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One of the key benefits of the WWE brand split is the opportunity for the company to develop fresh, new stars to carry them forward in the “New Era.” Having two distinct rosters that only appear on one show a week would help cut down on viewer fatigue while giving more performers a chance to grab more of the spotlight. While we’re still early in this experiment, the latest results suggest that Raw has struggled while Smackdown has soared. Raw has been hampered by an injury to Finn Balor, Vince’s grim determination to make Roman Reigns a top babyface no matter how vociferously crowds reject him, the burden of an extra hour to fill, and a reliance on stories driven by backstage politics and authority figures.
Meanwhile Smackdown has placed an emphasis on the performers and the action in the ring. It’s given new opportunities for stagnant acts like Heath Slater to reconnect with the crowd. It’s allowed The Miz to give the best work of his career on the mic. Every show A.J. Styles makes his case for being the best professional wrestler on the planet while doing top notch work as an arrogant heel that gets the crowd to boo him despite how much they respect him. While it’s still a work in progress, the blue brand is on its to developing the stars fans will tune in to week in and week out for the next five or more years.
One of the ancillary benefits of Smackdown’s compelling cast of characters is the emergence of a new side of John Cena. With the emergence of new talents at the top of the card, Cena has not had to be “The Face That Runs The Place.” His increased absences away from the ring due to his film and television schedule along with his host of other media commitments, have become storyline fodder and acknowledged by both Cena and the announce teams on television. After a decade plus run at the top of the company, Cena has more days behind than ahead of him in the ring. Although Cena makes public proclamations that the WWE is and always will be his home, it’s becoming apparent that both the man and the company are preparing for the eventual “life without Cena” in the WWE.
It’s not just Cena giving up clean pinfall victories, first to Styles at Summerslam, then to Dean Ambrose on Smackdown. Yes, wins and losses matter, especially on Smackdown which is presented more like a sporting competition rather than “sports entertainment.” Upon his brief post-Summerslam hiatus, Cena has made a slight pivot away from “Hustle. Loyalty. Respect.” towards a character with a bit of an edge to him. His mic work countering Dean Ambrose has been some of his strongest in years. As Ambrose takes pot shots at Cena, calling him a “part timer” whose day has come and gone, Cena has dug in his heels and and stated in no uncertain terms he won’t be giving up his spot.
Instead of the standard vanilla promo where Cena extols the positive attributes of his upcoming opponent, Cena has gone out of his way to put himself on a pedestal above Ambrose, and other performers in the locker room. As evidenced on the now must-see Talking Smack program, Cena’s made his case with a fiery intensity that demonstrates just how compelling a promo he can be when he’s given bullet points rather a tightly worded script to deliver. His takedown of Ambrose on Talking Smack last month was scorching hot.
“No, I don’t stand and dress where Dean Ambrose dresses,” Cena said. “But this is where someone has twisted reality. Dean Ambrose said John Cena and Dean Ambrose don’t like each other. No. Dean Ambrose doesn’t like John Cena. John Cena doesn’t care about Dean Ambrose. And if Dean wants me to care about him? At No Mercy, he’ll either step up, or step aside. And that’s it.”
To say that you don’t even care to waste a thought on your opponent is a far more dismissive and damaging dig than just about anything else you can come up with. This is Cena embracing his role as a part timer and telling both the crowd and the boys backstage that he’s earned that opportunity and he’s not going to make a single apology for it. This is the kind of Cena that makes for must-watch television.
So far in 2016, Cena has delivered a pair of show stealing performances in putting over Styles. Now the shift in the WWE’s priorities in creating new top level talent has given Cena a chance to explore new facets of his character. While this shift is not the full blown heel turn some fans clamor for, the kind of performance and character shift John Cena is exploring right now has the chance to be far more compelling if handled right.
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