John Cena used to announce himself, The Champ is here!
For a decade, he spent more time as champion than not. Muscle-bound. Clean-cut. Reliable. Rarely hurt and never attached to any substance-abuse, domestic-violence, or sex scandal.
The most popular wrestler of a generation, and yet—
The haters blossom, louder by the year.
You can argue Cena’s overstayed his welcome. Or that for all his lack of controversy, he’s remained vanilla. A safe choice in lieu of bolder, more interesting peers.
But you can’t say Cena is without identity.
He goes by his birth name (not, say, The Ultimate Warrior). He’s billed from his real hometown (West Newberry, over Parts Unknown). But he has made character changes.
Early on, the discovery he could (sort of) freestyle made him a street-tough character who wore oversized jerseys, baggy jean shorts, sneakers, and baseball caps to the ring.
Then he starred in WWE Studios’ The Marine. Lost the jerseys. Lost the rapper’s inflection. When he got angry, he spoke with Denzel Washington intensity. He gave the crowd a military salute before sprinting to the ring.
Targeted evolution since. Grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, to beat back upstart Seth Rollins. Everyman defender of children opposite Bray Wyatt’s swamp cult. All-American patriot fighting to recover the United States Championship from the Bulgarian Brute, Rusev.
The hecklers, too, have evolved. Singing along to the brass section on his theme song, interjecting, John Cena sucks, John Cena suuuuucks.
No one has peddled t-shirts to children like Cena. No one has wrestled more main event matches. No one has staved off injury and old age to remain the hero the company can return to, the safety valve they need only break the glass to retrieve in case of emergency.
But he can’t live forever.
He’ll be forty next year. The point when wrestlers think retirement or reduced schedules. The long tradition of working the independent scene, so as to never fully fade away.
And yet, he stays.
The lyrics to his theme song (rapped by Cena himself), intone, Your time is up, my time is now.
So whose time will follow?
We wait, mythology suspended in indefinite twilight, until one man steps down. Until another might pin his shoulders and seize all that was once The Champ’s.
Photo: John Cena vs. Alberto Del Rio — United States Championship Match (Raw, December 28, 2015)