Representing a maxim of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect, the self-proclaimed “Doctor of Thugonomics,” John Cena, gradually and organically became the WWE franchise player for at least the past 13 years. Since making his debut for the company in 2002 by answering an open challenge by Kurt Angle, Cena has easily been the most visible and successful professional wrestler of his era. His most recent unbeatable accomplishment has been tying Ric Flair’s record as the most decorated World Champion in sports-entertainment history, and the gold on Cena’s resume is truly but the tip of the iceberg how influential he has been to the modern WWE style.
Unfortunately for Vince McMahon, all good things must come to an end. Rumor has it that John Cena is about to take a sabbatical from the company he calls home, needing at least two or three months to film the upcoming movie Daddy’s Home 2. While Cena’s return is already penciled in, it won’t be long until he has to leave again and film The Pact, another leading role that will take up lots of his time. A third movie, The Wall, is also on the way, and he’ll probably need some time to hit the press circuit for that one, as well.
Cena has repeatedly claimed during interviews he’ll never leave WWE for Hollywood, but it certainly looks like he’s doing just that, and the people behind the company would be fools not to accept it as a possibility. On the bright side, now more than ever, there are dozens of extremely talented athletes on the roster who just may able to take over as the top wrestler in the company should Cena decide to leave for good. Keep reading to learn about 15 wrestlers who could take John Cena’s place as the face of WWE.
15. Bobby Roode
Recognized as “Glorious” immediately upon his arrival to NXT, former TNA Champion Bobby Roode has already repeatedly proven he’s more than capable of leading a brand as their top star. Roode has the look, microphone skills, and in-ring presence worthy of his main event status, and will almost definitely maintain that role whenever it is he gets called up to Raw or SmackDown Live. However, there are a few things Roode has going against him that make him one of the more tenuous names on this list. Most glaringly, Roode is the same age as Cena, 39, meaning he probably couldn’t remain the franchise player for long if he landed the role. It’s also worth mentioning the vast majority of Roode’s success has come as a heel, and the person to replace Cena will need to do so while getting cheered. Ultimately, Roode might fare better as one of the top foils to whoever it is that takes Cena’s place than the person in the role himself. Even so, if WWE wants to experiment and take a chance on him, they just may find glorious results.
14. Fínn Balor
Calling himself The Demon King and winning the WWE Universal Championship in his Pay-Per-View debut, Fínn Balor is already well on his way to becoming a major superstar after only a handful of matches on the main roster. Prior to his call-up from developmental, he was the NXT Champion for nearly 10 months, and he achieved equal success in NJPW before signing with the WWE Universe. While in Japan wrestling as Prince Devitt, he was one of the top stars in the country through his involvement with Bullet Club, and that status stayed with him when he came to America. Regardless of where he’s wrestling or what they called him, Balor always stood out for his innovative moves and unique charisma, both qualities that lead towards his reputation as an instant main eventer. Despite some critics perhaps thinking Balor is too small to lead the company, it would appear WWE disagreed the second they made him Universal Champion. That Balor was able to recover from the injury suffered during his championship-winning bout and return to the main event solidifies he can only go up from here, possibly all the way towards replacing Cena.
13. Seth Rollins
In order to truly live up to his self-professed status as The Architect of WWE, former dual WWE and United States Champion Seth Rollins will need to do a bit more than regain at least one of those belts. Replacing John Cena might be a tall order, but a superstar with the ambitious ego of Rollins might have just that in mind, especially during his long-running feud against Triple H. The babyface-vs-authority storyline has made several franchise players before, and Rollins could easily transition into the role from there. On top of this natural progression, Rollins more than has the charisma and technical ability to take the job, and fans have largely been responsive to him in all the right ways. Granted, Rollins does have a few downsides, most damningly being his reputation as somewhat injury prone, hurting both himself and his opponents more than once. However, this hasn’t stopped WWE from pushing Rollins to the top yet, and if Triple H likes him enough to lose to him, there’s no saying how else the COO could award his friend.
12. Kevin Owens
He may not have John Cena’s unflappably friendly nature, but there’s no denying Kevin Owens is one of the top professional wrestlers in the world today. Fans knew this the second he stepped into an official WWE ring where he defeated John Cena in his main roster debut. Owens was already reigning as NXT Champion at the time, and though he would lose that belt and his next two rematches against Cena, his career has mostly been uphill from there, certain unfortunate losses notwithstanding. Up until recently, Owens has looked better than ever, becoming the second Universal Champion and holding that belt for an impressive seven months before getting squashed by Goldberg. Luckily, he’s been able to brush that loss aside and continue to put in unmatched work in the ring and on the mic, which could easily get rewarded with another top run when the part-timers all take their leaves. The question is whether or not Owens can ever become a true babyface again, because if he can’t, he’ll never be able to replace Cena. On the other hand, Owens is so much better as a heel that maybe remaining as one would be for the better.
