Wrestling Opinion: What If WWE Had Fired John Cena In 2002?

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As part of an occasional series, we look at great What If scenarios in wrestling history which could indeed have changed the course of how major events may have occurred for wrestlers and companies. Today, we ponder the question: what if John Cena had been fired by WWE in 2002?

So, Cena has stated multiple times that he was on the verge of being released in WWE in 2002, following a run on SmackDown that had begun as a white-meat babyface and had recently seen him turn into a by-the-numbers lower card heel. As it turned out, Cena demonstrated his rapping skills on a tour bus with creative bods present, and his opportunity to showcase this talent on TV led to him getting over big-time as a heel, and then as a babyface. Cena has since gone on to become one of the biggest WWE stars ever, and certainly WWE’s biggest draw since the heyday of the Attitude Era.

Therefore, it’s fascinating to consider how close Cena was to being cut. Given how prominent a role he would play for the company, one can only wonder as to how things would have transpired in WWE if Cena had been ditched way back in late ‘02. But that is the purpose of articles such as this, and so today we’re examining what would have happened if Cena had not been such a big part of WWE in the past 16 years.

Let’s start briefly with John himself. He likely would have been given a shot in NWA:TNA; the man had appeared on WWE television a fair few times, which was enough to earn an opportunity with that company in its early days. This would have been around January 2003, and there’s a decent chance he would have succeeded. But in front of what would become a smarky audience after they began to record all of their shows in Orlando the following year, without the rap gimmick to get him off the ground, and with only rudimentary wrestling skills, it’s more likely that Cena would have moved on from TNA by late 2003 or 2004. I actually believe he still would have pursued acting at this stage, and likely done very well for himself (albeit less successful than his acting has been with the WWE machine behind him). Or maybe he would have returned to bodybuilding, his passion prior to entering the wrestling business.

Either way, Cena’s future prospects would have been far less fruitful than they have been as The Man in WWE; this is hardly a revelation. What is really interesting to consider is how WWE would have fared without Cena as the face of the company. We’ll consider what would have likely occurred in WWE with a short-term, medium-term and long-term perspective.

Starting with the short-term (meaning the six months or so following a potential Cena release, which would take us up to around Backlash 2003, a show where John challenged Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship), very little would have changed at first. With the exception of an alternative foe for Brock at Backlash (A-Train may have been slotted in as part of what was once a never-ending push for him to get over, or perhaps his conflict with Big Show would have been revived a month earlier than it actually was), WWE wouldn’t have been seriously affected at all by the fact that Cena wasn’t around.

More noteworthy would have been the medium-term, which from October 2002 would have brought us to the fallout of WrestleMania XX. By that point, Cena had risen rapidly up the ranks, going from a cocky young heel to the next potential mega-star babyface. Cena captured the United States Championship from Big Show at WM XX, though some felt even then that he had already done enough to earn the WWE Title. Regardless, Cena was heading to the top, and he represented not only the future of SmackDown, but the future of WWE as a whole. But what if he weren’t on the roster? Who could have stepped into his shoes (well, sneakers) as SD’s fastest-rising star?

Well, Edge was on the verge of returning from a long lay-off due to neck surgery, and he had been on SD prior to his injury. If WWE had managed to clear him in time for WM 20 (his comeback was first promoted on the show), it’s entirely possible that he would have dethroned Big Show that night. Alternatively, without Cena around, WWE may have kept Chris Benoit on SmackDown, allowing him to win the US Title against Show, which of course would have changed plans for the World Heavyweight Championship and the Raw brand as a whole dramatically. SmackDown had plenty going on during 2003 and 2004, so it’s not like WWE absolutely needed Cena at that stage, but there’s no question that John made the SD landscape a lot more interesting. Therefore, not having him available on the roster would have made a difference, and the upper mid-carders of the era would have filled his spot at that point.

It is the long-term, though, which is the most intriguing to ponder. Cena claimed his first WWE Championship from John Bradshaw Layfield at WrestleMania 21, and went on to become the biggest star in the company. Over the next twelve years, Cena would win another 15 heavyweight crowns, main eventing five WrestleManias and dozens of other PPVs, as well as facing just about every major player of the era, including one of the biggest names of all-time, The Rock, in two massive Mania battles. Right now, Cena is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall Of Famer, and no matter how much longer John is a part of WWE (his appearances have greatly diminished since WrestleMania 34), his status as one of the company’s biggest ever stars is assured.

But if he weren’t around, somebody else would have been the face of WWE for all those years. The question is, who?

