Just a few weeks after what was arguably the best match of his career and a historic World Championship victory at the Royal Rumble, John Cena may already be at another crossroads.
Cena became a World Champion for the 16th time in his career that night – matching the all-time mark established by Ric Flair – in a match-of-the-year-quality epic against AJ Styles. Just two weeks later at Elimination Chamber, Cena was eliminated midway through the match, which was eventually won by Bray Wyatt, and on Tuesday Cena lost an immediate rematch in a triple threat against Wyatt and Styles.
Instead having of a championship match in the main event of WrestleMania 33 – a year after he was forced to essentially miss out on the biggest WrestleMania of all time due to a shoulder injury (a small bit appearance aside) – Cena’s WrestleMania plans now seem to be up in the air, and his stock on SmackDown Live has suddenly plummeted.
So what is next for WWE’s biggest star? The next few weeks won’t just reveal John Cena’s WrestleMania opponent, but could give an indication as to Cena’s trajectory in the year to come.
On the January 24th episode of SmackDown, the final show before his fourth pay-per-view match with Styles, Cena channeled his old Doctor of Thuganomics persona and emphatically rebuked Styles’ barbs that he was a ‘has been’ and a part-timer, declaring that the “My Time Is Now” era was about to commence.
It lasted all of 14 days, and Bray Wyatt announced the start of the Wyatt Era on Tuesday’s SmackDown. The fact that Wyatt retained the title later that night means he’ll surely enter WrestleMania 33 as the champion, while after back-to-back losses Cena seems to be shuffled out of the picture.
Excluding Elimination Chamber 2010, where Cena won and lost the title in the same night, Cena’s 16th World Championship reign tied for the shortest of his career – his average WWE World Championship reign is 96 days.
Wyatt is a worthy champion and his victory was widely celebrated by fans, and while the fact that Cena losing the title doesn’t diminish the outstanding match he had with Styles, it does make Cena’s historic moment feel a bit hollow in retrospect.
Who will Cena face at WrestleMania? There are a few plausible options, but likely only one obvious megamatch will be entirely satisfying for fans (and give the WrestleMania card the once-in-a-lifetime pop it needs).
There’s still a chance Cena could break Ric Flair’s record in Orlando. Randy Orton, a disciple of Wyatt, announced on SmackDown that he refuses to face Wyatt in the main event of WrestleMania (having won the Royal Rumble), and Daniel Bryan responded by making a Battle Royal to determine a new No. 1 contender. As of now, AJ Styles is the only man confirmed to be participating, and we can probably expect the likes of Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler and The Miz to be joining in.
This is the main event of WrestleMania we’re talking about, though. Very few stars fit the bill, and Randy Orton is the only man who has any sort of ongoing storyline with Wyatt that can elevate such a match. Cena was even congratulatory toward Wyatt on Tuesday. While Cena vs. Wyatt wouldn’t be an awful headliner, WWE would have to work extremely hard to make it feel special, storyline wise, in the next month and a half.
So who else could Cena face? While we know he can put on a jaw-dropping match with AJ Styles, that matchup has been done multiple times already, and it’d be near impossible to top what they’ve already delivered in the ring – especially without a title on the line.
The match everyone wants, of course, is John Cena vs. The Undertaker. It seems unbelievable that the face of the WWE hasn’t been in the ring with the face of WrestleMania at the company’s biggest show during his career, and with The Undertaker now 51 years old, he may not have many more WrestleMania appearances left. Even if Cena and The Undertaker don’t have a good reason to fight (yet), and even if The Undertaker can’t put on a main-event caliber performance anymore due to his health, it would be a headliner on par with Rock vs. Hogan and Hogan vs. Andre.
A backstage segment that occurred prior to Cena’s loss planted the seed for a WrestleMania match straight out of Total Divas, lending credence to rumors that have been swirling over the last week or so. After Nikki Bella and Natalya fought to a double count-out, Natalya attacked Nikki Bella during an interview. During the brawl, Nikki Bella fell into Maryse, ruining her black dress with white powder. Maryse did not appear later that night by The Miz’s side, and The Miz was eliminated in the main event by John Cena.
Multiple sites have reported that a mixed-gender tag match between Cena, Bella, The Miz and Maryse is an idea being floated, and that Nikki Bella is also reportedly considering stepping away from a full-time wrestling role after WrestleMania 33 due to her neck injuries. A match alongside Cena would be a perfect farewell, albeit a somewhat suboptimal use of Cena on the most important show of the year from a wrestling standpoint.
The takeaway here is that AJ Styles may have been right all along about Cena. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer is reporting that Cena is set to take anothe absence from WWE following WrestleMania as he films another movie (The Pact, set to be released in 2018).
Cena’s two-week title reign still seems jarring, but it might just be the new norm for him as he turns 40 this April. Cena has virtually nothing left to accomplish inside a WWE ring, and while he’s still the biggest star in the company (and right up there with Hulk Hogan in terms of all-time impact), he’s an in-demand celebrity who seems to truly enjoy dabbling in entertainment outside of the squared circle.
He may still say that he’s the same old Cena who isn’t turning his back on the WWE – but he’s earned the right to, and all the signs seem to indicate that Cena is going to continue on his path toward becoming the next Rock over the next few months.