“Analyzing the Punk/Cena Match” | Guest Column by Ray Bogusz
When I tell people I’m an old school guy, there’s a lot of layers going on in an otherwise simple looking sentence. In a broader sense, I admit that personality wise I’m simply from a long gone era (think way long gone…think your great-grandparents and probably earlier).
In a narrower sense—in this case, related to wrestling—it means I like the 70′s and live for tapes of the 80′s. There is a litany of reasons why this is, but it all adds up to this: I simply enjoy the product of the first mega-boom more than that of today, and certainly more than that of the “Attitude Era,” which I happen to have stunningly little love for in comparison to pretty much everyone reading this.
Perhaps nothing better exemplifies this than my hate/sort-of-ok-with relationship with the career of John Cena. For the past five years, I’ve been involved in some way with the business of Internet Wrestling Writing and Podcasting. In some instances, it’s merely been as a consultant, others as an editor, others as a writer, and on In the Room it’s in the capacity of a sports talk host…but for pro wrestling. However, no matter what the capacity it’s been in, my stance on Cena has pretty much never changed.
I like him…sort of. From the very first time I wrote about anything that involved him, I made it clear that I think he’s a serviceable talent who got pushed to the top more out of situational happenstance than any kind of marquee headlining talent. In a way, I’ve always sort of felt bad for his career because no matter how hard he works or how hard he tries, when it comes down to real ability measured against the rest of the wrestling world, he’s simply out of his league when it comes to being at the top of the wrestling world. Sure, those people have been around for as long as there’s been professional wrestling (Nick Bockwinkle anybody?), but in this age of the Internet that talent disparity just becomes that much more abundantly clear.
That leads us to this past Monday night, and the closing match on Raw.
With all due respect to Kevin Steen—and the next roughly nine months left on the calendar—John Cena teamed up with arch-nemesis CM Punk to put on the 2013 MOTY candidate from the United States. And while there’s a long way to go, it’s probably one of the two or three leading candidates for the overall MOTY, at the very least until Triplemania rolls around this summer. Even if you think I’m a bit over the moon here, you’ll be hard pressed to find anybody who was any bit down on the match itself. The reaction was almost overwhelmingly positive, and that sort of leads to the bigger question in its aftermath: what is this feud’s—and by some extension, Cena’s career’s—place in history?
After the match that night, more than one writer or podcaster made the comparison of Punk v. Cena to Steamboat v. Flair.
In some senses, that’s a reasonably apt comparison. Much like Steamboat and Flair, Punk and Cena work well together and are able to do a very good job complimenting the others’ strengths instead of accidentally highlighting the others’ weaknesses. Both sets of men now have developed years’ long feuds, and both in and out of storyline there’s a reasonably good comparison of Steamboat to Punk.
But, there are just as many reasons why it’s a bad comparison. For one, which man is the Ric Flair? It certainly isn’t John Cena, who can’t even get his hometown to do what he needs it to when he’s in the ring (that would be cheer…). Punk and Cena aren’t competing against promotions with the same or better talent depth, and neither man has to compete with the same kind of marquee level feuds within their same promotion.
The biggest difference, however, is in the percieved (and mostly real) talent drop off for Cena. Flair and Steamboat may have had a series of classic matches at or near the zenith of the wrestling world, but neither man is ever going to be talked about in the same disparaging way Cena so often is.
For me, Monday night showed that Cena vs. Punk is a hybrid of two feuds from wrestling’s greatest era…
It’s part Hogan vs. Savage, and part Hogan vs. Warrior.
This past week on ITR, Brady Hicks planted the idea that it was—at least in part—Hogan vs. Savage, with Cena being Hogan and Punk being Savage. I suppose in the overall scheme of things, that’s got some validity, especially because both men compare well to their historical counterparts in a side-by-side. Punk is absolutely Savage, the inarguable more talented individual whom should probably be on top of the roster in comparison to what else is there—especially over Cena. Cena, meanwhile, is absolutely the Hulk Hogan of the feud. He’s the man on top, the man who can draw passion from fans into any feud regardless, and could make money if he were to fight Eugene while also being the man whose talent isn’t bad but, is at best, serviceable.
Meanwhile, Monday night’s match was much more like Hogan vs. Warrior. Nobody could have expected a match of that quality would come forth that night, and it wasn’t just because it was happening on Raw.
When I say John Cena is serviceable but not bad, I’m not necessarily saying he’s much good either. He’s okay enough that good workers can get good matches out of him, but he’s never going to make a classic on his own because he simply has too many deficiencies.
His moveset and style in the ring are clunky limited. Part of it is probably his talent ceiling, but part of it is that he’s simply just not an athletic man…at least not by the standards of top wrestling talents. While he certainly looks the part, there is a difference between having a lot of muscle and being an athletic guy. Cena isn’t by any means unwatchable, but if watching Bryan Danielson is the exercise of watching poetry in motion, watching Cena is more the exercise of watching Celebrity Deathmatch reruns.
His promo ability is narrow and not likely to grow. He’s not necessarily good at making others look good. The beat goes on.
The point here? Punk and Cena’s match on Raw had no business being as good as it was because a man of Cena’s talent level has no business being in a five star kind of match. By and large, that statement has remained pretty true throughout Cena’s career. He’s had some good matches, but not great ones. He’s had some okay feuds, but he’s had nothing of great note, which brings me to the Hogan vs. Warrior analogy.
Hogan vs. Warrior at WrestleMania VI had no business being as good as it was; the reality is that Hogan got a far better match out of Warrior than pretty much everyone else ever did or would (with the exception of Savage one year later). Punk and Cena’s feud—much like that match—is defined by overcoming expectations as much as anything else.
In the world of professional wrestling, Punk’s resumè was already world class before he set foot in WWE. Cena’s was not, and much like Chis Jericho’s feud with the Legends at WrestleMania XXV won’t define his career, The Rock won’t define Cena’s. In fact before this feud with Punk, Cena’s career looked pretty bland.
The Orton feud didn’t really go anywhere; a feud with Batista never developed. Jericho wasn’t around too long, Edge wasn’t always there, Miz fell flat and Big Show was underwhelming as an opponent.
CM Punk, and this now ongoing and established feud with Cena, will ultimately be the defining one of Cena’s career, but maybe not of Punk’s.
And so we reach the final question: what is the place of this feud—and Cena’s career—in the history of professional wrestling? At this point, I think the answer is that it’s safe to say its place is “What could have been?”
We’re not going to get this kind of match at WrestleMania, and there have been long term booking decisions which have made the feud start and stop, stalling just when things could get hottest. When Cena faces The Rock, his arch-nemesis and most iconic opponent will be doing something else, or lost in a three-way never meant for him.
And we’ll wonder, “what might have been?”
Ray Bogusz is the co-host of the In The Room Show and a syndicated wrestling columnist. You can reach him via his Twitter @RayITR. To get his column on your website, email firstname.lastname@example.org.