SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
John Cena “Contemplating” What’s Next
John Cena is returning to weekly television.
The WWE icon is the new host of Nickelodeon’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, which premiered this week and airs next Monday at 7 p.m. ET. Monday night television is Cena’s expertise, having made his longtime home on WWE’s Raw.
The show blends two of Cena’s driving passions, entertainment and advocating for children.
“Young people surround me with a certain energy and certain way of thinking that only young people have,” said Cena, who spent Monday afternoon in New York as part of the press launch for the new show. “There is a certain genuineness about kids, and they just have a certain way about them that is pure and honest.
The premise of the series is children helping adult contestants with questions developed from an elementary school curriculum. Cena’s charisma carries the show, but his interaction with the children on the show adds an effervescent touch to the program.
“The show is geared around the kids, and they get the liberty to show themselves as people,” said Cena. “They’re all vibrant personalities, they all have wisdom beyond their years, and they’re all exceptionally smart.
“And the show’s live audience, that’s something I really gravitated to after I spent the majority of my time performing in front of live audiences every night. You couldn’t help but be enamored by the reaction of young people in the audience. I enjoy it, and it keeps me a kid. I never want to lose that innocence and honesty.”
The content is certainly different, but Cena’s work as a host on Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? shares plenty of connective tissue with his promos on Raw. As an executive producer, Cena took what he learned from the pro wrestling conglomerate and crafted his own touch for Nickelodeon.
“After doing some episodes, I have so many more ideas to involve the live audience,” said Cena, who is intimately familiar with interactive WWE audiences. “The more fun you make the environment, the more fun it is at home. This is something of a direct translation to my time in WWE. Some of the greatest moments ever in WWE have been performers just staring at each other, but because the audience is going nuts, it’s attracting to the consumer at home.
“The show was all about creating a fun environment. The live audience is a great part of that, and I really stressed that, one, the kids are the stars, and two, the audience is important.”
Cena also just announced his part in the upcoming ninth installment of the Fast and the Furious franchise, adding another dimension to his diverse acting portfolio. But he is forever intertwined with WWE, and ideas surrounding his next return are always percolating.
“Whatever the next step is, that’s essentially what I’m contemplating,” said Cena. “How do I fit in? Where do I fit in? And it makes it extra peculiar now that all these outside opportunities are coming in, but it couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
There is no other performer in the entire industry who turns the ratings dial quite like Cena.
“There are tremendous opportunities that are being presented that I certainly want to take advantage of, but I could spend all my time talking about WWE,” said Cena. “I truly love the company, I love the brand. I just constantly take assessment of myself. I remember, if you jump in the way back machine to 2009, then again in 2012 and again in 2015, people are constantly asking, ‘Well, when are you done?’ That’s a conversation I’ll have with myself when I am a step slower and I feel I can’t keep up.”
WWE appears on the brink of a competitive situation with All Elite Wrestling. The Tony Khan-led promotion is dripping with stars, and has its finger on the pulse of a fan base oversaturated with wrestling but lacking in the areas of most need. Will AEW prefer to exist in its own lane? Or, based off the Double or Nothing show that took shots at the legitimacy of Triple H’s throne and unveiled Jon Moxley in his new position of shifting the wrestling paradigm, it appears AEW will compete directly with WWE. Either way, WWE will need Cena if they want to meet the needs of the vast fan base.
“I have a good perspective of the product,” said Cena. “The product is very performance-based. I’ve never been the most orthodox performer. I’ve been able to take an honest assessment of myself, and there is nothing wrong with admitting, ‘Hey, I’m not sure I can perform at the level I used to.’ I want to be confident in every performance.
“I’m not sure what my role is, but I know WWE is my family and, as long as they’ll have me, I’ll never leave. Heck, I’ll go coach in Orlando [at the WWE Performance Center]. It would be so shameful for that experience and performance wisdom to go to no one. Whether I had the opportunity to do Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? Or Fast and the Furious, or if I had none of that going on and I just had idle time, I would be having the same conversation with myself. I need to define what my new role is. That’s the conversation I’m having with myself at 42 after performing for 16 years straight.”
Cena is still active in his charitable endeavors, which often extend beyond the wide reach of WWE. Three weeks ago, Cena shared a touching moment with 13-year-old Diego Hernandez on a surprise visit for his birthday. Diego is terminally ill, battling an advanced form of craniosynostosis, and despite six surgeries, his spine is growing into his skull. Cena’s trip to Staunton, Virginia will serve as an everlasting memory for the boy and his family.
