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Week in Wrestling: John Cena on What Made WrestleMania 34 Special, His New Animated Series

Courtesy of WWE

John Cena ready to show off his robotic side in Dallas & Robo

John Cena’s time in the crowd at WrestleMania 34 was initially supposed to be shortlived. Creative plans for John Cena’s night at the Superdome came down to the wire, though Cena was ultimately successful with his original plan to spend the night seated among the WWE Universe in New Orleans.

“There were reservations about me in the audience,” said Cena. “Originally, they wanted me to go out in the crowd for 10 minutes. I said, ‘Absolutely not. I need a ticket, a physical ticket, I need a real seat, and I am going out in that arena when the doors open.’”

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Cena’s plan came to fruition, as he sat in a ringside seat for five hours and generated interest from hundreds of fans who crowded around him.

“It was rewarding to make an unbelievable moment believable,” said Cena. “I also thought it was a great way to reintroduce an iconic character and let the audience know that character still exists and thrives, erasing all speculative activity that this character is gone.”

Cena’s storyline with that iconic character, The Undertaker, paid off at this past WrestleMania. ‘Taker made his return after weeks of taunts, threats, and insults to defeat Cena in just under three minutes.

“I did not do well in this match,” admitted Cena. “My ‘WrestleMania Moment’ was to spend the time in the crowd and not do well in a very short performance, but I loved it because it got the job done. The focus was not me, the focus was someone else. Often times, we look at things so selfishly, asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Well, what was in it for me was the chance to reintroduce a WWE icon. I had to stretch the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point to do it, but it was awesome. Every single week, the crowd would chant at the top of its lungs and no one thought I would be sitting in the crowd at WrestleMania, but I was able to do that. I was able to go out and be handily defeated in three minutes and bring back an icon.

“That is a message to any performer who is complaining about their spot or that, creatively, they have nothing going for them. I’ve been first, I’ve been in the middle, I’ve been last. I just want to go out there and do something.

“There are a few performers who share my ideology, with The Miz being one of them. That’s why he is skyrocketing into a new bracket as we speak, and I can’t wait to see what he does next week. But there is also a lot of disdain and complacency. You should be happy with any sort of role, even if it is getting your tail kicked in.”

Although he is currently away from WWE programming, Cena’s hustle remains on display, as his next major project was released earlier today. Cena stars as Robo in the YouTube Red original Dallas & Robo, alongside with 2 Broke Girls star Kat Dennings in an animated series produced by Robot Chicken-creator ShadowMachine.

Wrestling fans have been immersed in the John Cena character for the past 14 years, but even audiences who feel they already know Cena’s next line are likely to enjoy this more adult-styled comedy. Cena plays a robot that portrays a self-proclaimed warrior poet, and the part was written specifically for him. Cena has been dealing with critiques throughout his entire career that he is too robotic, whether in the ring or on the microphone, and this role allows art to mimic life.

“I have been attached to Dallas & Robo for quite some time,” said Cena. “I was on the ground floor of this, when we met with the team at ShadowMachine. They had an idea about this universe and wanted me to be the driving force behind the robotic AI component. That has a little to do with the robot-like nature of how some people perceive me, so it fits. At the same time, there is a yearning for Robo to not be classified as what people think he is; he’s so much deeper than that. That’s pretty close to the vest when it comes to me.”

The story within Dallas & Robo is beautifully crafted, with a particular story arc concerning a bounty to capture Robo that shares connective tissue to Cena working for WWE as one of its top commodities. Robo has to deal with the concept that every commodity is replaceable–a battle that every pro wrestler inevitably faces.

“I was intrigued by the material, with the planning of futurists and artificial intelligence, and this was a way to look at all those things in a comedic way,” said Cena. “There are some space-time continuum jokes in later seasons, and it’s very much like Rick and Morty in the way we can tackle interesting material and laugh at it. And the dynamic—it’s not just a show about the future or speculative view—it’s a funny dynamic between two unlikely partners who are genuinely friends.”

The comedy launched Wednesday on the WWE YouTube channel and all eight episodes are currently available to YouTube Red subscribers.

