A former world champion, now holding a lesser but still prestigious prize, holding open challenges every week with that prize on the line. Sound familiar?
It should. We are seeing this every week with John Cena and his open US Championship challenges. So far we’ve seen Stardust, Dean Ambrose, Bad News Barrett and Kane take up the challenge.
But the scenario may also sound familiar for another reason. That’s because we saw it around 10 years ago, featuring the legendary Kurt Angle with his Olympic Gold Medal (I realise it’s not exactly a lesser prize, but that’s how it was painted at the time in WWE). As luck would have it, Kurt Angle an open challenges ties in very well with John Cena.
Two years before Angle was putting gold medals on the line, he issued an open challenge. It was the Smackown right after King Of The Ring 2002, where Angle made Hulk Hogan tap out for the first time in his career. And the previous week on Smackdown, Angle had defeated the Undertaker. He was at the top of the blue brand. This open challenge was to someone he had never faced before, in an effort to prove that he was the best, and as he put it at the time, the poster boy of “ruthless aggression”.
The man who answered Angle’s challenge was the debuting John Cena. Cena would of course become the real face of the so-called Ruthless Agression era, as well as the WWE in general. It all started with an impressive showing against the top Smackdown-exclusive heel at the time, which of course helped him get a reaction from the crowd.
Cena is in the same spot in the card. Anyone going up against him will get a reaction because of who Cena is. And we have the same possibility with Cena taking on people every week, for the United States Championship.
Let me just preface this by saying that I really like Cena as the US Champion. The whole point of having him there is that he will take the title to the next level, which his name value alone will do. Having him defend it every week can only add to that, especially after having gone for so long without seeing the belt defended at all, and being used as nothing more than a prop. It means that when someone does eventually beat Cena, not only will they have won one of the most prestigious championships in the industry, and not only will they have defeated John Cena, they will have done it after so many others had tried and failed.
And on top of even that, it is giving us fresh matches. What other situation could you have seen Cena vs Stardust? It’s something different for Cena to do, and it’s giving everybody else the experience of being in the ring with the top guy, which can only help them. As I heard a few times on Chris Jericho’s recent podcast with William Regal, you only get better by being in the ring with people better than you. I know Cena isn’t exactly heralded as the greatest wrestler ever, but there is a reason he has been at the top for as long as he has, and people can still learn from him.
What really excites me though, is the potential Cena’s open challenges have. Maybe we could see the debut of the next real era defining superstar in a John Cena US Title open challenge, much in the same way Cena himself debuted against Kurt Angle. And again, like Cena, they wouldn’t even have to win to go over huge in the long run. An impressive showing against Cena, with a big reaction, would be just as good for someone’s long term prospects as a win. One person in particular I can remember really looking good against Cena a few years ago was Seth Rollins. Look at him now.
So who could debut against Cena then? My obvious candidate, based on the apparent stipulation in his contract that says he spends a limited amount of time in NXT, would be Finn Balor. But how about Sami Zayn, who has long been rumoured to step up to the big time? Or maybe, just to really grind in the Kurt Angle link, and dare I even think of how big of a moment it could be, could it be Samoa Joe?
That will remain to be seen. What we do know though, is that John Cena has moved into a different stage of his career. He isn’t at the top right now, he isn’t in the World Title picture. Could he move back up? Sure. But it wouldn’t be for an extended run anymore. Now he is going to be working with more up and coming guys, like Bray Wyatt or Rusev, and helping to put over the importance of the United States Championship again. That’s something he can do well, and will be of benefit to everyone around him. And I for one, am looking forward to seeing who can use the opportunity of facing John Cena to launch themselves to the next level.