John Cena is WWE’s biggest star, and his return to the company is certainly going to be one of the biggest stories of 2016.
He originally took a break from WWE at the end of October 2015, leaving to film the American Grit reality show. He then came back briefly, returning on the December 28 Raw, but by early January he was gone again. This time, it was for something far more serious.
Cena had suffered a shoulder injury, thought to be linked to his heavy weight lifting. His surgery was performed on January 7, with a recovery time of six to nine months predicted.
However, this is John Cena. The man has super human powers of recovery. He’s already ahead of schedule, he’s been back in the gym, and was fit enough to star in a physical segment at WrestleMania 32.
Unfortunately, despite being fit enough for a cameo at ‘Mania, he isn’t quite ready to be back full time. Which is a shame, as it is fair to say the WWE product hasn’t been as good without him. He’s a unique wrestler, and adds value to every show he’s on.
So when will he be back? And what will returning to WWE have in store for him? Let’s take a look.
10. Back Before Extreme Rules
Speaking with Larry King this past week, Cena commented “I’m pushing to try and get back within the month, if I can.”
That means there’s a good chance of Cena turning up at either Payback, or on the following night’s Raw. Based upon his own prognosis, Cena should certainly be back wrestling by Extreme Rules on May 22.
It would mean a recovery time of four months from the time of his injury. It is a bold ambition, but Cena has proved capable of quick recoveries in the past. Judging from the videos he shares from his gym, and his physical role at ‘Mania 32, he really isn’t far from coming back.
9. A Chris Jericho Feud
Having John Cena’s big return on the night after Payback makes most sense. The May 1 special is already looking good, and the current cycle should be allowed to play out. On the May 2 Raw, a new cycle then starts for Extreme Rules, and Cena should be there to kick things off with a bang.
In order to boost Raw’s rating, WWE should announce Cena’s return during Payback, telling viewers to tune in on Monday to see him.
He’d then come out for the main event, announcing he’s back in a bid for his sixteenth world title. But before he can call Roman Reigns out, Chris Jericho interrupts.
Y2J would put over the fact that he’s the best in the world, and would challenge Cena to a match at Extreme Rules. Cena would accept, and raise the stakes by offering a cage match.
This booking makes sense as Cena’s first feud back. Jericho is a relatively big name and is doing well in his heel role. The two men have a solid chemistry, both in the ring and on the mic. It would make for some compelling television.
8. Less Responsibility
While he will still be a major player on screen, Cena’s latest WWE run could see him taking less responsibility off screen.
Roman Reigns is the franchise star now, and he should be the one taking on more of the promotional work and commercial appearances. After years of Cena’s schedule being hectic, he may be coming back to a more relaxed work load, with Reigns shouldering a share of the burden.
The fact is, Cena is forty years old next year, and is at that age where WWE superstars like Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and Triple H all took reduced work loads. Therefore Cena’s return could be the start of that; he’ll be back, but not in the full on way that fans are used to.
7. Less Risk
Cena has missed so much time in the last year, and WWE won’t want to lose him again. That means fans could see a much safer in-ring style for Cena’s matches, as the company looks to keep its biggest asset healthy. This latest return needs to last.
He’d developed a habit of risky spots in the past year, including the springboard stunner and sunset flip powerbomb. These raised eyebrows at the time, often not looking especially safe in their execution.
The other thing that could be noticeable on his return is a leaner body. Heavy lifting and packing on muscle is thought to be what caused his shoulder injury in the first place. He’d actually function better as a pro wrestler without some of the muscle, and WWE aren’t going to want him risking injury again with heavy lifting.
The Cena you’ll see returning is one that will be playing it a lot safer in a bid to stay fit for the next year.
6. Pushing On To A Summer Feud With Roman Reigns
The feud with Jericho is designed as a warm up, whilst WWE’s long-term objective with Cena will be a major summer feud with Roman Reigns.
It is an inevitable, just like when Hulk Hogan clashed with Ultimate Warrior. A baton needs to be passed: the next franchise star needs to defeat the established franchise star.
