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When John Cena began his promo on A.J. Styles on Smackdown last Tuesday, fans responded the way you’d expect when a brand’s top babyface starts laying into a top heel. When Cena mentioned that Styles had only been hot for six months and how Cena himself had carried the company for a decade, the fans cheered. It wasn’t until Cena became dismissive of Styles and claimed that he was several levels below him that the crowd began to turn. The line about Styles only having held onto the WWE Championship because Cena has allowed it garnered an especially negative reaction.
Some have posited that Cena was able to get such a genuine reaction from the live crowd and fans online because his promo was designed to play on the fears hardcore fans have long held about WWE’s treatment of “indy darling” A.J. Styles. While there is some truth to that, the promo goes beyond just Styles. John Cena’s promo on Styles was similar to the one he cut on Daniel Bryan several years ago, and quite frankly, is applicable to most of WWE’s full-time top acts.
Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Sami Zayn, Dean Ambrose, Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, and Finn Balor all have similar backgrounds to Styles. Essentially every wrestler WWE calls upon to headline house shows around the world was an “indy darling.” Styles just so happens to be the cream of that crop.
There have been a few before him, but Styles’s reign on top has been the most successful. He’s presided over Smackdown as its top heel during an period of increased viewership. Where fellow “indy darling” world champions have been booked as comedic figures and lackeys, Styles has been booked as the in-ring superior of one of WWE’s most celebrated wrestlers.
Styles’s strong 2016 campaign notwithstanding, he’s still part of the “new era.” He’s part of the era of wrestlers who are on television every week and work house shows, but ultimately step aside during WrestleMania season for the real stars. John Cena’s promo seemed much more about highlighting that difference in class than taking a shot at the independent scene.
WWE’s practice of shifting focus away from its full-time wrestlers when the lights are on brightest has conditioned the audience to accept them a level below wrestlers like Brock Lesnar, the Undertaker, Triple H, and now John Cena. When Cena polled fans about his future when he returned to Smackdown, fans chanted “Un-der-taker” because it was it was foregone conclusion that he’d quickly finish up his business with Styles and move on to a dream match with a real star. And to be fair, at least at some point, that was actually the plan.
The question right now is what Styles’s strong debut year means now that WrestleMania season is upon us. Does WWE decide to break Styles from the pack and tell the world that he’s one of the real stars who is worthy of a top spot at the biggest show of the year or is even the “Phenomenal One” ultimately “just a guy” like Cena suggested? For as entertaining as it is to hear words like “indy” and “wrestler” on a WWE broadcast, the style of promo John Cena employed on Smackdown last week is only effective if the “Wrestler vs. Superstar” dichotomy is ultimately proven false.
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