Jim’s WrestleMania post yesterday noted that “fans have been hoping that [John] Cena will turn heel since 2005” and he isn’t wrong about that. Well, mostly not wrong. I was perfectly content to have Cena be a face; he works as a face, after all, there’s no question about that. He drives ratings, sells merch, inflates ticket sales and generally gets the job done as top face in the promotion, even though half of the fans love to boo him (which he cheerfully acknowledges).
As late as last year, I was still of the opinion that Cena should have remained a face. Certainly when Cena was playing the principled face opponent to the surging CM Punk in 2011, he was doing it note-perfectly. But my opinion changed at about WrestleMania 28, because the Cena/Rock match was set up for Cena to be the de facto face (playing the “I’ve been here all along and the Rock takes off and goes and makes movies” card, which worked to make Rock a heel in his last major WWE run) and it did not work. Maybe it could have worked if the Rock/Cena feud last year had been done in anything more than the most perfunctory and slapdash way, but it didn’t.
Since then, Cena’s character has gotten more hypocritical and smug as the year progressed: openly bullying heels, calling out CM Punk (who was turned heel because, well, someone had to be the promotion’s top heel, and he’s good at that, and they weren’t going to turn Cena) in totally bullshit ways, whining about his “terrible year” where he main-evented ten of twelve PPVs despite not holding any titles. The boos have gotten louder and louder, and I don’t think they haven’t noticed that. I think, in fact, they were very delicately testing the waters for a heel run for Cena.
But there are more pragmatic reasons to turn John Cena heel at this time that did not previously exist. For one: John Cena is nearly 36, and the past year has shown that, despite nigh-magical advances in sports medicine and care on the WWE’s part to reduce injuries as time has progressed, that even Cena -legendarily an ironman performer – is starting to show the rigors of age. He is no longer in his prime. This is not to say he is bad or even lessened; he is simply more vulnerable, and that makes a difference. And it will keep on making a difference as time progresses. Assuming that Cena is wise enough to not pursue the Ric Flair route of “wrestle until you are dead because you blew all your money multiple times over” – which he most likely is – he’s probably got about five good years left in him.
That means the time to start finding the Next John Cena is now. Fans like to bandy about the usual set of names, but most of these names are wrong simply because they are too old to take over as top dog when Cena’s day is done. Alberto Del Rio is 35, Sheamus is 36, Dolph Ziggler 32, Randy Orton 33, CM Punk 34, Ryback and Daniel Bryan both 31. In five years’ time, they will all be somewhere along the pathway to retirement, or at least to part-time Undertaker-like status where they only wrestle rarely at WrestleManias and the like. That’s also most of the top half of the WWE roster. There are a few prominent names in their mid-to-late twenties – most notably Cody Rhodes and the three members of the Shield – but they are a distinct minority on the current roster.
This isn’t necessarily a problem – after all, John Cena took about three or four years to become JOHN CENA (although he started on the main roster at a relatively young age). But if you want to build a top face, you can’t have two of them. (The WWE tried to deal with this with their “split the RAW and Smackdown brands” idea, which never really worked in practice.) And this is the second reason to turn Cena heel: while he’s a face, building the next big face is more difficult.
But there’s also the third reason, which is that from a storytelling standpoint, John Cena is effectively out of storylines as a face. He’s literally done all of them. He can’t play the underdog role because he’s not the underdog and can’t ever be one again; he’s had his dominant championship runs; he’s feuded with the company, with top heels, with bottom heels, done stupid romance storylines, all of them. They weren’t all good, but he’s done them all. He is one year away from tying Hulk Hogan for “longest run as a top face” and there are no other companies to which he can realistically go to stay fresh because the WWE killed the last major opposition over ten years ago. (TNA does not count. Sorry, folks, it doesn’t.) And Hogan was staler than Cena was at the equivalent point in his face run. It was a large reason he turned heel, after all.
At this point, a heel run for Cena will give him new stories, allow breathing room for new top faces and would, I think, be enthusiastically welcomed by fans (who may boo him, but generally respect his abilities even if they don’t like the character). Even last year it might not have been the right time; now, I think it is. Of course, none of the factors that would make a heel turn click at this point are hard rules and Cena can stay a face forever and it won’t hurt business particularly. But there’s a solid case to be made that he shouldn’t.