John Cena has been everywhere of late, be it giving interviews for his upcoming comedy romp Blockers, buying pistachios undercover as an animated commercial elephant, or showing up on Raw these past few weeks to threaten the Undertaker with wrestling’s all-time least-compelling ultimatum: Face me at WrestleMania, or so help me, I will buy a ticket and watch deserving talent half our age seize their opportunity from the front row. (This is actually the story line.) As of this past Monday night, the Deadman—still apparently weighing whether to come out of ostensible retirement after taking one on the chin from Roman Reigns at Mania 33—hadn’t heeded his antagonist’s call.
“But I just embarrassed your kin?!” Cena all but incredulously implored after toppling Undertaker’s on-screen brother Kane in a no-disqualification main event. (Tonally, it was the “Yo, Adrian!” of call-outs.) The 16-time champ prattled on in vain, intermittently choking off his own frustration for effect. For three minutes, Cena—capable of rallying a crowd on a good day as Brock Lesnar’s mouthy advocate Paul Heyman—more or less acted out a temper tantrum that was far more entertaining if you accepted it as Cena’s inner monologue rather than an ineffectual attempt to induce Undertaker’s telltale gongs and Titantron lightning bolts.
“You don’t get to be mysterious here” was Cena’s most stinging admonishment. While that accurately sizes up contemporary audience expectations, even neophytes know it betrays a fundamental misapprehension of the Undertaker’s aura. The man defies eras and modes, fads and fashions (biker days aside). It’d be like lecturing Michael Myers about more rigorous enforcement of restraining orders. After years of being the accidental foil to the hardcore fans, Cena has, in all his bellyaching, finally become the audience’s proxy, and what Cena—and we—are left with is a vague curiosity concerning whether Taker will deign to descend on Atlanta’s Philips Arena next Monday. And if so, what guise or method of transmission he’ll assume to properly remind his presumed opponent that some gimmicks are immortal. (Or, alternatively, how the heck they’ll keep us in suspense right up until Cena gets his Mania ticket scanned and heads for concessions.) Whatever gives, something has to. The so-called tension generated by this will-he-or-won’t-he thread (he will, the only question is when) is wearing thin, on expectant onlookers and Cena in equal measure.
Meanwhile, less than 24 hours later, (ex?)-SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan had the crowd at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena (ugh) on their feet, fingers soaring above them, “Yes!” chants ringing out like the soundtrack to an unstoppable march toward his triumphant in-ring return in a scant 12 days. It didn’t even matter that he and partner Shane McMahon, set to fight Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens after the pair beat them each to a pulp, had been building toward their own interpersonal strife for all of 2018. Nor was it necessary to stop and ask oneself how perennially injured Bryan, of all people, could pooh-pooh Shane’s in-patient status (which is both fake—the hernia-inflicting beatdown by Owens and Zayn—and believed-to-be real—he’s said to have suffered a hernia and separate infection while on a family vacation) and sign him up for battle in less than a fortnight. No one in attendance or at home was taken out of the moment as Bryan excitedly tripped over his words, trading polish for passion. For four-plus minutes—and, like Cena, sans a scene partner to help carry the hypeman’s load—the resurgent superstar served up a highlight reel of his appeal. At its apex, Bryan (literally) shed his management cardigan (“or whatever the hell that thing is”), discarded diplomatic calm and came to life as the wild-card whirling dervish we all fell in love with in the early and mid-2010s. Or, in his own roundabout phrasing, the Daniel Bryan “who’s gonna kick Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens at WrestleMania ... I’m gonna kick their ass!”
If Cena was watching, he could only have nodded in approval. There was nothing opaque about Bryan’s warnings for Zayn and Owens, no need to read between the lines. Daniel’s stump speech was, ironically, totally raw. Bryan was—and is—the truest audience proxy on the WWE roster, and his return to action is a story line that transcends story line. He doesn’t have to over-emote—much, anyway—and that’s the allure. But above all, it viscerally whipped up further enthusiasm for a match and story that already bypassed smoke and mirrors, bells and whistles, lightning and gongs.
Not that Bryan was alone in stoking anticipation. The aforementioned Heyman was rudely cut off by Roman Reigns doing his best Willis Reed, but not before sharing a memorable a cappella rendition of the Shield theme; intercontinental champion the Miz and his lackeys Bo Dallas and Curtis Axel pulled off a decent mock-breakup and assaulted challengers Seth Rollins and Finn Bálor; Kofi Kingston, rocking the rare dreadlocked side pony, led New Day through a feisty and funny repudiation of the Bludgeon Brothers; Shinsuke Nakamura owned the closing minute of SmackDown taunting WWE Champion A.J. Styles; and even Rusev did his part to make U.S. champion Randy Orton’s feud with Bobby Roode and Jinder Mahal more worthwhile just by inserting himself in it. And with Braun Strowman looking to outdo Undertaker in the anticlimax department, SmackDown women’s champion Charlotte sidelined by injury (stifling momentum for her defense against undefeated Asuka), and Raw women’s championship hopeful Nia Jax undercut by an unfortunate “emotional-woman scorned” angle, there was plenty of heavy lifting to go around.
Add to that not only the dead air surrounding Cena and Taker but Ronda Rousey’s phenomenal failure to serviceably sell Mania as well as she piqued interest in Oldboy streams, the McMahons—historically Bryan’s biggest skeptics—will likely take Daniel’s leadership of the rescue effort.
Bryan is now the better part of a decade into a WWE run rife with setbacks both of his own making (remember this?) and beyond anyone’s control. And 16-year stalwart (that’s one championship a year!) Cena’s time, however much he can dedicate, isn’t quite up. But Bryan’s superlatively stirring words on Tuesday proved that despite all these years of being pegged onscreen—and perhaps off—as an underdog or passing fad, he’s as enduring a phenom as any dead man walking.