John Cena talks about his long-lost rapper gimmick, and why he doesn't think WWE's raunchy "Attitude Era" would work well today. In many ways, WWE has come full circle as a company. Then called the World Wrestling Federation, Vince McMahon's sports entertainment empire first rose to prominence on the back of the family friendly Hulkamania era in the 80s and early 90s, fueled by top stars such as "Macho Man" Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, Andre the Giant, and of course Hulk Hogan himself.
In the late 90s, after a period of dropping business for the company, WWE reinvented itself with the "Attitude Era," an envelope-pushing product targeted at teens and young adults. Spurred on by top names like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock, the "Attitude Era"s take-no-prisoners style carried WWE to new heights, vanquishing rival WCW along the way. By the mid-2000s though, WWE switched things up yet again, dropping the rating of their TV programming to TV-PG, and becoming family friendly once more. This has stuck to the present day, and has seen WWE continue to rapidly grow as a worldwide force in entertainment and overall pop culture.
The current face of WWE is no doubt John Cena. A 16-time world champion, Cena has reigned atop WWE since 2005, headlining multiple WrestleMania cards. While Cena is currently spending more and more time acting in movies, he's still not quite left WWE behind, and has challenged fellow wrestling icon The Undertaker to a dream match at this weekend's WeestleMania XXXIV pay-per-view. During a recent chat, we asked Cena about the foul-mouthed rapper gimmick that originally made him a star in the TV-14 WWE landscape, and he offered the following thoughts on why both it and the "Attitude Era" wouldn't work now.
John Cena: Coming in in 2002 you're still riding the coattails of the Attitude era. It's 18-35-year-old males, it's very visceral, the entertainment is very extreme. Fast forward to 2004, 2005, 2006, more families are showing up. and I don't feel comfortable saying the things I was saying on the microphone because I got to look at a little kid and at that point, I'm supposed to be the good guy? That's not how a good guy is so I use the opportunity of the platform of The Marine - because the movie did reach a bunch of people - to genuinely, subtly, begin to change my character into more of a P.G. environment because those are the tools I'm dealt. I can do a butt chug scene if you put an 'R' on the movie but when you put a TV-PG on the show and you're out the re doing stuff that makes your audience feel uncomfortable, your career longevity is going to be nothing.
So a lot of these guys today also want to do all the things we're not supposed to do. That's not being a good mechanic. You take the tools that you have to fix the problems in front and everybody's like, hey, would you bring back the rap guy? It would bomb right now. It would bomb. One, because all those punch lines are inappropriate. Especially, for now, they're not P.G. so if I were to still come out in the outfit, I did, I managed to sneak one in against the Rock. Man, was it difficult to write those lines and I even had to say before I cut the promo, okay, sometimes you have to fight fire with fire so I'm sorry that I have to do this but it's got to be done. I had to preface it with like earmuffs, kids, because it's about to get pretty raw and even still meandering through all that I had a double entendre my way through something that I could possibly only do for one night, or it would not work right now. Neither would the attitude era.
As much as many who came of age during the "Attitude Era" might wish it would return, Cena's take definitely has merit. WWE has spent the last decades cultivating a family-centered audience, and as far as overall business goes, are doing about as well as they've ever been. While proponents of "Attitude" would argue that the then-WWF was able to change successfully before, that change was made mostly due to the fact that nobody wanted the corny product filled with wrestling plumbers and clowns that McMahon and company were selling at that point. The 90s were all about being "extreme" and "edgy", and wrestling changed to accommodate that fact.
In 2018, the vast majority of wrestling fans are fine with WWE's PG-product, as it still manages to provide lots of great matches and feuds, without needing to do things like miscarriage storylines and having wrestlers moonlight as porn stars. That worked in its time, but it isn't 1999 - or even 2004 - anymore, and as vocal as some fans might be about wanting "Attitude" back, doing so would likely cost WWE its family audience, which helps drive toy and merchandise sales. In other words, don't expect to see John Cena dropping rhymes on Raw again anytime soon.