WrestleMania XIX made John Cena who he is, despite the fact that Cena wasn’t even on the card that night.
There are certain milestones in the history of pro-wrestling that receive tremendous amounts of attention. The Montreal Screwjob, the infamous “Austin 3:16” promo, and many other moments changed the face of pro-wrestling forever. However, everyone seems to forget the influence WrestleMania XIX had on contemporary WWE programming. WrestleMania XIX acted as an invitation for the WWE to begin the PG Era. In the years following WrestleMania XIX, we saw a greater emphasis put on storytelling and safer matches (e.g. no blood, no chairshots to the head) over dangerous, risky maneuvers that popularized the WWE in the Attitude Era.
The locker-room looked very different after WrestleMania XIX. Years of high-intensity wrestling was starting to catch up with many of the performers. Two of the top performers in the company were out of action. Kurt Angle took time off due to a neck injury, while Brock Lesnar left to nurse his first ever concussion (which was sustained in the main event match). At the same time, young stars like Edge and Rhyno were equally laid out on neck injuries. Even the comeback kid Shawn Michaels was still nursing injuries sustained from years of high-flying matches prior to WrestleMania XIV. Combined, these injuries perhaps influenced the WWE to reevaluate the level of violence in their programming and consider PG television as their future.
While Steve Austin wrestled The Rock in one of his finest matches at WrestleMania XIX, he too was facing persistent physical ailments that ultimately led to his retirement that night from regular in-ring action. The WrestleMania XIX match between Austin and Rock at XIX signaled the end of both the greatest feuds in wrestling history and the period known as the Attitude Era. With the end of WrestleMania XIX, we saw the closing of a time where shock value defined WWE booking. WrestleMania XIX hurt everyone physically, but it was the main event match between Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle for the Undisputed Championship that had the most lasting effect on WWE audiences and management.
Kurt Angle wrestled with a nearly broken neck against Brock Lesnar in the main event of WrestleMania XIX. During the match, Lesnar sustained a concussion after landing on his face following Shooting Star Press. While this match was certainly a five star caliber performance, it’s hard not to cringe when Lesnar falls flat on his face. Even the first few rows of fans leap in horror after this move. I remember watching this live and being 99.9% certain that Lesnar broke his neck, and that I had just seen the greatest rising star of the WWE crippled for life. Thank god for that 1% of doubt. I can only imagine how horrified the WWE backstage offices were. They invested a tremendous amount of money into Lesnar and built him up as an monster that entire year, only to see him nearly paralyzed by one dangerous move. That must have sent a clear message to management.
Following WrestleMania XIX, the WWE had to be concerned about their roster. Many of their once youthful athletes are now aging legends and working through injuries, suggesting they perhaps only had a decade or so left (e.g. Taker, HBK, Edge). At the same time, a young athlete like Lesnar nearly lost his life after attempting a dicey maneuver. Perilous TLC, Hell in a Cell, and no disqualification matches in the past partially contributed to all of the above athlete’s physical ailments. In order to preserve the health and well being of their future athletes and ensure a successful product, only one solution remained: go back to the story in wrestling; go back to safety.
Following WrestleMania XIX, the WWE seemed to make a concerted effort to focus on storytelling over high-risk danger in its matches. This change can be seen best by who the WWE chose to push during this period: John Cena. After all, why wouldn’t you want to support a guy like Cena who is purposefully willing to take care of your superstars? It was time to step away from creating “WrestleMania moments” by making athletes risk their lives and embrace the ability for athleticism to outweigh over-the-top violence and danger in the WWE.
John Cena was the perfect guy to become the next top man in the WWE. Who else should lead an entirely new generation in pro-wrestling than someone who is nothing like other main event talent? Cena talked differently, wrestled differently, and approached matches in an entirely different form. His moves didn’t vary often and he quickly became famous for getting crowds excited by utilizing Hulk Hogan‘s method of getting beaten up for awhile and then triumphantly returning. Cena is a quick and clean wrestler who gets the job done and leaves little, if any, room for error. It’s hard to mess up Cena’s finisher, which means the chance of another top guy going under the knife anytime soon is highly unlikely.
As much as we all criticize John Cena’s one-dimensional character and linear wrestling style, you can’t deny that he’s defined the last decade or so of wrestling. Who did the injured Brock Lesnar work with at Backlash, the next pay-per-view following WrestleMania XIX? John Cena. Of course you want a guy like Lesnar who just suffered a tremendous concussion after WrestleMania XIX to work with Cena who can rile up the crowd without having to do a chair-shot to the head or throw Brock off the top of a steel cage. Cena became the #1 contender on an April episode of Smackdown and thus began the Era of Cena.
John Cena has remained the top guy in the WWE longer than Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin or The Rock. Even though CM Punk (the WWE champion) now headlines most house shows and pay-per-views, John Cena is still the biggest superstar in the company If we look at the WrestleManias after XIX, we saw John Cena have a title match at every WrestleMania, and main event all but WrestleMania XX. Cena defined himself as an amicable guy backstage, and a fan favorite for young children. Essentially, he possesses everything that made the WWE happy: he played well with others and didn’t rough up the other performers. More than anything, Cena got a reaction. Whether it is negative or positive, Cena evokes strong feelings from fans without having to jump off the TitanTron or run perform do a spear off a ladder.
Cena is the eternal punching bag for all gripes against the PG Era. However, as I have outlined above, the PG Era wasn’t born overnight. The PG Era didn’t come on full force until years after WrestleMania XIX. WrestleMania XIX planted the seeds of the PG Era in the minds of the WWE and made the possibility of using Cena as its figurehead all that more real. After WrestleMania XIX, Cena became the man wrestling fans either loved or hated.
I’m not going to say that there weren’t violent wrestling matches after WrestleMania XIX, especially since the WWE didn’t officially change its programming to PG with a family-friendly slant until 2008. There was plenty of blood and gore in those five years. However, within those five years after WrestleMania XIX, the WWE certainly began to emphasize the story over risky spots. Look no further than Raw last week when John Cena was bloodied by Brock Lesnar. WWE fans lost their minds. The less often we see blood, swearing, or racy content, the bigger reaction the WWE receives it actually happens. One of the greatest aspects of the PG Era is that guys like John Cena have had to work harder to impress an audience without simply slicing their forehead open or having a the Divas wrestle in a lingerie match.
WWE made John Cena who he is. Coming from OVW with little wrestling experience, the WWE was able to mold John Cena into the figurehead for the PG era. There’s nothing wrong with that. Imagine what the WWE roster would look like if after WrestleMania XIX we continued with high-risk TLC matches, bloody Hell in a Cell bouts, and dangerous street fights? A majority of the wrestlers would be injured for a better part of the year! WrestleMania XIX was extreme in many respects. People got hurt and we saw the figurative end to the Attitude Era. In the end, the WWE chose a more conservative path by stepping into PG television, not to water-down their product and disappoint fans, but instead to keep the superstars we adore alive for many more years to come.