War of the Roses: John Cena vs AJ Styles
Right now the WWE is in an upswing. Going into it’s upcoming Brand Split on July 19 on the first live edition of the New Era Smackdown, the WWE has two huge main event storylines, seemingly with the intent of one to headline Raw and one to headline Smackdown.
The first, and current hot topic, is the emergence of The Shield – the collective of Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns and current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Dean Ambrose – as the foundation of which the New Era is being built upon. Regardless of your thoughts on the match quality or the Money in the Bank event itself, what we saw in that match was history. At one point, in a 10 minute span, all three members of the Shield were the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Never has a faction in pro wrestling been so dominant that every member held the World title of a company. And definitely not all on the same day.
But the second storyline, featuring the rivalry between John Cena and AJ Styles & The Club, is perhaps the one that is infinitely more genius – and polarizing – than the adored Shield triangle. Sure, everyone has their favourite Shield member, but this is a moment we all knew was going to happen eventually when Rollins first swung that chair at Reigns. The time for the three of them to fight – and fight over the top prize in the company – was a matter of when, not if. But Cena vs Styles is a match that until a few scant months ago, was one that we never expected to ever see. And yes, many of us wanted it, but there was never going to be a chance to see the decade long icon of the WWE facing the single greatest product of TNA, “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles. But then it happened. AJ came to the WWE. And the entire multiverse of opportunities suddenly became very viable options – with one being facing John Cena. But it’s how the WWE is handling this feud that is perhaps its greatest masterstroke.
It is not just a “dream match” of two industry icons of the past 10 years, it has become a battleground (no pun intended) of the two opposing philosophies of the current pro wrestling fan base: the WWE Way (supported by the casuals, loyalists and children) vs. the Indie Way (supported by the IWC and older WWE fans). And it seems they’re employing past psychological success tactics to create two merch engines of Superstardom, all depending on what side of the fence you really sit on.
THE DOUBLE TURN
The “double turn” is something that is tough to pull off in pro wrestling. For a double turn to be considered a success, both participants have to 100% turn alignment by the outcome of the match. This was no better perfected at Wrestlemania 13, when perennial good guy and top faces in the company Bret “Hitman” Hart defeated the redneck heel “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in an “I Quit” Match. The iconic image of a battered Austin screaming in a pool of his own blood instantly turned the crowd against their hero for resorting to such treacherous barbarism to beat his foe, and planted them firmly behind the back of the toughest SOB in the ring, propelling Hart to his first heel run since his tag team days, and Austin into one of the most popular characters of all time.
THE SPLIT REACTION
With Bret Hart now entrenched as the company’s next heel, he was now paired against a real life rival, Shawn Michaels, and his burgeoning faction, D-Generation X, whose sophomoric humour was rapidly winning over the youth crowd who lamented at the nWo’s “old school” roster. Hart was given a faction of his own, a newly restocked Hart Foundation that featured his former partner Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, his brother Owen Hart, his brother-in-law “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, and former Hart Dungeon graduate Brian Pillman. During a skirmish between Owen and Bulldog on a 1997 episode of Raw, Bret grabbed the mic and rallied the troops:
Bret: (no mic) Stop!
Owen: (no mic) What? You started it all.
Davey: (no mic) This is none of your business.
Vince (on commentary): Bret Hart’s reaching for the microphone.
Bret: Can’t you see? Can’t you see, this is what all these people want. [Crowd Boo] Family values? That’s what they want, they’ve had us fighting for years. It’s all of these people right here that had all of us fighting. [To Owen] What are you fighting for? For what? to satisfy a bunch of people that don’t know the first thing about family values. [Crowd Boo] Listen to me … I’m askin’ ya, I need ya. I need ya.
Bret: Yeah, USA [sneers]. You’re talking about a country that’s based its entire history on brother against brother. They got talk shows all over this country, of family’s, airing out their family problems because they all hate each other. And that’s what they’ve done, they’ve taken our family and turned us into a bunch of haters. [To Davey] They turned you against me. We fought. We fought like two men in Wembley Stadium and after you won, I hugged ya. We came back to America, they pitted us against each other. [To Owen] And listen to you and me. Look what they’ve done to you … and me. I was the one that got you in the World Wrestling Federation. [Turns on the crowd] Yeah, you laugh. [Boo’s]
Lawler (on Commentary): He’s making sense, McMahon.