“Seeing people smile is a cool way to go about your daily grind,” said Cena. “I had a wonderful time in Diego’s house, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Friday morning.”
Cena’s legacy will ultimately be defined by his work with children, though his wrestling accolades are also impressive. The 16-time world champ and longtime face of WWE returned at WrestleMania 35 as the “Doctor of Thugonomics.”
“I look at the whole process differently than anyone else, and that’s why I have as much fun as I do with it,” said Cena. “I attack the creative process differently than anyone else. I’m consistently taking the most realistic look at myself and the company as I possibly can. You have to remember, the last time I was in New York [for WrestleMania 29 vs. The Rock], I was working in one of the most high-profile matches in WWE history. This time around, I pretty much came out as a mascot. And the year before I was a fan.
“It’s not about what you do. So many people get caught up in what they do or how big a role they’re going to play. I just want a spot on the team. That’s been my philosophy since I started training in Orange County. I’ll do whatever I can to the best of my ability and have fun doing it.”
In the same manner that Cena allows his opponents to star alongside him in the ring, he is placing all his creative energy into creating a show where the kids are the stars.
“I’ll hopefully be a vehicle to get people to watch the show, but when they watch the show, I want them to remember Patrick, Saya, Quinne, and the whole bunch of gifted students,” said Cena. “This is their opportunity to shine, and that is my role. Understanding that allows me to have a lot more fun.”
The show offers the full Cena experience, reminding viewers of his charm, wit, and spirit.
“It’s a fun, easy watch, and I could go on and on about how it makes learning fun, how it showcases people’s skills, teaching young people to be who they are and not be ashamed of who they are,” said Cena. “But above all, it’s a fun watch for families.”
Paul Heyman’s promo on Monday is a reminder of his brilliance
Paul Heyman set the bar even higher this past Monday, placing it onto a perch where no one else can realistically even consider grabbing.
Vince McMahon still cuts a slick promo, but nowhere near the caliber he once did. McMahon, like Triple H, and every other performer in the genre, also come out to theme music that immediately invites the crowd.
But when it comes to competing on the stick with Heyman, everyone has else no chance.
Heyman does not even enter to music. That is unfathomable in the modern-day era. The promo starts with his signature introduction, and concluded last night with a mic flip that would have made Max Muncy proud.
The program between Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar is infinitely more interesting with Heyman serving as the mouthpiece. And Monday’s crowd played right into his hand, shouting their support for Rollins and his steel chair attack on Lesnar. Heyman pokes, he prods, instigates, and agitates.
“And that’s the champion that you cheer for?” asked an incredulous Heyman. “Seth Rollins is not a worthy Universal champion, Seth Rollins is a feckless thug—and a stupid, feckless thug at that. Because, by giving Brock Lesnar that beating, Seth Rollins has now guaranteed that Brock Lesnar continues to be ‘Mr. Money in the Bank 2019.’”
A human storyteller, Heyman foreshadowed the manner in which Lesnar will cash-in on Rollins–which, when it happens, will be a surprise to the alleged “Beast Slayer.”
Heyman has perfected the craft of the promo over the past four decades. Drawing upon four decades of crafting promos, he is well-seasoned, capitalizing upon his laborious prep and experience. Incredibly, no word is wasted in a Paul Heyman promo.
“I won’t insinuate that my client, Brock Lesnar, will wait ’til Seth Rollins is at his most vulnerable,” said Heyman. “Will put a beating down on Seth Rollins at that moment that violates the PG era of WWE, and I’m not going to insinuate that, after that beating, then Brock Lesnar will take the Universal title away from Seth Rollins.
“But ladies and gentlemen, that’s not an insinuation. It’s not even a prediction, it’s not even a spoiler. It’s a threat, it’s a promise, it’s a guarantee. A guarantee from my client, the multi-time and future reigning, defending, undisputed, Universal heavyweight champion, ‘The Beast Slayer Slayer,’ Brock Lesnar.”
The music doesn’t hit when Heyman finishes. Instead, his statement seeps into the mind of those listening, making them think, question, and believe.
This week in wrestling taught us, once again, that there is only one person who stands atop the industry with the ability to cut a promo.
When it comes to Heyman, no one does it better.
