Lutz's Blog: A heel John Cena in the current WWE environment would not be a game-changer
By Jeffrey Lutz
Many people want John Cena to turn heel because they want to like him, and that's weird.
Fans remember the early days if the Cena character, when he had an edge that has since disappeared in favor of bathroom humor and 1980s pop culture references. That Cena character, as popular as he may be with the 20- and 30-somethings growing more weary of Cena by the hour, is never returning. A heel John Cena within the current WWE landscape would just be John Cena.
Cena, of course, is the forebearer of that landscape. His ability to achieve good-guy status with half the audience while serving as primary villain to the other half -- or at least Cena's willingness to embrace that dichotomy -- has made WWE chairman Vince McMahon comfortable enough to proclaim that babyfaces and heels no longer exist in the traditional sense. It's a strategy that goes against everything on which the professional wrestling business was built, and an era of popular heels and marginalized babyfaces cannot work long-term.
Thankfully, that proclamation hasn't truly materialized even though WWE doesn't seem to be backing away from the desire to set a new but unfavorable trend. Even though WWE World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan endured an uphill battle behind the scenes and on television to keep from being diminished, it is safe to say he is firmly babyface. Triple H and his henchmen (and woman) in Evolution and The Authority are easily classified as evil, making heroes out of those who oppose them.
Largely, however, characters on WWE television are portrayed with unnecessary shades of gray. It's a difficult line to walk, and no one gets it right every time. Paul Heyman became adored -- more adored, maybe -- for his work with a heel version of C.M. Punk that many fans still wanted to celebrate, but he hasn't yet achieved that same balance with new charge Cesaro. A lot of people want to cheer Cesaro, too, but without a body of work that has allowed him to earn a permanent positive reaction, Cesaro's forays between good and bad come off more as awkward than innovative storytelling.
Cesaro is embroiled in apparent feuds with babyface Rob Van Dam and Jack Swagger, who is apparently a heel even though he carries a manager, Zeb Colter, who earns applause because of his superior microphone work. Because of the uncertainty regarding his character, Cesaro lost momentum last Monday when he and Heyman failed to establish a true mission statement for their partnership. With Cesaro briefly out of favor, the spotlight shone more brightly on, for example, Wade Barrett.
Barrett, though, is in an equally perilous position. An apparent favorite of McMahon, Barrett seems ready to finally fully blossom as "Bad News," but earning McMahon's infatuation hasn't often been the career boost it should be. McMahon was also in love with the Fandango character, but instead of using his attention to develop the character, McMahon allowed it to stagnate to the point where Fandango is on the heel roster but barely a heel. Without care, the same could happen to Barrett, where he isn't a babyface or a heel, but rather just exists. It has happened to him before.
Merely existing is not a fate Cena is soon to suffer, so that could make him an ideal test case for the babyface-heel hybrid that WWE appears intent on creating. Cena, though, couldn't be a cool heel, and Cena as a shades-of-gray bad guy wouldn't earn the cheers many older fans are dying to heap upon him -- whether they want to admit that or not. Cena would have difficulty pulling off either aspect of character development; he's developed so little over the last 10 years that we know him too well now. He can't be a thug rapper again because we know he stands for hustle, loyalty, and respect. He can't go heel under the influence of current rival Bray Wyatt because we saw how well that played out for Bryan.
WWE wants the best of both worlds for some of its alleged heel characters. It wants Brock Lesnar to be evil personified and the Beast Incarnate who doesn't cheat, never backs down from a fight and attains the same popularity that made him a buyrate magnet for Ultimate Fighting Championships. It wants Sheamus to maintain his "loves to fight" attitude while smiling on his way to the ring, pandering to children and telling cornball jokes. There's a reason both of those characters were losing steam, at least until Lesnar conquered Undertaker's WrestleMania undefeated streak. There are calls for Sheamus to turn heel, too, just to give his character life.
Cena would give WWE the ultimate best-of-both-worlds possibilities. He could regain the edginess his character has lacked for a decade -- except when he's feuding with The Rock -- and hang onto his role as the corporate face of WWE. If he wasn't really that bad of a guy on television, he wouldn't have to give up his charity appearances, his Make-A-Wish contributions, or his grand and ever-escalating merchandise checks. WWE just wouldn't get to publicize those things quite as much.
But an edgy Cena with a connection to his current target audience, kids and women, wouldn't necessarily make him less appealing to that audience or more appea to the people who love to boo him. The only way to turn Cena heel and actually make it work would be to make it full-fledged and without a doubt, but that isn't how WWE wants to operate for nearly all of its characters, and it doesn't look like Cena wants to go there. WWE doesn't need it the way WCW needed a heel Hulk Hogan to bring life to a dwindling product in the mid-1990s, and Cena doesn't need it, either.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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