CENA FOR HARDCORES
By Ben Miller
Three weeks ago, C.M. Punk sold my ticket. He promised to win the WWE Championship and vowed to leave WWE with it. Yours Truly – after an invite from a long time friend – booked a flight, bought a ticket and generally got excited about the product for the first time since the last big John Cena vs. C.M. Punk match (better known as the Nexus invasion angle).
C.M. Punk has that type of effect on hardcore wrestling fans. When he speaks, we respond. We tout him as great, we watch television shows in order to see him and we sometimes buy his merchandise. In short, he is our John Cena. As children follow Cena, so too do hardcores follow Punk. And just like Cena, Punk is killing WWE.
It has become common knowledge, at least among hardcore wrestling fans, that John Cena is bad for business. He sells everything under the sun, but ultimately he harms the product. His moves lack sound execution (unless placing an opponent lightly on his back after a fireman’s carry or mis-applying an S.T.F. count as high achievement), his humor is cringe-worthy and his persona is some mish-mash of hip-hop and Semper Fi that only a father could love.
C.M. Punk is the anti-Cena in that he cares about the execution of his work, he refuses to corn himself up for the masses and his persona has always been that of an arrogant straight-edger. That’s great if the goal is to make the hardcores not hate you, but, at least so far, it doesn’t draw.
On Tuesday, one respected newsletter (sorry, Bryan) ran a headline of, “Punk angle hottest in years”. As it turns out, the word, “bombs,” should have been added in that sentence somewhere. Show-to-show viewership for Raw (using the Raw from two weeks ago [the Punk “shoot” promo] as a comparison, since the previous week fell on July 4) fell 13% in hour one and 10% in hour two. Ratings in the all-important 18-49 demographic fell by similar percentages as well. In all, people were so excited to see the consequences of C.M. Punk’s fire-breathing promo that they decided to watch a meaningless baseball home run hitting contest and a show about antiques on the History Channel instead.
There are some logical excuses for the poor ratings performance of this supposedly hot angle. Part of it is that the angle was hurt by the ludicrous decision to have Cena defend Punk’s actions and get him re-instated the week after the initial promo. Part of it is that non-hardcore fans simply don’t buy that WWE would ever let a wrestler win the championship right before leaving. (Isn’t it ironic that the only people who believe that could happen are the uber-hardcores?) And part of it was that the promo that should have been delivered on the go-home Raw was delivered three weeks out instead.
These excuses are great if the goal is to defend C.M. Punk, but launching a defense of WWE’s Hero of the Hardcores fails to get to the root of both Punk’s and Cena’s flaws. The problem is that both come across as guys who try too hard. Cena to be loved; Punk to be real (and he surely hates people who call themselves that). Cena says that he wants to protect the WWE Championship, but the thing that made him most mad on the show was being compared to a baseball team he dislikes in his hometown. Punk may have ended up in the right place at the end of the show, but his path there was far too circuitous. That last promo needed to be short and to the point; the pro wrestling equivalent of the scene in “Braveheart” where William Wallace (Mel Gibson) picks a fight with the English army. In that scene a put-upon man makes outrageous demands to an oppressive tyrant, knowing full well that the only way to bring true change is through revolution. At the end of Raw, the put-upon man talked too much, the oppressive tyrant illogically caved in and, at least for this fan, a little more of Punk’s heat was lost.
The meandering promo to close the show left Punk a whiny tweener instead of a rebellious babyface, but the hardcores will love him anyway at Sunday’s pay-per-view. Hardcores will love him because he gives shoot interviews and tries cool moves and curses a lot on Twitter, but the question is whether that is good for business. There will probably be a short term bump in pay-per-view buys because that fanbase has seen its enthusiasm deficit erode, but the risk is that he will end up like Cena: A deleterious presence that is difficult to remove because of the seductive presence of a dedicated, but small, fanbase.