WWE will bring back one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling history, John Cena, in less than two weeks, but his likely WrestleMania 36 match is shaping up to be a huge letdown.
It was recently announced by WWE that the former 16-time world champion will be returning to TV on the Feb. 28 edition of SmackDown, just one day after its special Super ShowDown event in Saudi Arabia. And the timing of his return likely isn’t a coincidence. “The Champ,” after all, will be making his long awaited comeback barely a month away from WrestleMania 36, where he was initially expected to have a huge match at WWE’s biggest pay-per-view of the year. In December 2019, Paul Davis of WrestlingNews.co reported that WWE had “big plans” for Cena on “The Grandest Stage of Them All.
As it turns out, though, WWE’s actual WrestleMania plans for Cena are quite underwhelming. According to the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer (h/t SEScoops), Cena will be facing Elias at WWE’s flagship pay-per-view:
Dave Meltzer was able to confirm that not only will Cena wrestle at this show but he’ll be wrestling Elias. The belief is that the feud will likely kickoff when he makes his return to WWE television…Meltzer noted on the latest Wrestling Observer Radio that he was given a name for an opponent. At first, he held on giving it out but stated that it was ‘so underwhelming, it’s ridiculous.’ When Bryan Alvarez guessed Baron Corbin or Elias, Meltzer said it’s not Corbin. This was when the reveal was made. WWE thinks that Elias will ‘get the rub from losing to Cena.’”
If that sounds familiar, it should because Cena was involved in non-match segments with Elias at each of the past two WrestleManias. The expectation, however, was that Cena would have a much bigger role at Mania this time around. WrestleVotes had previously reported that Cena wanted to do “something substantial” at WrestleMania 36, also noting that Cena himself was given free reign to choose his match at what is shaping up to be one of the most loaded Manias in recent memory:
Though it wasn’t specified what Cena’s role on the show might be, Cena revealed last fall that he would be at WrestleMania 36 in some capacity, noting that he has been at every WrestleMania since WrestleMania 19 nearly two decades. Cena’s last few WrestleMania appearances—two of which involved Elias—have been rather underwhelming, however: An in-ring segment with Elias at WrestleMania 35, a three-minute match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania 34 and a mixed tag team match alongside Nikki Bella at WrestleMania 33. It initially seemed, though, that WWE was ready to end that trend and pull out all the stops for Cena’s WrestleMania appearance this year, presumably with some sort of marquee match. Cena had even been mentioned as a possible opponent for Goldberg or Bray Wyatt—possibly with the Universal title on the line—at WrestleMania in a match that could have gotten top billing.
There has indeed been plenty of speculation that Cena could insert himself into the Universal Championship picture on SmackDown, especially given that—despite his record 16 world title wins—that’s one title he’s never won. But according to Sportskeeda’s Tom Colohue, Cena isn’t interested in getting involved in the world title picture or breaking Ric Flair’s record at this stage of his career, instead wanting to help elevate WWE’s current generation of superstars:
“According to multiple locker room sources, Cena is open about the fact that he has no desire to overtake Flair’s record. Experienced locker room members have stated that Cena’s only desire within the WWE at this point is to work in storylines that enhance the careers of other wrestlers.”
Indeed, Cena has been quite selfless in that regard in recent years. Though it’s been more than a year since Cena last wrestled a match, he has went toe-to-toe with names like Braun Strowman, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura and Roman Reigns in some of his most recent high-profile matches. Most notably, he put over Nakamura and Reigns as clean as a sheet, while also doing the same for the legendary Undertaker. As one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood and an all-time great in the world of pro wrestling, Cena—who is widely considered to be the biggest draw of his era—is one of only a select few stars who can return to WWE on a part-time basis and actually move the needle.
Cena wrestled just eight matches in 2019 and 28 matches in 2018, and after saying last year that his body “can’t handle” the notoriously difficult WWE schedule anymore, he’s really less of a part-timer these days and more of a “special attraction” who appears incredibly infrequently just as names like Taker and Triple H do. Cena, however, keeps himself in tremendous physical condition and demonstrated in his most recent in-ring performances that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank, enough to presumably allow him to wrestle a few times a year for the next five years or more.
Alex McCarthy of talkSPORT is one of many who’s speculated that Cena being advertised for SmackDown so close to WrestleMania is a clear sign that he’ll have a match on the show, writing, “It seems as though the 16-time world champion will be involved on the road to WrestleMania and thus, have a match in Tampa, Florida on April 5.” There seemed to be a boatload of possibilities for Cena at this year’s WrestleMania, but Elias isn’t someone whose name had been mentioned in that conversation.
A number of WWE’s top stars, including the likes of Reigns, Brock Lesnar and Seth Rollins, already seem to be locked into their WrestleMania storylines, which had made it quite unclear where Cena could potentially fit in on the card, but a match with Elias seems like a monuemtental letdown, especially with Elias also now performing as a babyface. Cena’s return to SmackDown does virtually guarantee that he will be feuding with a star from the blue brand, which seemingly would have made a top villains like Baron Corbin a strong candidate to face Cena at Mania. However, WWE fans likely would been more satisfied with a more high-profile match for Cena, perhaps a babyface vs. babyface feud between Cena and someone like Daniel Bryan, who also lacks a clear WrestleMania feud.
Either way, Cena looks like a virtual shoo-in for WrestleMania 36, and with a number of top superstars already penciled in for their marquee bouts, Cena will presumably beat Elias in a short match that will do nothing for Elias and seems like a monumental waste of a Cena appearance, which are becoming incredibly rare these days.
WWE would be better off using Cena in a larger role because there’s just no telling when he’ll be able to step into the squared circle again.