World Wrestling Entertainment barrelled along with its annual Super Bowl-sized event WrestleMania last weekend, despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
For the most part, the audience-free show was taped ahead of time in the company’s training facility.
Pro wrestlers feed off a live crowd’s reactions and the show largely fell flat without it, as performers and their managers shouted and jeered in lieu of a crowd to do it for them.
But Sunday’s match between John Cena and Bray Wyatt did something very different.
Instead of a normal in-ring physical contest, viewers were treated to 13 minutes of surrealist theatre, swimming in years of character continuity and deconstructing the very idea of what heroic everyman John Cena “is.”
The end result may be my favourite thing to come out of the WWE in years. To throw it in the pop culture reference blender: it felt like Cena’s version of Into the Spider-Verse, directed by David Lynch and written by Grant Morrison.
Some background: Bray Wyatt debuted on WWE television in 2013, played by Windham Rotunda (real-life son of Mike Rotunda, a.k.a. the wrestling tax man IRS). He was basically a swamp cultist with a wry charisma and a feral violent streak in the ring.
Flanked by his devout believers Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, the Wyatt Family became one of the most interesting new acts in WWE, gaining significant crowd support – until falling to John Cena in 2014 at WrestleMania 30.
In 2019 Wyatt re-emerged, this time as the demented host of a children’s show called The Firefly Funhouse – think something in between Mister Rogers and Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared.
When he wrestles, Wyatt now takes the form of The Fiend, who could roughly be described as Greg Capullo’s Joker – a murderous, supernatural force rather than a clownish crook – who sometimes wields Harley Quinn’s giant hammer as a weapon.
Cena, the company golden boy who dominated the title scene for much of the past 15 years, hoped for a repeat win against a rejuvenated Wyatt. But he’d have to do it on The Fiend’s turf: “inside” the Firefly Funhouse.
Through a series of vignettes punctuated by archival footage, Cena made his way through the Funhouse, forced to relive scenes of his past. He appeared in the same bright orange tights as his 2002 WWE TV debut to challenge Kurt Angle, only this time it was Wyatt facing him – who mocks him one time by singing the theme song of Nikki Bella, Cena’s real-life one-time fiancée.
Later stuck in his white rapper gimmick (whose raunchy and homophobic jeers have not aged well), Cena found himself unable to anything but rap and rhyme.
The match even played with alternate history takes, placing Cena in rough analogies of Hulk Hogan as a weightlifting, tough-talking hero on the set of the WWE’s 80s mainstay Saturday Night Main Event, or, tantalizingly, traipsing out to WCW Monday Nitro as a member of the New World Order.
In the end, Cena loses control. He tackles Wyatt, and starts punching wildly as archive shots of some of his worst losses flash before his eyes. The scene changes briefly, and Cena realizes he’s beating on one of Wyatt’s puppet companions.
The Fiend approaches from behind, locks Cena in the Mandible Claw submission that Mick Foley made famous, and pins him to the mat. As The Fiend stands triumphant, Cena flashes out of existence. As his catch phrase succinctly puts it, we can no longer see him.
I found myself floored by the spectacle. Questions about what I had seen whirled through my mind. Did this match take place in Cena’s subconscious? How could Wyatt play the puppeteer and control Cena’s actions? Is John Cena… dead?
It’s unusual for any match to delve into the vault the way the Funhouse match did – even in a regular ring setting. More surprising was the willingness to look at the characters’ unvarnished histories, and the poor writers’ decisions behind them.
The parallels between Cena and Hogan, company-anointed mega-heroes in different eras, were made explicit. Cena donning the NWO’s colours as Hogan did hints at the years-long cry among some fans to end his good guy persona and join the villains’ side – turning heel, in wrestling parlance.
Wyatt, meanwhile, laments losing a large measure of fan support after his loss to Cena six years ago. Peering just around the fourth wall here lays part of the blame on WWE’s writers, for doing little with the character. That year, his only role was as a monster for Cena to slay, after which his career path appeared an afterthought.
Compare this to the WWE Network’s current documentary series on “the Ruthless Aggression Era,” which glosses over blemishes of all sorts during the mid-2000s.
The change from the WWF to the WWE is characterized as a move of marketing genius from chairman Vince McMahon, not the result of losing a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund. Stone Cold Steve Austin discusses his abrupt walk-out from the company, but you won’t find a single mention of his domestic abuse charges from that same time period.
The Firefly Funhouse match was an incredible surprise, full of creativity and a bright spot in an otherwise (and necessarily, considering the circumstances) ho-hum WrestleMania.
There’s good reason to not do this again too soon; there’s only so many times you can plumb the depths of a character with as much history to it as John Cena, and you’ll risk alienating a large swathe of the audience if it demands continuity knowledge that would make The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy sweat.
But for a brief moment, pro wrestling found its way not, like usual, thanks to the roar of a thousands-strong crowd, bright lights or a small fortune in fireworks.
Cena and Wyatt let the abstract and theatrical heart of wrestling shine through, and make a strong argument that it might be at its best without an audience at all.