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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 2.2 ~ The Cena Shift, on the Roster
By Samuel 'Plan
Jun 24, 2017 - 10:29:50 AM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 2.2 ~ The Cena Shift, on the Roster

In the last instalment, I looked at how Cena’s favoured in-ring method has shifted in the last couple of years, and arrived at the conclusion that, even when he reverts back to a more traditionalist style, we should be wary of calling it traditionalist. This is because of the newly established status quo surrounding ‘New John Cena’: WWE aren’t afraid to have him lose.

In the case of the Rusev matches at Fastlane 2015 and WrestleMania 31 explored last time, you see a desire to move toward a new orthodoxy, but one quickly blown away by the safety of the familiar. Certainly, Rusev picks up a victory at Fastlane, but the conclusion is non-committal at best. Not only is Rusev denied an explicit submission victory, but even the TKO half-measure is arrived at reluctantly; Rusev has to cheat in order to attain even that. Further, the WrestleMania rematch demonstrates a sense of buyer’s remorse, as WWE seemingly scramble to wipe away any memory of their Fastlane decision making.

At WrestleMania, John Cena’s clash with the Bulgarian Brute is undoubtedly presented as being far more important than before, when he was “just trying to win a title.” The resultant implication seems to indicate their WrestleMania match – in which John Cena emerges the undeniable victor – was the more important of the two; the one more worth winning; the one more demanding of greater motivation.

What’s more, the feud would go on to become everything that had been wrong with the John Cena approach in the first place: it lasted too long; the win/loss ratio was utterly one sided; and John Cena failed outright to elevate Rusev while emerging the victor. While signs of change were present throughout, it is clear in retrospect the Rusev bouts were only the beginning of The Cena Shift and, thus, should be precluded from selection for #102.

Kevin Owens would fare somewhat better, as The Cena Shift gathered force the longer the US Open Challenge progressed. He would defeat John Cena without controversy or doubt in their first encounter; and in Owens’ first main roster match too. Cena would go on to regain his loss, of course, and pile a second victory on top, but the context of Owens’ initial victory is important. Owens won their first match, clean. That was an accomplishment unlike any man before Owens – there was no year-long build; no revolutionary fan clamour; no preceding history; no controversy. It was a watershed moment despite what the feud would move onto.

We cannot, however, ignore the mistakes made with Cena’s feuds opposite Rusev and Owens, so perhaps saying WWE are no longer afraid to have John Cena lose isn’t quite right. Perhaps it’s not that simple. Rather, we’re talking about WWE beginning the process of consciously deconstructing John Cena’s exceptionalism so that a John Cena loss is no longer the monumental event it once was; and it is that which defines The Cena Shift and the new status quo for Neo John Cena best.

Many might think, at this point, I should turn to the infamous Summerslam match opposite AJ Styles as a key indicator of that new status quo, but this was not the most radical example of what I now discuss. Instead, I turn to Alberto Del Rio vs. John Cena at Hell in a Cell 2015.

Unlike the AJ Styles match, Del Rio’s shockingly comfortable victory over John Cena occurred with no build up and little fanfare. In execution, the commentary track made much less of a deal out of it than when Kevin Owens defeated John Cena at Elimination Chamber a few months earlier. And unlike both the Styles and Owens matches mentioned, the Del Rio affair did not follow a populist, epic line but instead focussed more on a solid story told in under ten minutes.

Many found this to be a garish move on WWE’s part at the time, it so radically flew in the face of convention. That alone champions it as potentially must see. More importantly, though, it encapsulates the theme I have spoken of here: no, this match does not represent Cena’s in-ring shift, but it most certainly represents the shift in Cena’s role among the roster. Such a quick, easy and relatively uncelebrated defeat would have been incomprehensible as little as a year before; if not a mere few months. While John Cena has not found himself permanently robbed of his exceptionalism since, this Del Rio encounter, and the presentation of John Cena’s defeat, represents one mighty tear in the fabric of that status: John Cena losing was no longer exceptional.

Its comment on John Cena’s shifting role on the roster does not stop there either. In context, the Del Rio bout represents the closing of one transitional chapter in John Cena’s career and the opening of the next: part time blockbuster star. Throughout the year that would follow, due to a combination of injury and an increasing amount of work beyond WWE, John Cena’s presence on the card would be intermittent, with regular breaks that seemed to last longer each time. And at the end of each break, John Cena would return and pick up main event level feuds instantly, all lent excessive time on major shows that, equally, was denied younger, full time talent. That started immediately following the Del Rio bout.

Now, then, I am led nicely onto the feud that, currently, stands as perhaps the most demonstrative of Cena’s latest career phase, AJ Styles vs. John Cena; but, again, it is not the Summerslam match I feel best represents this latest development in the ongoing Cena Shift. Rather, it is to their more recent Royal Rumble clash I turn. Why is this? The answer is simple.

As briefly accounted for above, throughout 2016 John Cena moved closer and closer toward becoming what he had so fiercely criticised in the past: a part time blockbuster star turning up and taking a top spot. As the months progressed and outrage at this was fictionalised on television, with AJ Styles being the primary mouthpiece, John Cena’s character changed; apparently, changing in-ring approach and roster position is not quite enough. Suddenly, John Cena became cockier; more aggressive; not just unapologetic but outwardly proud of his tenure, legacy and accomplishments. “I’m John Cena; recognise.” This, alongside the two themes already explored in both parts of this chapter, came to a head at Royal Rumble in a match that saw this new angle on the John Cena character emerge fully.

The Royal Rumble match between Styles and Cena demonstrated the populist style Neo John Cena has made his trademark. It demonstrated, in its aftermath, WWE’s continued back and forth over his status on the roster, taking him from the high of tying Ric Flair’s record to the relative demotion of feuding with The Miz and Maryse two months later. Further, it demonstrated the new leviathan version of the John Cena character who, while not outwardly a villain, was becoming increasingly distanced from the unblemished hero of yesteryear.

Throughout all five of the matches mentioned in the last two instalments, we can see clearly how the role of John Cena has fluctuated wildly since Summerslam 2014, but it is the Royal Rumble 2017 clash with AJ Styles that provides our most comprehensive piece of evidence; and which I consider a front runner for must-see status.

However, The Cena Shift has not yet concluded, and its final form, from what I can tell, is yet to take shape. WWE still have a decision to make regarding where they want John Cena to consistently appear on their cards. Moving so wildly from a major starring role to a star-making supporting role threatens to have a detrimental effect that could come to overshadow even that of the once obsessive protectionism with which Traditional John Cena was presented. Simply look to the fan outrage over the lack of ceremony for his sixteenth World title, and the revelation that the reign was merely a transitional one that never needed to happen. Fewer passages in John Cena’s most recent years better example WWE’s ongoing crisis of conscience when it comes to their once franchise player.

The Cena Shift hasn’t been the only example of an evolving veteran’s career narrative dominating fan discourse about the contemporary product these last two and a half years either. There has been another, entirely different one at play too, and it is to him I turn to next week: Chris Jericho.

Until then, you know the drill; please do share any thoughts on the issue, my conclusions or my match choices in the comments below or over 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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