Bret: [To Owen] They pushed you and they pushed you and they pushed you and they pushed me and they pushed us against each other. And they’ve driven this wedge between the whole family. [To Davey] You know. What did they do to Diana? Huh? … Owen, I’ve known you since you were a baby. I dressed you for school. I dressed you for school every day. I was the one who made sure you made the school bus. And how many times, how many times did I take you, remember St Michael’s school and that teacher, that teacher was picking on you. I was only thirteen years old and I went to that school and I set the teacher straight. [Owen fights back tears] Who was there for you more times than I was? Who was it that even talked you into becoming a wrestler? there was only two people in the family who really excelled in wrestling, that was you and me and they turned us against each other. They turned me against my own sister, Diana, because Americans don’t understand family. [Boo’s] They don’t give a damn about family. Owen .. Davey .. I’m asking you for your help .. because I need ya. Owen. [Crowd: “USA”] Owen, look me in the eye. Nobody was there for you more times than I was. I want you to hear me and I want you to hear me loud and clear. I don’t care about these people .. not any more. Owen .. I love ya. [Owen breaks down] I love ya.
Vince (on commentary): Owen Hart is overwhelmed.
[Bret and Owen hug]
[Crowd Boo] [Bret and Davey hug]
Vince (on commentary): I can’t believe what we’re seeing tonight. Look at that look of disdain on the face of Bret Hart.
WWE Monday Night Raw – March 31, 1997
In today’s world, there are many Americans who would probably agree that Bret was right. He was merely pointing out the failures of society that many people in all countries agree happens in their very own country. But to the younger audience of 1997, this was akin to your grandpa telling you what’s cool. And he and his new posse became the biggest heel faction WWE had had in years. Except when they left the US. In Canada, there was never a group of wrestlers more loved. Canada has always had a break-kayfabe love for their own wrestlers, regardless if they were supposed to be heel or face. But with the Hart Foundation, Canadians agreed with Bret. It became an us vs. them. In parts of Europe, they were met with similar heroes welcomes. The factions – the Hart Foundation or DX – switched alignments depending on which country they were in. All without changing their speech or character. Bret didn’t act more heel in the US, his words just didn’t agree with then US philosophies or youth counterculture. The Hart Foundation and DX merchandise flew off the shelves, and the WWF suddenly had red hot storylines that were propelling them to the eventual victory in the Monday Night Wars.
Well it seems that the WWE has remembered the effectiveness of the split characters – those whose appeal varies in greatly polarizing ways – depending on their audience. Although this time, they aren’t going to limit it to country allegiances. This time, it gets played in every city they travel to, in every city in the world. It’s a war that’s been played out on the internet since Al Gore first invented it (Author’s Note: That was a joke.) – what’s more legitimate? The WWE Way or the Indie Way? And there’s no better players to carry out this tale, than John Cena and AJ Styles.
THE SOLDIERS ARE BORN
The two combatants in this War of the Roses remake both share similar tales. John Cena began his wrestling career with Ultimate Pro Wrestling (UPW) in 1999, at the same time as current NXT Champion Samoa Joe, as the cyborg-like Prototype. Within a year, he was signed to the WWE and in 2000, he was relocated to WWE’s developmental system, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW). He would spend two years in development before emerging in the WWE as part of the fabled OVW Class of ’02, that also featured Randy Orton, Batista, Brock Lesnar and Shelton Benjamin. AJ Styles’ first big run came joining with NWA Wildside in 1999, and actually made the Big Leagues a year ahead of Cena, joining WCW in 2001 just prior to the WWE purchase of their rival. Known as Air Styles, he was a part of the tag team Air Raid, alongside Air Paris. Styles’ contract was not kept with the purchase and soon he was back in NWA Wildside. He also made his WWE debut in 2002, although unlike Cena, who debuted against Kurt Angle, Styles was used as enhancement on the C shows.
