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Watching John Cena in Hyderabad: A taste of ‘Hustle, Loyalty, Respect’ in person

This MK writer had an experience of a lifetime as WWE’s most decorated wrestler headlined Superstar Spectacle

Priyam Marik | Published 11.09.23, 07:02 PM
John Cena was victorious in the main event of WWE Superstar Spectacle in Hyderabad, beating Imperium alongside Seth Rollins

John Cena was victorious in the main event of WWE Superstar Spectacle in Hyderabad, beating Imperium alongside Seth Rollins

WWE

I can see you, John Cena. And I am not the only one. More than 5,000 people who have packed the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad to the rafters are basking in your presence, most of them here just to see you. Not one person is sitting, not one voice is silent. Almost 8,000 miles away from where Cena first learnt the meaning of ‘Hustle, Loyalty, Respect’ in West Newbury, Massachusetts, Indian fanatics of the WWE Universe are lapping up every second of the 16-time world champion in the flesh, underlining the global superstardom of a man who defines modern professional wrestling more than any other.

For those who consider pro wrestling to be too much of a niche temptation, questioning the hullabaloo around Cena is natural. Why is Cena, the guy who appears on every third GIF on X (previously Twitter) such a big deal? Wait, did he not play a cameo in Barbie? And which middle-aged guy wears bright sky blue as his in-ring attire? While it is easy to call Cena the Michael Jordan or Cristiano Ronaldo of wrestling, it is also wrong. For neither of those titans carried an entire industry on their backs for close to two decades in the way Cena has done for pro wrestling. Like a spider at the centre of an increasingly complex web, Cena was not just the face of WWE for the better part of this century, but also the heart and soul behind wrestling’s transition from a brutal, anything-goes form of theatre to a family-friendly product that can be consumed anytime, anywhere.

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Waiting for Cena amidst a sea of stars

Nobody in WWE history has won more world championships than Cena’s 16 titles

Nobody in WWE history has won more world championships than Cena’s 16 titles

Wikimedia Commons

It is just past 2pm on September 8, about seven hours shy of when Cena is expected to bring the house down at Gachibowli. I am wandering in the lobby of a luxury hotel in the City of Pearls, where the WWE contingent for Superstar Spectacle is staying for the day. I spot Jinder Mahal eating with friends, Sanga embracing a local actor, Rhea Ripley casually strolling around and Imperium members (Gunther, Ludwig Kaiser and Giovanni Vinci) marching in lock-step. Even Seth Rollins emerges briefly, looking far less imposing than he does in the ring. But there is no sign of John Cena, only a tide of anticipation that builds with every passing minute.

I remember the first time I saw Cena on TV. Dressed in khaki shorts to go with his garish black t-shirt and cap, he was the reigning WWE champion at the time, back in the summer of 2007. There was something endearingly cartoonish about Cena. He was no methodically pacing zombie like the Undertaker or no embodiment of water-spewing intensity like Triple H. Unlike Randy Orton or Batista, there seemed to be no layers to Cena’s persona. As formulaic as breakfast cereal, every match of Cena’s felt like a repetition of the last. The same grin on his face, the same run to the ring, the same set of signature and finishing moves and the same result. Cena always won.

No wonder that a generation of WWE fans grew up feeling confused about Cena and his aura of invincibility. “Super Cena” would crush all his opponents and sell all his t-shirts over and over again, making audiences desperate for something different even as they could not resist the pull of the oh-so-familiar. Between 2004 and 2012, in what is often termed as the “Ruthless Aggression” era of WWE, Cena was headlining WrestleManias as seamlessly as he was featuring on late-night talk shows. He was granting hundreds of children’s wishes but also refusing to give in to his peers who wished to have his space in the spotlight. In other words, Cena was here, there and everywhere. He was even in India in 2006 for a promotional tour, although he did not wrestle. And yet, on a breezy afternoon in Hyderabad 17 years later, Cena is nowhere to be found. Not yet.

