It’s WrestleMania week, with the ‘Show of Shows’ set to take place on Sunday night. Every day between now and the big event, Tom Beasley takes a look at a different element of the build-up. This time, it’s the strange path to John Cena vs. Undertaker and how WWE has played with fan expectations…
For years now, John Cena vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania has stood as perhaps the only true dream match left in professional wrestling. Throughout the course of Taker’s illustrious 20-year winning streak on the grandest stage of them all, Cena was an opponent it seemed certain that the Deadman would tangle with at some point down the line. When Brock Lesnar, whom I wrote about yesterday, snapped Taker’s streak at WrestleMania 30 in 2014, the route seemed clear to a battle of the behemoths. Alas, it has not transpired.
The ending of last year’s WrestleMania, which saw Taker leave his iconic coat and hat folded in the centre of the ring after a loss to Roman Reigns, seemed to signal the chance of this match happening having passed by. Taker had apparently retired and Cena’s career was winding down, making the shift to Hollywood that he criticised The Rock for doing just a few years ago. However, over the course of the last month, things have changed completely.
Cena made his return to WWE earlier this year and has since embarked upon a circuitous route to a WrestleMania match. On the February 26 episode of Raw, Cena stated his intention to steal the WrestleMania spotlight against the Phenom, but said the match was “not happening” due to the Undertaker. Cena then failed to win the Elimination Chamber match for a shot at the WWE Universal Championship and came up short in his attempt to unseat AJ Styles as WWE Champion at Fastlane. Since then, Cena has turned his attention firmly to the Deadman.
On the March 12 edition of Raw, Cena delivered one of his typically brilliant, impassioned promos, defiantly challenging Undertaker to a match for the ages. It was a promo designed to bait Taker, criticising him posting on his wife’s Instagram and dubbing him a “self-centered, conceited egomaniac”. Subsequent weeks have seen a similar pattern, including Cena repeatedly performing Undertaker’s taunts and moves during a no disqualification match against his brother, Kane.
The genius of this story is in how the current incarnation of the John Cena character plays with the tropes of professional wrestling and, most prominently, the tropes of a WrestleMania rivalry with the Undertaker. In this context, Cena is the equivalent of Randy Meeks in Scream. He has seen Undertaker rivalries over the last few years and so he knows what to expect.
Step one is the challenge, step two is the bait and step three is producing a convincing look of terror when the telltale gong sounds for the first time. After his match with Kane on last week’s episode of Raw, he expressed sheer disbelief that there was “no lightning” and “no bells of terror”. He had followed the first two steps and then created an opportunity for that third step. A no DQ match almost invites interference, but it never came in this case.
The epitome of this feud occurred on last night’s go-home show for the Raw brand. Noticeably mournful and baffled, Cena ruefully admitted that he was “wrong” and that the silence of the Undertaker clearly meant that the answer to his challenge was a no. He made one final attempt to stir up the Deadman, accusing him of leaving his “balls” in the ring last year with his hat, but it was to no avail. The gongs did not sound and, now, there’s a genuine uncertainty surrounding whether or not this match will happen on Sunday.
This year’s WrestleMania feud has been the perfect example of how to book a rivalry when one participant is absent. The uncertainty surrounding the match, amplified by Undertaker’s apparent retirement last year and his enigmatic appearance at Raw 25 in January, has created real intrigue on the path to the big show. Throughout the rivalry, Cena has delivered fiery, passionate verbiage that has seen Undertaker spoken about in ways that could not be more different to the reverence that usually greets the Deadman.
Whatever happens on Sunday night, there will be an undeniable big fight feel when John Cena and the Undertaker stand across the ring from each other. Ever since Taker shook Cena’s hand backstage following his debut match against Kurt Angle way back in June 2002, the two men have seemingly been on a collision course leading to this moment. Matches don’t come much bigger than this, and John Cena has used every tool in his arsenal to make it as special as possible. We will find out if he has succeeded when WrestleMania 34 takes place.
Tomorrow: Is the weight of expectation on Ronda Rousey too heavy for a rookie wrestler to bear?
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.