Can a band release more ‘Greatest Hits’ compilations than actual new studio material? You can if you’re Randy Orton and John Cena. Both Orton and Cena are far more capable performers than their exhausted detractors would care to admit, but it’s a case of too much, too often for the duo.
Their lengthy Hell in a Cell match was preceded by a nearly-as-stretched video package, making a case for their ‘rivalry’ being among the all-time greats in WWE’s annals. Granted, it may have also been a subliminal commercial for the Network’s “Rivalries” series that debuts this week, and I’d argue it served better as advertising than as stating of legitimate fact.
The most solidified roots of Cena vs. Orton really date back to about 2007, with only a few notable occurrences: Orton attacking Cena’s father (in both 2007 and 2013, the latter presented as fresh and neoteric), Orton pinning Cena in a WrestleMania triple threat match, a forgettable game of ‘catch’ with the WWE Title in late 2009, and the World Title unification in 2013. In all, their prolongated issue lacked the sort of twists and definable incidences of feuds past.
That’s in part because their characters have never grown. Cena has been the do-gooder charity robot for a decade, incapable of conveying the brilliant pathos and raw emotion that heroes of eras past have needed to add depth. Randy Savage, Cena isn’t. The Supermannequin exterior won’t allow it.
Orton is only slightly more deeper a character, only because he has two masks instead of one: the irrational hero prone to violence, and the justified villain prone to violence. One has a maniacal grin, the other wears an entitled smirk. Otherwise, it’s the same Orton, just standing (mostly) clearly on either side of the fence.
It was hard to connect with WWE’s sales pitch that this feud belongs with Hulk vs. Andre or Austin vs. Rock or Michaels vs. Hart, because the principals themselves have no connectable virtues. When I wrote the ‘Greatest Hits’ line, that’s exactly how Sunday night’s match played out: the same benign finisher reversals we’ve seen since 2007. Same song, different edits toward the chorus, coin flip for the coda.
By the time Cena won with the Attitude Adjustment through a table, no new ground had been broken, and no definitive blowoff was palpable. Still, to hear the three announcers tell it (no doubt with a scratchy voice imploring via headset), it was the perfect climax to a bedazzling novel. Even theater of the mind doesn’t imbue Cena and Orton with compelling characters, but that’s an extension of WWE itself: by making their chosen commodities as basic as possible, they don’t necessarily ruin them. The counter to that is that by not taking chances with a shift in presentation, the fizz goes out of the cola much faster. Stale soda does leave a foul taste.
Contrast that to Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins’ closing Cell match, which has yet to be so foul. While surprising to find Ambrose and Rollins as the final act, there is perhaps some credence to some Twitter user’s theory that Cena/Orton went on at 9 PM to try and keep fans from flocking to The Walking Dead. Given Michael Cole’s gushing platitudes for both men, and the ‘historical value’ video package that was equivalent to road head with feeling, it’s hard to argue against WWE’s possibly strategical match placement.
Even without crudely-woven history at their back, the former Shield allies have compelling recent history: the shocking turn by Rollins, their forking paths into their well-defined roles (Rollins is effective as a pretentious snot, while Ambrose has spent years perfecting his hellbent sociopath schtick), and the fact that Rollins used the turn not only to profit (Money in the Bank briefcase, the use of any and all of The Authority’s flunkies), but to injure the man he wronged (Ambrose getting planted through the cinderblocks). The revenge story is easily digestible.
The fans in Dallas genuinely wanted to see Ambrose shred Rollins for his wrongdoings. Never mind that Rollins was beloved in the Shield for his exuberant ring generalship and Hardy-esque stunt work; when he turned heel, he turned on a beloved character in Ambrose, and the two worked to make us cynics believe that they truly want each other dead. Even briefcase slime, hot dog carts, and mannequins couldn’t low-bridge the want to see their collision course inside a mega-cage, despite neutering by a lack of blood.
The Cell match was indeed a bloodless melee, one that didn’t need to shred a drop of red. It was an unconventional bout, less contrivance and more of the pathos that Orton and Cena lack, with Ambrose gleefully torturing the social-climbing scum that Rollins had turned into. Anything unlike the modern WWE norm is sought after and appreciated. The fact that two wrestlers the fans (ingrained and casual alike) had hand-picked for a push were acting out this slice of something fresh only made it better.
Sadly, Ambrose and Rollins’ studio collaboration was left incomplete. Much like season three of Chappelle’s Show, we got to see the brilliance of the minds involved, but without satisfaction. Bray Wyatt, an individual wildly cheered for disrupting an unwanted Cena/Orton bout at the Royal Rumble, attacked Ambrose in a rivet-gun-tacked finish, putting more focus on the swerve ending than all of the goodwill Ambrose and Rollins had built in five months.
That’s the shame in all of this: for once, the fans had bought stock in a feud without ham-handed prodding from the firm, and it just….meanders into something else. We wanted Ambrose to kill Rollins for five months of selfish acts. Nobody wants to see Ambrose kill Wyatt for interfering in a match like any other member of the roster has done at any given time.
Fresh took a backseat to the company crutch, a storytelling shift without purpose. Nobody was talking Ambrose/Rollins once Wyatt was inserted, despite the noise for the two before. Far fewer were talking Cena/Orton before and after it happened. It would have been hard to get a word in edge-wise anyway, with Cole, Lawler, and JBL telling us everything we’re supposed to think anyway.
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