SS: Is an edgier John Cena what fans are prepared for?

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He’s John Cena, recognize. He keeps telling opponents that he has earned the right to call his shot and make championship match requests. For the better part of a decade, Cena has received extensive criticism from fans online. That carries over to WWE shows as a section of the fans boo him regularly. He often will play up to the critics, and even calls that ‘passion’. Fans show this displeasure either because it’s the cool thing to do, or because they are resentful that he’s been on top for so long.

In the recent past, he has taken time off because of movie roles or reality TV hosting duties, opportunities that WWE may very well want him to do. However, over the years, he has shown that injured or not, other commitments or not, he makes every effort to be a part of the brand in some way, shape or form. Whether as part of E’s Total Divas or Total Bellas, hosting morning programs such as Good Morning America, or appearing on award shows, Cena has made himself seen and heard by a broad audience. In fact, even when he is recuperating from injuries he is part of the WWE public relations machine.

In recent weeks, a couple of performers that are no longer with the company have expressed how exactly they feel about the leader of the Cena Nation, and not in complementary terms. Whether due to politics, hard work, or a combination of the two, Cena has been entrenched in the company for fifteen years. While some say they don’t like him taking other wrestlers’ ‘spot,’ it can also be said that he has always been willing to put other talent over, especially recently with his losses to AJ Styles and Kevin Owens. However, don’t forget him putting over others in the past such as Daniel Bryan, CM Punk and, going way back, Rob Van Dam.

However, since Cena has returned from his most recent absence, he hasn’t been the same. Fans that want to boo him and his effort would be hard pressed to do so, seeing as everything they often criticize about him is actually being incorporated into his character, and has been the subject of his back and forth promos with other performers. He plays up the fact that he isn’t around as much, he says he’s not a part-timer, but an ‘all-timer.’ And he argues that, even when he isn’t in the ring that doesn’t mean he isn’t committed to helping push WWE forward. What fans have gotten is someone that doesn’t come out saying he will give you his best, but rather someone that knows he’s the best and will continue to prove it. Cena’s character isn’t trying to be humble, but rather wants everyone else to simply take notice that his time was never up, but rather ongoing. In fact, we could go as far as to say that Cena will dictate his schedule.

Despite the criticism that he’s being ‘given’ opportunities, Cena is simply doing exactly what he says he’s going to do, and beating down everyone that crosses his path. It’s unlike what we have seen before from the guy that advocated hustle, loyalty and respect; he is simply reminding others to recognize him for what he’s done and what he can and will do. Fans had wanted to see a change in Cena, though the change some had advocated for him was to be a brash heel that doesn’t need the fans support, or to stand by them anymore. What they’ve gotten instead is someone that demonstrates confidence because he’s a 16-time World Champion. What fans are getting is a Cena that has stopped trying to justify himself, and speaks with his hands rather than trying to tell his opponents that he’s going to do something. He reminds them that he’s earned everything that’s come to him because of his past accomplishments.

Since recently returning to Smackdown Live, Cena stepped up to Baron Corbin’s challenge, beat down The Miz after being attacked, and took out AJ Styles after being provoked. The fact he won’t back down is no different than any other time Cena has been faced with a challenge. However, unlike then it’s less about trying to convince the crowd that he bleeds the WWE. He is content to make others realize that regardless of how much he is around, he still calls the shots each and every time he steps into the ring.

While he still gets criticism from fans that refuse to see his overall value, it’s clear he has returned to Smackdown Live with a different means of portraying his character. Fans may still fondly remember and wish for the John Cena that was a heel, who threw down raps and often talked down to his opponents. However, they need to understand that he doesn’t need to be that to still have some edge to his character. That past character simply introduced fans to what Cena is capable of, but it was never all that he is or what defines him.

It sometimes feels as though jeering Cena is a cliché thing to do, much like chanting ‘You Suck’ when Kurt Angle’s theme played, but deep down the fans doing it realize he continues to put forth as good an effort as anyone, not only on the Smackdown Live roster, but in WWE as a whole. It’s true the cookie cutter character in brightly coloured clothing was geared towards the younger demographic, but that doesn’t mean that’s what he is resigned to being moving forward. When we suggest an edgier character, we are talking about a character that still walks and talks like the Cena we have known, but with a quality that says, ‘I’m going to beat you just like I’ve done to everyone else for the last 15 years’. It’s a confidence that borders on cockiness, and may indeed rub fans the wrong way. That’s fine, because despite those that jeer him, he’s stepping up and still performing until the day he is no longer physically able to do so.

Those annoyed with his position in the company also have to see the bigger picture when Cena is there. His polarizing nature makes him a talking point for fans. And his return this time around has been scripted different. He has been much more engaging and passionate during his promo exchanges with AJ Styles. We can attribute that to how hard both he and Styles have worked to make this program succeed, or we can attribute that to Cena simply being portrayed with much more grit than in the past. A healthy Cena provides entertaining matches, despite the how many moves he uses. The quality of his matches has been hard to argue.

Could it be though…

That in some small way it’s easy to dislike John Cena regardless of what he continues to do each and every time he steps into the ring? We aren’t suggesting people are jealous of Cena or that he is guilty of ‘politics’. While some may actually feel that way, the bottom line is they refuse to do more than be resigned to accepting Cena, unless he completely changes everything he is and does. However, not giving in to his critics doesn’t mean he hasn’t evolved or changed. He simply hasn’t evolved or changed on their terms. And if that isn’t the epitome of a heel, then what is? If a heel gets under your skin and generates heat because of what they say and do, have they not achieved their job?

Some will argue that Cena’s heat isn’t of the ‘he’s being mean, he’s being bad’ variety, but rather due to his repetitive nature. However, if we really explore this version of John Cena that has returned to the Smackdown Live roster, we are witnessing something different. Unlike Raw the program is not three hours, so he is much more concise. His promos are much more scathing and direct, which we haven’t seen before. He isn’t apologetic for being away from the ring, but rather makes his opposition aware that even though he hasn’t been in the ring lately that doesn’t mean he can’t come back and kick their a**. Those that question his overall commitment because he isn’t on screen every week can do so. However, the counter to that is his contributions’ to WWE are much greater than what happens in the ring. If anything, his contribution is so great that it dwarfs anything that is achieved between the ropes. Cena knows this, and while he doesn’t say it, his temperament suggests it.

We have seen that the role of a heel in today’s day and age is unlike what has existed in the past. The cool heel is often cheered, while brash confidence from long-time stalwarts like Cena is jeered. If we think of how often Triple H was jeered because of his position in the main event and standing within the company, then Cena is really in good company. Whether some care to recognize it or not, it is hard to dismiss how his character has brought in different nuances that make it unlike in the past. While there is still some pandering to the audience, what is gone is the constant need to acknowledge the fan base, replaced with a new-found assurance that has been a welcome change. We need not wonder if his time is now, we just need to know that his time is up when he damn well says it is.

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