It’s hard to believe that it has been 21 years since Hulk Hogan first turned evil. Wrestling fans won’t struggle to remember how big that moment was. He had been off of WCW (World Championship Wrestling) television for an extended break. In that time, The Outsiders, as they were known, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, had come to take over the company. They had been running roughshod for weeks in Hogan’s absence, but it felt like they had finally met their match when a dream team decided to join forces to stop them. Those familiar names were Lex Luger, Sting, and Macho Man Randy Savage.
The entire feud came to a head on July 7, 1996, at the Bash at the Beach Pay-Per-View. The crowd exploded when they saw Hogan run through the curtain in his traditional red and yellow attire. The intense expression on his face told the story of a great defender of good coming to aid his friends and rid his company of the darkness that sought to destroy it. This looked like so many of my childhood memories, like the greatest hero in the world, Hulk Hogan, was again coming to save the day. And then he didn’t.
Instead of going after Hall and Nash, Hogan looked down at his long-time friend, Randy Savage, and in true Benedict Arnold fashion, he dropped his famous leg drop right across Savage’s throat. He stood up, and he did it again. In one moment, the greatest hero in wrestling history had become its most notorious villain. I was unsure of what I was seeing at first but I quickly grew excited. It was a fitting change for me. I, myself, was changing. I had just finished elementary school and was about to move into the sixth grade. I was ready for my hero to show some depth. I was ready for him to embrace the dark side, and in that story, I felt a little freedom to do the same. It was a sort of end to my personal age of innocence.
Somewhere deep down, I was more relieved than I was glad. I had heard my dad, a sports fanatic, say the phrase“Father time is undefeated. He catches up to us all.” Even at the ripe old age of eleven, I knew how sad that statement was. When my dad would tell stories of his childhood heroes, Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, and Bobo Brazil, he would get a rare light in his eyes. I knew that they meant a great deal to him and I could feel his sadness when he would reminisce about Mays' regrettable stint with the Mets at the end of his career. I would see how defensive he would get whenever it was mentioned that Larry Holmes had beaten an aging Muhammad Ali. And I could feel his hurt the day Bobo Brazil had died. I didn’t want that for my hero. I wanted Hulkamania to live forever, just like I had been promised, but I could see the world changing and I knew that the Hulkster would have to change with it if he was to avoid the bitter ends of my dad’s heroes. His joining the New World Order (NWO) was a rebirth. It was refreshing. It became a second career. Most importantly, it bought him more time.
Another hero to the young will be returning to WWE television soon. His name is John Cena. Cena has been the driving force of the global company for well over a decade and in that time, he has never strayed from his original image. He is good. He caters to his young fans. He is all about “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect.” I haven’t always enjoyed Cena’s work. I guess it took me having my own child to remember the love I felt for the John Cena of my childhood. Incredibly, I feel like he has been a rare performer who started at or near the top and has continued to get better with age. That’s a good thing but I notice his absences from weekly television are become more regular, and the contingent of boo birds, one that has always been strong, gets louder and louder as new names enter into our consciousness.
What’s the point?
With iconic wrestling journalist, Dave Meltzer, reporting a string of record low TV broadcasts, it is clear that WWE is struggling to generate fan interest. (Don’t believe me? See the June 26th Monday Night Raw starring Lavar Ball and sons. They’re hurting.) It may be time to shake things up company-wide. People forget that while the NWO sparked the most successful run of wrestling business in American history, it was formed out of necessity. American wrestling in the mid-90s was bad. Promoters, including Vince McMahon, couldn’t quite figure out the changing tastes of the audience. The product had become stale. Tape trading was all the rage because of the original super-indy company, ECW, with its insistence on pushing the limits, and because the Japanese product was far superior to the American based WWE and WCW. Wrestling fans reading this probably realize just how similar the state of the profession is. While Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada keep raising the bar for in-ring quality, WWE keeps pushing forward with overly scripted, predictable business as usual.
WWE claims that they are a company that creates moments. Well, if that’s the case, then they will no doubt be on board with this proposition as there is no bigger moment available to them than John Cena returning and embracing the dark side. Seriously, he has said many times in many different forums that he would never play the villain, that his reputation and his connection and message to the audience is too important. So, his historic heel turn would come as a monumental surprise. It would also tell the world that WWE is finally willing to embrace change. Whether they know it or not, it’s time to shake things up. It’s time to get the attention of the casual fan. It’s a drastic time and it is calling for a drastic measure.
Beyond simply turning the ultimate baby face into the ultimate heel, there is a second step that the WWE should take. Give Cena freedom. Let him come and go as he pleases. Let him decide what direction to take his new, awful self. Let him show up on shows, both Raw and Smackdown, without advertising his arrival. Let John Cena have the ball and run. He has proven to be consistent. He has proven to be high quality. He has proven himself a company man. He has charisma, drive, skills on a microphone, and has developed into a good in-ring performer. He is the only star the WWE has who can truly get fans' attention and move the needle. More than any of that, he has earned the respect and the right to get a desperately needed, fresh coat of paint. His transformation from Anakin Cena to Darth Cena would also free a spot at the top of the good-guy food chain for a new hero to emerge. Could it be AJ Styles? Could it be Shinsuke Nakamura? Could it be someone who we don’t know yet? That person will never emerge as long as Super-Cena lingers on in that role.
The point is that life, and wrestling, have come full circle. It’s time, like it was in 1996, to explore the unexplored, and to do the unexpected. It’s time for the WWE to recapture the imagination of the audience. As was perfectly stated in the movie, The Dark Knight, “Die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” John Cena, for your sake, I hope that the latter part of this quote rings true.
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