Steeped in nuance, the Robo character still presents itself as appropriate, even when certain jokes are more mature or sophomoric in nature, akin to the way Cena plays his role in the oftentimes cartoonish world of pro wrestling.

“Robo is surrounded by flawed humans and artificial intelligence,” said Cena. “But even with all the flaws in humanity, he yearns to be human.”

If Robo yearns to be human, then what does Cena yearn to be?

“Myself,” said Cena. “I’m not saying I’m not, but I yearn to be accountable. We all should.”

The presence of Robo is designed for characters like Dennings’ Dallas Moonshiner to be even more dynamic.

“Robo is essentially the straight man, so vibrant personalities can bounce off of Robo,” said Cena. “I really like that because you can get to see how dynamic and fun Kat is; she’s an absolute superstar. There was a bit of a search for who would play Dallas, but when her name came up, we were so excited to have an opportunity to work with her. Once you hear her voice, you can see no one else as Dallas but her.”

Cena also has upcoming movie roles in Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bumblebee, which are both set for 2018 releases. Even with these projects, the 16-time WWE champ is never too far removed from the world of WWE. He was asked to assess the way his WrestleMania story unfolded, which began with the idea that he would not have a match at the biggest show of the year.

“I loved it, I truly did, and I loved it for so many reasons,” said Cena. “Our job is to entertain the audience, so that’s number one. The story was amazingly unbelievable to the public, with a healthy, marquee superstar admitting, ‘Hey, WrestleMania spots are earned. I’ve been on a losing streak, I’ve exhausted every option, so I shouldn’t go to WrestleMania, especially with the flux of new talent.’ But the fans, thinking they know that John Cena is a WWE staple and that I didn’t have another project that same day, thought there was no way I wouldn’t have had a match. Even if people did or didn’t attach themselves to the story, I liked the fact that people still remained interested.”

Moments are on display every week in pro wrestling, but viewers cannot always feel them. Cena has the ability, one he developed over time, to allow people to feel what he is doing.

“For me, personally, what a great WrestleMania experiment,” said Cena. “I got to sit in one section with literally a cross-section of the world: a single guy from Kansas City, a family from Illinois, a family from Florida, a family from Australia. Our performers should all, although it’s insanely difficult, watch the show as a fan. Then they can feel the connections and disconnections. That was my biggest takeaway. I could see and feel what the audience reacted to and what they didn’t.”

Cena has recently appeared in the tabloids for his relationship with Nikki Bella, whom he proposed to in-ring during WrestleMania 33. Their engagement was called off three weeks before their wedding date, and the drama is unfolding on the third season of E!’s Total Bellas. In the interview with Sports Illustrated, Cena left the door open for reconciliation.

“Nicole is the woman that I love,” said Cena. “I just want to help her the best I can.”

In the meantime, before any more talk of relationships, movies, or a return to WWE, Cena hopes people will take joy in watching Dallas & Robo.

“It truly was a team effort,” said Cena. “We have a great bunch of creators at ShadowMachine, who make our voices in the animation actually mean something. The animation is really good, the concept is great, and the end result is a pretty funny show.

“I think people will enjoy the humor, but I also hope they’ll enjoy a fun television show. Whether you’re a fan or you’re not, when you go to watch on YouTube Red, people will just enjoy the show so much that you won’t see John Cena, you’ll see Robo.”

Seth Rollins Shines in Intercontinental Title Run

Seth Rollins has been the single best wrestler in the world over the past four months.

Dating back to January’s Royal Rumble, Rollins has simply performed on an otherworldly level. A major issue with WWE stars is overexposure, as weekly television can serve as a curse as much as a blessing. IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada has put together a transcendent title run of over 700 days, yet he only has 12 successful title defenses as his big bouts are spread out over time. Beginning in February, Rollins has found a way to surpass the greatness of his prior performance on an almost weekly basis, and, in turn, finally solidify himself as one of the best babyfaces in the business.