Let’s start with the WWE Title situation at Mania 21. JBL’s title reign would need to have been terminated by someone else. If we remove Cena from the equation, and assume that WWE would have been more likely to keep Benoit or a babyface Edge on the blue brand, there’s an excellent chance that one of those would have dethroned Layfield; most likely Edge, since he had always been destined to become a heavyweight champion at some point (the jury was out on Benoit’s title hopes until he won the 2004 Royal Rumble).

It’s easy to assume that Edge would have adopted Cena’s position, and he would have done so initially in the spring of 2005 as the babyface WWE Champion. The thing is, though, he has always thrived more as a heel, especially as the Rated R Superstar. There’s no way that WWE wouldn’t have capitalised on this, and Edge’s good-guy character would have needed a fresh coat of paint to receive the opportunity to unseat JBL as champion anyway. A heel turn would have been inevitable in late 2005, perhaps after a switch to Raw in the Draft. Edge would have still gone to lift many major titles and serve as one of the all-time great villains, but in terms of serving as the company’s top babyface year after year, it seems very unlikely that it would have been Edge.

Benoit was already in his late 30s at this point, and so was Eddie Guerrero, who had been WWE Champion already in 2004 and having been the guy who JBL dethroned. Had it not been for his tragic death, Eddie would have probably won another top title, but I couldn’t see Latino Heat being presented as The Guy. Rey Mysterio’s size meant that fans couldn’t buy him completely when he became World Champion in 2006, which rules him out as the man to hold the company fort down for years on end. One thing in Mysterio’s favour would have been strong merchandise sales due to his appeal towards younger fans, which we’ll come back to later.

We already covered Brock Lesnar in our previous What If, but we assumed that he would have remained in WWE with Cena as a part of the fold. If John wasn’t there, then big bad Brock theoretically would have had even more opportunities to be the WWE or World Champion, and the spot as the company’s number one guy. But as a bruising performer who thrived on pure violence, with a dislike for people and an attitude that is hard to warm to, and little in the way of mainstream appeal (since we’re pretending that he never would have gone to UFC), I would predict that while Lesnar definitely would have been a key player, he wouldn’t have quite been the guy that WWE as a whole operated around. And if he would have still left the company in 2004, this would have been immaterial anyway.

That brings us to Kurt Angle, who has stated (albeit under the possible veil of kayfabe) that Cena’s rise played a minor part in his 2006 exit, in that he wanted to be the number one man in WWE, but John was chosen for the opportunities that Kurt wanted. Without Cena around, Angle’s path to pole position would seem clearer. Yet there is one important external factor: his ongoing injury issues, which first impacted WWE in early 2003, just a few months after our theoretical release of the former Prototype.

WWE did persevere with Steve Austin as The Man despite his neck issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Stone Cold adapted his style to accommodate his injury, and he had popularity that was off-the-charts. Though popular and extremely talented (at his peak, he was one of the best ever), Angle likely wouldn’t have received the same treatment long-term, because his neck issues would arise so often, and be so severe, that little over three years after he main evented WrestleMania XIX, many were calling for Angle to retire for the sake of his health. WWE wouldn’t have trusted Kurt (in his mid-30s at this stage, incidentally) to be the company’s top man in the face of such neck woes. A WWE/World Champion and regular headliner, absolutely; the top guy in WWE, not quite.

Elsewhere, JBL never had a run in the ring as a good guy under that persona, so trusting him to be the face of WWE is a stretch to say the very least. Booker T was a possibility, but if WWE weren’t interested in having him dethrone Triple H for the World Heavyweight Championship at Mania 19, I doubt that WWE would have anointed him as their numero uno. Rob Van Dam had been advised to establish a closer relationship with Vince McMahon to increase his odds of a permanent top spot; that he chose not to means that he probably wouldn’t have become the centrepiece of the WWE Universe (mind you, who could blame RVD for not wanting to kiss up?). And The Undertaker was already transitioning into a special attraction, so while he would steal the show at seven straight WrestleManias via his vaunted Streak, WWE would not have made him their focal point, aside from occasional title runs, by the mid-2000s. All of which means we have to look to Raw to find our replacement for Big Match John.

On the red brand, Shawn Michaels was in the same spot as Undertaker with regards to having elder statesman status, which rules him out. Shelton Benjamin was a rising young star on Raw in 2004/2005, but if he wasn’t even awarded a World Title shot at any point on the red brand, then he clearly wouldn’t have been given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. Ditto Christian, who as an arrogant and comical heel only received one title shot at Vengeance 2005 before departing for TNA for a few years. In terms of Christian being the face of WWE, If the stories are to be believed, Vince didn’t even want to see his actual face on television, suggesting a blue dot to cover up his facial features at one point.

