As Royal Rumble 2012 quickly approaches, I've been seeing lots of articles that have brought me to YouTube to look up interesting highlights from events in the past.
On my travels, I came across a number of John Cena videos, two of which happened to be regarding Cena's membership on Team Angle at Survivor Series 2003. I've been researching Cena's past lately and recalling that Cena turned face around that time, so that period has been of particular interest to me.
When I watched the one of his promo at the event itself, I had an epiphany that I never thought I'd have.
Cena was animated in that moment. He was a full-blown character. He was...dare I say...damn fun to watch!
The most recent example of such a phenomenon is obviously the sudden and shocking transformation of Brodus Clay from a massive potential monster heel into the Funkasaurus, billed from the elusive "Planet Funk." The initial response to seeing Brodus in a red tracksuit and bucket hat were that he was being punished severely for pissing off management, and now he was being made to look like a fool.
The response to the Funkasaurus was mixed, at first, but once people processed a little and thought about it, the idea of such a gimmick really seems to be catching on. Sure, there are critics; there always are. And yes, there are some that are doubting that such a gimmick can really dig in a secure foothold for the long-term. Understandable.
However, seeing such a flamboyant gimmick reappear after we've been without flamboyant gimmicks the past few years was not only a shock in and of itself, but it also seems to be a shock that such a thing could genuinely impress us.
I think back now at how I felt seeing Cena cut freestyle promos on the bad guys, and like I said, I remember him to be a full-blown character. His hand gestures, his mannerisms, his urban hip-hop accent—it was all spot-on and perfect to what he needed to be.
He took a gimmick that gained him ridiculously easy heat for clearly looking like a white-boy poser, and due to the circumstances of getting beaten down by easily the most massive five-man squad I've ever seen in Team Lesnar, Cena had the fuel to be sympathetically turned into a face character.
Quite a lot like Sheamus, actually. Sheamus was an angry, enraged heel for most of his WWE career, but when he stepped up to Mark Henry's challenge last year, his general feel changed, and while he's largely the same tough, brawling, smash-mouth Celtic Warrior, he's able to mix in some humor to make for a character that has the potential to be phenomenal.
Biggest difference between Sheamus and Cena's face turns? Sheamus' character's initiative brought about his face turn. He stepped up to Mark Henry on his own. Nothing prompted him to do that.
Cena, on the other hand, was offered a spot on Team Lesnar. He chose to turn it down, but didn't get offended enough to deserve the beatdown he received. Thus, his face turn was largely initiated by Paul Heyman, Brock Lesnar, Big Show, Matt Morgan, Nathan Jones and A-Train.
Not his own character's ideals.
Then we come to the mighty Funkasaurus. Sure, he smiles as much as Cena used to (can't believe I'm saying "used to"), but his gimmick is new and fresh by today's standards.
Stars like Steve Austin and Rock changed the measuring stick significantly, and Cena's rapper gimmick ended up ripping that measuring stick to shreds. But as WWE has attempted to find the next Austin or the next Rock, the next guy who could come to the ring in basic ring attire and cut a promo that everyone took to instantly, they failed to see how they went astray.
This isn't to say that Cena's rapper gimmick was necessarily a mistake, mind you. It's just that while Cena was a flamboyant rapper who wore throwback jerseys and a thick chain around his neck with a lock at the bottom (in essence something of a throwback to gimmicky characters of 10 years before that, despite Austin and Rock's success), other new characters weren't securing themselves.
After Cena's appearance alongside Team Angle came his acquisition of the US title from Big Show at WrestleMania 20 and the WWE Championship from JBL at WrestleMania 21, not quite two years after his debut in June 2002. The rest, as they say, is history.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily saying that Cena should return to his roots and be a full-time gimmick rapper character again. However, clearly something is different between when he was a rapper character and getting cheered every night by everyone, and being the Make-A-Wish-granting, company cheerleader that he is today.
When he was a rapper, he was an entertainer. He had a specific character style to draw inspiration from. He was over the top enough to be flamboyant and larger than life, yet he was still "himself" enough that the character came across as "real."
Same as our beloved Funkasaurus, no? Brodus Clay surprised us with his two funky dancers, his ring-post pyro and the electronic disco ball on the big screen during his entrance, but if there's anyone on the current roster who could sell a character that out there as well as Brodus has, I'll be damned if I know who it is.
These days, it seems clearer than ever that Cena is far too much "himself" and not enough of a character. That's what people say they love about him, though, isn't it? That he's being himself?
Is there any chance, crazy as this sounds, that maybe, just maybe, that's exactly the problem? That the vast majority of all fans want Cena to be a character when he's on screen and not himself?
That maybe the vast majority of fans want him to stop allowing his "real" personality to come out so much that he's basically screaming at us, "THIS IS FAKE! THIS IS ALLLLLL FAKE! I'M BEING MYSELF BECAUSE THE COMPANY THINKS IT SELLS BECAUSE IT WORKED FOR AUSTIN AND ROCK!"?
Which is really the biggest paradox of them all—the fact that when Cena is being himself in the ring, it's the most fake he can be. Don't believe me? Honestly, do you think for one second that if he were attacked in a club or on the street, he'd be giving AA's and Five-Knuckle Shuffles to muggers? Damn right he wouldn't.
Like I said, Cena doesn't need to be a rapper again. He's done that. But whatever this "angry and/or hateful" new transformation brings about conclusively, it needs to give Cena a new "thing."
A lot of people hate Cena. I've said this before...I don't hate him; I just hate what he's become. I have no problem with him being at the top of the company as long as he's bringing in new fans and raising ratings higher than he has. Thanks to the Funkasaurus, I have seen true clarity.
Cena has become a clean slate. He is nothing, and yet, he is everything. He has no discernible gimmick, and yet, he is WWE's bread and butter.
I am extremely intrigued by what gets added to this clean slate. John? Spotlight's on you.