There's a story about John Cena that resurfaces every few years. A young John Cena, as it's told, wasn't catching on with crowds at all. He was saddled with a godawful generic gimmick, right down to the tights, that amounted to "guy who wrestles." WWE was set on firing him in one of their periodic talent culls, but Stephanie McMahon overheard him freestyle rapping, thought it was good, and told him he should float the idea of a rapping wrestler. It was basically Cena's last shot, and he debuted it in a Halloween skit while dressed as Vanilla Ice, betraying a certain self-awareness on everyone's part that the gimmick was always hokey. It went over well, and he rode it to a decade-plus of fame in the promotion.
At 2017's Royal Rumble, Cena's seemingly endless (or interminable, depending on how you feel about him) run at the top of the wrestling world netted him one of its great achievements: he is now 16-time world champion, equaling Ric Flair's record. Given that he's just 39, Cena will almost certainly break that record in the next couple years. This is all unthinkable for anyone who saw Flair, either in his prime or strutting his way to short reigns in the latter stages of his career, so it's worth considering the two men and the record.
The record, of course, is artifice. All pro wrestling is artifice. What is won in a pro-wrestling ring is mostly done backstage, in a competition of politics, backstabbing, and ass-kissing. Hence the stories of older wrestlers like Flair, Hulk Hogan, and Kevin Nash revolve around the great lengths to which they'd go so as to avoid losing in the wrong way, or at all, and their lobbying to reshuffle cards so they always could take credit for success. That's the competition, and it's a murky, ugly business whose logic is opaque to outsiders.
But the athletic and dramatic parts of pro wrestling—the visible parts of it—are along for the ride. You really can't be champion for long if you truly suck. You have to be a real athlete. You have to be able to take a simulacrum of a beating that turns very quickly into every bit the real beating, night after night. All of that melds into the political competitions backstage until the two things are so intertwined that the stakes in the ring become very "real" after all.
Ric Flair knew this. He needs no introduction, but somehow it seems that his light has dimmed somewhat. We see the slightly befuddled, forever nostalgic old man on our screens or listen to the old stories on his podcast. He cries, now, at seemingly any reminder of the old days or friends who have passed. His eyes shine with tears of pride when he's onstage with Charlotte, his daughter, and his voice cracks when he relates his cantankerous yet loving relationship with WCW, the defunct kingdom where he once ruled. We know his troubles, with money, drink, and women. We know the death of his son, Reid.
Flair was, during his 30-year career and 16 world championships, electric. You can close your eyes and hear the hoarse voice rising in pitch and cracking as it reaches a cocaine-tinged crescendo. He becomes more carnival barker than wrestler in the mind's eye.
He was a wrestler, of course, and he was amazing. He didn't fly through the air or perform feats of strength. He was a master of ring psychology: every movement, every step in the ring told a story. Words were unnecessary when Flair wrestled, and it is a testament to his talent that the promos were almost unneeded. It seems like something we just know: Ric Flair was a very good wrestler. But you go back and watch and you realize that the knowledge is different from the reality, that we've somehow lost just how good he was in the accepted wisdom of 35 years of folklore about him.
Cena's current reign, the record-tying 16th, has come at age 39, compared with Flair's last reign at 51. He has done more with less—less time, yes, but also less money and lower ratings.
This is the inescapable fact of John Cena's career: the bulk of it happened at a time of historically low popularity for pro wrestling, bookended by better periods. If fans are frustrated by the uneven quality of Raw right now or want their indie favorites to get better pushes, one only needs to look back to the dismal days of 2010 to see how much better it is now. Cena got titles largely because nobody else in WWE could do much between 2006 and 2012. He was wedged into programs with an aging Triple H, a disinterested Batista, or a physically declining Edge. He was fed wrestlers now long gone and he benefited from a company that has preferred—Attitude Era excepted—to have one dominant wrestler it can keep the title on. He could get the mythical 16 reigns because who else was there to have them?
It's a harsh assessment, perhaps, but there's something there with Cena. The proof of his greatness may not be in his tying Flair's record or his domination of declining merchandise sales. It's in the counter-factual if his start had turned out differently.
A WWE without Cena is unfathomable for precisely the reasons that make his run a little less glowing than Flair's. If there was no one to really rival Cena in the 2000s, then there was no one to take his place in his absence. As testament, there's the 2008 Royal Rumble. Cena had suffered a torn pectoral muscle (legitimately) and was due to be out for a solid year. When Vince McMahon announced the injury to a live crowd, fans—who were already sick of Cena's omnipresence in 2006—actually cheered the news.
Cena returned after three months and the ovation he received when he made a surprise entry at the Rumble was deafening, one of the biggest pops in pro wrestling history. The fans who hated him, who harangued him, who threatened to riot if he won—they were cheering their hearts out for him.
It was a spontaneous recognition of a fact: John Cena essentially is WWE. The alternate history where Cena was fired in 2002 is impossible to imagine because the fates of man and promotion are too close to separate. Hulk Hogan left. Steve Austin really had only five years. The Rock split for Hollywood. Cena's compatriots have always been too flawed or too bored. Only Cena remains.
He's hard to assess because he's not the greatest in-ring worker or promo guy; he's good at both, even special, but not so good that anyone will bring up his name when asked about the greatest of all time. WWE is slowly, fitfully pulling itself out of a funk that he largely presided over, but Cena's longevity and sheer toughness puts him up there with Flair. It may be their greatest similarity and their greatest trait: that, no matter what else, both men endure.
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