Chris Jericho was still around, though he had already been sent packing from the main event picture after a turbulent Undisputed Championship reign in 2001/2002. He was always a candidate to challenge for the top prizes, and he would go on to enjoy further title reigns during his second WWE tenure. Like Edge, Jericho was better suited as a villain, and the guy to work with The Guy as opposed to being, erm, The Guy. Goldberg was gone from WWE after WM 20, and he wouldn’t return until late 2016, which was after Cena’s peak period as The Man had come and gone. Kane’s character was too busy torching announcers, electrocuting testicles and forcibly impregnating Lita to be considered as the new top babyface to appear on shows such as Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brian.

Which leaves us with only two strong candidates remaining: Batista and Randy Orton.

Batista did actually main event WrestleMania 21 by ending Triple H’s reign as World Heavyweight Champion. At that stage, he really did seem like a bigger star than fellow new champion Cena, and he legitimately replaced him on SmackDown when the two swapped brands in the 2005 Draft. The Animal was promoted as and received as the top babyface on the blue brand for several years, and Batista would remain a top-level main event WWE performer, right up until he left the company in 2010. In theory, then, Batista would have been The Guy – but not in practice.

After all, Batista was truly made by his break-up storyline with Evolution head honcho Triple H. If you took that storyline away from him, it would have been a lot harder to get people on board with Batista (who had previously been cast as the distant fourth member of the faction, and with him rarely doing the talking for himself), and harder still for him to have adopted the role of The Guy. Bear in mind that he didn’t supplant Cena as WWE’s top star, even with that classic plotline in his favour. And in order to take what would have been John’s spot, he will have had to have joined SD a lot earlier, as in the 2004 Draft Lottery, with the company having a year to prepare the highly-untested Animal for such an opportunity.

It’s worth remembering that, without Cena, there is one less body to promote in a headline role, and one less (very strong) candidate to lead the company forward. WWE would have had to take a chance on somebody, and for it to have been Batista, he would have had to move to SD if we are reliving Cena’s career trajectory. But why move Big Dave in order for his main event prospects to become a possibility? Because in our reality, his slow-burning Evolution breakup storyline would have been assigned to the man who was originally supposed to face (and dethrone) HHH at Mania 21 – Randy Orton.

Orton was on his own journey to the top and, by summer 2004, he was as hot a young talent as anybody. The plan, by all accounts, was for Randy to win his first World Title, and thus become a massive babyface star, by beating The Game at WM 21. Instead, WWE rushed things by having him capture the WHC from Chris Benoit at SummerSlam 2004. The next night, he was booted out of Evolution, and a month later at Unforgiven, he lost the gold back to Tripper. Supposedly, the new plan was for Randy to reclaim the title in a rematch at Mania, but by the start of 2005, fans had lost interest in Orton, and were more interested in the storyline that was just beginning concerning HHH and Batista.

It’s possible that WWE would have still fast-tracked Orton to the top, even without Cena climbing the ranks on the other show, but it seems less likely. There would have been greater pressure for the company to get it right with Randy. When they fumbled with Orton in late 2004, they had Batista as a back-up plan, but in our alternate universe, The Animal would have been on SmackDown for months by that point. Therefore, WWE either would have been patient and made Orton a main eventer properly, or they would have stuck with their Plan B and had Randy dethrone HHH in an Unforgiven rematch on April 3 2005.

Either way, Orton would have been the top face on Raw after a title win at WM 21. He likely would have stayed on Raw and defended his title against all and sundry, making him The Guy for the remainder of 2005 and beyond. But here’s the kicker: not unlike Edge and Jericho, Orton works best as a heel and, more importantly, would he have gotten over on a massive level as a babyface? Randy was even booed against HHH at Royal Rumble 2005, which wouldn’t bode well for his chances of being the company’s top good guy for an entire era. In fact, Orton wouldn’t enjoy another face turn until 2010, and it was moderately successful at best.

Orton’s Achilles heels as a babyface (aside from how badly he was booked in late ‘04) were his arrogance, his somewhat annoyed attitude towards fans away from the ring on occasion, and his lack of likability. Plus, despite his obvious talent, there was a perception that he only received his big push because of his family ties, which AJ Styles once again brought up not too long ago. What’s more, he allegedly treated some co-workers extremely poorly, and he later admitted to having other issues outside the ring during this period. And he’s never been known as a big draw or a top-level merchandise seller, all of which mean that while he would have likely received the opportunity to be WWE’s number one babyface, I honestly don’t believe he would have succeeded.