11. Dean Ambrose
On paper, “Lunatic Fringe” sounds like the polar opposite of what a franchise player should represent, and yet Dean Ambrose somehow possesses the unique charisma to make the two concepts appear one and the same. WWE has been trying their hardest to make Roman Reigns the biggest former member of The Shield, but fans immediately gravitated towards Ambrose, and his popularity has continued to soar ever since. Truth be told, the same unique charisma that has been making Ambrose a star could go to his detriment, insofar as his crazy character might lack the moral compass to be a true superhero like Cena. On the other hand, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was just as reckless at times, and the Texas Rattlesnake was arguably bigger than Cena, so that could be even better. The real issue standing in Ambrose’s way is that WWE has appeared reticent at giving him a real mega push, holding the WWE Championship for the least time of any Shield member. That could all change when Cena leaves and they seriously need a new star, though, because Ambrose might be crazy like a fox enough to represent the entire WWE Universe.
Considering how hard WWE pushes the idea they’re a multinational, global company, one would think a superstar like Cesaro would be ideal as the face of their brand. Born in Switzerland, trained all throughout Europe, speaking five languages, and now wrestling in the United States, the Swiss Sensation might be one of the most culturally diverse superstars the company has ever seen. Cesaro has used this expert pedigree to win a number of midcard championships in WWE, plus the inaugural André The Giant Memorial Battle Royal trophy, but he’s also been called the most underrated superstar in WWE for years now. A large number of fans strongly believe Cesaro is more than ready to start competing for either the WWE or Universal Championship, and it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to outright replace John Cena from there. While Cesaro does slightly lack in microphone skills, he has every other qualification necessary to succeed. And it’s not like managers can’t still exist (or Cesaro couldn’t get better, which he has been). As soon as WWE gets over his charisma problem or Vince McMahon gets talked out of it, Cesaro could easily be the top wrestler in the world.
9. Jeff Hardy
No, this list isn’t Broken — Matt and Jeff Hardy made their returns to WWE, after respective seven and eight-year absences, at WrestleMania 33, and the crowd made it clear the Boyz are still extremely popular in this and any universe. While the Hardyz have returned as a team, should they remain successful, it may not be long before they go solo again, resuming their status as World Championship contenders in that respect in addition to the tag ranks. Matt might be the Broken genius behind the Hardyz career revival, but conventional wisdom likely still holds that Jeff is more likely to become the standout of the two based on the fact that’s what happened last time they were both in WWE. In fact, when Jeff Hardy was fired from the company, he was still pretty much the most popular wrestler around, making his dismissal all the more surprising, drug charges and all. It would be completely reasonable if the company used this history to keep Jeff grounded by tagging with his brother, but if he goes solo, he could definitely become a World Champion again and maybe even a franchise player.
8. Kofi Kingston
Big E and Xavier Woods shouldn’t be sour, because they’ll be on the sidelines clapping their hands and feeling the power, supporting Kofi Kingston in his theoretical rise to becoming a top solo star in the near future. Let’s face it, The New Day have absolutely nothing left to accomplish as a unit, having already set the record as the longest reigning Tag Team Champions in company history. Spending any more time together is wasting their potential as solo stars, and now that WWE needs someone to replace Cena, it’s time to pull the trigger on making Kingston the main eventer he’s always been capable of becoming. In fact, the only thing slowing Kingston down might be his reputation as a tag team wrestler as fans might have trouble accepting him winning without his lackeys’ help. Despite this, Kingston more than has the ring ability to overcome losing his partners, and his charisma could likewise transition to a solo role with ease. On top of it all, making Kingston the face of the company would break racial barriers, another concept a socially conscious company like WWE could have in mind when establishing their next true superstar.
7. Bray Wyatt
Although WWE may not want someone who calls himself the Eater of Worlds to represent their company, at least it beats the hell out of Husky Harris. All jokes aside, Bray Wyatt has shown incredible development throughout his short career, making him the youngest wrestler on this list at only 29 years old. Wyatt not only impresses in the ring and especially on the microphone, but he also already has a cult of fireflies who willingly participate in making his entrances something special — always a good sign that the WWE Universe is on his side, heel or face. The downside is that Wyatt’s character has almost always made him a heel, and usually a particularly evil one at that, which makes him one of the less likely choices to replace John Cena in WWE today. Even so, Wyatt’s youth, charisma, and incredible speaking abilities make it seem entirely possible that a character revamp could slowly make him a unique type of wrestling hero. It makes more sense for WWE to try and make Wyatt replace The Undertaker, but if they play their cards right, he might just take Cena’s role, too.
