Sunday’s WrestleMania, John Cena may very well win the United States Championship by defeating Rusev, the “Bulgarian Brute” who has never been pinned or submitted since debuting in the WWE last year. If he does succeed in winning the title, it will be perceived by some as a rare step backward for the 12-time WWE world champion.
The extremely vocal minority of proud Cena haters would like nothing more than to have him move down the card, put one foot out of the spotlight and cede the main event and world title to other, younger stars they perceive as more deserving — or perhaps just welcome by virtue of not being Cena. But would even that be enough to please Cena’s critics? Further, would this new status quo be more or less indistinguishable from the old status quo?
In reality, winning the United States Championship would be a lateral move — because Cena, from now until the end of his career, will remain Cena, the same Cena who rankles countless wrestling fans on message boards and comment sections and at live WWE events all over the world. Cena has an army of detractors, but he has even more fans, which is one of the reasons he’s been the company’s biggest star for nearly a decade.
Let’s take a step back. The United States Championship was the first singles title — the first title of any type that Cena won in the WWE, taking it from Big Show way back at WrestleMania XX (his first “WrestleMania moment”). After feuding with Booker T and Carlito over the belt for the next six months or so, he moved onto the main event scene at WrestleMania 21, where he won his first WWE Championship from JBL and never looking back. Since WrestleMania XX or so, Cena has seen himself go from beloved cult favorite who rode a wave of fan adoration for being edgy and different, to being the establishment, the squeaky-clean unstoppable babyface who NEVER loses, who ALWAYS overcomes the odds and who NEVER changes. He wears bright, matching shirts, hats and wristbands and is as much a real-life superhero to legions of children as Hulk Hogan was to kids in the 1980s. Many adults hate him for this.
If WWE does indeed choose to put the title on him Sunday, it is a move that, in theory, will only elevate the status and prestige of the belt, which has been stagnant at best for years, just like the other surviving secondary title, the Intercontinental Championship (which possesses a much more impressive lineage but has arguably been treated even more poorly than the United States title). WWE just finalized a multi-year deal with Brock Lesnar. The rumored plan, which was pending a new deal with Lesnar, is to elevate the status of its secondary titles by having established main eventers like Cena and Daniel Bryan hold them, thus raising the United States and Intercontinental Championships to the actual main event while Lesnar is a sometimes-absent “special attraction” world champion. This honestly sounds like a great plan in theory.
But the execution is where things often get lost in translation when it comes to WWE these days. While WWE’s developmental system, NXT, is a nearly-perfect wrestling promotion all on its own, with storylines and matches that feel epic, important, fresh and sometimes revolutionary, WWE often treads water, furthering feuds by having the same two wrestlers wrestle each other every week on RAW before — well, before wrestling each other on the monthly pay-per-view. If Cena “moves down the card” by winning the United States Championship and truly elevates the prestige of the belt, won’t that belt become the de facto “main event” belt, by virtue of being held by the company’s biggest star?
Therein lies the rub for Cena’s naysayers: he can move away from the world title, but he’ll probably never move away from the main event. That’s because Cena is the main event, regardless of whether people want to admit it. It’s very likely that, for as long as Cena remains an active wrestler, the new status quo will look very much the same. He will still be one of the most, if not the most popular wrestlers in the company (particularly with children, for whom a minimum 50 percent of the product is crafted). He will still sell more merchandise than anyone else. He will still receive more screen time and storyline time than almost everyone else. He will still get all the high-profile media appearances and fulfill more Make-A-Wish requests than anyone else, ever.
The only differences? His screen time may come in the middle of the show, rather than the beginning and end. He might be competing for or defending the United States Championship, instead of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. That’s about it. Is that enough for his detractors? Does the hour he appears or the shape and name of his championship belt make all the animosity go away? Or is it the man himself (and his nature, and his success and popularity) that drives people to vent so much ire in his general direction?
Say hello to the new Cena, same as the old Cena. He’s not going away. You’ll just have to learn to live with his new time slot.