‘The Champ is here’

Cena with actor Karthi (left) and Rajesh Kaul (right), Head, Sports Business, Sony Pictures Networks India, in Hyderabad

Cena with actor Karthi (left) and Rajesh Kaul (right), Head, Sports Business, Sony Pictures Networks India, in Hyderabad

WWE

The clock edges past quarter past three and the media scrum apparently comes to an end. Numerous WWE superstars have shared their thoughts on being in India to deliver a memorable evening as part of Superstar Spectacle (watch this space for more details). Most of the media personnel, including myself, are looking to catch an hour or two of rest before heading to the stadium for the main show. Just as I am about to pick up my bag and exit the media room, I receive word that “John Cena is coming”. The word soon spreads and what ensues is a classic Indian commotion.The pushing, pulling and grappling begins long before schedule!

After about 15 minutes of “he’s going to be here any second now”, Cena’s bodyguard shows up. Instead of following the routine of the other WWE talents, who stopped by at multiple junctions to give multiple interviews, Cena’s imminent presence calls for a re-orientation. Everyone jostles their way into a few metres of chaos, and before I can find solid footing to ensure I do not slide tackle anyone inadvertently, Cena arrives. Looking paler than this t-shirt, he spends about a minute or two addressing the gathering on how delighted he is to be in India. And then, just as I am cursing my mobile for not magically transforming into an iPhone, Cena is gone.

On my way out of the hotel, I run into three young men from Chandigarh who have sneaked their way in, pretending to be journalists. They cannot believe that they witnessed Cena right in front of their eyes. But how did they know which hotel to come to? “We saw some footage online of WWE people and figured out the hotel from the carpet!” answers one of them.

An unforgettable experience from an unrivalled superstar

There are hundreds of Cenas at the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium, on tickets, posters, merchandise, tattoos and championship belts. A virtual version of the real thing sends the crowd inside the arena into a tizzy, as highlights of Cena’s past encounters play out on the giant screen. As superstars come and go, Hyderabad periodically cries out “we want Cena” as loudly as the resounding thud of flesh on mat. Once the designated hour arrives, I can sense a chill down my spine. With a dead-centre view of the ring, where Cena will manifest in a moment, I recall the surreal sensation of seeing another international icon, Lionel Messi, from up-close in Kolkata in 2011.

As is the norm, Cena’s opponents, Imperium’s Kaiser and Vinci, step out first, with their stellar score setting the mood. Seth Rollins is next. The response is deafening for the current World Heavyweight Champion, but Rollins, too, is most interested in who follows him. The “Whoa Ohh Ohh” chants that usually hype up Rollins are now being channelled to introduce Cena, with Rollins himself playing hype man. Finally, at long last, Cena’s music hits. The opening notes of the aptly named The Time is Now, which is usually greeted with simultaneous cheering and jeering in the US, is drowned out by the cacophony generated by Cena’s admirers in Hyderabad. The noise does not reduce for a full two minutes after Cena has made his way into the ring.

The contest itself is a slow burner, as tag-team main events often are. Rollins takes the bulk of the initial beating from Imperium, as Cena tries to work the crowd. A guy in the front row locks eyes with Cena for two seconds, and flashes, in the manner of several West Indian fast bowlers, a “you can’t see me” at the man who made it (in)famous. Soon enough, Cena demonstrates how it is actually done, before landing his Five Knuckle Shuffle on a beleaguered Kaiser. Having weathered the Imperium storm, Cena and Rollins are going through the gears. It is only a matter of time before Rollins’s pedigree and Cena’s Attitude Adjustment finish Imperium off. Cena wins again, this time in India.

Throughout the match, I have barely taken my seat. The soles of my shoes reveal the labour of the past few minutes, which have electrified thousands. Cena grabs the mic and thanks Hyderabad for the love it has showered on him. In my heart, I silently thank Cena for providing an experience of a lifetime. For so many years, Cena’s ‘Never Give Up’ refrain has meant more than a catchphrase to me. It has been a mantra to keep challenging myself to discover my best version, a slogan to remind myself that resilience, as Cena says, is “not about refusing to fall, but about getting back up every single time”. Who said cliches cannot motivate?!

As the world around us gradually blurs the distinction between the genuine and the artificial, the spontaneous and the scripted, watching Cena in person feels like a validation of everything that is good about professional wrestling. Everything that is good about ‘Hustle, Loyalty, Respect’.

WWE Raw, SmackDown and NXT air LIVE weekly in India on Sony Sports Ten 1, Sony Sports Ten 3 (Hindi) and Sony Sports Ten 4 (Tamil/Telugu). Sony Sports Network is the broadcast home of WWE programming in India


Last updated on 11.09.23, 07:14 PM
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