America, Meet John Cena: The Most Hated Good Guy On Earth
Between Trainwreck and SportsCenter, mainstream America just got introduced to John Cena. Maybe they'll love him in the way that wrestling fans won't.
Photo via Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Imagine an athlete whose entire ethos is helping others.
He speaks about it incessantly in interviews and prides himself on doing the right thing, to the point where doing the right thing more or less becomes his public persona. He ensures that his employers brand all his merchandise accordingly, and every time he competes he makes sure to chuck multiple items of his game-worn gear into the crowd. Oftentimes, those go to kids, which makes sense; they adore him and he goes very far out of his way to meet with and spend time with them, perhaps a hundred times in a given year.
He does not attribute any of this to religious reasons or any other agenda; there is no accompanying rider about why anyone should ascribe to his personal belief system. He does it because he thinks it's the right thing to do and it makes him happy to help other people. There is very little skepticism about all of this, either: it is almost universally accepted that little to none of this is bullshit and that our athlete is, in fact, a pretty swell guy. On top of this, he happens to be among the very best in his sport, someone who works exceedingly hard to elevate his actual performance—which was once lacking—to a level on par with his fame. This athlete would be the paragon of everything society wants its athletes to be.
Such an athlete exists. His name is John Cena, and people fucking hate him.
None of this is news to people who care about wrestling. We have seen this man on television for going on a decade-and-a-half, and he has reprised the same schtick for 10 of those. You're well versed in the Five Moves of Doom and Never Give Up and Hustle, Loyalty, Respect and (deep breath) You Can't See Me. If you understand WWE's approach to marketing you fully understand why I involuntarily lapsed into capitalization back there.
The wider world, doesn't know much about this. Cena has a broad reach, but wrestling's place in the zeitgeist ain't what it was around the turn of the century, when The Rock was hosting Saturday Night Live and starring in The Scorpion King while still working as an active wrestler; until this year, Cena's biggest non-wrestling commercial success was the k-list action flick The Marine. 2015 has changed things in a big way, first through Cena's one-off appearance on Parks and Recreation and now with a fairly well-regarded role in Trainwreck, the new Amy Schumer vehicle. This week, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Cena cracked SportsCenter as part of its My Wish series, which makes sense given that Cena is the runaway record-holder for most requests fulfilled for the Make A Wish Foundation— the astonishing tally is over 460, and counting. Everything is in place for mainstream America to love John Cena, genetically engineered He-Man with a heart and a sense of humor, a mountainous man who can be trusted to utter the perfect soundbyte at the optimal time without any cause for dread at what lurks underneath that Lysol-clean exterior.
His constituency in pro wrestling, on the other hand, mostly wants him to go away. Or rather, they are done with this version of him that everyone else in society adores and they once did, too. No one makes much of an effort to deny Cena's positioning as his generation's Hulk Hogan, admittedly heavier on the jorts and breadth of prismatic wardrobe options, but mercifully lighter on racism and compulsive lying. In the beginning, Cena was cheered, because that's what people do with characters like his; he was elevated to the top spot in the company, because that's where those characters go when they get the desired reaction and move the requisite sand dunes of merchandise.
The circle of wrestling life dictated that Cena would embrace his dark side somewhere along the line. Even Hogan, egomaniacal and self-mythologizing to the extreme, eventually turned heel. Except Cena never did, which depending on one's level of cynicism, is either due to not wanting to deprive the kids of a role model, or not wanting to slow the pace of his record merch sales. As such, quite some time ago, Cena began to get booed. He was doing everything right, and almost everyone wished he wouldn't.
On a good day, then, every Cena appearance is engulfed by two salvos competing for decibels. There is a "LET'S GO CENA," uttered exclusively by adult women and children under the age of 14, and there is "CENA SUCKS," which is frothed out by everyone else. If it's a particularly rough crowd, they serenade him to the tune of his own entrance music, with "JOHN CENA SUCCCCKKKKSSSS" laid over its signature trumpet riff.
This has been going on for years now and Cena, who is hyper self-aware, gets the irony. The only way he'll ever be cheered again is to give the people what they want and nominally become a bad guy. Which, paradoxically or not, means there's no point to doing it at all—because John Cena cannot possibly be more hated than he is right now, in his role as the world's greatest inspiration to sick children everywhere. No one puts it better than the hero himself: "I'm the biggest heel in the company."
Objectively, this is a very weird thing. There is no athletic parallel for someone this good at what he does being so roundly despised for being so earnest without ulterior motive. The entire football galaxy would work itself into a tizzy, for instance, if Andrew Luck punctuated each touchdown by throwing his jersey and wristbands into the crowd. NBA media and fans alike would canonize James Harden if he introduced seven-year-olds to live audiences during timeouts, and baseball types would ceaselessly pander to Max Scherzer if he lapped the field in Make-A-Wish appearances.
The list of reasons why Cena isn't nearly so well-regarded could be another column. They mostly have to do with the way wrestling is, and also this rather-deserved meme. But none of them are as interesting as the fact that Cena, for all his good works in and out of the ring, hasn't come close to transcending. If anything, it's inversely proportional: the longer Cena plays his current role, and the higher that Make-A-Wish number climbs, the more his approval rating plummets.
That makes his introduction to the wider world especially unique. It's easy to imagine scores of moviegoers and SportsCenter viewers gravitating toward Cena this month after being introduced to him for the very first time. These newcomers would be the only people in the crowd willing to take Cena and the things he does at face value. They exist outside wrestling politics; to them, this is just a genial cluster of muscle fibers with both the will and dexterity to operate outside his own vanity. This would make for an especially strange crossover; how often has something been loathed so vociferously within a counterculture bubbled so triumphantly into the mainstream?
Cena has a long way to go before he reaches that threshold, of course, but it could happen. It's certainly more probable than Cena ever receiving that kind of adoration within his preferred medium; the most visible wrestler since Dwayne Johnson remains the last one that wrestling fans would choose to carry their banner. As usual with John Cena, it's hard to imagine how this could possibly be the case. That doesn't make it any of it less true.