During the heyday of the brand extension, fans could enjoy a different sports entertainment experience from each program. That delineation between Raw and Smackdown provided an opportunity for storylines in somewhat separate universes that looked and felt different from each other. I have fond memories of settling in on a Friday night, knowing that I’d get to see some good wrestling matches. The biggest names may not have been on the marquee – just enough star power to entice me, and quality grappling to keep me hooked. Likewise, I’d be a regular viewer on Mondays, because that’s when all the drama went down. In-ring soliloquys, flashy main events, and the most-lauded of the Superstars. One could watch Raw, and Raw alone, to “get by” on what was happening in WWE, but Smackdown supplied more of an old-fashioned pro wrestling experience.
In recent years, the lines between Raw and Smackdown became increasingly fuzzy. Not only did they drop the annual draft of wrestlers between shows – which was becoming ridiculous anyway, with wrestlers appearing on either or both – but they have also added several programs. It makes more sense to have one big fuzzy world –with new neighbors from NXT popping in for tea – than to maintain so many at once.
With all that being said, not all shows are created equal. Raw still follows the mandate of being the flagship program, a one-stop shop for what WWE would like for you to see, if you only have 3 hours and not 33. But good wrestling matches have been known to pop up on Raw as much as anywhere else these days, as have must-see promos on Smackdown. In the weeks leading up to WrestleMania XXX, I’d often get a ping from fellow fans, asking if I’d seen Bray Wyatt’s promo on Friday night, or the match between The Shield and pretty much anyone thrown at them. As much as Smackdown is still padded out with Raw Rewinds, they’ve sprinkled in enough reasons to watch in addition to Raw.
Take last week’s Smackdown, and the reason I am writing this column: John Cena made what I *thought* was his first appearance since WrestleMania. On that monumental Raw, the company’s main program, I missed the face of the company. (We can argue that Randy Orton was called the face of the company, and that Daniel Bryan should now be called the face of the company, but neither are truly that.) That face is John Cena’s, no matter how we feel about it.
And the voice of the WWE is his too – if not the voice of the fans, then at least the narrator for Vince McMahon’s twisted fairy tales. How many times has Cena saluted his way down the ramp to give us a summary of what’s been happening, with pop-culture references and potty jokes thrown in for good measure? It’s as if they’ve calculated how many minutes of screen time should be filled with John Cena, even if those minutes are spent editorializing about stuff we already know.
Given the pace at which news travels these days, it seems borderline insulting (to both Cena and the fans) to send him out on Smackdown – a show airing 5 days after Mania – to tell us what happened at Mania. Clearly the results aren’t news, so the segment is meant to fill time and grab a few cheap cheers. This paint-by-numbers promo falls especially flat in the midst of all the other climactic action – though it can be argued that we need the lows to appreciate the highs. When Cena playfully drops his catchphrase “You can’t see me” as a taunt to Bray Wyatt, it comes off sounding old and dusty.
And this is what put the pen in my hand, this appearance of John Cena phoning it in on the B-show, after one hell of an A-show that didn’t need him whatsoever. Just as I said that we need the lows to appreciate the highs, we can’t possibly expect John Cena to microphone-assassinate his opponents and the fans every week. And I’m not complaining that the company is giving a higher profile to other players either, it’s just that these are strange times indeed for John.
If you didn’t sense the winds of change on April 6, then they would have knocked you down completely on April 7. Indy darlings and NXT graduates dominated the headlines at WrestleMania and Raw. When John Cena came out on Smackdown, he claimed to be the “measuring stick” for all this new talent, and vowed that they’d have to get through him before reaching the summit. But the speech being on Smackdown (and not Raw) removed some of its potency, as did much of it feeling like deja-vu. The John Cena Formula is a tried-and-true recipe, but sometimes it’s the equivalent of serving birthday cake at a funeral. Everyone likes birthday cake, right? Not always.
When Cena started feuding with Bray Wyatt, I held out hope that he would go to a new place in terms of promos and wrestling. That this decidedly less-main-event position would bear the fruit of an edgier and/or more vulnerable John Cena. And I went into WrestleMania thinking that if Cena won, the feud would be ruined.
Well Cena won. And not that anyone needs MY blessing, but I was okay with it. Cena looked strong without weakening Wyatt, and it still felt like the feud had legs. This feeling was bolstered when Wyatt appeared on the tron during Cena’s “paint-by-numbers” promo. Wyatt’s words spilled out like languid free-form jazz. He seemed almost delighted to have lost to Cena, and vowed that this story was far from over. Next to Cena, Bray looked a lot more intriguing. And now I’m starting to wonder if that’s the point.
Fast forward to this week’s Raw, where Cena comes out with the goal of “having a little fun” with the crowd in Birmingham, Alabama. He roasts the Wyatts with some Photoshop gags, an age-old bore relied upon by babyfaces for cheap laughs. Pardon the pun, but at face value, this tired trick is no longer funny, particularly since Cena received lacklustre crowd support and the Wyatts didn’t seem the least bit bothered by his insults. Furthermore, the anti-Cena fans can point to this as an example of his failing to innovate (his critics often citing his shallow bag of tricks as a fatal flaw).
If we go deeper, or conversely if we look at it in an optimistic light, Cena relying on these tired old tricks makes him more vulnerable to Wyatt. It makes Cena look overly confident, setting him up for the surprise of his life. If this is the slow burn that we’d all like it to be – the one I swore would be extinguished if Cena won at Mania – then perhaps John Cena continuing to be John Cena (on any program) is exactly what we need at this stage of the game. Cena winning right away has turned out to be a more interesting story than I anticipated.
And a steel cage is the right way to go at Extreme Rules, as theoretically it prevents Harper and Rowan from interfering, and takes the drama to the next level. I would love to see the impossibly-nimble Wyatt climbing up and over that cage. What a visual, what a twist, and what a punch line.
This may prove worthy of our patience to see how it plays out. And it’s given me an appreciation for how the John Cena Formula can be used in the most unlikely of places. Let’s hope it’s not Bray Wyatt’s funeral.
Please scroll downdowndown to the Comments below, and leave us your thoughts on this feud and even the dissolution of the brand extension. You can find me on twitter @kickyhick or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You know what's weird? I think I'm liking Evolution better this time around, and I'm not usually one for getting the band back together. I think it will help Batista tremendously, and as you may already know, I have a fondness for throw-downs in business clothes. If this somehow ends up with all of Evolution back in suits, except Orton is not wearing his pants, you will know that I am smiling on my couch.