“WWE uses you. WWE uses you as a corporate puppet cause you’re really good on morning shows, and you look great on a cereal box. But they know, and you know, and I know: you can’t get it done in the ring anymore.” ~ Dean Ambrose
My dad was a good athlete. Your dad probably was as well. You couldn’t make up a sport my dad wouldn’t eventually be good at. But as much as he wowed people on a basketball court, or made laser-accurate passes tossing around the football, he wasn’t big enough or good enough to play professionally.
But he was still good, better than 90% of the guys that go to the park each weekend looking for competition against the neighborhood. For most of my teenage life, he was better than me. Until one day he wasn’t.
The day you beat your dad is kind of an odd moment of triumph. I ended my losing streak to my dad with a dagger of a three-pointer. As he picked up the ball from the ground, stopping its slow roll across the apartment parking lot, he smirked, acknowledging my improvement.
I couldn’t break a smile as easily. I didn’t see the improvement. I saw my dad, no longer as good as he used to be, a man who had lost a step. I couldn’t enjoy the moment as much as I probably should have. I didn’t surpass him because I had grown as a player. I surpassed him because he had regressed as one.
It’s true what they say: the one opponent you can’t beat is father time.
Whether it’s Kobe Bryant losing his explosiveness, Anderson Silva losing his invincibility, or Peyton Manning’s body incapable of doing what his mind knows should be done, there comes a point where the legends of the game just can’t hang anymore. There comes a point where we just aren’t the same.
There was a time when someone beating John Cena without any form of shenanigans was impossible. There was a time when someone getting the last word in a feud was unheard of. He was too good for that foolishness. That time is up. We are now in the middle of a new time in the WWE world (universe, I suppose), a time where Cena is no longer Cena.
It makes sense. Cena is 39 years old. He has been competing regularly for the WWE since 2002. That is nearly 14 years of punishment on a body that isn’t getting any younger. At some point the opposition was going to catch up to him.
It happens to everyone, just look at the Undertaker. Want to discuss the loss of invincibility? The Deadman was Exhibit A. Each WrestleMania grew progressively more difficult. CM Punk came close, Brock Lesnar finished the job, and Bray Wyatt, a man known for coming up short in big-time fights, felt he had an honest shot.
Cena has gone through the same struggle, and interestingly, his road involves some of the same players. Punk pushed him to new limits, Lesnar crushed a brief championship run with every German suplex, and now the entire roster thinks they have a shot to kick Cena while he is down. Hell, the second and third quarters of 2015 were dedicated to guys getting their shot at the “face that runs the place.”
The entire roster is correct in their assessment. Kevin Owens hit the scene from NXT and defeated Cena in their first encounter. Alberto Del Rio returned behind the power of American Mexico (something like that) and laid waste to Cena in less than eight minutes. (Note: Eight minutes!) AJ Styles, he of soccer mom hair fame, got a win over Cena so devastating, Cena left his armband in the ring.
And then Ambrose punked him out. Cena gave his usual ‘moment of truth’ speech, preaching at Ambrose, only for Ambrose to shut him down. That doesn’t happen very often. Cena is uncanny at being too clever/dorky for that. But not this time, not this time, because Cena indeed knows the truth that Ambrose speaks: Cena can’t get it done anymore.
He’s still good, but he’s not the winner we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Time has caught up to him, and with a consistently evolving roster, time will only make things more difficult for the 15-time World Champion.
Becoming a 16-time World Champion means everything to Cena. For a man that has done everything conceivably possible in the WWE and has already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame, tying Ric Flair for the most World Championship reigns would be the icing on the cake. But for every day Cena becomes older, slower, weaker, and not as quick-twitched, the road to #16 becomes more arduous.
I think we non-superhuman humans calls it a mid-life crisis, a point where our self-confidence at a middle age wanes. A part of that is the physical changes that come with getting older.
There is a guy in my office who loves discussing his glory days as a football player. Between stories of nabbing five touchdowns or that kickoff return that changed a season, he never fails to mention how much more physically immaculate he was back then. His pastime isn’t merely about what he did, but emphasis on how back then he was actually able to do it.
It’s how a future football Hall of Famer like LaDanian Tomlinson can average 1,470 rushing yards a season. Then he only ran for 730. Then 914. Then 280. Then he’s gone. Just that fast, just that sudden. We don’t know what went wrong, but time took something from him without us noticing. It sneaks up on all of us.
It snuck up on Cena, and we are all playing witness to it. He’s now the guy on cereal boxes and morning shows. Not because he can’t compete at a high level, but because time has taken away the talents that would allow him to easily beat men like Ambrose and Styles. His body can’t do what years of experience and knowledge knows it should. And unfortunately, in an individual sport, he doesn’t have the Denver Broncos defense to bail him out.
John Cena, 15-time World Champion, facing his own mortality. He waited for someone to supplant him, and time granted his wish. Now he wants to take it back.
That’s a damned good story.
This article was originally published on Cageside Seats on September 21, 2016.