John Cena and Cesaro had a very long match Monday night. The announcers repeatedly deemed it a classic well before the fight was over, but there was a conspicuously absent element that made Michael Cole’s proclamations ring hollow: the crowd. They weren’t silent — more on that in a moment — but they did not chant “This is awesome.”
That chant is the signifier of a true classic.1 By the time the men were merely exchanging submission holds2 Ceasro and Cena’s “Who Can Kick Out At Two-And-A-Half The Most” contest had turned arduous. Like Cena himself, it took up a lot of space and time without doing quite what it promised.
It’s not that the match wasn’t more acrobatic than your standard WWE fare or that the men didn’t do their damnedest to make it seem like it was anyone’s game. But Cena has a title match at Battleground in two weeks against heir apparent/archrival Kevin Owens, and therefore was never at risk of dropping the belt to Cesaro. The crowd knew it. They declared it not awesome.
None of that would stop the inevitable alternate chants of “Let’s go Cena” and “Cena sucks,” the former two octaves higher than the latter, as none of Cena’s fans have yet hit puberty. Those munchkin fans are more than a well-targeted merch-buying demographic juggernaut, though — they’re Cena’s Atlas, suspending the ever-heavier burden of disbelief that John Cena, supreme baby face of the WWE, isn’t actually a heel.
Functionally, Cena is a heel. He holds on to titles for huge stretches of time. Opponents that by all rights should fell him crumple at the last minute, as though thwarted by some divine power. He’s never the underdog – his titles and miraculously (relatively) injury-free history preclude all that. As the meta-knowledge of his tremendous support from the WWE itself seeps into his opponent’s anti-Cena promos, the only thing separating Cena and a heel like Rollins is his gimmick, and even that has adapted to the audience’s vitriol. The man eats “boos” for breakfast, grinning manically when he enters the ring to a thunderously displeased crowd. He knows we know he knows we hate him, and what’s more, he wants to prove us wrong. After all, doesn’t he prove he’s the champ, winning matches night after night? Shouldn’t we applaud his success, his obvious dominance? That parasocial relationship with the audience — your hatred is welcome but your affection would be more sensible since we both know I’m not going anywhere — is the foundation of every heel’s rapport with the crowd.
Well, all but one.
As a friend recently phrased it, “Smarts go mark for Rollins.” Which is a another way of saying that even folks who are over the age of twelve and know wrestling is 100% staged still love to hate Seth Rollins, or at least to participate in the rituals of hating him. Unlike Cena, Rollins doesn’t spark generic “Rollins sucks” boos. This is partially because Seth Rollins doesn’t suck — certainly not at wrestling — and also because there’s a preponderance of specific things to hurl in Rollins’ face. “You sold out” is a popular one, maligning his (increasingly tenuous) relationship with the Authority. The threat of “Suplex City” and its mayor, Brock Lesnar, is another. But as my friend pointed out, very few wrestling fans actually dislike Rollins. They acknowledge his character is a weasel, sure, but the main problem with Rollins performing as a sniveling, arrogant coward means Rollins sometimes runs away from fights. Which is to say, people get mad at Rollins for not being in enough matches; the exact opposite of the consensus on Cena. Not a bad problem to have (when healthy).
Considering his technical ability, willingness to take on intense matches3 and perform gymnastic feats usually reserved for guys a fraction of his size,4 it’s little wonder he’s become a fan favorite. Yes, crowds still jeer at him, but it’s almost always in service of the WWE’s larger narrative, rather than a universal sigh of “Ugh, this guy again?”
With the heel/face dynamics misaligned with their audience’s favoritism, the WWE has added a third element to reconcile the discrepancy: a ‘tweener in the form of a wrathful god, Brock Lesnar. Lesnar is neither face nor heel, man nor beast, mortal nor immortal. He ripped a car door off its hinges on RAW this week with his bare hands and chucked it clear across the stage.
The “vengeful god” narrative isn’t critical hyperbole, either — Paul Heyman’s promos on his behalf have shifted from framing Lesnar as an unthinking monster to dipping heavily into biblical paraphrasing to literally calling Lesnar a god, out for revenge and the return of his heavyweight title, in that order. Heyman literally bows to him after a display of wrath, such as destroying a Cadillac on live television and subsequently destroying two men on top of the ruined Caddy. People cheer for Brock Lesnar for many reasons; because he’s an accomplished athlete, because he suplexed John Cena 16 times in a single match, because he said “bitch” at Wrestlemania, and because it looks like he uses all the willpower in his massive body to just break someone’s arm instead of plunging his hand into their chest cavity and tearing out their still-beating heart. He’s been elevated to god status by both his prowess and his function: destroy those marked for death. And witnessing destruction is, after all, why anyone tunes into professional wrestling.
If you’re not cheering for Lesnar, why are you watching at all?
“Holy shit” denotes a particularly impressive spot, and the “yes!” chant has transcended Daniel Bryan and turned into a sort of sub-“this is awesome” signifier, generally meaning the crowd favorite is winning. ↩
Which went on for some time and cut into a perfectly good period of attacks and counter-grapples, highlighting the men’s compatible fighting styles ↩
His ladder match against Ambrose at Money in the Bank this year was a thing of beauty ↩
If the “Seth Rollins era” is to signify anything beyond his championship title, it may be the popularization of a more airborne big man. Following Rollins’ call-up from NXT were guys the likes of Neville, a high-flyer with muscles in places lesser humans typically reserve for bones and organs, and fighters like Kevin Owens, who boasts Chris Farley-levels of agility incongruous with his body type. In a rare similarity the WWE shares with professional sports, the industry’s style of play is shifting. Like the NBA’s current Steph Curry-led favoring of three-point shooting and smaller lineups, the WWE seems to be moving from “who’s the biggest/ strongest” toward wrestlers with stockpiles of counter-maneuvers — think of Daniel Bryan’s oft-cited repertoire of hundreds of submission moves and counter-moves — and a willingness to backflip off the top rope and fall bodily onto an opponent. If this trend holds, Rollins’ claims of ushering in a new era may be more than empty bluster for promos. ↩