Is John Cena’s current reign an example of the life and times of a transitional champion?
As John Cena marches to the ring with the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the form of two connected belts draped over his neck, the message has stayed the same for him since the beginning of the year. Cena has repeatedly said in interviews recently how there is a lot of great, up-and-coming talent in the WWE on the verge of breaking out, but he himself remains the big cheese. Cena’s message even before winning the WWE Championship has been pretty consistent: If you want to get to the main event, you have to go through me. Cena doesn’t mince his words, not only because of how strong his character is on television as it is portrayed, but also because of the enviable amount of clout that he holds when it comes to WWE’s primary decision makers. So when the unfortunate came to be and Daniel Bryan was forced to relinquish the WWE Championship only a couple months after winning it at the close of WrestleMania XXX, Vince McMahon and company knew which old reliable to go to when it came to slapping the title on someone else.
I found it ironic that Randy Orton (half chosen one, half red-headed stepchild) was obsessively promoting himself during his WWE Title reign in late 2013 and early 2014 as “the face of the WWE.” Surely, it was merely a tactic to garner heat from the fans as a villainous spoiled brat under the thumb of The Authority, but there was something more to it. I have already expressed my displeasure with how the unification of the WWE Championship and World Heavyweight Championship came with a whimper and not the big bang that it could have been back in the olden days when titles actually meant something. But with a unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship that now stands alone as the greatest prize in the company, it seemed like Triple H was making sure that the title was of greater prestige than before. The truth, however, is that despite Orton’s missteps during his reign and even Daniel Bryan ending that reign in the Superdome, John Cena has been and continues to be the face of the WWE.
In a business as larger than life as pro wrestling and a company as tantalizing with its promotional tactics in WWE, there are plenty of actual faces to gaze out, stand in awe of, and admire. Some of those faces like Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and new arrival Kenta, we will get to know a lot better as the years go along. But the constant that has never let up, regardless of his polarizing fandom or inability to exert weakness, is Cena at the main event level, always ready to carry the torch. Cena’s title victory at Money in the Bank to fill the vacancy left by Daniel Bryan shared a certain logic that was both inevitable and finite: When all else fails, put the big strap on your top dog, and that is exactly what John Cena is. Two months into his reign and after a successful title defense at the most recent pay-per-view Battleground, it seems same old song and dance for the man who has been through just about everything the company has asked of him… until perhaps this Sunday.
It is quite possible that this weekend at SummerSlam in Los Angeles, we will see John Cena in a crossroads the likes of which many of his predecessors (both Hall of Fame-caliber and not so much) have been forced to travel for the sake of the greater good. Instead of being the light at the end of the tunnel as he usually does, Cena may be serving the purpose of a transitional champion, the car that simply has to motor through the darkness and await the eventual end. Transitional champions have been serving their purpose through a variety of names and faces over the course of wrestling history. But it is going to be fascinating if the “Face of the WWE” is the one serving, for the first time in his career, as merely a middleman, an inbetweener. In fact, Cena may be wise to take solace in the interim champion status of the megastar with whom he has shared one of his most memorable rivalries, the Rock.
Despite his stature as one of the most beloved and famous wrestling names of all time, the Rock’s signature runs as the company’s top titleholder are outnumbered by the amount of times that he, for lack of a better term, took one for the team. His match against Stone Cold Steve Austin at WrestleMania X-Seven is the top match in maybe the greatest event in pro wrestling history, but before that show, Rocky had only held the WWF Title for one month after winning it from Kurt Angle at the pay-per-view before that. The Rock was the babyface link between the lengthy title reigns of two heels: Kurt Angle and Steve Austin. Just over a year later, Vince once again enlisted the Rock on a tour of title-carrying duty, this time winning the Undisputed WWE Championship from the Undertaker at Vengeance in July of 2002. Just like WrestleMania X-Seven, Rock only held the belt for one month before passing the torch, both figuratively and literally, to the company’s Next Best Thing, Brock Lesnar, at SummerSlam.
Even his millions of fans and millions of dollars in salary today did not exempt the Rock from serving the interim tag every once in a while. After more than 15 months as the WWE Champion, C.M. Punk’s time was running out just as WrestleMania XXIX, and a potential box office rematch between Rock and Cena, was around the corner. Certainly, the fans could have been just as thrilled and excited by the prospects of seeing Cena, after failing multiple times through the past year, take down the evil Punk and win back the gold, but Vince had bigger plans in mind. The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment was used as the conduit that would take down Punk’s epic reign only to take the fall for WWE’s true golden boy (Cena) a couple months later at WrestleMania, which is exactly what the Rock did. While the decision to give the WWE Title to Rock on merely a borrower’s deal lent itself a ton of criticism among Punk fans, it did make sense for a name as enormous as the Rock to be the one who carries the torch so that he can formally pass it off to whom the company truly covets the most. The sense of entitlement was sickening for many fans who just don’t care for Cena, but at least there was a firm game plan in place for even the biggest star in the last two decades to be king for a day.
