On John Cena and Paul Heyman (RAW 9/9/2014)

Honestly, I avoided much of RAW on Monday. I was in the kitchen doing dishes and listening but not watching, in hopes of not having to see the Jerry Springer thing. I had thought surely as a species we had evolved beyond Jerry Springer. (I mean, what is this, 1999?) But I got drawn over to the TV during a few of the segments, one of which, of course, was John Cena’s powerful confrontation of Paul Heyman.

I was unimpressed last week when Cena said he wasn’t coming for Brock Lesnar, but rather for his “ass”. The line had potential but Cena just couldn’t bring himself to sell it. The whole Cena/Lesnar storyline is aspiring to heights beyond where these guys can’t really take it in this gentler era of wrestling. Recall how Lesnar and Heyman talked far too much about blood, vomit, and urine in the lead up to Summer Slam. It did get replayed a few too many times, but in general it wasn’t intimidating, it was just kind of gross.

Much of this feud has felt to me like a heavy-handed attempt to revive the raunchy, violent spirit of the Attitude Era. Even Heyman has matured too much for the really base stuff – he has kids now, after all – and while Brock Lesnar was an impressive monster heel back in the day, Cena never really had the edge for the dark smack talk. His white boy rapper heel run of yore didn’t have longevity for a reason — his strengths simply lie elsewhere. He is a natural born baby face for the cartoon demographic, a noble role model and a dependable hero (if you can stomach the branding and commodification of heroism and nobility).

The feud between Cena and Lesnar has been really floundering, and I’m still unclear why we should buy the notion that Cena lost as brutally as he did. Even less believable is the notion that Cena has any kind of chance in a rematch. Why Paul Heyman thinks Cena could have beat Lesnar if he would have just turned heel and yelled at the haters also isn’t entirely clear to me. Do only nice guys suffer from a German suplex? But maybe the point of all of this is not the literal victory but rather the thematic moral victory, which is in fact the larger point of professional wrestling. Roland Barthes wrote a lot about how we watch wrestling to see “right” prevail over injustice in Mythologies. As Heyman would say, to wit:

For a wrestling fan, nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself vehemently not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play. Naturally, it is the pattern of Justice which matters here, much more than it’s content… This explains why sudden changes of circumstance have in the eyes of wrestling habitues a sort of moral beauty: they enjoy them as they would enjoy an inspired episode in a novel.                                                     (p. 21-22)

At Hulk Hogan’s birthday Cena established that he is fighting this fight to defend the honor of professional wrestling’s entire history. Brock Lesnar marched in looking very much the ultimate fighter and stared down a ringful of colorful wrestling luminaries, bumped his shoulder into Rowdy Roddy Piper, and stood menacingly before flamboyant “Nature Boy” Rick Flair, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff in his gold sequined robe, nWo members Scott Hall and Kevin Nash looking more like uncles than thugs, and finally the immortal Hulk Hogan himself. These retired wrestlers, once so formidable, looked fragile as they were confronted by a younger legend of godlike strength and ability. Though I scoffed a bit at first, I can see now that Cena claimed the hero mantle fair and square when he ran in dressed in Hulk Hogan’s colors, put himself between the revered elders, and with all his heart put it on the line then and there to challenge Lesnar, who looked bent on scorching the earth.

The groundwork was laid at that match for Cena to defend wrestling’s honor, and I was admittedly skeptical that he would find a way to do it. But Monday’s promo finally delivered a moral, thematic blow to Heyman and the absent Lesnar. Cena finally quit with the Hamlet routine, stopped being all “to be or not to be a heel” and made his case for why he should never ever be a heel. In truth, he argued, wrestling has the power to be a force for good in our country and in the world. Wrestling provides heroes for the young, the weak, the downtrodden, and the optimistic. Cena long ago made the commitment to be a hero for wrestling’s more fragile demographic, and he has made it clear that he refuses to abandon them. He has sold them much merchandise that reads “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” and “Never Give Up”, and he’s determined to stand by his products.

Superstar met the Purple Hear soldier he mentioned on , Sgt. Devin Dumar:

Cena v. Lesnar has moved beyond a match-up of strength and skill. This conflict has now revealed its deeper theme: an exploration of the meaning and importance of face vs. heel. Let’s see how Cena’s morality-promo-as-ambush stands up against those German suplexes.

It is crunch time now for Cena — he has to deliver here, we don’t have much patience left for another story to fizzle. But I think the fact that Cena threatened Paul “I’m an advocate!” Heyman, really got in his face and made Lesnar’s own renegade elder luminary look as fragile as Lesnar made the Hulk Hogan birthday party look, is promising. Cena might well have the chops to weather his long dark tween time of the soul and emerge a stronger character.

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