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A simple question to ask, but not one answered so simply.
The current Universal Champion, Roman Reigns, is one of the most hotly debated wrestlers to have ever been a part of WWE. Hated by a huge portion of the WWE fanbase, there is nothing that the company has not done in an effort to get their choice as the face of the company cheered by the WWE audience.
There is, however, a portion of the audience who cheer Roman and all that he does.
Due to the dual nature of his support, and the push that the management has given him over the years, comparisons between him and John Cena has become a common occurrence. The question has come up again and again. Is Roman Reigns the next John Cena?
Standing in 2018, where Roman Reigns is currently dominating Raw with his Shield brethren, and John Cena is only a part-timer focusing on his Hollywood career instead, this article seeks to answer the question once and for all.
The son of Sika, one half of the Wild Samoans, Leati Joseph Anoa’i aka Roman Reigns, comes from the Samoan Anoa’i family. The family are indelibly connected to wrestling, with Rikishi, Rosey, Umaga, The Wild Samoans and The Usos all being members. Looking farther, Roman’s grandfather Amituana Anoa’i was blood brothers with Peter Maivia, the grandfather of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Thus, the Maivia family is also linked to the Anoa’i family, only adding to their legend and strength.
With a background like this, it was only a matter of time before Roman found himself in WWE, after retiring from his professional football career early.
John Cena, on the other hand, had no connections to wrestling in his family. In fact, the closest link he had to any sports, was his own grandfather, Tony Lupien, who was a baseball player and later a baseball coach. He made his own way, playing football, before graduating from college and heading into wrestling.
From the very beginning, there are differences between the two wrestlers in their background and the struggles they underwent to make it into WWE. Cena wrestled for two years in Ultimate Pro Wrestling before making it into a WWE Developmental Center in 2000. He would go on to answer a challenge by Kurt Angle in 2002, and display ‘Ruthless Aggression’, in a debut which would go on to characterize the era of programming that ensued.
His run on SmackDown would see WWE protecting him, and though he lost every now and again, it was obvious that the company was priming him for a big push from that moment.
However, it was his run on Raw when he was drafted there in 2005, that saw Cena come into his own. At this point, he was ready for a push to the top as he was already in and among the WWE Championship picture, but his image was not the one we know today. There was more aggression, and the language used in promos was nowhere near as family friendly as it is today.
So when was it that WWE pulled the trigger on the ‘John Cena push’ that would see him win everything that he came across?
There were two events that triggered this. One was the passing of Eddie Guerrero which led to an investigation into WWE wrestlers and their drug habits. The second was in 2007 when the tragic double-murder suicide of Chris Benoit saw WWE fans shocked, and the company receiving immense amounts of negative publicity.
At this time, WWE needed a clean fresh face for their company, one who had no controversy behind him, and standing right there to pick up the mantle was John Cena. He was the person that WWE wanted to push so that his clean image would reflect on them as well, during a time when the company was in dire straits.
During this time, there also came a change in the John Cena character, as he became the star we know today, with a family friendly attitude and involvement in charities. The reason?
The 2008 recession saw the United States take a hit. No one had money to spare for their basic needs, let alone WWE. However, there was a particular fanbase, who needed entertainment and needed a simpler product; kids. And so WWE supplied. They turned their product family friendly and PG, much to the disgust of the adults, and targeted kids. The star leading this family-friendly product? You guessed it. John Cena.
Cena won time and time again, overcoming every obstacle, brow-beating the message, “Never Give Up” in the process. He was a real-life Superman.
And it worked. Cena became one of the most popular wrestlers of all time. He divided audiences as a portion found his black and white image to be unrealistic, while the other half could not get enough of him. One thing they did not do, however, was stop talking about him.
This is where the comparison to Roman Reigns kicks in. The big man from the Shield created quite an impact on his debut with the workhorses of WWE, and when they broke up, if WWE had immediately pulled the trigger on Roman’s push, we might not have been talking about this now.
