John Cena and I got off on the wrong foot. He broke through during one of my few periods away from wrestling, and I learned he existed because the assistant manager of the video game store where I worked at the time was obsessed with him. He was—and I mean this in absolutely the least condescending way—precisely the demographic the early John Cena was made for: a lower middle class white male who was into nu metal, with a faint guilty interest in hip-hop. Cena's character at that time, a white "thug" with big chains and weekly diss tracks, was made for this man, and this man loved him. I heard about him for eight hours a day. It drove me nuts.
For many wrestling fans, the response to Cena has never really evolved much beyond that. He became the biggest and most recognizable star in the sport while simultaneously becoming a stand-in for everything wrong with the corporate WWE. When I returned after my brief dalliance with doing normal things on Mondays, Cena was the easy target. It wasn't WWE's overreliance on this one guy for fear of its stock price dropping that was the problem; it was Cena, the man, who took the muttered swears and rolled eyes as he evolved from the Doctor of Thuganomics to the white bread, salute the troops, God Bless America Superman he is now.
So yes: goddamn, did John Cena annoy me.
And now John Cena's on his way out. It's all but confirmed by sourced rumor after sourced rumor that he's aiming to take a hiatus of two or three months. The reasons for the break are supposedly positive, but he's also 38 years old, and might reasonably decide to extend it indefinitely. The same reason Cena has driven so many wrestling fans to distraction—his omnipresence for the past decade plus—is precisely the reason he soon won't be able to go as hard as before. John Cena has logged more miles, both literal and figurative, than anyone in recent WWE history. It makes sense that he'd want to get off the road for a bit.
As he's mostly faded from the WWE title scene over the past year, a curious thing has happened: I've kind of started to like John Cena. It appears that this is not just me. A strange, grudging appreciation for the man's work has begun cropping up on Twitter and wrestling message boards. Even the fans' reworking of his song into a lustily voiced repetition of the words "John Cena sucks" increasingly seems to be a matter of good humor rather than weary hatred.
So perhaps a reappraisal is due, here, even if it's not easy. Cena cannot be separated from his times, and those times were strangely fallow for the wrestling business. Vince McMahon won the wrestling wars which stretched back decades and, with nothing pressing him, played it safe. The peace dividend, for fans, was a vanilla, Cena-ruled decade.
Cena was perennial champion because there was never a need to shake things up. This has been McMahon's default mode since he took over his father's company, barring times of legitimate crisis: the only two times the roster moved in truly unexpected ways were directly after McMahon's 1993 steroid trial, which saw a move to smaller technical wrestlers like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, and when WCW had the company close to folding in the mid-90's, which spurred the Attitude Era.
Despite the scripted nature of the work, it's worth a moment to consider just how remarkable Cena's run has been. Even Hogan's extended run in the 1980s wasn't quite comparable; by the early '90s, Hogan had taken multiple leaves to work on movies before moving on to become king boss of a really quite miserable WCW. Cena's run at the top has been, until just now, uninterrupted for nearly 11 years. That's four more than the golden era of Hulkamania and over twice as long as Steve Austin and The Rock had.
That remarkable longevity has been notable for its relative absence of drama. Not entirely absent, of course. There was the rumored affair with fellow wrestler Mickie James and his burial of a defunct group called the Nexus. But in a business renowned for its backstabbing, populated by tragic weirdos, sadists, and murderers, Cena's reign has been downright tame, and certainly the least dramatic period in pro wrestling's modern era. You'll find scant few of Cena's colleagues who have much bad to say about the man, even those who competed with him the most for exposure. And lest you think that drama-free is now a company policy, remember that Randy Orton's still employed. This mildness is all Cena.
Wrestling's biggest stars get big because their characters and stories speak to something deeply held within the hearts of the audience; this is true even if that's something much of the audience might dislike, as is the case with Cena. Cena matters in a way that generational rivals like Randy Orton and Edge don't. Someone else could've grabbed the mantle of postmodern patriotic superhero-cum-passable-rapper, sure. But nobody else did. Cena is who we have and he is, by any objective measure, wildly popular with the audience. Not all of it, but someone is buying those t-shirts and arm bands.
Because of that popularity, there's a real danger that the McMahons, never very humble, mistake this rare confluence of public demand and their own enthusiasm for Cena as proof that they can create a wrestler who molds the crowd to WWE's whims. The creeping sense that the charisma-deficient Roman Reigns is that creation—as he performs Cena-esque comebacks and appears more and more in WWE's charity-related marketing—offers proof of that hubris.
This doesn't mean that you have to like Cena, or enjoy watching him kick out of finishers and beat the odds while the announcers act like they haven't seen it before. But that's a WWE problem, not a John Cena problem, just as this fallow period in creativity and television ratings is not on him. If we can't separate Cena from the dim era he dominated, let's at least separate him from his employer as best we can. As Cena slides into the twilight of his career, let's offer him the same due we gave the other all-time greats. Even those of us who still roll our eyes when his music hits.