in their true voices. The other end of the Reality Era has attempted to embrace realistic sporting presentation and story-telling, and by no means is this a bad thing.
However, characters like the Undertaker no longer have a place in the industry, at least in the western manifestation. People are drawn to people who are like them, and it hurts the little child in my heart when the kids of today don’t appreciate, or even understand who the Undertaker is.
The Undertaker’s run since late last decade, has been at the most average. Why? For one, he hasn’t had a story. WWE have had to rest on the laurels of the streak to create half-hearted storylines, with the exception of the Taker/Lesnar program. Secondly, he hasn’t had anyone to face that made a whole lot of sense in today’s face value context.
Taker probably has one more decent story in him, and there’s only one person I want to see him face before he rides off into the sunset. John Cena. I want my childhood heroes to leave it all in the ring, and resurrect the fanatic little girl that lies dormant in my heart.
When Taker left his gloves in the ring after his Wrestlemania 32 match with Shane McMahon, Cena’s actions at Summerslam could only be a symbolic gesture seamlessly articulated to pull the heartstrings of the fans who grew up idolising these heroes. Undertaker’s wife and former WWE Diva, Michelle McCool, posted pictures of her daughters in Cena shirts to her Instagram – yeah, I’m a total mark, but that’s how wrestling should make you feel. It should make you jump for joy and feel giddy at the prospect of a match of such larger-than-life proportions. Surely, John Cena’s exit has got to be indicative of that match at next year’s Mania.
John Cena has been rumoured to be moving to a part-time contract, but will most definitely take time off from WWE to work on other film projects. It is unknown when the Undertaker will return, if he is indeed fit to perform.
It’s all a waiting game now. As our biological clocks tick away, this little girl can only make a wish that her childhood memories are consolidated in one more dream match for the ages.
And yes, the title of this article is the last track off of Cena’s “You Can’t See Me” LP. Word Life.