But here lies the problem. In Roman Reigns, WWE too saw the successor of John Cena. One thing they forgot? Times had changed. No longer were children their major and only audience. A large portion of their adult fanbase had made their way back to the company after the likes of CM Punk had grown in popularity. They wanted a grey anti-hero. Roman Reigns seemed perfect for that role.
WWE, however, thought otherwise. They gave him promos which meant little or nothing to advance that side of him. When that did not work in getting him over with the fans, WWE did not immediately pull the trigger on him. Reigns winning the 2014 Royal Rumble might have been the best possible move, but instead, it was Batista who ended up winning. The one year delay would cost Reigns greatly. While he would win the Royal Rumble in 2015, in that one year, it was made evident to the fans that Reigns was going to be booked like a clean babyface and not the legitimate badass that he had been as part of the Shield.
On top of that, like John Cena, Reigns too was offered opportunity after opportunity, by the same management that was supposed to be holding him back. The fans wanted Daniel Bryan, and instead, they got a badly booked Roman Reigns.
So it was no wonder that they hated and booed him. They booed him when he won the Royal Rumble and they booed The Rock when he came out to raise his hand. They booed him at WrestleMania and cheered when Rollins came down to cash-in and win the WWE Championship. They booed him during his feud with Seth as they looked on hopefully at Dean Ambrose instead, hoping WWE would push him. Anyone but Reigns.
However, it was not to be. The WWE didn’t budge from the clean cut babyface they wanted to push him as and the fans would continue booing him over the years.
When he faced Triple H at WrestleMania, when he faced the Undertaker at WrestleMania, each time, ‘The Big Dog’ was greeted with jeers.
And then, from the unlikeliest of opponents, came a seminal moment; one that catalyzed a change.
Roman faced John Cena as the beleaguered present met the polarizing past.
The match happened, and Roman won, as John Cena passed on the proverbial torch to his successor. The fans still booed Roman, and they actually cheered the divisive Cena when the two faced each other.
All throughout his journey, the commentators and the fans compared Cena and Roman. How could they not? What with both their fanbases comprising largely of kids, there was all the more reason to compare the two.
But though Reigns was booed throughout that feud, the discerning viewer could sense a turning point. The feud and the victory over Cena represented a larger message to the WWE fans: this was the guy.
An air of acceptance was borne.
And now, in 2018, Roman Reigns is finally the Universal Champion after finally beating Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam. And now, the question has come up once more as we embark on what promises to be yet another all-encompassing run for a divisive babyface in the WWE.
Is Roman Reigns the next John Cena?
Whatever may be the answer to that, know this.
There can never be a next John Cena. Cena was a phenomenon who came when the company needed him the most. He was the clean image, the clean slate that the company needed to leave behind controversy. He did not care whether he was cheered or booed, he was there to do his duty and that was all he cared about.
Roman need not be that person. WWE does not need another John Cena at the moment, what they need is Roman Reigns to be the best that he can. That is exactly who they have got.
Roman Reigns does not have the clean image of John Cena, and neither can he pull off that persona. He does not have the innate charisma and promo skills of The Rock, or the force of personality of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.
Cena lived and breathed his character, and was believable that he was the same person in real life. His losses saw him look devastated, as if he had lost everything, never more evident that when he had lost to The Rock at WrestleMania. Roman simply cannot pull that off.
What Roman Reigns does have is his ability to not care. WWE needs a badass Champion leading them who is there to win Championships and not win over the fans. While he can be a fan favourite, Roman is much better as a Tweener.
While he is currently safe now as part of the Shield, there will come a time that the ‘Hounds of Justice’ will once again part ways. At that time, it is important that WWE forget Cena, and book Roman Reigns as himself. An extremely capable in-ring worker, who can take anyone on inside the ring and beat them, but someone who is still vulnerable and not a Superman.
Roman Reigns may not be the next John Cena, but he is the face of the next generation of WWE performers nonetheless, a generation where characters are more grey and where right and wrong are no longer black and white.
The fans seem to have understood that. Perhaps the WWE will too.