RAY IS WAR
Author’s Note: If you haven’t read Shinobi’s brilliant A-Z series for 2014, I highly recommend that you do. His piece on “Xenophobia” was instrumental to inspiring this column.
We are less than one week away from the inaugural version of WWE Fast Lane. This is an exciting time as a fan; WWE has built on the Royal Rumble backlash to create some excellent television over the last few weeks. The culmination of this work will be in the end result of Fast Lane’s Main Event showdown between Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan for the right to face Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. While that is the centerpiece and headliner of Fast Lane, it is not the only match of interest. The card is likely to be filled with a variety interesting showdowns. We may yet see clashes between the remnants of Mizdow and The Dust Brothers, though WWE is likely to hold off on one or both of those clashes until WrestleMania. The match that holds the most interest for me is the match between Rusev and John Cena.
In order to tackle the future of that bout, we must first consider the past. Please keep in mind with what follows that I am NOT a Cena hater. I respect what he's done, and I appreciate his in ring work more than most. That said, I’ve long held the belief that Bray Wyatt’s need for a “reboot”, his need to release his minions, have a hiatus, and come back embroiled in battle with Ambrose was due to how poorly he was portrayed in his original trilogy with Cena beginning at WrestleMania last year. This is an issue I have long held firm on. John Cena, or more accurately WWE, in 2014 FAILED to make Bray Wyatt in those bouts. Their original match at WrestleMania was a fantastic contest. Even in a loss there Wyatt came off as someone on near equal footing with WWE’s franchise player. It was a match that allowed for a full display of both the subtle nature with which Wyatt had permeated Cena’s psyche as well as Wyatt’s prodigious ability between the ropes. It was in the matches which followed that WWE not only failed to further elevate Wyatt, but served to devalue him in the eyes of discerning fans who had bought into the nuances of the feud. Lost in the latter two matches were many of the things that had made the first match so powerful. The ability of Wyatt to physically challenge Cena was all but thrown out the window when Cena had dismantled each member of the Wyatts and left them for dead in the cage before a child stopped him. Aside from said child holding Cena at bay in their second encounter it seemed that Wyatt’s mind games had suddenly fallen upon deaf ears. WWE had given Wyatt his win over the Leader of The Cenation, but it felt remarkably hollow. The final rubber match was the chance to undo what had been done at Extreme Rules, and harken back to the excellence of their WrestleMania clash. Instead the match was obviously far less about establishing Wyatt, and more clearly about John Cena once again overcoming the odds. While Lana and Rusev are akin to Beauty and the Beast, Cena overcoming the odds is truly the “tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme”.
That background is part of what makes this bout with Rusev so interesting. As much as Wyatt was quickly built up as a Main Event caliber threat, his growth never felt as painstakingly detailed and constructed by WWE. Rusev has been built as a destroyer since his official addition to the main roster. It’s been obvious since he arrived that there was something special about him. The presentation with “The Ravishing Russian” Lana, the Russian Flag dropping after every victory and the “hated foreigner” gimmick has been done perfectly. Originally I wasn’t so sure, everything felt very 80’s to me. But in time the duo won me over, not just for Lana’s beauty and outstanding curves, but rather for the Bulgarian Brute’s growth in the ring. He was protected early in a series of squashes and “hoss matches”. Over time his moveset garnered more interest from me. The savate kick that he delivers looks like a massive impact and believable maneuver. The Accolade is a fitting finisher for someone of his size as well; it also carries with it the hated foreign heel lineage of the Iron Sheik. Over the last few months I believe Rusev has arrived at a point where he can credibly stand toe to toe with many of the top stars in WWE. He faced off with WWE’s new golden boy Roman Reigns, and while he didn’t come out on the winning side of the ledger his streak was kept intact. That says a great deal to me. The negative part of me worries that they’re keeping that intact for Cena. The positive side of me believes that WWE has big plans for Rusev, and that’s the side I’m leaning towards. We saw him have a huge impact on The Royal Rumble. He and the aforementioned Wyatt destroyed a series of competitors, and he was the second to last man left in the ring, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Let’s not forget the previous year the second to last man was none other than Roman Reigns, now a staple of the Main Event scene. Sadly, beyond that there’s not much to be said for being the last eliminated of late. His presence as a member of Team Authority may have been the tipping point for me personally. I’d already started to really appreciate everything that he was doing. His athleticism for a man of his size feels special. During that bout there was never a moment where I felt like he was overshadowed by any participant in the contest. He felt like a big deal, perception is reality with him and the reality is that he is a big deal right now.