Comparing WWE’s Champions With Their New Japan Counterparts
Who are the best champions in wrestling?
Or, to paraphrase what Tony Schiavone once used to say, where do the big boys play?
The top two wrestling companies in the world are WWE and New Japan Pro Wrestling. There is no doubt that WWE is the worldwide leader in sports entertainment. NJPW prides itself on delivering the best wrestling in the world. But who has the better champions?
WWE has women champions, which NJPW does not, and that is a considerable benefit for WWE. It would be inharmonious to imagine a wrestling world without Raw champion Becky Lynch or SmackDown champ Bayley. More than just two of the best women’s talents in the world, they are two of the top talents in the business. As for the other champions, here is a comparison between the titleholders of the two brands–as well as who has the advantage.
Champions are listed in order of whoever has held the title longest. Factors taken into consideration were a wrestler’s presence in the ring, whether he captures the essence of the title, and, most of all, who you would rather watch on television every week.
• Kazuchika Okada (IWGP heavyweight champion)
• Seth Rollins (WWE Universal champion)
• Kofi Kingston (WWE champion)
New Japan has a definitive advantage here: there is only one world champion. Unlike WWE, with both the world title and Universal belt, Kazuchika Okada is the one wrestler atop the company.
For WWE, Kofi Kingston is the world champ while Seth Rollins is the Universal champ. All three are absurdly talented in the ring, though Kingston had the unenviable task of working his way up the card for the past 11 years—Okada and Rollins have also toiled to perfect their craft, with the significant difference being their respective companies envisioned them as champion from nearly the beginning while Kingston’s reign was more organic.
Okada has delivered a string of matches that is otherworldly, but in terms of watching one of these three wrestle every week, there is no better talent (AJ Styles aside) than Rollins.
The Universal title cannot even begin to compare to the lineage of the WWE title, but that doesn’t make Rollins any less of a champion. More than any other world champ, he is worth watching every single week.
EDGE: SETH ROLLINS (WWE)
• Finn Balor (WWE)
• Tetsuya Naito (NJPW)
Tetsuya Naito just reclaimed the IWGP Intercontinental title in a win over Kota Ibushi last weekend at New Japan’s Dominion show in Osaka, and he offers presence, in-ring work, and promos (the intensity of his promos, even in Japanese, is palpable).
Balor is a rare breed in pro wrestling. He has the look, along with an elite work rate, and he has adapted nicely to the WWE style on the mic and in the ring. If he ever returned to New Japan, he would immediately be thrust into the world title picture—which is also where he belongs in WWE.
The esteemed lineage of the Intercontinental title is in good hands.
EDGE: FINN BALOR (WWE)
United States champion:
• Samoa Joe (WWE)
• Jon Moxley (NJPW)
Both WWE and New Japan crowned new U.S. champs last week.
Jon Moxley is the new IWGP U.S. champion, defeating Juice Robinson a week ago at the Best of the Super Juniors finale. Samoa Joe is WWE’s U.S. champ, somehow claiming the title when Rey Mysterio relinquished it due to injury.
No stranger to WWE, Moxley is a former U.S. champ there, too, holding a 351-day reign with the title. He is also the hottest commodity on the scene in the entire industry, making this—despite Joe’s brilliance—a no-contest.
EDGE: JON MOXLEY (NJPW)
• Tony Nese (WWE Cruiserweight champ)
• Will Ospreay (IWGP Junior Heavyweight champ)
I’ll start off by mentioning that I think Tony Nese is a fantastic talent. His title win on the preshow at WrestleMania 36 helped set the table for the main card, and WWE would be wise to do more with him (there has to be a better way to integrate the cruisers into Raw and SmackDown, right?).
Nese is many things, but he is not Will Ospreay.
Maturity issues have plagued Ospreay over the past few years, but there is possibly no wrestler with greater breakout, superstar potential than him. He is known for his work in the air, but Ospreay has bulked up and can deliver a physical match, too. It would be curious to see how WWE, if given the opportunity, would book him, but that is not a current concern. Ospreay is property of NJPW, and he is on a direct path to becoming an icon in this business.
EDGE: WILL OSPREAY (NJPW)
Tag team champions:
• The Guerrillas of Destiny (NJPW IWGP tag team champions)
• Daniel Bryan and Rowan (WWE SmackDown champions)
• The Revival (WWE Raw champions)
Daniel Bryan adds so much legitimacy to the WWE tag team division, and he has worked extremely well with the artist formerly known as Erick Rowan. The Revival, who reclaimed the titles over Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins this past Monday, are an outlier in the flashy world of 2019 wrestling. Their refined technical prowess and ability to work together is special, and they play their role as heels incredibly well.
