John Cena has to turn heel—WWE needs it to happen.
In an era where high spots, title changes and heel turns are frequent, one constant has remained in WWE for eight years: John Cena as the Hogan-esque hero.
This is, of course, a welcome turn of events. WWE too often fails to invest in a character and commit to them. With John Cena, despite his limited in-ring abilities, they got behind him all the way.
Cena’s not the first like this, and he won’t be the last. Some criticism of him is comparatively unfair— Hulk Hogan himself never possessed a great deal of finesse in his matches, and even The Rock had a tendency to overact (his selling of a Stone Cold Stunner was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen).
Hulk and Rock, however, knew how to use psychology to compel a crowd and hide their shortcomings. Cena does not.
Nonetheless, Vince McMahon ignited the full might of the WWE marketing machine behind “Yes Man” Cena and had his creative team favor him in storylines to protect his prominent spot. Cena gained power and leverage in WWE, though he rarely uses this influence to help elevate an up-and-comer.
These are all factors that harm Cena’s popularity.
Although slightly hypocritical coming from The Rock, he was right in saying Cena seems phony, and that’s why fans boo him. The more McMahon essentially force-feeds him to the fanbase, the louder the boos seem to get.
This seems to have troubled WWE in terms of knowing how to position and pin down the Cena character.
As is often the case, we can look at history to learn a few lessons.
What WWE did wrong the last time they tried to contrive a Hogan-esque hero character and manipulate audience response was arguably with the 1993 push of Lex Luger, fresh from body-slamming Yokozuna on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York.
With stars and stripes and a campaign bus called the Lex Express, the then-WWF did everything right in promoting him—until they pitted him against Bret Hart.
Hart was an organic hero who had grown into prominence from his 1980s run in the Hart Foundation, and fans just loved him because he appeared to be the real deal. The WWF let them make up their own minds.
Suffice it to say that when Lex and Bret made history in the 1994 Royal Rumble by being the first men to ever go over the top rope and hit the arena floor simultaneously in an incredible sequence, the fans only amplified their preference—cheering Hart and jeering Luger.
Recently, John Cena has not only been subjected to the Lex Express treatment—like Luger and Hogan before him, publicly supporting the armed forces and making patriotic gestures while ridiculing foreigners—but, unfortunately, he has been positioned opposite CM Punk, who for all intents and purposes is today’s Bret Hart: organic, genuine and less of a caricature.
There’s a solution to this problem—simply turn John Cena heel.
Not by teasing his allegiance to Nexus. Not by having him team with the beloved Rock and suspected of treachery. And not even after he’s overcome hatred and Kane. They need to turn him full-blown heel, and they need to do it now.
Why? Well, another lesson from history is the aging Hulk Hogan joining Eric Bischoff in WCW back in 1994 to much fanfare but also at a time when Hulkamania’s heyday was gone.
That’s not to say the red-and-yellow wasn’t changing WCW’s fortunes and making money—it just wasn’t running wild anymore.
The best business move Bischoff ever made was a risk. He turned Hulk Hogan heel.
The man who told children to say their prayers and eat their vitamins joined “Outsiders” Kevin Nash and Scott Hall and formed the New World Order. The fans hated his guts. And yet nWo T-shirts sold like hotcakes. WCW, for the first time, began beating the WWF in the ratings.
This is what WWE has to realise. John Cena may make money now through merchandise sales to his fanbase comprised predominantly of children. But by turning him heel after eight years of pushing him to the sky as a face would be a shot in the arm for the entire company, turn things on their head and draw back fans who turned away from an increasingly stale product.
WWE has to turn John Cena heel. They may see it as their greatest gamble, but it will in fact be their best opportunity to take their product to another level and make WrestleMania XXVIII an epic battle between good and evil.
Written for the Bleacher Report.