February 19’s gauntlet match on Raw saw Rollins defeat John Cena and Roman Reigns in a match that he ultimately lost to Elias. Rollins has turned his matches into must-see events ever since, including the WrestleMania 34 opener with The Miz and Finn Balor where he claimed the IC belt. His April 2 win on Raw over Balor was compelling, and he delivered an incredible spot leapfrogging off the ropes and onto the ladder to win the ladder match at the Greatest Royal Rumble. Rolins’ match against The Miz at Backlash is one of the top so far this year in wrestling, and he even got a respectable 12-minute match out of Jinder Mahal this past Monday–a feat Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura were unable to accomplish.

Rollins is providing the IC title with the same type of prestige it held when the likes of Curt Hennig, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels wore the strap.

Combining Raw and pay per view matches, Rollins’ record in singles competition since the Rumble is 10 wins and four losses. His work in this timespan has been more compelling than AJ Styles, and even more consistent than New Japan and Ring of Honor stars considering that Raw is on weekly television.

Rollins has proven that wins still matter, especially when combined with consistently breathtaking performances.

In other news…

• WWE creative reminded SmackDown viewers this week that the company still knows the best formula for Daniel Bryan: make sure he is firmly entrenched as the underdog.

The Bryan-Samoa Joe matchup that had fans, myself included, salivating all week was turned into a three-way with Big Cass. Joe ultimately made Bryan tap, swooping in after Bryan hit his running knee strike on Cass.

Bryan is far better suited not to win the Money in the Bank briefcase, but rather defeat AJ Styles to reclaim the WWE championship at SummerSlam.

Then, of course, The Miz can immediately cash-in on Bryan for the belt.

• The tag team of the future in pro wrestling?

Timothy Thatcher and WALTER.

Collectively known as Ringkampf, the duo offers the perfect combination of WALTER’s power mixed with Thatcher’s mat-based grappling. They are a modern-day Hart Foundation, with parallels in Thatcher’s execution and even a beautiful running dropkick from heavyweight WALTER.

WALTER, who is also the champion for mega-indie Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in California, stands at 6’4” and 310 pounds. His name is spelled in all capital letters, which embodies his power in the ring. The 30-year-old Walter Hahn has starred for Germany’s Westside Xtreme Wrestling (wXw), which is home to the vaunted 16 Carat Gold singles tournament in March and the World Tag Team League tournament held every October in Oberhausen, Germany.

“Tim does his stuff, I do my stuff, and in the end, it comes together,” said WALTER. “I’m a big fan of tag team wrestling, and I always liked the Japanese mixed-up teams, like Kobashi and Kikuchi. We have a different approach, we don’t do a lot of tag team moves, but we balance out our upsides and weaknesses.”

The California-born Thatcher, who had the longest world title reign in EVOLVE history, was heavily influenced by the European style of wrestling. The 6’3, 220-pound 35-year-old is a 13-year wrestling veteran, and his pro wrestling philosophy was shaped watching mat-based, technically-oriented BattlArts in Japan. Thatcher believed in the fighting spirit of Japanese pro wrestling, as well as the authentic nature of pro wrestlers in black boots and black tights representing the craft in its truest form.

The mat is sacred for Ringkampf, with their drive and focus on attaining the status as the best pro wrestlers—and not performers—in the world.

“We each have the same thought-process about pro wrestling,” said Thatcher. “You can do simple things, but do them all full intensity. That’s the punk rock view of it; you do something very basic but with 100 percent intensity. It’s who we are and what we believe.”

“Everybody wants to stand out nowadays,” added WALTER. “That seems to be everyone’s goal. We just do what we think is right, even if it is simple, at a very efficient and high execution level.”

Thatcher and WALTER matched up this past Saturday night at a Beyond Wrestling show against EYFBO, who are Santana and Ortiz in Impact Wrestling’s LAX. The match was the main event at the Varnum Memorial Armory in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and left the crowd waiting for another rematch between the two teams.

“This is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done so far in my run in pro wrestling,” said Thatcher. “As long as we keep moving forward, it’s good.”

Although they work well together as babyfaces, the potential exists for Ringkampf to become the best heel tag team in the world. In order to do that, they will need a worldwide platform, like WWE. Their style would also work very well at NXT, where they are rumored to sign. For now, the next chance to see them work together will be in Germany.

