John Cena is the face that runs the place. That place is the WWE, and his face has been at the forefront of it for over a decade. Since winning his first WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21, Cena has held a firm grip on the main event picture, rarely relinquishing that imaginary brass ring. His career will certainly lead him into the WWE Hall of Fame on the first ballot one day, and his charitable work outside of the ring has been incomparable. However, the WWE Universe has grown tired of his “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” shtick and has been clamoring for a change in character since he traded in his collection of throwbacks for WWE-licensed merchandise aimed at the younger demographic.
That change that the vocal majority chanting “Cena sucks!” long for generally revolves around the concept of turning Cena heel, or in layman’s terms, making him a bad guy. As noted, Cena won his first major championship 11 years ago. And his 14 other subsequent title reigns have all come as the company’s top babyface (or good guy). The colors on his t-shirts have changed, but the man and the message have remained the same throughout his entire run. He’s been called this generation’s Hulk Hogan because of his mainstream appeal and superman-like abilities in a predetermined sport.
Meanwhile, the company has refused to turn Cena heel, due in large part to his merchandising sales, Make-A-Wish affiliation and the opportunities presented to him outside of wrestling. But, if Cena were ever to turn to the dark side, it would certainly be one of the most memorable moments in the history of the business. Here now is a look at the top five candidates to face John Cena if he were ever to turn heel, limiting it to those only in WWE or NXT. AJ Styles would have definitely been at the top of this list had he himself not turned on Cena to close out the month of May.
10. Apollo Crews
Early returns were not good for the recently promoted Crews, as reports indicated that Vince McMahon quickly soured on the superstar once known as Uhaa Nation on the independent scene. Crews finally has some semblance of direction on the main roster, but he still has a long way to go to climb this list, or to feud with John Cena. The sheer combined strengths of both competitors would be a spectacle to see, but will only work once Crews sheds the nice-guy routine and establishes more of an edge.
The Swiss Superman vs Super Cena. Fans and former superstars alike have pined for Cesaro to get pushed up the card. The two have put on some memorable singles matches in the past, but nothing that resulted in a feud on pay-per-view. Cena would likely have to carry this program from a promo perspective as The King of Swing still lacks the “it factor” in that department, but once the bell rings, it’s game on. Cesaro is pound-for-pound the strongest wrestler in the company, and his style is unparalleled.
8. Sami Zayn
Zayn’s first match on the WWE main roster came against … John Cena. Cena was in the thralls of his extremely compelling United States Championship Open Challenge, when Zayn’s music hit to the delightful surprise of audiences around the country. Unfortunately, Sami injured himself just prior to the match and missed the remainder of 2015. But the seeds were planted back then, and a cocky heel Cena taking on the ultimate underdog Zayn would provide some very intriguing television.
7. Hideo Itami
It’s been difficult not to forget about Itami – who wrestled under the name KENTA in Japan – because of an injury he suffered more than a year ago. Itami has been forced to watch from the sidelines while other NXT standouts (likely to appear on this list) carried the flag for the brand. However, he should make quite the impact upon his eventual return, and his international appeal will blend perfectly against the all-American style of one John Cena.
6. Enzo & Cass
Enzo & Cass debuted on the WWE’s main roster the night after WrestleMania 32, and made an immediate impact. They had established an entertaining reputation in NXT and it quickly carried over in the big leagues. Recent reports have suggested that McMahon is enamored with Big Cass, to the point that a singles push is not too far off. Vince’s infatuation with the larger-than-life characters makes Big Cass perfect bait for John Cena, and another giant for him to try to chop down.
5. Dean Ambrose
Cena and Dean Ambrose have yet to meet in a singles match on a pay-per-view, which is more than half the appeal for these exercises. The two engaged in a mini-feud when The Shield first arrived on the scene, but only in tag matches that led to bigger things for each side. Ambrose has since emerged as one of the company’s top babyfaces, performing in programs with the likes of Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho and Brock Lesnar. Dean’s best work may be as a heel, but a singles feud with Cena would certainly move the needle. Their promo work alone would help sell any pay-per-view match.
4. Shinsuke Nakamura
A major theme in this list is opponents that have never faced John Cena before, either in singles competition at all, or on a major WWE show. Nakamura is a major draw and attraction in Japan where he was the king of New Japan Pro Wrestling for years. The King of Strong Style drew comparisons to Cena due to his dominance in NJPW and it was only a matter of time before WWE could lure him to the United States. He is already at the top of his class in NXT and it won’t be long before Nakamura takes the main roster by storm. If John Cena is there waiting for him, that would certainly make for a money feud.
3. Finn Balor
It will be interesting to see if Nakamura and Balor collide in NXT, but their paths will certainly cross at some point, and it will no doubt be memorable. While Cena has put the WWE on his back for over a decade, Balor has been the flag bearer for NXT since he made his debut with the brand late in 2014. He’s the longest-reigning NXT Champion in the history of the company, and his call-up is only a matter of time. His ability to captivate audiences with his multiple personality gimmick will be refreshing to the WWE Universe, the main complaint from Cena detractors. Balor has super-stardom written all over him in demon body paint, but he’ll have to go through John Cena to steal the coveted brass ring.
2. Roman Reigns
There’s simply no getting around this one – it’s inevitable. WWE has been saving a John Cena vs. Roman Reigns match for just the right time, and for just the right show. Vince McMahon has been grooming Reigns to replace Cena as the face of his company recently with a torch-passing match lying in wait. The only trouble now is that even though both Cena and Reigns are booked as top babyfaces, many crowds boo them mercilessly, which would create quite the unique environment in the event of a showdown. In our scenario, however, Cena assumes the role of heel and thwarts any attempts from Reigns to take his throne permanently. This match is going to happen regardless, it’s just a matter of WWE deciding to turn either superstar before it goes down.
1. Brock Lesnar
I know what you’re thinking. We’ve seen Cena vs. Brock Lesnar many times, and we’ve even seen it recently. Their 2014 feud was compelling and even offered up what essentially became the first ever main event squash match at that year’s SummerSlam. Even when Brock first came back to the WWE in 2012, his first feud was with John Cena. However, all these high profile matches that we mentioned pitted a babyface Cena against a heel Brock Lesnar. Flipping the script will only draw more money and more eyeballs to a feud that dates all the way back to 2002, the year both stars debuted in WWE. Fans forced WWE into turning Lesnar face last year, and those same fans are dying to boo Cena against anyone. Seems like the perfect storm, especially considering Paul Heyman can carry his weight in gold when it comes to selling this to the masses.
Cena has trolled his fans numerous times by literally turning his heel around, and proclaiming he was ready for a “heal turn” when he returned from injury. But each time he comes back, Cena is the face of the company with a new t-shirt and hat to sell. If people realized that if they stopped buying all his merchandise, they might consider turning him. Trouble is, the people buying it like rooting for him. Or at least their kids like cheering him.
Before Cena can ever turn heel, the WWE needs to feel comfortable with a replacement that can perform in and out of the ring like Cena does. This latest attempt with Roman Reigns has been an abject failure, which likely extends Cena’s run as a top face. We’ll have to wait and see if there is a plan B as it pertains to Reigns, but for now, we’ll settle for Cena wearing cargo shorts with Ellen‘s face on them.