WWE Summerslam features two of the top superstars in the company in John Cena and Brock Lesnar. One stands for all that is good. The other dominates until he is the only one left standing.
Monday night’s edition of Raw closed off with Hulk Hogan, undoubtedly one of WWE’s greatest stars, celebrating a birthday. Every active wrestler was asked to stand on the stage and applaud the Hulkster as the 61-year-old pointed to the fans, flexed his bronze 24-inch pythons, and donned the all-so familiar red and yellow tee like it was his heyday in the 1980s.
Aside from the current talent bearing witness to the icon’s birthday celebration, WWE surprised everyone with a who’s who of legendary talent that Hulk Hogan has worked alongside in the past: names like “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, and Rowdy Roddy Piper hugged Hogan as they entered the red-canvassed squared circle. Even Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, the duo infamously associated with Hulk Hogan’s run as a pro wrestling heel (bad guy) showed up to join in on the festivities.
The feel-good close to the Raw before Summerslam featuring the cornucopia of legends in their 60s, however, was interrupted. It was interrupted by the younger generation—the antithetical wrestling stars—Brock Lesnar and his manager Paul Heyman. The previously festive mood in the ring became a fearful one as the former UFC Heavyweight Champion stared down each person in the ring, unraveling the notion that these Hall of Famers’ still have it in them. After all, even though most of them are in relatively good shape, no one believes they can stand up to a mixed martial artist.
Luckily for all the legends, one of WWE’s greatest superstars, donning his red and yellow attire, saved the day with his mere presence alone. John Cena had saved the party from his Summerslam opponent and challenger to his WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Professional wrestling is at its best when the line between predetermined theatrics and real life become indistinguishable. For Summerslam, WWE’s second-biggest pay-per-view event of the year—second only to WrestleMania—the promotion is attempting to do just that by pitting John Cena, the larger-than-life pro wrestling icon, with Brock Lesnar, former UFC fighter and self-proclaimed real “ass-kicker.”
John Cena has been WWE’s golden child for over a decade now, much to the chagrin of older pro wrestling fans. He is undeniably this generation’s Hulk Hogan, with his strategically bright-colored merchandise appealing to the kids and his undying determination to stay the course in order to do the right thing. After all, preaching the good word of hustle, loyalty, and respect is not much of a stretch from telling kids to eat their vitamins and say their prayers.
But the two mega-superstars also share the unfortunate honor of having a bad reputation for being oversimplified wrestlers that do very little in terms of their in-ring abilities, and yet still manage to achieve unimaginable feats. Let’s face it, as revered as Hulk Hogan is, his moveset of a big boot, leg drop, and the scoop slam he used on Andre the Giant is paltry. The only other association with Hogan is his ability to “hulk out,” the equivalent of obtaining a video game power-up in pro wrestling, which is damn-near close to obtaining superpowers. In a venue where over-the-top gimmicks thrive and feats of strength are rewarded, Hulk Hogan and John Cena are Supermen.
Superman is traditional and very fitting for WWE but nothing gets audiences riled up like a real-life tough guy—one that breaks the mold of prototypical wrestler and transcends it. John Cena is being billed as the prototypical professional wrestler. Brock Lesnar is an athlete. Brock Lesnar is the anti-John Cena. Though they both began their careers as WWE superstars in the early 2000s, their career paths could not be any more different.
Lesnar’s first stint in the WWE was surprisingly short, especially given how impactful he was during the time that the likes of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were hanging up their boots to pursue other ventures. Lesnar spent two years in the WWE and accomplished just about everything in that time span: winning the 2002 King of the Ring tournament and the 2003 Royal Rumble match, defeating The Rock and Kurt Angle, and capturing the WWE Undisputed championship at age 25—the youngest wrestler to do so at the time.
He was booked as the most dominant young wrestler possibly ever. It was the wrestling equivalent of watching LeBron James during his rookie season. It was downright frightening to witness. As much potential as Lesnar had, he decided to leave to pursue a career in the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. That career path didn’t work out, but he flourish as a mixed martial artist in the UFC. He eventually became UFC Heavyweight Champion and washed away any notion that he was a fake fighter. Brock Lesnar had transcended professional wrestling while still maintaining that grandiose toughness.
Even though he had successfully disconnected himself from the realm of Vince McMahon and WWE, he still carried the bad guy tendencies. Either that, or Brock Lesnar the character is not far off from the person. Even during UFC fights, he would be as outspoken as he was as a WWE superstar.
His return to WWE saw Lesnar capitalizing on the brute force that he has become known for. Coincidentally, his first match was against John Cena. And although Lesnar dominated the match, swinging Cena across the mat like a rag doll and performing an array of both pro wrestling and mixed martial art maneuvers him, Cena summoned his untouchable desire to win and escaped with the victory.
At Summerslam, the formula remains with a very important trait added: Brock Lesnar defeated the Undertaker, previously undefeated undefeated for more than two decades at WrestleMania, in a decisive victory. Lesnar’s manager and mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, overzealously proclaimed that announcing a win beforehand was not trash talking; it was a spoiler. The prophetic win has catapulted Lesnar into an unstoppable machine who managed to dismantle the only constant in professional wrestling.
The only other constant in the WWE that remains is John Cena’s ability to overcome the odds. WWE is aware of the stakes and have been promoting this match with a very serious tone, not unlike a UFC event. The advertisements and the commercials are plain in nature but effective: black and white images of both wrestlers training and staring off into the distance with such temerity that it can’t be taken as a orchestrated and predetermined bout.
Still, as much of a real-fight feel that this event has, it is still taking place within the confines of WWE’s squared circle. It almost harbors back to the halcyon days of WrestleMania III, when a young Hulk Hogan faced the powerhouse Andre the Giant, when WWE Hall of Fame commentator Gorilla Monsoon exclaimed, “The irresistible force meeting the immovable object!”
If Paul Heyman’s promos continue to become prophecy, Lesnar may claim a win over Cena. But in the end, this is professional wrestling and reality does not always apply; there is the possibility that Cena could pull a victory to a man deemed unbeatable, harkening back to when the Hulkster dethroned Andre’s seemingly undefeated streak. So tell me: if Cena pulls out a win, what ‘cha gonna do?