Three wrestlers have been able to properly use face-of-the-company John Cena as a foil. Most recently, there was Daniel Bryan, who expressed the disconnect between John Cena and wrestling purists as well as anybody ever has by calling Cena “a parody of a wrestler”, thereby placing himself and Cena on opposite sides of the wrestling coin, Bryan the sportsman, Cena the entertainer. Before him there was the obvious choice, CM Punk, whose “Pipe Bomb” tapped into a cresting wave of resentment that John Cena had risen to become not only the top star of the WWE, but also one of its legends, changing Punk from an underground king to a icon for the undercurrent of anti-establishment discontent among wrestling fans. Before both of them, however, came the wrestler who laid the groundwork for turning Cena’s status against him, presenting himself as being not only in opposition to Cena, but also his equal, and that made him something neither Punk nor Bryan could ever be during their feuds with Cena. By having lived in Cena’s rarified air, nobody was able to express genuine bitterness toward it quite like Batista.
What was (and is) most interesting about Batista the heel is that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. It’s easy to forget now, but in the wake of WrestleMania 21 in 2005, Batista wasn’t John Cena; he was destined to be even bigger. For one thing, Batista had a larger than life stature, standing 6’6” and 290 lbs to John Cena’s impressive, but (in the wrestling world, at least) less jaw-dropping physique. Furthermore, for all we've seen of John Cena’s generally likeable personality on both WWE television and more mainstream media, it’s easy to forget that Batista had a charisma rooted in an edge that crosses over just as effectively as Cena’s mild mannered amiability, if not moreso. If John Cena was and is WWE’s Luke Skywalker, Batista was its Han Solo, the sort of antihero that Cena could never pull off. Considered alongside his backstage exploits (let’s just say Batista could teach CM Punk a thing or two about dipping his pen in the company ink), Batista was John Cena with a hint of danger. To say that the prime of Batista’s run as a top level face was anything other than immensely successful would be a lie.
Which is what made Cena so important, and effective, in Batista’s excellent and all too brief heel turn of 2010. After a couple of years of relatively stagnant face work, the result of allowing a larger than life presence and figure like Batista to remain both a champion and a face, Batista made a much needed turn after losing his tag titles. Blaming his partner, Rey Mysterio, for the loss, Batista proceeded to demolish his smaller former partner (as an aside, Rey Mysterio should go into the hall of fame with a video package of him taking other wrestlers' finishers; it really is an art), and went on for some independent villainy before settling into a strange role as a mercenary for Vince McMahon in his war against Bret Hart. It was in this role that Batista received a gift-wrapped, post Elimination Chamber title shot against John Cena, pinning the exhausted champion and seizing the WWE title for himself. The next few months crafted the first, and perhaps only, instance of John Cena facing an opponent who could understand what it was to be the face of the WWE, and could therefore despise Cena for the way he filled the role.
Fifteen seconds of Batista's first promo as a heel WWE champ are enough to make you realize how wrongheaded his current botched return as a face has been. Isn't he perfect there? It’s the perfect blend of menacing ("they're here to protect you"), self interested ("I am here to win money; I am here to win titles"), entitled (the entire WrestleMania 21 rant), and just the right amount of honest (perfectly enough, the entire WrestleMania 21 rant again). When he mocks Cena's tendency to play to the crowd and ends on "you can't beat me, and deep down, you know it," don't you believe him, or at least that HE believe believes him? Even the outfit, a borderline ridiculous angry leather daddy getup, was the right amount of intentional douchery (as opposed to face Batista's "hard life Abercrombie model" unintentional douchery) to hammer home the image of a chosen one gone wrong. Batista worked as a heel because he stared directly into the glowing light of what he was "supposed" to be as a face, equipped with all of the tools to reach the same mountaintop, and he mocked it, turning his back on the adoration for which he was groomed.
Batista worked because he had the benefit of seeing what we had already done to Cena. All of the Make-A-Wish kids, all of the TV spots, all of the horrible movies, and all it did was convince the fans who "love" the business the most to hate Cena all the more. Maybe that made him the smartest guy in the room after all. If the price of being the public face of a company was having that public come to hate you, then why not take the money and the fame without catering to their whims? Why not be an unrelenting, unrepentant, and undeniably rich dick? If Cena's "superman" was the hero of comic book lore, rigidly adhering to a moral code for the good of his society (the WWE Universe), Batista was the superman of Nietzsche, might making right, and to hell with whatever the rest of us weaklings thought.
Batista's return to arch-villainy has been pitch-perfect as well, having put a twist on his original mercenary bravado and disrespected credibility. In its place is a believable quiet dickishness, with the entitlement that once led Batista to believe he deserved Cena's spotlight now leading him to believe he deserves a legend's welcome upon his return. Listen to the dull cynicism with which he dismisses Daniel Bryan, our fandom, and even the entire contemporary WWE roster, talking about how it's "amazing what passes for a WWE Superstar nowadays, how “guys like Daniel Bryan” will never be “guys like him”. As if he were Bruno Sammartino, or Hulk Hogan and not a guy who was plowing a coworker's girlfriend backstage within the last decade (kayfabe AND not kayfabe, because let it never be said that Batista is not a method actor about his douchebaggery). The Rock frustrated the “smart” fans because he got by on nostalgia alone, but at least that nostalgia was enough to win over casual viewers. With Batista, all that’s there is a past that won’t move on, one that we never cherished as much as he wishes we had, one that is threatening to consume our present.
Which isn’t entirely fair, is it? Batista has won every accolade you can win in the WWE. He entertained us for years, putting both Raw and, more impressively, Smackdown on his back at various points in his career. In return, we turned on him as soon as he brushed up against a more company friendly face, or when he dared to interrupt the process of business as usual in the contemporary WWE. Batista the hero doesn’t work because he doesn’t have the patience to be a hero, the patience that lets John Cena walk out to crowds that “love him or hate him” and still decide he’s fighting for them. Of course, what we call “patience”, Batista could just as easily call foolishness. If the fans that love you will eventually grow tired of you and try to push you out of the platform you helped build, why waste time with the journey? Why not begin at the pit of that eventual hatred right from the start? Cena can have his Cenation or Bryan his YES movement; Batista chooses to have nobody, because he doesn’t need the support of the masses to dominate the arena. Then the accolades belong to him and him alone won by him, won for him, and credits only to him. That’s what Batista meant when he defiantly told us that he loves this business, but he didn’t come back to please us; he’s always been able to separate the two, his achievements and our feelings about them. Why dominate the “WWE Universe” when you can just dominate the WWE?
Maybe that’s the biggest problem we have with Batista; we boo and clamor for him to move on, and he stands there, a cliff against the tide of our resentment, unmoved and annoyed, because to him, we are the entitled ones. We are the unaccomplished masses who chant and complain with unearned expectation that our gladiators will proceed as we see fit. We want him to be different, to be more like the wrestlers we love, and Batista looks at everything he has achieved compared to the accomplishments of us and our heroes and tells us that he’s the one with the right to be disappointed in us, not the other way around. We demand that our past move on gracefully, and Batista sneers and dares us to make him.