6. Dolph Ziggler
It might be said that few superstars in WWE have had more false starts than Dolph Ziggler, but fans and company executives still see enough in him that his true potential might not have been reached yet. Ziggler has spent almost a full decade in WWE with his current name, plus a few years on top of that with earlier failed gimmicks, and there’s no denying it’s been a while since he’s had a significant reign with a major championship. Despite all this, crowds still cheer Ziggler whenever WWE decides to push him again, and without Cena and other part-timers to cut him off at the heels, Ziggler’s day as a true franchise player could finally be here. The plus side of Ziggler’s longevity is that we already know he can have good matches with almost anybody, also holding his own on the microphone to boot. The only thing to hold him back has been WWE’s own reluctance, which, unfortunately, is more than important enough to make him a rather unlikely pick.
5. Chad Gable
Even with WWE’s longstanding reputation for misusing their tag team division, every few years, a team comes along that’s so special Vince McMahon can’t ignore their abilities. Most recently, the team breaking the mold has been American Alpha, and either Chad Gable or Jason Jordan could easily branch off to the solo division in the near future. That said, many fans and insiders are in agreement Gable is the better in-ring talent of the two, proven when he won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Rookie of the Year award in 2015. The one thing stopping Gable, or Jordan for that matter, from replacing Cena at this point is that American Alpha still has plenty of room to grow as a team. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be too surprising if WWE ignored what they had as a team and attempted to shift them into solo roles as soon as possible. Because of their youth and lack of experience on their own, Gable and Jordan are definitely two of the more speculative picks on this list, but they have more than enough potential to earn the spot.
4. Drew McIntyre
Back in 2009, no less than Vince McMahon himself introduced Drew McIntyre as a “future World Champion” and referred to him as the Chosen One. Less than three years later, McIntyre was a complete joke as the third wheel in 3MB, and it looked like McMahon’s prediction had completely fallen flat. Proving one should never say never in wrestling, McIntyre returned to the WWE Universe at NXT TakeOver: Orlando, having proved in the interim that he’s more than capable of leading a brand as the TNA Champion. McIntyre has also achieved incredible success overseas in multiple UK promotions, further showing the global level of his charisma. The fact WWE had McIntyre return to NXT rather than the main roster is probably a sign it will be a while before he’s on Cena’s level, but it could also mean they want to start from scratch with him to ensure the past mistakes are erased before they go all in on a renewed push. Vince McMahon doesn’t like being wrong, and his prediction hasn’t come true in WWE yet, so McIntyre might have a great chance if only to prove the boss correct.
3. The Miz
Taking the idea behind this list completely literally, The Miz might have a better shot at replacing John Cena than anyone else in wrestling. Over the past few weeks, Miz has repeatedly imitated Cena’s look and mannerisms, doing such a hilarious job of it that he’s inadvertently become one of the most popular wrestlers in WWE by being an over-the-top heel. This was especially surprising to the many people who resented Miz during his initial reign as WWE Champion, when he and Cena coincidentally main-evented WrestleMania XXVII. Although that match didn’t go entirely as planned, things have been much better for Miz as of late, and he could easily take his momentum to finally prove he deserved that headlining role all along. Even when Miz was at his lowest points, no one denied he was consistently decent in the ring, and even great against the right opponents, which coupled with his charisma, isn’t that different from other wrestlers who have led WWE and other companies. Of course, given the fact that he continues rapidly improving more than a decade into his career, it might not be long before Miz is as awesome in the ring as he is on the mic, making him more than ready to take Cena’s place for real.
2. Shinsuke Nakamura
After a full year of wrestling critics claiming WWE was wasting him in NXT, the King of Strong Style has arrived, and Shinsuke Nakamura has finally made his way to SmackDown Live. Rumor has it the decision to call up the two-time NXT Champion is a direct response to John Cena taking his latest leave of absence, and it isn’t hard to imagine WWE could take that mentality all the way to Nakamura becoming the face of the company. It wouldn’t be the first time Nakamura was the franchise player of a major organization, as he already spent over a decade as a main-event superstar in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Not only are his in-ring skills second to none, but the King of Strong Style also has an entirely one-of-a-kind charisma, made all the more impressive by his ability to break through the language barrier. The longer he stays in America, the better his English will likely become, only increasing his potential to completely take Cena’s top role in WWE.
1. A.J. Styles
Phenomenal as his global reputation already was, no one could have predicted how quickly A.J. Styles would be able to completely ingratiate himself to the WWE Universe. In less than nine months, A.J. went from being the biggest star in wrestling to winning the company’s top championship, and the sky is the limit as to what he might accomplish from here. Even at 39 years old, A.J. is almost universally considered the most talented wrestler on the planet when it comes to his in-ring ability, and his abilities on the microphone have improved immensely since he signed with WWE. While critics were annoyed Styles spent the road to WrestleMania 33 in a mostly meaningless feud against Shane McMahon, now that he has definitely beaten his boss, nothing can stand in his way to living up to his nickname of “The Face That Runs The Place” and becoming the face of WWE. While it may be a little too late for A.J. to remain the top star in the company for long, there’s definitely still time for him to do so now, and it isn’t out of the question his abilities will flourish with age.
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