But neither team matches up with G.O.D.
Tama Tonga and Tanga Loa are tremendous together. Individually, they are both talented, but blend together in a whole-is-greater-than-sum-of-the-parts scenario. They are also the reigning Ring of Honor tag team champions, though the pair has made it known that they value the NJPW titles slightly more.
New Japan needs to do more with the Guerrillas of Destiny. With the possible exception of The Usos, there is no better team currently active in the business.
EDGE: THE GUERRILLAS OF DESTINY (NJPW)
WWE’s 24/7 champion vs. NJPW’s NEVER Openweight champion
• NEVER Openweight champ Tomohiro Ishii
• WWE 24/7 Champion R-Truth
Ishii started his fifth run with the NEVER Openweight title by defeating Taichi at this past weekend’s Dominion show. This is a championship open to wrestlers in either weight class in New Japan, and Ishii is a great fit because he can work with a vast array of diverse talent.
Ishii’s series of matches in 2018 with Kenny Omega showed that he has the capability to be a headliner. Ishii would be a tremendous fit for the IC title, and the hard-hitting, longtime vet would continue to enhance the meaning of that belt.
But Ishii has not given meaning to the NEVER Openweight title in the way that R-Truth has for the 24/7 title.
The 24/7 title was mocked from the moment Mick Foley revealed it, but Truth somehow keeps adding interest through scenes that, on paper, seem ridiculous. His ability to make the title of significance actually has less to do with his in-ring work. Truth has redefined the comedy genre in wrestling, but underestimate his skills in the ring at your own peril.
EDGE: R-TRUTH (WWE)
The final tally is 3-3. But the women’s champions give WWE the edge.
Although there is an abundance of titles in wrestling, especially in the top promotions, it still means something to be champion.
Missed Opportunity for Goldberg and Undertaker
Pardon me while I still catch my breath after the Bill Goldberg-Undertaker debacle from Friday’s “Super ShowDown” in Saudi Arabia.
How did we reach the point where two icons—and really, The Undertaker is a WWE institution—were dropped into quicksand?
Looking back, that match was designed to fail. Goldberg requires a lot of preparation for a match, which was not possible with the rushed nature of this match. Incredibly, a match that could have headlined SummerSlam or the Survivor Series is viewed as a disaster. WWE cannot do that match and draw now.
This was a match that needed a runway. Goldberg needs time to mentally and physically prepare, or, as we saw, it falls apart.
The Saudi money plays a part in luring superstars back to the ring, but there is no reason WWE couldn’t have delivered Taker against a current star, as well as the same with Goldberg.
The Undertaker still plays a significant role in the importance of the WWE brand, especially with the impending move to FOX. Watching how his career plays out from here will be awfully interesting.
The (Online) Week in Wrestling
• Sami Zayn has relaunched the #SamiforSyria campaign.
• Finn Balor, who has long been passionate about LGBTQ issues, made a statement outside the ring in Saudi Arabia before the Super ShowDown.
• Even The Onion covered the WWE’s trip to Saudi Arabia with a story entitled, “Saudi Arabia Feeling Skittish About Doing Business With Autocratic Tyrant Vince McMahon”
• One more post on the Super ShowDown…
• “International Purveyor of Violence” Jon Moxley wants in… the G1
• On the subject of cringe-worthy spots, there is no need for anything like this, ever, in pro wrestling
New Japan Moving to Saturday Nights on AXS TV
Starting on July 13, New Japan Pro Wrestling is moving from Friday to Saturday nights on AXS TV.
AXS also announced that WOW: Women of Wrestling will return for a second season in September, which will air every Saturday at 8 p.m. ET before NJPW at 9 p.m.
New Japan still airs on Friday this week, delivering three matches from last week’s Dominion show: IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada vs. Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley vs. Shota Umino, and Will Ospreay challenging Dragon Lee for the IWGP junior heavyweight title.
Tweet of the Week
“They did their jobs–with courage, grace, tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, do yours.”
–Jon Stewart, who is no stranger to WWE, ripping into a half-empty congressional panel in response to funds for 9/11 first responders, which is set to expire next year
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.