Someone invented the hoary old non-joke “we’re all dying” as a reply to people bemoaning a stomachache or employing idiomatic “dying of” expressions—of hunger, or of laughter. Some Greek Sophist, maybe, or a Chaldean poet. We’ve all employed it, or at least thought about doing so, if nothing else to be annoying. The Romans had carpe diem. The guy from Fight Club said it. So did R.A Salvatore, cribbing from existentialists and metaphysicists.
But we are all dying. Our bodies break down first, then our minds, in slow drips of entropy. We don’t last, but we can hope that our projects do, whatever those projects might be. Kids, work, art, music—something to mark that we were here. But at some point, the midlife crisis hits and you realize your time is half over and that the work on your project is going to end, whether you’ve finished or not.
John Cena is confronting the facts of his mortality in one of the only decent week-to-week storylines WWE has going. At Wrestlemania, he lost to The Undertaker. Cena didn’t just lose, but lost quickly and cleanly in a perfectly executed squash match to an Undertaker who’s gone from looking downright feeble the past few years to looking as close to a million bucks as an old guy with bad knees and too much height can.
It was the lead-up to their match and the prior couple of years which framed the story as one of Cena’s fight against aging.
Cast your mind back to SummerSlam 2014. Brock Lesnar was back and being built to monster status. He wrestles Cena for the WWE title, only the previously invincible Cena gets dismantled by the human wrecking ball which was 2014 Brock Lesnar. Cena’s vigor failed him when he needed it most and WWE had (and still has) a new monster in Lesnar.
Ever since then, Super Cena has been decidedly not so super. He loses now, a lot. He’s absent for longer stretches, making movies and going on morning television shows; he is remarkably and unceasingly charming in all of these non-wrestling appearances. He is, in most ways, just another guy.
He did, of course, win another top title, his 16th, which tied Ric Flair for most world title reigns in history. That 16th title reign was brief—he beat A.J. Styles and a few weeks later dropped it to Bray Wyatt, of all people, at Elimination Chamber 2017. The mighty John Cena, reduced to transitional champion to get the title off of someone WWE wants to protect (Styles) and onto someone they’ve never utilized properly and have mostly given up on since (Wyatt).
And that was it. Cena returned to being just another guy and has remained there ever since. Except in the run-up to this year’s WrestleMania, the losses began to eat at Cena. He lost so many times to so many different people that he didn’t have a way into a WrestleMania match. If we knew, in real world terms, that there was no way he was missing the show, in kayfabe terms, he had no path to get there.
Except to challenge The Undertaker. A challenge which wasn’t accepted. It went on a touch too long, given that Undertaker never showed up on television, but each week on Raw, Cena would go out and talk shit about Taker. The promos slowly became more desperate as the date quickly approached. And when WrestleMania finally rolled around, there was Cena, sitting in the front row with a beer in hand. Just a fan watching wrestling.
Until, of course, Undertaker beat him. It was a “surprise,” in wrestling terms. A whispered word in Cena’s ear, his run to the back to get ready for the match he thought he wanted, and then, again, his powers failing him as what he thought he wanted just revealed how he was too slow and too weak to be so arrogant.
The day after Wrestlemania, Cena tweeted a video of himself playing “House of the Rising Sun” on piano. Black and white, cold, with the flickering light of a candle playing across the black gloss of the piano, Cena wears a tuxedo with the tie loose around his neck. The party is over, the bar is closed. Take off your formal wear and go home.
John Cena is 40. His project is nearing an end. Almost certainly, his time as a top pro wrestler is over. And yes, the pathos is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s all so note-perfect that, honestly, who cares? The conquering hero as waning star? Yes, please.
Because the fact is that this sort of story is rarely told in pro wrestling. Nobody ever retires until they can barely move—witness the aforementioned Undertaker’s insistence on always coming back to WrestleMania or Flair’s continued career after his perfect retirement match against Shawn Michaels. When wrestlers age out, it’s acknowledged through crass shit like heart attack or dementia angles. They slowly move down the card and nobody really cares until they’re gone.
But here is acknowledgement of a fading star and a peek into the (dramatized) psyche of what it means to fade. This is Michael Jordan on the Wizards or Joe Montana on the Chiefs: a generational legend who’s not quite done but is sputtering. And the legend knows he’s sputtering, you can see it in his eyes and his gait, but he can’t let it go, no matter how many times he comes up short of his past standards.
Listen to the cheers Cena gets now. The singalong “John Cena sucks” stuff the crowds do has moved from mocking to affectionate, in the same way fans chant “you suck” at Kurt Angle because they adore him. The cheers have grown and even the boos feel good-natured.
A strange coda to this popped up last night, well after I’d decided to write this. Cena and his fiancee, quasi-retired wrestler Nikki Bella, called off their engagement. It was quite sudden and, ultimately, none of our business. What’s worthy of a mention is that, like so much else Cena’s involved in, it was public (he proposed at WrestleMania 33 and their relationship has been fodder for the reality television fishbowl) and, from the outside, something approaching flawless.
But it wasn’t. Cena wasn’t flawless, as it turns out, in kayfabe or reality. The demigod is mortal. His ears are fuzzy, his hair is thinning, and his brow is furrowed by permanent creases. He’s not old, but aging, with a small trail of broken relationships and memories you could build statues to in his wake. John Cena’s project is winding down, and he’s the best character on WWE because of it.