This brings us back to Batista. On the surface, he would therefore be the top candidate for such a position, but we’ve already noted the factors that would have worked against him if he didn’t get to benefit from his most famous storyline. You could alter the narrative a bit and suggest that Batista would have stayed on Raw, allowing Orton to have jumped to SD in the 2004 Draft, but Batista hadn’t yet commanded the spotlight enough for JR and The King to credibly proclaim him as the future of Raw. Besides, WWE wasn’t moving Orton from Raw at this point; he was way too valuable to the brand, even if his chances of being a money-making babyface headliner seemed slim (as a heel, Orton was a shoo-in for a top-line run).

The only way you could flip the script, therefore, is to have brought Batista (as WWE Champion) back to Raw in exchange for Orton (as World Champion) in the 2005 Draft, potentially leading to Batista vs. HHH at WrestleMania 22 instead. This would have allowed Batista to be on the correct show if he wished to lead WWE. Honestly, though, the feud with Tripper would not have compared to the rivalry we actually got, because the leading aspect – him leaving Evolution, with Trips wanting to avoid this in order to preserve his own title reign – would have been absent. Plus, would fans have cared enough about Batista to warrant him main eventing a Mania in 2006 under the circumstances?

Also, consider that Batista left WWE in 2010, and if we’re to believe the stories, he had begun to really lose his passion for the product as soon as late 2008, not a massive amount of time after his first title win at WM 21. He still would have enjoyed a decent run as The Man by that stage, but that’s all it would have been: decent at best. Had he not departed, it’s possible (in our fantasy universe) that he would have been the top dog that The Rock targeted in his major return, thus giving us Rock vs. Batista at WM 28 instead. Or maybe if Big Dave had still departed, it would have been Rock vs. Orton, the other big candidate as the face of the company. But given what we have noted about both men, would either of their potential showdowns against Rock have been bigger than Cena vs. Rock actually was? I doubt it.

There is one final wrestler who I haven’t profiled: Triple H. By default, he was WWE’s biggest full-time star in 2003-2004, albeit as a heel who had wound fans up massively, whether the almost-constant victories that his character achieved were the responsibility of his booking influence or not. HHH certainly could have slid into the role of top babyface from 2005 onwards: he was definitely over when DX reunited in 2006, and he was effective as the babyface WWE Champion In 2008. But would fans have taken to him in the same way that they did to the younger, fresher Cena, even in spite of all of John’s critics? Let’s be frank, having already lifted ten World Championships by January 2005 and having ruled Raw with an iron fist for so long, the last thing that fans would have needed is an even stronger, more forceful “You will like this man, dammit!” push for HHH. Such a strategy was possible, and it could have worked, but chances are that it would have backfired on WWE eventually. A top face, yes, but not THE top face (look at WrestleMania 25 for a perfect example of a babyface HHH main event flat-lining, or WM X8 back in 2002).

Whatever way you look at it, and no matter how much fans would chant “Cena Sucks!” and “You can’t wrestle!”, WWE as a business and as a product would have been weaker without John Cena. The artistic quality of main events with another performer in the top babyface role may have increased, especially between 2005-2006, but TV ratings, PPV buy rates, live event ticket sales and certainly merchandise numbers all would have surely been lower. Cena attracted a younger demographic, one which may not have been as interested had the guy with the multi-coloured T-shirts and spinner title belts not been present. How it would have affected WWE going PG is unknown, but with the TV-14 rating seeming to have little impact on the company’s popularity by 2004 anyway, the company would have probably embraced a more diverse audience at some point anyway. All in all, the fanbase may have complained about him for years, but in this case, our What If demonstrates how we should be thankful that a seemingly-harmless bullet was avoided, because WWE firing John Cena in 2002 would probably not have altered its long-term future for the better.

Of course, it is pure speculation and guesswork as to how WWE would have fared without John Cena for all that time. Who knows, maybe Randy Orton would have found a way to appeal to a wider demographic and make himself an all-time great babyface headliner. Hell, perhaps Cena would have been enough of a roaring success in TNA to have warranted a second chance in WWE around 2006-2007. Nevertheless, everybody has an opinion, and this is our take on how things might have panned out. It’s always fun to consider What If’s in wrestling, and so it has proven to be a lot of fun to speculate: What If WWE Had Fired John Cena In 2002?

Keep checking out Writebase for another instalment of a wrestling-related What If in the near future!