At WWE Fastlane on Sunday, John Cena, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin, and Dolph Ziggler lost the Six-Pack Challenge to AJ Styles. That makes it official: AJ Styles will be facing Shinsuke Nakamura, 1-on-1, for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 34.
This was the best possible outcome, and even though WWE teased the possibility of a last-minute triple threat in New Orleans, it never seemed likely. Owens and Zayn are too tied up in their feud with Shane McMahon. Corbin belongs in the mid-card for now. Ziggler is Ziggler. And Cena has one foot out WWE’s door, and his record-breaking, 17th world title reign deserves a protracted, celebratory build. WWE can hold onto that storyline for a better moment.
On the March 13 episode of Smackdown, every wrestler not named AJ Styles or Shinsuke Nakamura will be scrambling to make WrestleMania plans. But regardless of what any of them do, it’s highly unlikely that any of them will outdo Cena, who appeared the previous night on Raw.
Cena admitted what every WWE fan has witnessed over the past two months; he would not fight for a world title at WrestleMania, and he didn’t deserve to. He lost every qualifying match, after all. Thus, Cena conceded, he would be heading to WrestleMania 34 as a fan, cheering from the audience rather than fighting in the ring. Cena was uncharacteristically loose and easygoing, and the crowd followed in kind. He hopped into the stands and took a sip from a guy’s beer. He goofed on Roman Reigns. He led the crowd in a “Cena sucks” chant.
Cena has done much to humanize himself over the past two years. It started, if we can pinpoint a particular moment, with his United States Championship Open Challenge in 2015, when Cena used his midcard spot to introduce younger talent and get them over. Most memorably, he put Kevin Owens over Elimination Chamber, where Owens pinned Cena cleanly after delivering a pop-up powerbomb.
Cena has also expanded his moveset–most notably to include a springboard stunner and a sunset flip powerbomb. Here was a WWE veteran and future Hall of Famer, doing his best in-ring work years after his prime.
Last night, the anti-Cena heckles and taunting were still there, but they had taken on an ironic tone. It’s like when fans chant “You suck!” to Kurt Angle–it’s a recognition and tribute to how over he was and how much heat he drew, rather than a literal diss.
And after basking in the fans’ adulation, Cena got down to brass tacks; he called out the Undertaker for a match at WrestleMania 34. Cena stated that he would be in New Orleans as an audience member, but if the Undertaker showed up, he’d be ready. And from then on out, the promo veered into worked shoot territory; Cena referenced just enough real-life events to make the fans suspend their disbelief. He accused the Undertaker, not WWE, of preventing the match from happening. He made fun of the Undertaker’s fitness by referencing his wife’s Instagram account. He went for every low blow outside of calling the Undertaker a wimp. And then he walked out to rapturous cheers.
Let’s start with the following fact: Regardless of the showmanship and red herrings over the next four weeks, there will definitely be a Cena vs. Undertaker match at WrestleMania 34, barring serious injury. It’s the Chekhov’s gun principle at work: “If there’s a gun hanging on the wall in Act I, it needs to go off in Act. II. Otherwise, playwrights, don’t put it there.” The WWE would not tease something this big, at its showcase event of the year, and then fail to deliver on it.
The more interesting question is how this storyline will progress over the next several weeks. It might work best as a one-sided feud, similar to what Bray Wyatt did for his Undertaker match at WrestleMania 31. The Undertaker never showed his face on free television, leaving Wyatt to do all the promo work by himself. The only Undertaker “appearance,” if you could call it that, was when a bolt of lightning struck Wyatt’s rocking chair.
Cena can also carry promo duties all by himself; based on past experience, he has enough barbs to deliver four more promos without repeating himself. And the Undertaker, meanwhile, should be completely silent. No interrupting Cena with lighting effects. No pyro and no creepy foreshadowing. Maintain that total blackout until the last 30 minutes of WrestleMania 34. By confirming nothing, WWE can place a seed of doubt in even the most cynical fan’s head: “Oh no, this might actually not happen!” And when the Undertaker finally does reveal himself, the response will be that much more cathartic and thunderous.
A critic might point out that The Undertaker already “retired” at WrestleMania 33 by laying his hat, coat, and gloves in the ring, and that to fight again might cheapen that original moment. But perhaps there’s a way WWE can have its cake and eat it too.
The Dead Man character may be retired. But the motorcycle-riding American Badass character, which is extremely close to the Undertaker’s real personality, might not be. The mere fact that Cena referenced the Undertaker’s wife shows that he’s not calling out the Death Valley, white-eyed, zombie Undertaker that Bray Wyatt called out. Cena is calling out the man behind that gimmick, Mark Calaway. Plus, Kid Rock is conveniently going into the WWE Hall of Fame the prior evening. Could we get treated to a live Kid Rock performance to go along with the return of Dead Man Inc.?
At any rate, be prepared for a “surprise” at New Orleans. And if the foreshadowing proves accurate? Be prepared to hear the roar of a chopper rather than the toll of a gong.