The old adage says that “it’s not the title that makes the man, but the man who makes the title”. Rusev represents that to the fullest. The US Title has more meaning right now than it has at any point in the last few years, and that is solely because it sits around the waist or over the shoulder of one of the most important stars in WWE right now. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to describe Rusev as such. The rub of being the first to pin Rusev will be massive if properly capitalized on by WWE for whoever is the man to do it. If that individual is able to continue the momentum of the US Title afterwards then it could alter WWE for both the near and distant future. The fact that Cena is even vying for that title shows how far the strap has come. It has come that far on the back of the massive Bulgarian. That is precisely why John Cena cannot be the first to pin Rusev.
“The franchise, doin' big bid'ness, I live this. It's automatic I win this - oh you hear those horns, you finished” ~ John Cena
Those aren’t just lyrics from John Cena’s “My Time Is Now” theme song. Those words have been both Cena and WWE’s creed regarding the character for years. Because of the box office appeal of “The Franchise” and the business he does in those houses Cena has been carefully protected. While “It’s automatic I win this” is a bit extreme, it’s been accurate for the majority of the time with Cena. Victory was not just expected, it was often inevitable. Said victory usually came by Cena's creed of "Never Give Up" and overcoming the odds leading to his opponent looking less than stellar. Star after star has had their shine worn off after competing against Cena. There have been notable exceptions of course, Punk, Edge, and Bryan all stand out. Despite the protection of Cena over the years, we stand on the precipice of an opportunity. WWE has an opportunity to add another name alongside Punk, Edge and Bryan in the form of Rusev. Now is the time that WWE must acquiesce to the inevitable and realize that Cena’s time at the top is dwindling. Cena is nearing 38 years old. While that’s not to say that he can’t have a productive future going forward and be a major part of storylines; the clock is ticking, fast. Cena has had a serious neck procedure, came back quickly from a torn triceps, and has rebounded from a torn pectoral all in less time than were medically expected or recommended. Cena’s remarkable Wolverine-like recoveries could be a sign of his ability to perform at a high level for much longer than many of his contemporaries. They could also be a sign that Cena has outrun injuries for so long that at some point his body will stop responding the same way. Even if Cena has plenty left in the tank he's shown that when WWE chooses to do it there's no more effective star-maker than John Cena.
All of these factors are that reason that, be it a singular match, or some type of series John Cena CANNOT pin or make Rusev submit in any of them. I’m willing to accept Cena winning by DQ as others have against this monster. That outcome flies in the face of WWE logic which for over a decade now has been around building Cena, his reputation, and brand at all costs. Every star at some point has to give back to the business that has given so much to them. Look at the decision last year to have Brock Lesnar go over The Undertaker at WrestleMania. It was decided internally that it was for the greater good of the company and the business to see The Streak end at the hands of Lesnar. The impact of that has been that Brock Lesnar has become one of the most dominant forces in WWE history. WWE even fed their franchise player John Cena to The Beast Incarnate. That’s why I think that perhaps WWE sees that Cena’s time is nearing its end. Lesnar will be used to attempt to establish the next top face, likely Roman Reigns. It’s time for WWE to begin using Cena to establish the heels of the future. Let’s see if that begins with Rusev.
I fear that WWE will not yet pull the trigger, and that Rusev will be the next victim of the Cena Express. I loathe the idea of that happening. Yet I hold out hope that this begins not the rapid demise, but the rapid ascent of the Bulgarian Brute. WWE has promoted this PPV as the Fast Lane to WrestleMania, but I hope to see it as the Fast Lane to the changing of the guard. WWE is going to show us at Fast Lane what their next step is. We're going to be privy to the direction of the company. Good or bad, WWE is about to repeat history. It will either be more of the same with John Cena, or the anointing of a new star in Rusev. We’ve heard it from Lana’s mouth time and time again, but let’s all hope that WWE writers and Vince McMahon hear it loud and clear; there’s only one sound option for Fast Lane…