Cena first garnered attraction with his freestyle rapper gimmick, with a degree in Thuganomics, in 2003, becoming a top mid card draw, while Styles split his time with two new upstart promotions, Ring of Honor (ROH) and TNA. By 2004, he’d become TNA exclusive, becoming the mid card’s top star and leader of the industry changing X-Division. Styles would win his first World title first, defeating TNA founder Jeff Jarrett for the NWA World Heavyweight title (before TNA seceded from NWA) in 2003, with Cena would claiming his first at Wrestlemania 21 from JBL in 2005. But by the end of 2014, both Superstars found themselves at very different similar paths in their careers. Neither of them were still in the World title hunt of their respective companies. In August of 2014, Cena lost the last of 15 World titles to Brock Lesnar at Summerslam. He hasn’t held a World title in the WWE since (although he’s slowed by some serious injuries). Styles, meanwhile, had just returned to ROH, after leaving TNA in December of 2013. His last TNA World title had been stripped from him in October, leading to his departure from the company he’d help build since 2002. Although Styles’ six World titles (5 in TNA, 1 in ROH) paled in comparison to Cena’s fifteen, Styles was the antithesis of Cena. What Cena lacked in skillsets, Styles had in abundance. But Cena was more comfortable on the mic than Styles in droves.
Throughout 2015, Cena gained kudos and respects from even some of the most ardent haters when his impressive run with the US Championship elevated not only the title itself, but a handful of wrestlers who would become key players in the New Era itself – Kevin Owens, Cesaro, Sami Zayn and Neville, to mention a few. While in Camp Styles, The Phenomenal One headed to Japan, where he joined the most popular faction in the industry, The Bullet Club of NJPW, becoming a bigger international Superstar than ever before (not to mention, upping his World title count to eight, with two runs as IWGP Heavyweight Champion). And after two solid years in NJPW, Styles shocked the world by appearing at this January’s Royal Rumble, finally emerging in the WWE Universe as seemingly the character we’d last seen in NJPW a few weeks before. The soldiers were now on the same battlefield. And it was only a matter of time before they met.
THE WAR BEGINS
The inevitable happened on the May 30 Raw, when a seeming face AJ Styles, now acclimatized to the WWE philosophy, welcomed back a returning John Cena from a seven month layoff due to injury. What started as a seemingly sincere welcome turned into a monumental backstab, as Styles reunited with his recently disbanded “Club”, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, and beat down the 15-time World champ in the middle of the McMahon’s ring. But it was the brilliant promo from both men the following two nights that would set the battle lines. It literally became WWE’s own version of the Marvel film Civil War that was currently dominating the box office. Not since the war between the North and South (WWE vs. WCW of course), did wrestling fans gravitate to one side or the other. If you were an indie fan who had grown tired of the WWE’s self promotion, you leapt from the seat when AJ accused Cena of “burying guys like me”. If you were a WWE loyalist, you understood fully when Cena said that “indie darlings” like AJ Styles seemed to come into the WWE with a “sense of entitlement”. This was not the USA vs. Canada. This was bigger. This was entire trains of thinking. This was the WWE Way vs. the Indie Way.
What seemed like a textbook heel turn by Styles on May 30th, now became the double turn for many. Many of those who may not have been sold on Styles’ WWE work with Chris Jericho or Roman Reigns but still prefered ROH and NJPW over WWE, gravitated to Styles as their true face. The guardian of the underground, the beacon for the gym shows, the true voice of the voiceless. Of course, Cena was the heel. He was downtalking the very work ethic and hunger that indie stars faced every day, downplayed their bravado as a feeling of “entitlement” rather than a passion to prove their worth.
But to WWE purists, Cena was the face in this. He was simply stating the obvious. It doesn’t matter how good you are anywhere else in the world, the WWE is the big leagues. This is where you win your legacy. Stanley Cup winners are more glorious champions that Junior B Beer League. And these indie stars were occupying the WWE with their flips and their malnourishment (except for maybe Owens) and destroying all that was beautiful about the WWE. AJ was the purest representation of this evil and thus is the automatic heel.
With WWE now referencing every other promotion in the world (finally allowing the use of TNA during Styles’ post Raw podcast appearance with Steve Austin), they’ve in effect introduced all the players needed to back up Styles’ backstory. The WWE Universe – even the casuals – are now made aware of their existence. And that is where Styles has come from. He is the invader on alien shores, while Cena is the vanguard of all that has been the WWE for the past 14 years. And thus, the WWE has turned an internet war for the past decade into an angle that is guaranteed to be a cash cow for the Connecticut bankers and a fan fiction story into a reality.
And whether your War of the Roses features House Lancaster vs. House York, Michael Douglas vs. Kathleen Turner, Iron Man vs. Captain America or the Hart Foundation vs. DX, a house divided against itself may not stand, but it sure can make for a good story. And a whole lot of money.
(Main Photo: WWE.com)