By Heather Hickey

It all started with a statistic. About a week ago, TJR reader “ryan” sent me a note about John Cena surpassing Kobe Bryant as the most-liked U.S. athlete on Facebook. It was a seed that took root in my brain during the post-Punk hangover. When Punk first left, I wrote about him being bound by his own code of honor, and how it dictated his departure from WWE. Now the company is struggling to re-direct, and there are generally two options in times of corporate crisis: take a big risk, or go back to basics.

For the go-home Raw prior to Elimination Chamber, they went with John Cena. How often does Cena get sent out, the voice as much as the face of WWE? He is the all-knowing opening narrator and the reliable closer. Those record-breaking Facebook stats speak volumes. For a publicly-traded, cross-promotional company that's always fighting for mainstream legitimacy, being able to claim "Most-Liked U.S. Athlete" is a huge coup. And for those who sneer that Cena's fan base is mostly children, note that Facebook has a minimum age of 13 (and there's no way that all 18.6 million of Cena's followers are wily 9-year olds). Not to mention, the bulk (almost 30%) of Facebook users fall into the desirable age group of 25-34. Even if you think Facebook is nothing but a time-sucking antique, Cena's numbers are strong enough to nullify your opinion in the WWE boardroom.

Going back to the notion of honor: I felt that Punk's sudden departure, while unprofessional, was understandable. Honorable in his way. The romantic in me liked it just fine. TJR reader “Mark” commented that Punk needs to learn that respect is a two-way street, and at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I don't disagree. Punk's the kind of guy who garners a selective kind of respect by being his own person. By standing up for himself and for what and whom he deems honor-worthy. Everything is on his own terms though, which makes it challenging for a company to reciprocate the kind of respect Punk is looking for. I've spent a lot of time as a fan, feeling uppity and indignant that Punk or Bryan couldn't be considered "face-worthy" just because they weren't clean-cut muscle-bound superheroes. I thought Punk could be a fresh face in his own way. A clever, passionate wrestler who deserved to be in the main event. I didn't blame him for leaving and I still don't think he was wrong.

But John Cena has demonstrated for years that respect is indeed a two-way street. And that in order to be the goodwill ambassador - the opener, the closer - for this particular company, you have to give in order to receive. I've been a fan long enough to have liked and disliked John Cena many times. I liked his cockity-cock rapper phase; I had a period of swooning over that clean-cut muscle-bound look; I was in favor of the way he went all Microphone Assassin on The Rock. But those goofy tackle-blocks and muggin' submission holds put me off time and again. And because I didn’t find his matches thrilling, it irked me to see him posing at the closing credits of every big show. Those Facebook numbers really resonated with me, though. That’s not just more than CM Punk or even Hulk Hogan. That’s more than anyone who plays sports (real sports!) in America, where athletes are practically royalty.

I started to look closer, starting with Cena’s persona. He borrows from the military at a superficial level by wearing camo and dog tags and giving the salute. He values his visits to military bases, and gives very passionate promos to praise their efforts. But it’s not just a flag-waving exercise: WWE has a very symbiotic relationship with the military that reaps mutual benefits. Cena looks the part, but he also exemplifies military code in the way he carries out his own duties without question. Years ago, I heard him say in a Wrestlecast interview that he's just there to "Punch the f-ckin clock", meaning he will do whatever job they ask of him. He's not an antagonist nor an idea rat; he's there to carry out the task he's given. He’s the Yes man that someone like CM Punk will criticize, but on paper it makes Cena the perfect ambassador.

And in practice, he’s doing more than just pulling the trigger on each task. Cena's got an amazing aptitude for executing those duties with patience and grace. Can you imagine how repetitive his life must be, reciting the same sound bites over and over again to promote a match/product/movie? How exhausting it must be to work insane hours across so many time zones, while maintaining your poise and some semblance of charisma? And he manages to come off as sincere and humble. He's like the tireless mayor of WWE, shaking hands and posing for pictures, winking without seeming smarmy, and thanking everyone for THEIR time.

I reviewed countless clips of him doing meet and greets, interviews, promos, and ceremonies. He is always ready with a clear answer, and many people comment that he does it on the first take. Those are valuable traits wrapped up in a textbook-handsome package, fueled by a tireless work ethic. In one clip, he needed to sign 3000 photos to be sold at WrestleMania the next day. It was an unscheduled task on an already busy itinerary. He stood there for 1 hour and 15 minutes, signing his name without pause or complaint. Punching the f-ckin clock. Then it was off to smile and wave at the Hall of Fame ceremony, and THEN go to the stadium midnight to practice his big entrance. They asked him to do the run down to the ring. He shuffled part of the way and said, “I only got one in me, and that’s tomorrow.” It reminded me that he had to wrestle in the main event the next day, after spending this one the way he did. In a business that values itself as a business first, I’m starting to understand why he’s been the guy for so long.

