John Cena and Roman Reigns' face-to-face promo Monday was an event in a way few WWE promos are these days.
Though the two crossed paths three summers ago, Monday marked the first time they have since Reigns was anointed Cena's successor as the company's ace through his three world championship runs and three straight WrestleMania main events, including retiring The Undertaker this past April. The face-off also took place in promotion of the first major one-on-one match between the franchise players, which was strangely booked not for next year's WrestleMania, but No Mercy Sept. 24. Still, wrestling fans treated Monday like it was WrestleMania season anyway.
That's because those fans have long speculated what would happen when the two polarizing stars finally squared off, top guy to top guy, in the court of public opinion that is a WWE arena. And they not only got that face-off Monday, they got a promo that fully leaned into every "insider" talking point that makes both wrestlers so polarizing. Within seconds of each excoriating line, fans took to social media in droves to register their "He went there!" amazement — and to declare, almost unanimously, Cena the exchange's winner and Reigns its savaged loser.
It wasn't that clean a win for Cena, though, for the same reason the promo itself wasn't as good as its feverish reception would suggest. Much of Cena's material was repurposed from promos against a long line of self-styled successors like Reigns: AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, etc. Sure, Cena's delivery was as fiery as it was when he ethered his last epochal foe, The Rock, earlier this decade. When Cena called himself the hungriest he's ever been, after 14 years and 16 world championships, he was more than convincing. And the molten Memphis crowd bore that out.
Still, Cena's mention of the fourth wall and "insider" wrestling terms that shatter it was actively bad. It wasn't as business-exposing as 1999 WCW, nor as cringe-inducing as Punk's infamous "This is Phil Brooks talking to Paul Levesque." But it was bad. Using message board lingo as some dog whistle to appease that jaded audience is beneath Cena and, in 2017, beneath pro wrestling.
The promo, reportedly scripted line by line, dragged Reigns into the muck, too. At one point pausing to either remember his next line or let Memphis get some chants in, Reigns was brutally chided by Cena in one of the exchange's few ad-libs: "It's called a promo, kid." The heir apparent got the message, letting loose with his own burst of fire toward Cena — but again, it was more of the same late-'90s shooty edgelord yawners, from accusing Cena of "burying" young talent to a couple of gratuitous "bitch" barbs. I'm sure Vince Russo was a fan.
The exchange's most brutal line, however, ended it on its most fascinating theme. When Cena told Reigns he comes back part-time "because you can't do your job," in one fell swoop the 16-time world champion not only "won" the promo, he refocused his beef with Reigns on that theme: succession. Heel turns and burying talent may be tired terrain for Cena after his feuds with Styles, Bryan, Punk etc., but those internet darlings were never truly at risk of replacing him. Reigns, with his tools, similarly polarized audience responses and already stuffed trophy case, is.
Some fans believe Monday's promo hurt those chances, though. Reigns, they say, was indeed buried. Many compared the promo to Cena's own drubbing 11 years ago by Triple H. But that's a useful comparison for the case that Reigns will be just fine. Cena was, and at that point in his career, he didn't even approach Reigns' resume of banger matches. Reigns doesn't even have to win at No Mercy — WWE could go the Okada/Tanahashi route and tell a story of Reigns being humbled in defeat, improving and only then earning his spot from his predecessor with a defining win.
Monday's promo may have been the beginning of that story. Structurally, it worked as a microcosm of the first act: Reigns kept pace with Cena out of the gate, only for the veteran to smoke his younger opponent by shifting into the kind of gear one earns through grizzled experience. As Reigns and Cena's story continues to No Mercy and hopefully beyond, that's the course I hope it takes — not one that chases cheap thrills recycled from the pages of dirt sheets in order to catch the attention of a pro wrestling audience that doesn't know better.