Revisiting the Collective: Wrestlemania XXVIII: Rock vs. John Cena Battling to Make Wrestling Cool Again

(CS: I am not going to repost all of my past pop culture columns from The Collective Publishing site, because a significant amount were previews for upcoming TV or movie seasons in 2012-2014 that don't really have much value in 2020. Even though this is basically just a preview for a show that has long passed, I am kind of proud of the fact that I was able to write about wrestling when my editor couldn't have been less interested in the pseudo-sport.  Plus, I do discuss wrestling history on here, and I get a kick out of pointing out all the things that I got wrong because mocking 2012 Christopher is fun. What a goof.)

Wrestlemania XXVIII (that’s 28 for the roman numerically challenged) is this Sunday night. Wrestlemania is the biggest event for wrestling fans, and is the one night in the year that many become wrestling fans.(CS: I got my wrestling-hating wife to even watch the last three matches on this show -- though she'd never admit it, I think that she had fun)  It attracts hardcore wrestling fans, casual fans, and even some “non-fans”. It has become a huge extravaganza that several cities bid for the right to host the event (there were 14 cities that threw in a bid to host this year’s mega event). It is a weekend of festivities that is capped off with a 4 hour (CS: Now, it has ballooned to a ridiculous five and half hour main show with a two hour pre-show) Sunday night wrestling event that fills a stadium with often over 65 000 fans (CS: Unless it is 2020 where it is in the empty Performance Centre and is a two night event) and attracts close to (and sometimes even over) million more globally on Pay Per View (PPV) television. (CS: WWE killed their PPV model when they launched their own WWE Network in 2014, where fans went from paying $60 an event to $10 a month for the library of past events/shows and new monthly events)  You add in the revenue from tickets for the wrestling event, the countless merchandise sold, the buys from PPV , and the other events over the weekend (including a Saturday night Hall of Fame), then you’re looking at the most lucrative weekend of the year for the wrestling giant, WWE. (CS: WWE now makes most of their money from lucrative TV deals they have in place with USA Network and FOX)

This year WWE is hoping for its most profitable Wrestlemania ever as it presents its event from Miami. (CS: To this day, it was the most profitable wrestling show ever on PPV) Wrestlemania often attracts former wrestling fans that have drifted away from the pseudo sport and garners enough media attention to lure several curious viewers. This year it is banking on grabbing the horde of fans it once had back when wrestling was still considered cool in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. (CS: It was the first event I ordered on PPV since around 2003, and my second last ever)

Wrestlemania is being headlined by what WWE is billing the biggest main event off all time, when its current biggest star John Cena does battle with one of the biggest stars of the “cool period of wrestling” and current box office juggernaut film star, Dwayne Johnson or in wrestling known as The Rock.

The Sunday main event presents a very interesting dynamic and will attract two very different generation of fans. John Cena is the current mega star in the WWE and is a massive merchandise seller among the younger wrestling fans, and he has helped make the company a ridiculous amount of money even if wrestling isn’t as “hot” or “trendy” as it was ten years ago. Cena is despised by the older wrestling fans who consider him one of the reasons they’ve moved away from wrestling and replaced it with things like UFC (a company that attracted countless past wrestling fans who have become frustrated with the current direction of wrestling). They see Cena as a cartoon character who panders to the audience and the epitome of the new “family friendly” style WWE. The WWE realizes they’ve lost these fans, but also hope they can get them back for at least one night by appealing to nostalgia. (CS: The record PPV buyrate would say that they succeeded for that one night). They will bring back not only one of the most popular wrestlers during the hottest period in WWE (then known as WWF), but one of the most profitable wrestlers ever. The old fans see the Rock as a charismatic, cool and edgy wrestler who was a major part of when they actually loved wrestling, or more importantly, everything that they believe Cena isn’t.