“You can see us in wXw,” said Thatcher. “We’ll be back in Germany in August.”

“We want to win the World Tag League again,” said WALTER. “That’s our goal right now.”

• Major League Wrestling’s upcoming June 7 television taping in Orlando is showing how the business can evolve yet still maintain its roots.

The main event is an old-school bounty match pitting MLW champion Shane Strickland against Brody King, and the card also features a triple-threat tag team match to crown new champs with Pentagon Jr. and Rey Fenix battling the team of Jason Cade and Jimmy Yuta as well as Col. Robert Parker’s Dirty Blondes.

The synergy between the old and new again converges in MLW with a boiler room brawl between Sami Callihan and MVP, as well as the artist formerly known as Jack Swagger—who now wrestles as Jake Hager—against “Filthy” Tom Lawlor from the UFC.

Hager makes his MLW television debut this Friday on beIN Sports.

• Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake is reaching out to wrestling fans for help.

The 61-year-old Ed Leslie, better known as the man who strut and cut his way through the World Wrestling Federation in the late 1980s, set up a GoFundMe page to offset the costs of his upcoming June 12 knee replacement surgery.

Beefcake is looking to raise a total of $18,000 to help cover the costs associated with the surgery, and he is already $3,945 to his goal.

“I’m so thankful for everyone’s help, and it’s unbelievable how willing people are to help me,” said Beefcake. “Brutus Beefcake hasn’t been on WWE television in 25 years. But the amount of people who have called and reached out with support has been overwhelming.”

Beefcake’s upcoming knee surgery is on his right knee, which is the result of years of stress on the knee compounded by a recent fall.

“It was an accident on my back deck,” said Beefcake. “So I had an MRI, and the doctor evaluated the knee. I said to him, ‘It’s not too bad after 40 years of wrestling,’ and the doctor looked at me and said, ‘It couldn’t be any worse. It’s bone on bone.’”

During the peak of his career, the 6’4” Beefcake hovered around the 260-pound region.

“Back in the 80s, WWF was the land of giants,” said Beefcake. “I tried to stay as slim as I could, which allowed me to avoid tearing up my joints and stay as agile as possible. Plus, it helped me work with the giants, like Big John Studd, One Man Gang, and King Kong Bundy.”

Beefcake, who just released his book, Struttin’ & Cuttin’, this past December, reflected back on his career, narrowing in on the transition he made from tag teams to singles wrestling in 1985 as the highlight of his career.

“Greg Valentine and I had the tag belts, but we split and then this Brutus ‘The Barber’ character started gaining more and more momentum all the way from ’85 to ’90,” said Beefcake. “I had that momentum without any title belt, and the reason for that success is all the mentoring and knowledge that was passed down to me from the older guys.

“Guys like Stan Stasiak, Larry ‘The Axe’ Hennig, Bobby Duncum, Ivan Koloff, Mr. Wrestling II, Wahoo McDaniel, Jose Lothario, they all taught me so much, and Hulk Hogan.”

Hogan and Beefcake, whose friendship has had its ups and down throughout the past four decades, first met as children playing little league baseball in Florida.

“I saw Hulk play when he was 12 years old,” recalled Beefcake. “Back then, he was 200 pounds. He was so big and clumsy that he could barely run the bases, but I saw him hit a ball 450 feet.

“Later, he played rock and roll music, and I used to sneak into the bars to see him. We worked out together for years before we went into wrestling. Hulk did a lot for me, and I feel like I did a lot for him, too. He was very instrumental in my career.”

Two weeks before his surgery, Beefcake extended his gratitude to everyone helping, adding he will keep posting videos on his Twitter profile to update people on his surgery.

“I’m thankful for my wife, Missy,” said Beefcake. “She set this up, and I’m thankful for everyone helping. I can’t say thank you enough.”

• Chaotic Wrestling owner Brian Fury is ready to deliver his “Chaotic Countdown” show on June 1 in Woburn, Massachusetts, highlighted by a special guest appearance by WWE legend Mick Foley.

“What’s different about Chaotic is that it’s not a super indie with a lot of dream matches thrown together,” said the 39-year-old Fury. “It’s a lot of homegrown talent and a very storyline-based promotion. We have long-term storylines that last anywhere from six months to a year, and that is very different from what is going on in the independents right now.”

