One of the most debated topics throughout the WWE Universe is John Cena's character and the notion that many want him to turn heel.
I think the term "heel" -- when talking about change that many want from John Cena -- is misleading.
Before we explore the idea, let's first clearly define the term "heel." At the very core, as many of you surely already know, a "heel" is someone the fans hate, a "bad guy." JJ Dillon once told me in an interview a definition that I like to use -- someone that is not as good and/or talented as the "babyface" in the ring, so he needs to cheat to get the upper hand in a match. He also says and does dastardly things to draw the ire of the crowd, who hopes that the babyface he is facing beats him up.
This most basic definition has worked for many decades in professional wrestling. The Attitude Era, however, turned the definitions of "face" and "heel" on their heads. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who was acting and working like a heel all through 1996 and 1997, was cheered and made to be a hero after his infamous "Austin 3:16" interview at the 1996 King of the Ring. Bret Hart was a villain in the United States, and a hero in Canada as the leader of the new Hart Foundation. Fans seemed to get tired of the whole heel/babyface concept and welcomed a grey area.
Let's now apply the term "heel" to John Cena. A heel turn would mean that he begins to cheat in his matches, he begins to cut meaner promos and the crowd begins to dislike him because of it.
Thing is, much of the crowd already dislikes him.
We've all heard "Let's go Cena" from women and children, and "Cena sucks" from males age 18-34. There is even a WWE superfan called "Cena Sucks Guy" that is the de facto leader of Team "Cena Sucks." A strong section of the WWE Universe already hates him. I studied his crowd reactions across North America and some other parts of the world and created the "John Cena Crowd Reaction Map," which further illustrates this point.
At WrestleMania 28, who is the "babyface" and who is the "heel" going into the main event between The Rock and John Cena? To different demographics and to wrestling fans with varying levels of intensity, there's probably a different answer to that question. An 8-year old boy may wear his camo shorts, "Rise Above Hate" t-shirt, wrist bands, head band and cheer Cena to his heart's content, having never lived through or even seen The Rock in the late 90s and seeing him in a WWE ring for the first time before hosting WrestleMania 27. A 31-year old male, however, who has been watching pro wrestling for years and has fond memories of "The People's Eyebrow" and "At the corner of Know Your Role Boulevard and Jabroni Drive" and "Shut your mouth you thong-wearing fatty" will undoubtedly let his nostalgia bleed through as he supports The Rock over the man who he feels has "ruined pro wrestling as he remembers it with his work in the ring."
Cena doesn't work as a heel today, yet he receives the reaction of one from a big section of the fans. Why?
To me, it's because at the end of the day, characters in pro wrestling can get repetitive, then stale, and every few years fans crave change. Since winning the WWE championship at WrestleMania 21 seven years ago, John Cena has saluted the military, been a role model for children, smiled for the cameras, and been the guy that overcomes big challenges through "Hustle, Loyalty and Respect" and "Rising Above Hate." There are little changes here and there, but the core attitude has remained the same -- and many wrestling fans are tired of it.
It's not necessarily a cheating, dastardly ("heel") John Cena that this group of fans wants – it's just a different one. Recall on RAW last year when Cena gave his first verbal retort to The Rock, and brought back the "Doctor of Thuganomics" for one night. Those craving change ate it up. Not just because it was a throwback to 2003, but because it was a Cena we hadn't seen on WWE TV in a long time.
One of the most common responses I noticed when I released my "John Cena Crowd Reaction Map" was how defensive people in certain states got over the color it was assigned (Massachusetts being a big example, with some appalled that it wasn't a "blue" state). That's because, love him or hate him, they care. People care about Cena. He still commands attention. His crowd reactions aren't tapering off like a superstar at the top who fans are tired of seeing or reacting to would. Even teasing a possible change, like what we are seeing in his rivalry with Kane, is enough to generate interest – swatting Josh Mathews' mic away and giving the TV camera a mad face on RAW last week got the hopes up of many in the "heel" boat, because they care.
So if change is what you're after, what kind of change would you like to see? With the amount of positive reaction he receives from such a large portion of the WWE Universe, his merchandise sales still going strong (often still the highest among WWE Superstars, complemented with the release of a "Cena sucks" shirt for those on the other side of the fence) along with the amount of media, Make-A-Wish grants (approaching a remarkable 300 meetings), corporate sponsorships (Fruity Pebbles, for one) and functions he attends as the face and his overall status as the biggest brand ambassador of the WWE, I would find it difficult to believe that Cena will become a "heel" in the near future. And even if he was, what could he possibly do that would make every single member of the WWE Universe boo him (save for, say, ending the Undertaker's streak at a future WrestleMania or beating The Rock at WrestleMania 28 in despicable fashion, like the way Steve Austin beat The Rock at WrestleMania 17). Nearly whatever Cena did, fans would merely switch sides: imagine "Lets go Cena" from males 18-34 and "Cena sucks" from women and children!
Do you want Cena to freestyle rap again? To me, that would get old again in a month. Bring back "Prototype"? Nah... Do you want him to stop wearing jorts? Well, he did, he wears camo shorts (corts?) now (the little things matter in pro wrestling).
What would I do? At his core, keep him exactly how he is. On RAW this past Monday, Cena attacked Kane with aggression (with a smile on his face, talking like he always has), and had the entire Kansas City crowd cheering – no percentage breakdown, it was all cheers (perhaps the detractors stayed silent). One thing you can't dispute (agreeing with Mick Foley, who tweeted about this a few months ago) is that John Cena delivers entertaining matches, especially on pay-per-view. It's difficult to find a truly bad match on a big stage involving Cena. From CM Punk to Del Rio to Wade Barrett to The Miz in the past year or so, Cena has kept interest and fan involvement high, whether it has been cheers or boos.
Still, it's interesting to pop in my DVD of WrestleMania 20 from 2004 and watch his U.S. title match against Big Show, which took place in Madison Square Garden, and hear loud, sustained, male "Let's Go Cena" chants. Also, to look back at the 2008 Royal Rumble, in the same building, to hear how happy the crowd was to see him return as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble and welcome him back, in unison, only to turn on him minutes later when he and Triple H were the last two in the Rumble. Whether I'm right or wrong, whatever happens with Cena in the future, I'm invested and interested.