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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 2.1 ~ The Cena Shift, in the Ring
By Samuel 'Plan
Jun 21, 2017 - 10:13:56 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 2.1 ~ The Cena Shift, in the Ring

John Cena’s role in WWE is changing. It started at Summerslam 2013, with a clean loss to Daniel Bryan for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. It snowballed at Summerslam 2014 with a squash loss to Brock Lesnar for the same title. Since that time, the presentation of John Cena has been in flux both in the ring and in the context of the roster, and recognising this provides us with our second issue that has dominated so much discourse regarding WWE’s product since August 2014.

It is important to understand that, even now, WWE still have not settled on a final outcome and, instead, continue to wrestle with what John Cena’s role should really be. Long stretches go by where John Cena is positioned time and again opposite new rising stars, only for sudden redirections to occur which see John Cena once again vying for WWE World Championships. Only last season, the franchise player went from winning an all-time record tying sixteenth WWE World Championship to participating in an inter-gender mid card feud at WrestleMania – a perfectly expressive microcosm of WWE’s crisis of conscience when it comes to John Cena. That crisis of conscience is what I referred to at the end of my last column as “The Cena Shift” – the manner in which WWE and John Cena seemingly recognise the importance in now beginning to deconstruct Cena’s exceptionalism, while still wrestling with whether or not they are fully prepared to commit to doing so.

As before, I believe there to be a number of matches that represent this Cena Shift over the course of the last two and a half years, and it is these I now consider for contention of being named my 102nd Most Must See WWE Match.

To fully understand, let us break The Cena Shift into its two component parts: the changing way in which John Cena is presented in the ring, and the changing way John Cena is presented in comparison to the rest of the roster. In both spheres, the same matches presented themselves to me.

The way John Cena wrestles in the ring has changed entirely, with the fastest period of growth (if that’s an appropriate term) occurring during the days of the US Open Challenge. What we saw evolve was a populist style, that helped John Cena offset a large amount of the historic criticism levied at him by fans who believed the Cenation Leader to still be limited in the ring, and by extension undeserving of his spot on the roster. Adoption of this populist style has, in that manner, been successful. Critics remain, but the mainstream criticism has been massively diluted. More importantly, it has led John Cena to participating in a regular series of matches immediately recognised as modern day classics, which has bolstered his standing when it comes to Greatest of All Time conversations and, by extension, imbued his career with life it may not have otherwise possessed; this, perhaps, explains in part why The Cena Shift hasn’t quite been the clean and total break it once looked to be.

This change to a populist, content-driven spottier style designed to provoke instant reaction has, rather ironically, not been sudden or fast moving. Indeed, you might trace it all the way back to the epoch-altering Money in the Bank clash opposite CM Punk in 2011. But in this series we are focussing exclusively on the period since Summerslam 2014 and, as fate would have it, it was inside of this period John Cena participated in a programme that, without any degree of uncertainty, solidified the populist approach as his new personal orthodoxy. The programme I refer to is Kevin Owens vs. John Cena.

Each of their three matches was met with acclaim because of their pursuit of the populist approach, with each edition of the feud punctuated with countless single-move sequences and superfluity of false finish. I might even go so far as to say they define their style: a style employed overwhelmingly throughout the course of the beloved US Open Challenge, and again in the equally beloved AJ Styles match at Summerslam in 2016. It was the Kevin Owens matches that saw traditionalist John Cena transform into this Neo John Cena. It was a bridging feud; a moment of change, and for that reason I intend to hone in on their inaugural contest at Elimination Chamber 2015.

That opening contest accounts for both of Cena’s favoured in-ring methods employed over his career. The first half plays out like a hundred other John Cena matches from a hundred other shows, with Kevin Owens dominating the Cenation Leader thoroughly. But where, originally, a John Cena match would pursue that narrative line solidly through to the final act, at which stage the hero would normally attain an infuriatingly swift victory in a mere couple of moves, the inaugural Kevin Owens bout instead pursued a prolonged third act that doubled down on big moves, impact spots and false finish. The matches that would follow would pursue that same method more ardently still, allowing the hyperactivity usually confined to the final third of a match to instead spill over into much earlier portions of the action, in scenes that predicted much of Cena’s later work.

Such recognition of how the Owens matches led John Cena to adopt his currently favoured in-ring style is important, but so too is recognising where the Owens matches took John Cena away from. It is the first match between the two that does this best, by playing out like a more refined, far braver version of John Cena’s matches against a different opponent earlier in that very same year.

Rusev vs. John Cena is an early indication of the movement the Kevin Owens matches later snowballed. In particular, we should consider both the Fastlane 2015 match and the WrestleMania 31 match in tandem.

At Fastlane, we got three quarters of a typical Cena story, where the monster dominates. Several months before Cena would lock up with Owens, that domination lasted much longer in comparison; possibly because the hyperactive final act that the Owens trilogy perfected did not exist yet. As such, even with the non-committal ‘victory’ for Rusev, the methodology is age-old: the monster dominates, and the finish is rushed through.

At WrestleMania 31, the signs of change strengthened. On the second occasion, John Cena wrestled with greater competitiveness than on the first. There was no prolonged domination this time around. Instead, momentum shifts backward and forward, with a greater surplus of spottier-exchanges and, of course, the debut of the infamous Springboard Stunner that would come to be something of a watermark for Neo Cena’s in-ring populism. It may still have been some way away from becoming the method mastered during the Kevin Owens feud, but it was another step closer to it.

The Owens feud marked something of a transition, then. Certainly ever since, Neo John Cena has continued to pursue the populist in-ring style more than any other, and his success in using it saw it spread like wildfire throughout the rest of the roster. To this day, and perhaps with increasing regularity, there are glimpses of an older approach from Cena, for sure, but even these we should be wary of calling “traditionalist.” They are far from it. For alongside the alteration of in-ring method comes the alteration in John Cena’s perceivable role on the roster; more accurately, the purposeful deconstruction of his exceptionalism.

In the simplest terms, WWE are no longer afraid to have John Cena lose.

Again, this has not been a smooth transition, and the conflict at the heart of the aforementioned Rusev matches and Owens feud evidence just how much of a crisis of conscience The Cena Shift really is proving for WWE. That crisis of conscience is what I will turn to in the next instalment of this series.

But for now, let me know your thoughts on whether Cena’s change in in-ring method has been a good or bad thing, both for his own career and for the roster. Or share your thoughts on my own thoughts, the conclusions I’ve arrived at and the matches I’ve examined, by leaving a comment below or sharing your ideas with me on social media!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com

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