He also had the Make-a-Wish pizza party that day, because he’s the guy who’s broken his OWN record for granting wishes to terminally ill children. Four hundred of them so far. And this is where the magic of John Cena is at its most potent. He is calm and friendly, saying his part without overcompensating for the awkward silences that surely often loom between a marveling child and his hero come to life. And that’s exactly what Cena looks like, a colorful superhero ripped from the pages of a comic book. For all the Fruity Pebbles jokes, and snark about the merch table needing a new color of Cena shirt every few months, you must see him through a child’s eyes. He personifies “awesome”, with all the wrist bands and arm bands and gee-whiz biceps. “You do more for me than I could ever do for you,” he says at a dinner in his honor. He feels a sense of responsibility to the fans, another Cena-ism that comes off as even more remarkable when you think about how much he gets booed.

And while I’ve never booed John Cena, I’ve called the five-knuckle shuffle one of the biggest joke moves ever. Because I really dig the wrestling part of pro wrestling, I’ve often turned a blind eye to all of the other things Cena has to offer. He's the king of cross-promotion, leaving a trail of newly-minted believers in his wake. On one of his DVD documentaries, there is footage of Cena as the Grand Marshall of the Fiesta Bowl parade. The old gents who’ve organized the event are agog at the response garnered by this wrassler (who was likely greased into the back of that convertible by virtue of WrestleMania being held in that same city shortly thereafter). People are screaming, saluting, and stalking Cena along the parade route. He does not flinch. He does not break a sweat (something that I often notice he does not do during matches either, such is his physical conditioning and genetic ridiculousness). He calls out politely, signs things as he can, and makes his exit without seeming rude. The “Hustle – Loyalty – Respect” slogan rings true, and has that extra gut-punch of being a two-way street. He preaches it to fans, lives it, and enjoys it in return.

That notion of reciprocation is also truer in the ring than many of us would like to admit. For all of the main events and marquee performances that Cena’s been “handed”, we often fail to recognize the benefits of having him there. It’s a business decision and a public relations decision, but also a decision based on Cena’s ability to perform. He is tough, consistent, and capable of surprising even the more negative wrestling fans. When CM Punk stepped into the ring with John Cena for their epic Money in the Bank 2011 clash, Punk tells the story like this: they were approached prior to the match by Michael Hayes, and asked what they would do with their allotted 45 minutes. John Cena deferred to Punk and said, “It’s his show”. Punk said that he wanted to go old school, and just call it out there as they went. Cena said okay. CM Punk wasn’t wrestling a broom out there, nor was he wrestling a broom 2 years later on Raw, nor was Cesaro wrestling a broom this week on Raw. They were wrestling John Cena. And he’s had more decent-to-excellent matches than we’d like to admit, and he refuses to be a one-trick pony or succumb to the negativity. We watched Cesaro put John Cena in a giant swing for a very long time. He gives. And I’ve never given him enough credit for it.   

The notion of Cena being indestructible has grated on my nerves at times, because it challenges that suspension of disbelief to excess. Sometimes it’s even been insulting to the integrity of his opponents (see: his incredible comeback after triceps surgery to withstand all of Del Rio’s torture to win the World Heavyweight Championship). That’s why I enjoy him best when he is made out to truly be in peril – against someone like Lensar or the Wyatts – because it gives Cena an edgy vulnerability that brings Superman down to earth.

Are we supposed to favor the guy who works hard and always says the right things over the guy who also works hard but says what he wants to say? It’s a fan’s prerogative to choose, but WWE does their part to position their talent as they see fit. CM Punk once called himself the Batman to Cena’s Superman: their story  should have an obvious ending, but is far more complex when you watch it play out. I would love to see them clash again, but maybe they're not meant to exist in the same universe. John Cena isn't better than everyone else, but he's the exemplar for what the company values, and the stats give positive reinforcement to their choice.

How do you feel about John Cena? I encourage you to please post your thoughts below, or to me @kickyhick or by email – if it looks like your comments have been lost, they haven’t, and I will reply to them while we wait for our host to figure things out. Thanks so much! I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s thoughts after Elimination Chamber!