Timing wise, it makes sense for SummerSlam. Maybe they’ll have Cena winning Money In The Bank and going on from there, or maybe he’ll simply qualify as number one contender after overcoming the Jericho feud.
The narrative writes itself. Cena is stuck on fifteen titles and is desperate to tie Ric Flair’s record sixteen, whilst at the same time proving to Reigns he is still the man.
Reigns’ response will be simple: “I’m THE guy.”
5. Losing To Reigns
The bigger picture in Cena’s return sees him putting over Roman Reigns. Fans should expect an over-arching storyline from the second he returns, in which he makes clear the intention to become a sixteen time champion.
But at SummerSlam, Reigns will retain.
The Big Dog needs the major victory, and Cena is a made man regardless of titles. He doesn’t need to equal ‘Naitch’; the title is just a prop, and even Flair’s sixteen is just a gimmick.
That’s Cena’s biggest purpose in the immediacy of this return, handing the franchise spot to the younger guy. SummerSlam isn’t far off, and if the foreshadowing starts early, the Cena/Reigns narrative can be an epic, culminating in what should be a fantastic match.
4. Helping The New Generation
Both on screen and off screen, John Cena will offer a lot to the new generation upon returning. The new NXT call ups and even more experienced wrestlers like AJ Styles will seriously benefit from Cena being back in the locker room.
He’s concerned himself with helping the new generation for a while now, including financial help to the NXT wrestlers. On screen, he’s allowed Neville, Sami Zayn, and Kevin Owens to stand out in matches. Backstage, he’s very much a locker room leader, and has gone to bat for Cesaro and others.
Upon returning, he’ll offer that same generosity. You can tell he enjoys working with the rising stars, so Raw contests with the likes of AJ Styles and some of the other new faces seems likely.
3. A New Relationship With The Fans
The John Cena who returns to WWE isn’t going to be the same hate figure he once was. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and he should find himself getting more cheers than usual upon returning. In fact, his popularity should be at an all time high when he returns. He’s been a genuine loss on Monday nights; even the smarkiest fans should now have a respect for what he brought to the show.
The other factor in this is that a lot of the hatred that was once focused on Cena is now transferred to Roman Reigns. He’s now the unworthy guy pushed down the throat of fans. In contrast, Cena is now a veteran, who has proved on numerous occasions to be worthy of respect.
Coming back from a long absence, it could be the case that Cena is the most over he’s ever been as a babyface… especially when they put him against Reigns in the summer!
2. A Long Term Build With The Undertaker
In addition to foreshadowing the Reigns feud when Cena returns, WWE should also put down the ground work for an Undertaker feud.
A long build towards WrestleMania 33 makes sense. Just look at what it did for business when WWE promoted Rock-Cena a year out. A match with Taker is similar in magnitude. It is a dream match and it deserves an epic narrative.
The original expectation had been the two men meeting at WrestleMania 32. What now seems likely is doing the match at ‘Mania 33. Surely there’s no way Taker retires on a Shane McMahon match? And Taker is the one big name remaining for Cena to do business with.
Cena’s return should include a mission statement on WrestleMania 33. He should say how much it hurt to miss ‘Mania 32. As part of that, he can tease something with the Deadman for next year – a subtle statement on wanting the biggest star in the history of the event for 2017. The narrative can then unfold further through the rest of 2016, culminating in what should be one of the biggest Mania main events of all time.
1. A Long Goodbye
John Cena’s WWE return is going to be the start of a long goodbye. His entire run in this next year will be designed to get the final bit of value out of his status. He’ll put Reigns over, he’ll work Taker at ‘Mania, and then he’ll be gone as a full timer.
That doesn’t mean he won’t wrestle again as he’ll take on a part time schedule along the same lines of other veteran icons.
He’s talked on numerous occasions about not wanting to be one of the guys who stays around too long, and he’s got numerous mainstream projects like film and television to pursue. At forty years old, it will be the right time to step away from WWE and follow those opportunities. Reigns can hold the fort as the new ‘guy’, and Cena can come in when necessary.
His return should be booked in a way that subtly hints at an end in sight. His story should be one of a legend in his final phase, having one last hurrah in the autumn of his career.