At this point, it would not surprise many to suggest that this is one of the worst periods in WWE's history from a creative standpoint. The feuds are unoriginal and stale, with bouts on Raw being rehashed on SmackDown with no alterations. Nobody watches Main Event and would be disappointed if they did, and the shows are being dominated by the Bella Soap Opera and images of Vladimir Putin. Frankly, the main shows are being outshone consistently by NXT, which is gradually becoming the only hour of wrestling worth watching per week. Especially for someone like me that likes to look for any positives, it becomes an issue when the best part of WWE at the moment is this video.
|"Wait... what do you mean I can never leave?"|
John Cena, 2022
Unfortunately, there will come a point where 'My Time is Now' doesn't blaze through the loudspeakers. A time where the brightly colored paraphernalia and corny catchphrases disappear. A show which isn't dominated by the contesting chants of 'Let's Go Cena' and 'Cena Sucks'. John Cena is not invulnerable, in spite of what the booking team may tell you. And is the company ready for when the top guy finally hangs up his Jorts and sneakers for good? In a word, no.
Maybe this is just early onset paranoia due to the ridiculously poor quality of recent shows. But, one can never escape the fact that Cena carries so much importance in the WWE both in terms of creative decisions and financially. When Hogan left for WCW, holes in the WWE product became more openly apparent than ever before, and the cartoonish and bland characters on display were laughed out of the industry. Similarly, when Stone Cold Steve Austin's injuries got the better of him, the WWE suffered a brief but telling loss in fan support as the Attitude Era's rattlesnake lost his fangs.
Cena has been the main guy for a tenure longer than either Hogan or Austin. Although his time atop the mountain has not witnessed the same popularity nor ratings as the remarkable eras that they led, the sheer span of his run is something to be applauded. Cena has fought through injuries, carried his fair share of hopeless opponents, and no matter what the less able-minded members of the WWE Universe suggest, he can wrestle. When he goes, the hole in the roster it leaves will be bigger than any seen before. His merchandise sales account for the same as the entire rest of the roster combined, and live shows he participates in generate an extra $60,000 in ticket revenue.
Who are the feasible babyface replacements for Cena? They currently come few and far between. Roman Reigns is the obvious answer, but unless he improves his mic skills he will likely become a short placeholder, or a flash in the pan like Batista 2005-2007. Daniel Bryan among smart fans and live crowds is another massively over superstar. However, even though Bryan is the No. 2 merchandise seller, this is still six times fewer then Cena's. That lost money would be catastrophic for a company already cutting back due to the shortcomings of the WWE Network. Dean Ambrose? Possible due to the recent reactions his feud with Seth Rollins have produced, but the company would have to start pushing him hard now to get him to Cena-stature. If officials hold back and feel he isn't yet ready for the main event, they will only kill off that opportunity. CM Punk? Yeah right.
Other members of the roster have had shots at the top and have either failed to thrive or were shot down by fate or poor booking. Jack Swagger was too long a heel and has not been given enough focus as a babyface. Dolph Ziggler is ridiculously considered injury-prone and as such a perennial nearly guy. Sheamus does not have enough of a connection with the crowd. Wade Barrett has all the attributes, but has never broken the glass ceiling, and is a better heel anyway. The Miz only works as a heel. Cody Rhodes is another possibility, but Stardust may have hurt him too much.
So, maybe the immediate future looks somewhat murky, with no clear indications about anybody that could take the reins from the resident Superman. But, the distant future is now in focus with NXT. In a show that has recently received such rave reviews, surely there is somebody that would soon take the baton and run with it? Even in one of the most exciting rosters in recent memory, very little is certain.
Adrian Neville is the current champion, but doesn't have the same build and charisma of traditional poster boys. As Tyler Breeze once mentioned, he is more hobbit then man. Neville on top of the totem pole would be a dramatic shift in who is a consistent part of the main event. He would be more like Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels, who were undoubtedly two of the greatest performers of all time, but fell short in terms of the marketing power of Hogan, Austin and Cena. It could work, but are the WWE officials willing to make that shift when the time comes?
Sami Zayn is a lovable underdog, who should forever be chasing the spotlight but often falling short. He can certainly be a multi-time champion, but for him to succeed in WWE long-term he must never become 'the guy'. Kevin Steen's greatest performances have come as a heel. Hideo 'Kenta' Itami has difficult national and verbal boundaries to cross. Whilst most NXT superstars are great athletes and wrestlers, they are currently lacking in charisma. Conversely, Enzo Amore has bags of charisma and character, but not the same level of ability to carry a great match.
Maybe someone will be like Cena in the future, who arrives out of nowhere and after three years wrestling is stamped onto the main roster. He blossomed quickly and his potential was fully reached on Smackdown after a steady progression, so surely they could find someone like that? But, if they are putting all their chips on that strategy, they might as well put WWE's bankroll on the roulette wheel just in case they might win all the money Cena's departure would lose them. It's risky at best.
But, let's try to stay optimistic. There will undoubtedly be a lull upon Cena's absence. That cannot be avoided, and the focus should be on damage limitation at that point. But, in the past eventually somebody comes in and for a while gets fans fully behind wrestling again. Hogan left in 1993, Austin didn't blossom until 1998. Likewise Cena was made a true main event star in 2005 after Austin retired in 2003. Eventually, these men take the WWE in a different direction, and force creativity when the world seems at its bleakest. Their track record is decidedly good at overcoming obstacles and staying relevant, and it would be churlish to suggest otherwise. Maybe they will strikeout a few times, but the company will have enough chances to hit a home run.
|Me, the next poster-boy? Sure, I'll do it!|
Therefore, I feel in conclusion that whilst there are options open to WWE at this very moment, they need to make a decision soon to minimize the assured losses that Cena's retirement will bring. It is coming sooner than they think, and if they were to bury their heads in the sand and pray for a miracle, they will leave the company in the lurch for longer than ever before. Cena will not always be around to stick the world title on in a time of creative crisis, or to be the star player to test up-and-coming talent to test against. Of course, Bray Wyatt would have liked that to be the case. And this is the salient point - eventually the WWE have to stop pushing the most untouchable member of the roster to the moon and let him be taken down a few times by the new guys. Because one of those new guys might eventually be the guy.
Cena's retirement will be a sad day for professional wrestling, for a great company man that put his body on the line for over a decade for the love of the show and its fans. So, he as much as anybody would like to see somebody grab the torch that he holds with both hands and leads the WWE into a new, unpredictable era. Whether it be Ambrose, Reigns or Neville, they need to announce themselves soon.