67. John Cena
Best Known For: Rising through the ranks of the WWE, winning countless championships and becoming the company's figurehead: the Hulk Hogan of 2000s, if you will.
You may have noticed on my Twitter feed that I've been going through a wrestling phase of late, so what better time to whip out this conversation with my friend and fellow wrestling-watcher Jakey (follow him on Twitter and read his hilarious blog) about wrestler John Cena.
Dame James: When did you first encounter John and, if it wasn't love at first sight, when did you fall in love with him?
Jakey: I was first introduced to John Cena the way many wrestling fans were -- on an June 2002 episode of WWF Smackdown, he made his debut as an earnest wrestler accepting an open challenge by Kurt Angle, citing his motivation as "ruthless aggression" (a phrase that Vince McMahon had uttered on the previous episode of Monday Night Raw). At the risk of being defensive, I would like to add that I knew this from the top of my head and did not look anything up. I had also seen his picture in Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine when he was in developmental wrestling under the name Prototype.
This all being said, he didn't immediately pique my interest. Obviously he was good-looking -- fresh-faced and impossibly chiseled -- but he didn't strike my fancy the way that another debut that year (Randy Orton) would. The quintessential pretty boy, Orton later worked very hard to destroy that image, maybe even too hard -- his in-ring work spoke for itself, but he has since coated his entire upper body in tattoos.
I think I first felt tingly feelings for Cena when I saw him live for the first time, at a September 2002 taping of Smackdown (which is a somewhat famous episode as it is known for the night that Brock Lesnar broke Hardcore Holly's neck, and when the Billy and Chuck wedding never happened. Nothing like being a 16-year-old gay boy in an audience shouting "FA****!"). While Cena would later segue into his "thug" gimmick, at the time he was a generic babyface, but he would always do a special thing to spice up his outfit: His trunks would always match the local sports team. For example, in North Carolina he would always wear baby blue (ADORABLE). In Minnesota, he wore purple and gold.
This all being said, I really don't think that I became a fan of his until further along in his run. The more I read about him, the more I admired his work ethic, and there were few times in the past decade more facinating than the era in which he was booked as a babyface ("good guy" for those of you not familiar with the lingo), but constantly booed by the audience (often with Cena, the dynamic is that women and children cheer him but men boo him). Honestly, most of the time when I watch him wrestle, it's still the work that impresses me, not the ridiculous musculature.
Your knowledge of wrestling always surprises me, so when did you first come accustomed to Cena?
DJ: In high school, I was a casual watcher of wrestling, meaning I would watch Raw or Smackdown for a couple weeks in a row and then not at all for months. Honestly, I would mainly watch for the hot guys as it was the closest thing to porn I had. I have no idea the exact date I first encountered John Cena, but I believe he was involved in some tournament to get a shot at the WWE Championship. He was the heel (aka the villain) at this point, cheating his way into the match for the belt, which was a huge turn-on for me. I think I've mentioned this before, but I've always had a soft spot for the villains, particularly in cartoons and wrestling. When I was growing up, I was probably the only person who preferred Scar and Jafar over Simba and Aladdin. It was the same with wrestling: growing up, instead of cheering on Hulk Hogan or Bret Hart (barf), I always liked Shawn Michaels, who, at that point, was a vain, self-centered wrestler who had awesome entrance music and the amazing Sensational Sherri as his valet. So, when I saw the gorgeous, incredibly well built Cena being a major asshole, my heart went a-flutter.
It's interesting that you mention Randy Orton because they both appear, to this casual observer, like the face of the company but they represent such wildly different ends of the personality spectrum. Randy is kind of like the dark, dangerous bad boy, with his tatted up body and sarcastic sneer. John, on the other hand, is the golden child, the eternal hero we're supposed to cheer on no matter what. Who would have guessed that back in 2004 or so when he was still a heel?
