Now introduced to the ring as ‘The Greatest Of All Time’ and making waves in Hollywood, John Cena recently returned to the WWE for an eight week period. But with a reputation as impressive as anyone to have laced up a pair of wrestling boots in WWE, did can his extended stay improve or diminish his standing in the industry? Why did he return? And will he be back? Andy Spoors shares his thoughts and verdict on John Cena’s return to wrestling in 2023…  

Hustle

“What is the one quality that you possess that makes you think you can walk out here and come into the ring and face the very best in the business?”

When Kurt Angle posed this simple question to a rookie in red and blank trunks and a dodgy haircut, no-one could have expected the answer would launch one of the greatest careers in sports entertainment.

With the words “Ruthless aggression!” and a slap to the face of his Olympian opponent, the star of John Cena would begin an upwards trajectory rarely seen in wrestling. From the fan favourite Doctor of Thuganomics, to the polarising Super-Cena days, there has never been another individual capable of eliciting crowd reactions, both positive and negative, quite like John Cena.

But as his stock began to rise, a fledgling career in Hollywood came calling and the allure of Tinseltown would prove too strong. Weeks off here and there turned into months, seasons and even a full year away from the squared circle. Missing WrestleMania 37 during the pandemic of 2021 would bring an end to an 18-year streak of successive appearances on the ‘Grandest Stage Of Them All’.

Facing mainstream media interviews when promoting various projects, Cena would front up questions of whether his in-ring career was in the process of wrapping up or worse still, already over. At the time of writing his filmography already includes a role in the DC Universe, battling Transformers, joining the family in Fast and Furious and even an appearance in the wildly successful Barbie movie. Not opportunities to be sniffed at.

Loyalty

In 2023, something seemed to shift in the opinion of John Cena, both on the silver screen and in wrestling. Once loudly booed by large sections of the WWE Universe, sporadic appearances began to be met with overwhelming and ear-splitting ovations. 

Facing off against Austin Theory at WrestleMania 39, fans rallied behind Cena (perhaps also more out of protest against Theory than anything). A few months later a surprise cameo in London for this year’s Money In The Bank Premium Live Event, sent the UK crowd ballistic, in one of the loudest pops this year. His calls for a WrestleMania in London further solidifying him as a fan favourite and legend to the enthusiastic British audience in attendance.

When the SAG-AFTRA strikes crippled Hollywood from July this year, Cena sought out permission to appear on WWE programming and return ‘home’. Not only was it granted, but an extended run of over eight weeks was agreed with the company. When the news broke, the WWE Universe fully embraced and welcomed him back with open arms. Speculation ran riot on who he might face in the time he was back.

Podcasts and social media were flooded with fantasy booking, everything from a tilt at the title to claim the all-time championship record, to an exhibition match against Cody Rhodes. The inevitable calls for a heel turn of course rearing their head. As sure as water is wet, wrestling fans will pitch scenarios for John Cena to be a bad guy…

But was reality even close to fantasy? Not exactly. Instead Big Match John did the exact opposite of what some of his detractors have accused him of shirking during his pomp. He ‘put over’ others in the business. It is an unofficial rule that when a wrestler, Superstar, legend or whatever you want to call them, decides it is time to hang up their boots that you bow out to the next generation. Any research into John Cena the man, will uncover an abundance of articles on his charity work or quotes from peers that he has shared advice with when they needed it the most.

But throughout his 16 world championship reigns, the myth that John Cena could bury the careers of those he did not see eye to eye with have persisted. How much truth there is to those particular rumours will never really be known to the general public, but it can be argued few within the wrestling industry that have enjoyed success have ever given back as much as Cena has this year.

Losing to Theory in April, trading verbal barbs with Grayson Waller in July, tagging and vocally supporting the push of LA Knight in October. Yet the star and gravitas of Cena remains undiminished. Even at Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia, a punishing loss to The Bloodline’s Solo Sikoa was accepted by fans that the Superstar announced to the ring as the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ was simply helping establish Sikoa’s rising credibility.          

Respect

WWE often appoints ‘gatekeepers’ to the main roster. Superstars that have seen success in the past, but now find themselves out of the title picture or notable feud. A relic of years gone by and previous glories. Dolph Ziggler, Shinsuke Nakamura and The Miz have found themselves in this unenviable position. The grizzled veteran that newcomers must overcome to earn their place in the bigtime. A safe pair of hands to help casual viewers understand the rookie’s potential. It is unfathomable that John Cena finds himself in a similar position now.

Unlike his own introduction to the mainstream audience, where Cena lost his match to Kurt Angle albeit in a valiant effort, Cena seems at peace with taking losses at this stage of his career.

Even more on the nose, was his appearance on NXT to stand in the corner of Carmello Hayes, a name touted as the future of WWE. Taking a slap from Bron Breakker and giving on screen advice to Trick Williams, it was an appearance that went a long way to boosting the reputation and the viewing figures of the company’s third brand.

The big question is whether John Cena can continue to take losses or extend a record that makes for increasingly awful reading? In space, when a star runs out of fuel and stops burning, it collapses and explodes. What’s left over after a supernova explosion is simply just the collapsed core of the star, or, in some cases a black hole. The latter option seems to be what both WWE and Cena himself are intent on avoiding, instead filling his space and pull with the audience with new fresh energy and Superstars.

But it is important that the legacy of one of the undisputed greats of the industry is not allowed to become simply dust in the wind in the process. Promos acknowledging that his win/loss record has veered to the latter in recent years seems to point at something larger at work. But with a mountain of promotional and filming work for projects on the big and small screen to now return to and father time nipping at his heels for taking in-ring punishment, Cena’s days inside a wrestling ring are inescapably drawing to a close.

A hail Mary move doesn’t seem off the cards where his illustrious career can be used as a bargaining chip for one last tilt at the title. But how believable would his chances be when he has only been victorious in one Premium Live Event in the last FIVE years? And even that was a tag match with LA Knight. 

You’d have to go back to April 2018 for his last singles win on a PLE, defeating Triple H in Saudi Arabia. On American soil it’s all the way back in August 2017 at SummerSlam with a victory over Baron Corbin, his last title win coming in January of that year!

It’s true all good things must come to an end, it’s damn true that John Cena will now and forever be classified as one of the greatest of all time, but the emphasis on him passing 2000 days without a win on WWE television suggests fans haven’t quite seen the last of The GOAT just yet. When that unfortunate moment does come, 2023 can now be put forward as evidence the leader of the Cenation was ready and willing to give back to an industry that will forever be a part of him and lived the three words adorned on his merchandise: Hustle, Loyalty and Respect.