One of the most debated topics throughout the WWE Universe is John Cena's character and the notion that many want him to turn heel.
I think the term “heel” -- when talking about change that many want from John Cena -- is misleading.
Before we explore the idea, let's first clearly define the term "heel." At the very core, as many of you surely already know, a “heel” is someone the fans hate, a "bad guy." JJ Dillon once told me in an interview a definition that I like to use -- someone that is not as good and/or talented as the “babyface” in the ring, so he needs to cheat to get the upper hand in a match. He also says and does dastardly things to draw the ire of the crowd, who hopes that the babyface he is facing beats him up.
This most basic definition has worked for many decades in professional wrestling. The Attitude Era, however, turned the definitions of “face” and “heel” on their heads. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who was acting and working like a heel all through 1996 and 1997, was cheered and made to be a hero after his infamous “Austin 3:16” interview at the 1996 King of the Ring. Bret Hart was a villain in the United States, and a hero in Canada as the leader of the new Hart Foundation. Fans seemed to get tired of the whole heel/babyface concept and welcomed a grey area.
Let's now apply the term “heel” to John Cena. A heel turn would mean that he begins to cheat in his matches, he begins to cut meaner promos and the crowd begins to dislike him because of it.
Thing is, much of the crowd already dislikes him.
We've all heard “Let's go Cena” from women and children, and “Cena sucks” from males age 18-34. There is even a WWE superfan called “Cena Sucks Guy” that is the de facto leader of Team "Cena Sucks." A strong section of the WWE Universe already hates him. I studied his crowd reactions across North America and some other parts of the world and created the “John Cena Crowd Reaction Map,” which further illustrates this point.
At WrestleMania 28, who is the “babyface” and who is the “heel” going into the main event between The Rock and John Cena? To different demographics and to wrestling fans with varying levels of intensity, there's probably a different answer to that question. An 8-year old boy may wear his camo shorts, “Rise Above Hate” t-shirt, wrist bands, head band and cheer Cena to his heart's content, having never lived through or even seen The Rock in the late 90s and seeing him in a WWE ring for the first time before hosting WrestleMania 27. A 31-year old male, however, who has been watching pro wrestling for years and has fond memories of “The People's Eyebrow” and “At the corner of Know Your Role Boulevard and Jabroni Drive” and “Shut your mouth you thong-wearing fatty” will undoubtedly let his nostalgia bleed through as he supports The Rock over the man who he feels has “ruined pro wrestling as he remembers it with his work in the ring.”
Cena doesn't work as a heel today, yet he receives the reaction of one from a big section of the fans. Why?
To me, it's because at the end of the day, characters in pro wrestling can get repetitive, then stale, and every few years fans crave change. Since winning the WWE championship at WrestleMania 21 seven years ago, John Cena has saluted the military, been a role model for children, smiled for the cameras, and been the guy that overcomes big challenges through “Hustle, Loyalty and Respect” and “Rising Above Hate.” There are little changes here and there, but the core attitude has remained the same -- and many wrestling fans are tired of it.
It's not necessarily a cheating, dastardly (“heel”) John Cena that this group of fans wants – it's just a different one. Recall on RAW last year when Cena gave his first verbal retort to The Rock, and brought back the “Doctor of Thuganomics” for one night. Those craving change ate it up. Not just because it was a throwback to 2003, but because it was a Cena we hadn’t seen on WWE TV in a long time.