By Jeff Lutz, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@JLutz82)
John Cena owes fans, the wrestling industry, WWE and Vince McMahon absolutely nothing. And that’s where this story should end.
Except it’s John Cena, and he has always given far more than he’s owed. Just not in the last three years, when his appearances have become sporadic at best and his association with WWE when making public appearances has seemed detached. He got a new haircut, a public persona away from wrestling, and Cena has become guilty of the disconnect he accused The Rock of creating with WWE when the two were feuding several years ago.
I’m a firm believer that unless someone committed a particularly egregious act, his or her legacy will always exclusively include the most positive actions and aspects. In that way, Cena’s legacy in WWE is complete. He accomplished as much as a single performer can accomplish – he forged a new era, became practically synonymous with the brand, brought a new generation of fans to the product, helped serve the underprivileged, and, least importantly, won countless matches and championships.
Cena, at age 42, could forever disappear from WWE tomorrow and be generally spoken of the way he already is, as the biggest star of the last 20 years and maybe more. But since Cena is returning on Friday’s Smackdown for a run toward WrestleMania, it’s appropriate to look at his last three years and how the company’s biggest star essentially became an afterthought. It’s a difficult task because every perceived misstep by Cena can be answered and justified at least somewhat reasonably.
First, let’s examine his claim that, unlike The Rock, who was away from WWE for several years to forge a movie career, Cena himself would never leave. While it’s true that Cena has never taken a full year away from the company, The Rock’s approach feels, in retrospect, much more honest and genuine. The Rock would have looked disingenuous had he returned for a handful of meaningless appearances after acting became his priority, and that’s exactly how Cena looks now.
Cena’s most recent appearances, particularly last year’s forgettable WrestleMania moment with Elias, have seemed phoned in and uninspired. Again, Cena owes fans nothing, but sometimes “nothing” is more than what he’s had to offer. He owes the fans his best if he appears in front of them, and they’ve clearly not received that during the last few years.
On the other hand, Cena has been working as hard at building a mainstream presence as he did at perfecting his craft as a wrestler. It seems like he’s in every movie or commercial and, who knows, maybe he’ll become as big as Dwayne Johnson someday. Cena didn’t really need to hold himself to the promise to never leave, because everybody leaves. WWE is a creative endeavor, and nearly every performer searches for creative freedom outside of the company.
Cena’s acting endeavor and desire not to damage it with scandal has forced him to drop from the last several WWE shows in Saudi Arabia. It’s difficult to question that decision, and it would be heartening if more current and past stars followed suit. But ten years ago, Cena would have been on the front lines pronouncing the Saudi shows as social progress, touting the previously forbidden women’s matches and toeing the company line.
His disassociation with those shows is in no way the wrong move, but it makes one question his current relationship with WWE and with McMahon, its chairman and CEO. Cena is clearly putting his outside career ahead of WWE, which would have been unheard of at almost any time during the previous decade.
It’s also at least semi-curious that Cena disappeared from WWE just as he was sliding down the card and after he was replaced as its top star by Roman Reigns. Instead of becoming the gatekeeper to future stars looking to ascend to his level, Cena walked away during the first years when his matches would have meant more to his opponent than to Cena himself.
Then again, Cena did spend time elevating younger performers with his United States Championship open challenge. He helped groom Reigns with some uncomfortable promo segments and entertaining matches, and he gave the rub to Elias last year.
Cena’s last three WrestleMania appearances have been a mixed tag three years ago after which he proposed to Nikki Bella, a stint in the crowd at WrestleMania 34 before Undertaker finally answered his weeks-long challenged and squashed Cena, and last year’s mess with Elias. He has barely appeared on WWE television between those matches.
Absence may be making the heart grow fonder. Cena will likely be cheered on Friday, and limited appearances will probably keep him in favor with fans who booed him mercilessly while he was on top for 15 years. Cena does not need to keep returning to WWE; he can settle into a movie career that will make him a marquee star.
His odd relationship with WWE hasn’t tarnished his legacy in any way, but it’s complicated it. And it’s raised a lot of questions, many of which are too complex to answer.