Confession time: I don't know if I've ever admitted this, but I have a soft spot for attractive wiggers, or white people who dress "black." There's something about it that I've never been able to put my finger on, but a built guy like John Cena wearing throwback jerseys and baggy shorts really turned me on. And how could I forget the freestyle raps! I doubt he does this anymore, but he used to come out and do these dumb little raps to insult whatever wrestler he was in a feud with. They were hit or miss, but the assholian-ness of them really spoke to me.
J: John unfortunately doesn't do the raps anymore, and his promos (save for his most recent battle with C.M. Punk) are often overly scripted and cutesy, especially once WWE switched to a more "PG" feel. That being said, his gangsta-rapping is what saved his career -- he was on a bus doing it for Stephanie McMahon and she brought it to the writers' attention. Before that he was a bland heel with no angle or charisma and was probably going to be released.
I do think I realized his sex appeal once he started doing the "gangsta" gimmick. The white muscle-shirt! the silver chain! His fearlessness on the mike!
What has your opinion been of him as a wrestler?
DJ: I've heard for years of people complaining that John is a limited wrestler because he only knows how to do five moves. Um, what? Have they ever watched him in the ring? I think people confuse using the same moves in every match to not having a large repertoire. Would these same people accuse Ric Flair or Bret Hart, both of whom had well known routines they used in nearly ever single match of their careers, of being limited? Probably not. I won't argue that not-so-good wrestlers can be famous for periods of time; it's the same thing that happens with certain actors who are in high demand for a short period of time. But eventually their lack of talent shows and they fade away. You don't stay at the top for as long as John has without having any ability.
Here's the caveat about Cena's in-ring ability: He's not an aerial wrestler, he's not a great technician in the vein of Malenko, Jericho, Bret Hart, et al. But he understands the showmanship of wrestling. He's 100% genuine every time he goes out there, and he's stayed on top mainly because of his outstanding work ethic. Guy works every house show, is always on the main event, does all the promotional work as well as his own charity work, the latter of which he's humbly modest about it and usually doesn't like it addressed on television. He was much sexier as a heel, but WWE will never turn him heel because he's their top merchandise seller.
DJ: Leave it to the WWE, like Hollywood, to take an angle that worked so well and then completely water it down for the sake of appealing to the kiddies. I understand why they do it, but it's always so disappointing. Hopefully, one day in the future they'll need to reinvigorate his image and they will turn him bad again. You can't stay the good guy forever.
Showmanship is a rare gift that not ever wrestler possesses. Many people who complain about John don't understand how vital it is. You can be the greatest technician ever, but if the audience isn't interested in you, you won't get very far. I tend to equate wrestlers with movie actors because not only is it a more familiar concept to my readers, but they also have a surprisingly lot in common. John Cena is a lot like Julia Roberts. You'd never argue that Julia Roberts is a technical actress in the same way that Cate Blanchett is. But Julia Roberts possesses the ability to light the up the screen whenever she's on camera. Whether or not she's any good doesn't matter; she has that certain "it" factor very few people are born with. It's the same with John. He may not be able to compete at a technical level, but he always radiates star power whenever he steps into the ring.
J: And now for some shallow talk: Are you necessarily a fan of muscles? I feel like we're in that scene from Clueless when Dionne says the waiter is "puny, I like 'em big", Cher says "Ew, I hate muscles" and Tai says "I don't mind either way, as long as their you-know-what isn't crooked." Are you a Cher or a Dionne in this scenario? This is hard to talk about without sounding like we're on some muscle-worship fetish site, but being a very svelte man and having gone to college in Wisconsin surrounded by farm boys, I do consider myself weak in the knees for a pair of big biceps. I don't watch wrestling for the homoertocism of it, but damn if I don't think something when John Cena counters a cross-body by hurling his opponent up over his shoulders with one arm.
DJ: I'm more of a Dionne. When it comes to muscles, I'm mainly about if it looks right on a man's body. Like, the typical "juicehead gorillas" the girls from Jersey Shore fall in love with are often too big and that just doesn't look right or appeal to me. But John has the right proportion of muscles and it works (boy, does it work!). If he can pick up some of those 500 pound monsters with no problem, think of how much he could toss me around! Sigh, a boy can dream.