All signs point to WWE being successful in garnering interest and getting some of these old fans to return to watch Wrestlemania. Wrestlemania is always an event that attracts tons of attention, but with the addition of the Rock, WWE is likely to get one of its highest buy rates ever on PPV (CS: Highest grossing, at least) and rake in a mountainous amount of cash. Obviously, the WWE hopes to get some of these old fans to stick around and create yet another golden era for wrestling (and snag back some of those fans that UFC “stole” away from them). (CS: In what had to be considered a heroic effort, the next night after Wrestlemania they had the return of UFC star and former WWE Champion, Brock Lesner who beat-up Cena to set up the next program)  Is Rock vs. Cena the match and event that will create new fans and bring back old ones? (CS: Nope. Even Brock wasn't enough to get me to stick around as a weekly viewer) The best way to figure that out is look at two past Wrestlemanias that played a big part in creating “boom periods” in wrestling.

The first Wrestlemania was in 1985 and emanated from the historic Madison Square Gardens in New York (at the time considered the main base of operations for the then WWF). The main event was a tag team match that saw the evil Rowdy Roddy Piper (CS: RIP) and his partner “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff battle with WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan and TV star Mr. T. Now, Mr. T is considered a bit of a punch line to a joke about the ‘80s, but in 1985, he was a legitimate mainstream superstar. He was the star of a smash hit TV show (The A-Team), he was making countless cameos, had his own action figure, and even had his own breakfast cereal. (CS: Plus a Saturday morning cartoon, motivational videotapes and music album)  His involvement in the first Wrestlemania made the event a true pop culture extravaganza that attracted tons of media and made it the must attend event (even if you were a non wrestling fan). (CS: I shortchanged poor Cyndi Lauper who was responsible for kicking off the Rock and Wrestling Connection and got the momentum going before this and would have been a draw as the manager in the Women's title match) 

The week leading to Wrestlemania, Mr. T and Hulk Hogan were on several talk shows and all over various forms of media. Now, obviously Mr. T wasn’t going to stick around after the wrestling match because he had his popular TV show, and so the goal was to create a new star to get those new fans hooked on the product. Hulk Hogan being associated with Mr. T made him a household name, and to this day, many non-wrestling fans still know the name Hulk Hogan. Hogan became a larger than life superhero and led the WWF to their most profitable period at the time between 1985 to about 1990.

In the mid to late ‘80s, wrestling was a major part of Saturday morning television, (CS: It was more Saturday afternoon) the wrestling figures were all over places like Walmart and Toys R Us, and it was the cool thing to talk about at school. (CS: It was actually the wrestling figures that turned me into a wrestling fan as I got several for my birthday in 1987 and asked my mom if I could watch one episode so I can could see my toys on TV, and well, the rest is history)  The kids eventually grew up and the adults tired of the wrestling product and Hogan started to become stale. (CS: More like grew to be teenagers than adults since we're talking about early 90s and my age group).  But for a good part of the ‘80s, wrestling was incredibly popular, and Hulk Hogan was a mainstream superstar.

The WWF ended up making even more money and becoming more popular in 1998 thanks to the success of Wrestlemania XIV. The WWF once again gained tons of media exposure thanks to the announcement that Mike Tyson (who was a huge PPV draw and the biggest star in boxing) would be the special referee/enforcer during the WWF World Championship main event between Shawn Michaels and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The company got tons of exposure before the event with a scripted altercation where “Stone Cold” Steve Austin confronted Mike Tyson in the ring and they both got into a shoving match. The entire thing was planned, but it still ended up being reported by several different major national and international media outlets. (CS: It is an angle that WWE and many other companies tried to replicate again but nothing ever really got the mainstream attention like that angle again)  

Wrestlemania once again attracted attention from casual or even non-wrestling fans. The day after Wrestlemania, several fans tuned into the Monday Night Raw telecast to watch the new WWF World Champion “Stone Cold” Steve Austin stand up to the evil boss Vince McMahon and kick off a huge storyline that pushed WWF into the most profitable and popular period ever. A new superstar was created in Stone Cold Steve Austin who was seen as the blue-collar hero standing up to his corrupt boss, and he fit perfectly into an era that glorified the anti-hero.

