The Anti-Antagonist: The Cena Effect

Adam Gorzelsky

John CenaAs Raw 1000 went off the air and Jerry Lawler stated emphatically that CM Punk had turned his back on the WWE Universe, many individuals, including myself, assumed that Punk officially had begun a full-fledged heel turn. From a realistic standpoint, this did not mean that he was going to be booed by every fan…however, in a traditional “good guy/bad guy” sense, I certainly anticipated underhanded shenanigans, dastardly deeds, and all other forms of villainy plucked straight from a 1920s silent film.

Since that time, we’ve seen signs of this occurring…from Punk having a pow-wow with Lawler at the announce table, to walking out on John Cena in this past Monday’s tag match. Despite these baby steps though, Punk has made it readily apparent to the viewing audience on numerous occasions that he has no plans to make the complete leap to the wrestling dark side….that he’s not the villain that everyone has come to expect.

Without a doubt, this all may change on Sunday at Summerslam as the type of actions necessary to get over as a traditional heel may have been held back in order to provide Punk with a means to preserve the WWE Title. In essence, this simply may be a case of a slow burn being utilized to provide an element of shock to the summer’s biggest PPV.

But then again, what if it isn’t? What if this middle-of-the-road, ambiguous Punk is the character that we are going to see going forward into the near and distant future? Without question, such a scenario gives rise to legitimate concerns regarding his ability to let loose and push his character hard from either side of the fence…However, from my standpoint, I’m even more intrigued to understand the genesis of such a decision…to learn why this potential direction may have been selected amidst a myriad of options.

The simple answer points to Punk himself. He’s edgy, dances to the beat of his own drum, and didn’t manage to maintain his post-pipebomb momentum when saddled with the responsibility of playing to the crowd. If any modern wrestler is built to play the tweener role, Punk’s brash, tell-it-like-it-is personality makes him the perfect candidate.

Nevertheless, although this may be the simple answer, I can’t help but wonder if it is the correct one…As much as I love Punk and personally see him as the face of WWE, I constantly have to remind myself that everything in WWE begins and ends with John Cena…that adaptations are to be made to comply with his character, rather than vice versa.

Think about Brock Lesnar for a second…He returned on the Raw following Wrestlemania, attacked Cena, and then quickly moved through a program with him in less than a month’s time. Sure, there was a big pay-off from this bout at Extreme Rules, but one has to wonder why HHH was the individual tagged for the long-term feud leading into Summerslam…Cena is the full-time competitor and arguably the biggest draw for such an event.

To me, the answer lies in the necessity to portray Lesnar as a monster heel with little grey area in between. Breaking HHH’s arm accomplishes this task…Having Paul Heyman insult Stephanie McMahon and their children accomplishes this task…Assaulting HBK and breaking his arm accomplishes this task…Doing any of the above to John Cena does not…When half the crowd wants to see his arm broken, such an action is not exactly conducive to generating overwhelming heat.

Essentially, placing an established heel against John Cena tends to be underwhelming. Cena splits crowds, and in doing this, creates two options…Force Cena haters to sit on their hands out of apathy for the heel, or inject a legitimate tweener into the mix to create a raucous atmosphere…It’s somewhat unfortunate to think of a supposedly dominate face in this fashion, but it certainly is the reality of the situation.

For all that I’ve said in the past about crowds playing a large part in determining the direction of characters, the fact still remains that a suspension of reality and an investment into an onscreen persona still plays a large role in the minds of even the smartest of fans.

As a result, a fully heel Punk unfortunately means that even his biggest fans potentially would be forced to remain silent out of an absolute refusal to support Cena…Even in a kayfabe world, one has to check his or her moral fibers before cheering for the despicable acts that a classic and effective heel can bring to the table…Unfortunately, when such acts are done to Cena, abstinence from crowd participation is a viable and likely alternative to booing.

In the end, although CM Punk has the type of personality to thrive as a non-traditional heel or tweener, I’m not so sure that this capability has been the driving force behind the hesitation to make this turn a reality. Instead, I view the effect of John Cena’s polarizing personality as a muzzle on the full potential of Punk’s return to the dark side.

As their collective program with the Rock lurches forward toward some sort of collision course at Wrestlemania, the high profile nature of this feud demands full participation from fans on all sides of the aisle. Aside from a Cena heel turn*, a tweener Punk may provide the only means of accomplishing this feat.

***As an aside, I know that I have come down hard on a Cena heel turn from a business perspective. However, I have never lost sight of the pure wrestling gold that could be created from such a moment. Although I am not predicting this turn to occur at Summerslam, I can’t help but mention how much recent events have reminded me of past heel turn swerves (think Tatanka/Luger in the Million Dollar Corporation angle)…

Cena has called out Punk for being different and for planning to stab others in the back to keep his title…What if this has been set up for Cena to engage in such acts…to be the one who has turned his back on the WWE Universe for the ultimate prize? Again, I am not saying or predicting that this will happen, as I’m mostly providing food for thought…But hey, if it does occur, let’s all pretend that I forecasted it with fervent vigor!***

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