The concept of a transitional champion is a slippery slope of sorts because it is not a role that wrestlers covet even if it means, at the end of the day, that you get to hold the company’s top prize. It is not something heavily advertised by promoters because the tag line, “Come See This Guy Who Won’t Be Champion For Too Much Longer!” doesn’t put a lot of butts in the seats. What makes it even more difficult in this age of hyperactive title changes and backstage ballyhooing is the fact that, like most things you hear about, the role of a transitional champion was a lot simpler and easier to discern back in the territorial days of pro wrestling. While wrestlers like Kerry Von Erich and Ronnie Garvin served as inbetweeners between the multiple NWA World Heavywight Championship reigns of the same man in Ric Flair, transitional champions serve the purpose of moving the same championship off of one guy and passing the orb to the next main eventer in that respective promotion. It is used often with a heel as the transitional champion between two faces so that neither has to face one another for the title and risk losing fan support. Flair was too selfish (and also too great) to ever let the NWA title get too far away from his grasp as the traditional territories slowly died out in the 1980’s.
Most fittingly, one of the best examples of a transitional champion came from the mind of Vince McMahon himself, the man who helped bring about the demise of the territory era and usher in the Rock ‘N Wrestling era. The latter would have never occurred had Vince not brought in the Iron Sheik to defeat Bob Backlund for the WWF Championship on December 26, 1983. Leading up to the match, Backlund had been the WWF Champion for five years with the unassuming nature of an ordinary Joe. Vince wanted Backlund to become a bad guy as the champion and lose the title to a new signee named Hulk Hogan, but Backlund refused to do it. It was with that stand-off that Vince brought along the Iranian flag-waving Sheik to put Backlund in the Camel Clutch and win the WWF Championship. It was the Sheik’s crowning achievement in a Hall of Fame career, but sadly, like the role of any transitional champion, the glory is only in passing. The Sheik wound up losing the title less than a month later to Hogan, officially launching Hulkamania and the various successes that followed Hogan and Vince in the WWF in the years following. While the reign was quite short, the Iron Sheik had not only one of the most memorable championship reigns in WWF history, but also one of the most significant. We try not the shoot the messenger, and the Iron Sheik’s role in linking the end of Backlund’s no-frills reign and the birth of Hulkamania was quite vital.
Flash forward to today, and the ability to distinguish the intended “signature runs” and short-term transitional title reigns in pro wrestling has gotten more and more difficult. We have almost redefined the idea of a transitional champion due to the never-ending game of hot potato that even the most prestigious world championships have undergone over the years seemingly from week to week. The title switches become so frequent and interchangeable within the company confines that it becomes almost impossible to differentiate the have’s from the have-for-now’s. Even the length of the reign is a moot point lately. You could make the argument that King Booker, a man who held the World Heavyweight Championship for four months, was merely a transitional champion on Smackdown between the program’s top two babyfaces, Rey Mysterio to Batista. I still refuse to believe in the concept that Eddie Guerrero was a transitional champion between two evil WWE Champions (Brock Lesnar and JBL), but if you look deeper into Eddie’s reign, it sort of turned out that way. We already discussed Bryan’s short-lived reign as WWE Champion which was surely going to last at least into this summer and in a perfect world, it would have probably been Bryan defending those belts around his shoulders in the main event instead of John Cena. Cena has been the lamb to slaughter more than a few times, but never has it been with the same fate that he is facing at SummerSlam against Brock Lesnar.
Cena has been untouchable as a WWE elitist for quite a long time, even to the point that the Rock laid down for him under Vince McMahon’s wishes just to make sure we know that Cena was the bee’s knees. But if Cena is as obsessed with the Rock as he seemed to be in their years-long feud, he will remember when the Rock transitioned the WWE Championship from the Undertaker to a young and potential-loaded Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam ’02. Cena now goes into SummerSlam twelve years later in perhaps the same exact position that the Great One was in: Keeping the WWE Championship warm for Brock’s inevitable taking (or should I say conquering?). I mentioned last year how the WWE has emphasized the importance of being Brock for its summertime schedule because it is okay for Darth Vader to have his date with destiny when we are still halfway down the road to the next WrestleMania.
It is quite possible that had Bryan not gotten injured, it would have been he dropping the WWE Championship to Lesnar and his confidant Paul Heyman instead of Cena. We don’t know how long Brock will hold the title if he does win it and if he also serves as a transitional champion himself for someone else in the near future. Heck, we don’t know if Cena is actually going to lose the title to Lesnar at SummerSlam and this is all just a clever red herring on the part of Heyman’s continuous promises. One way or another, the lineage of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship never lies, and the names inscribed on that belt will continue to evolve and ignore the passage of time. But what lineage also tends to ignore is the function of championship reigns and how they correlate with one another in the grand scheme of things. Many of those names stay on that belt for quite a long time, and some get the short end of the stick for distinctive reasons, be it injury, departures, or just dumb luck.
The lesson that must be learned in this case is to not get too comfortable holding the gold because as soon as you walk to the ring the next night, that belt might already belong to someone else and we already know it. Even the face of the WWE is not immune to the status of a transitional champion, which is why this Sunday’s match against Brock Lesnar will be one of Cena’s most fascinating circumstances. Whether fans like it or not, we have always been told by WWE how no matter how insurmountable the odds, John Cena will rise above them and win. For the first time as a defending world champion, John Cena is not just in a no-win situation, he is in a must-lose situation.