These two Wrestlemanias have something in common with this year’s event. All three headlined a popular mainstream superstar and used his popularity to garner attention and attract outside fans. Wrestlemania 1 and 14 were able to turn that attention into several years of major success. The big difference is that there was also a wrestler ready to be made into a new star. Once the celebrities like Mr. T and Mike Tyson left, they left behind the creation of new superstars like Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The WWE doesn’t have that this time. Once the Rock returns to making movies, there isn’t that new star to be created.(CS: To be fair, Hulk Hogan had already been established as top draw before Wrestlemania and Stone Cold was clearly the guy at that point, but the Wrestlemanias were used to push them ever farther and attract that elusive casual audience)  John Cena has been around for years, and the fans they want to bring back have already decided they despise him. (CS: To be fair yet again, Cena may not have Hogan, Austin or Rock appeal, but his name was a draw and having him on top did increase ratings, buyrates and ticket sales. WWE would kill for someone of Cena's drawing power today).  In the past, the celebrities were able to give the rub of success to a wrestler and help propel him into stardom. This time, these fans want to see the celebrity (The Rock) vanquish the wrestler. But if that happens, you have the celebrity disappearing and nothing left to make new fans. (CS: What I didn't know at the time was the 'Once in Lifetime' slogan for this match was a lie and they already had planned a two-match series with a rematch to take place at the next Wrestlemania)

Wrestlemania 28 will be successful, and it is going to draw in an army of fans who haven’t watched wrestling in ages. But it isn’t going to be the next boom period of wrestling and most likely, many of the fans will then go on to forget about wrestling for another 364 days. (CS: Because of the surprise Lesner return the next night, I'd say many stuck around for a few more weeks until they killed that goodwill by having Lesner lose to Cena in his first match back)  I’m sure there may be some inclination to make these fans happy by scripting the Rock to be victorious (especially since he is wrestling in his adopted hometown of Miami), and I know that is even the finish I want to see. The reality is, the Rock will be gone after Wrestlemania, and Cena will be left trying to sell tickets and be the top star. He has to win, and yes, it will mean everything will just return back to normal. The old fans will leave in disgust, and the attention will fade away from the WWE. (CS: Rock ended up winning, but what I didn't know was he was signed for three more matches over the next year that included him winning the WWE World title and then losing it to Cena at the next Wrestlemania. Though the rematch did significantly less business since people were burnt after being promised this was a 'Once in a Lifetime' match. But who is the fool for believing wrestling marketing?)

Wrestling may become the cool and popular thing again one day. (CS: It still hasn't but it has become immensely profitable due to some smart TV deals) It won’t be this year and may not be any time soon. There will be periods where the old fans will come back to check out a Wrestlemania or watch an occasional show, but they likely won’t stick around for long. (CS: I think Ronda Rousey brought in some fans for a short bit too, but they didn't stick around either. I know I haven't consistently watch WWE since about 2002. Though before Covid-19, I was getting into a new rival promotion, AEW) One day, there might be another star who is ready to be the next Hulk Hogan or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin who will sell tons of merchandise and create legions of new fans. John Cena likely won’t be that man. (CS: I was unfair to Cena here. He is easily one of the biggest WWE draws after Hogan, Austin, Rock and Bruno Sammartino, and a much longer draw on top than Austin or Rock, though never near as big. And again, WWE would kill today to get anyone even as half as over as Cena today) But he still has played an important part in bringing back the old fans for one night, and making many people interested in wrestling for a short period of time. He is the man that many fans hope will be defeated by their returning hero, The Rock. It likely won’t happen, and it shouldn’t happen. (CS: It did) The match has made wrestling cool again for just one night, and I’m sure the profits will be enough to make WWE very happy. (CS: Highest grossing PPV ever, so yes. I remember someone in the comments of this original article telling me how I was overestimating the appeal of this match)