Fury retired from active competition in December of 2016 after a 19-year career, then took over as the owner of Chaotic—a company built by former owner Jamie Jamitowski—this past January.

“I owned and ran the New England Training Academy for the past seven years, and I knew I wanted to continue to run shows,” said Fury. “The opportunity to purchase Chaotic was a perfect fit, with a great history and the fact it was home as a pro wrestler.

“As a wrestler, I fell in love with every aspect of pro wrestling, not just the in-ring part. Obviously, when you’re in the ring, that’s the biggest rush and you feel the immediate reaction from the crowd. But as I saw my students improving and reaching greater success, I really fell in love with that aspect of wrestling.”

The June 1 card includes the 30-man Chaotic Countdown and a world title match featuring JT Dunn vs. Elia “The Great” Markopoulos in a two-out-of-three falls encounter.

“This is the annual Chaotic Countdown, which is our version of the Royal Rumble,” said Fury. “30 men enter every two minutes, and the winner gets a guaranteed title shot.

“We also have Skylar vs. Alisha Edwards for the Chaotic women’s title, a ladder match for the Chaotic tag titles seeing Killa Nova Inc., which is New England Wrestling Academy graduate Christian Casanova and his partner Triplicious against the Maine State Posse, and the New England title match in a triple-threat with Matt Logan vs. Bryan Logan vs. Josh Briggs.”

Fury’s career in the ring has led him to the point where he is guiding and directing the business’ future at the grassroots level.

“All the places I’ve wrestled and trained gave me a worldly view,” said Fury. “Seeing ideas and stories come to fruition in front of the crowd, hearing their immediate reaction and seeing people’s ideas work, it’s a totally different gratification and feeling than when I was in the ring. I’m doing everything I can to make this work, and I’m loving every second of it.”

• Musician Karan “The Asoka” Batta has another video that includes Ring of Honor star Christopher Daniels.

Daniels is in the credit scene of his new single, Stacking Pesos, which also features New Japan star Rocky Romero.

• Coming attractions: IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada will discuss his upcoming June 9 match at Dominion against Kenny Omega on SI.com this Friday.

Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, with a long-form look at the WWE career of Bob Holly.

Holly put together a 16-year career with Vince McMahon’s wrestling promotion, outlasting stars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock in terms of consecutive years on television.

“Bob Holly is one of wrestling’s unsung heroes, and there is so much meat on the bone here with ‘Sparky’ Plugg to the evolution into Bob Holly and Hardcore Holly,” said Thompson. “He had an incident with Brock Lesnar, run-ins with the Kliq, and even though he was never world champion or main evented pay per views, he’s still a stalwart for the company.”

Holly’s run with the company lasted through a plethora of creative regimes and even multiple different characters, which included less-than-memorable runs in the New Midnight Express and the J.O.B. Squad.

“Holly’s ability to stand the test of time is a topic we’re going to discuss,” said Thompson. “What was so endearing about Holly to Vince McMahon, and how did he make it work?”

This past week’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” dug into the DX Invasion and Bischoff challenging Vince McMahon, while next week’s covers what turned into a monumental decision to let Chris Jericho leave WCW.

“I’m anxious to hear Bischoff defend letting a talent like that leave,” said Thompson. “How can he justify not seeing Jericho’s success? Why did he only perceive him as one thing? Was it because he wasn’t as tall or because he didn’t have the star power or Hogan was in his ear? Out of all the people that left WCW, including Steve Austin and Mick Foley, they let Jericho go, and he was over. He’s the biggest loss of everyone that left because Bischoff already saw how Jericho created a spot for himself.

Nobody, except maybe Chris, thought he was going to become an all-time great. He’s such a fascinating story.”

Thompson and Prichard have an episode looking into the behind-the-scenes rise of John Cena on the WWE Network’s “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard”.

“This particular show really fits our personalities,” said Thompson. “We’ll look at who really recruited Cena and who discovered the rapper gimmick, what Vince did not see in him, when certain people changed their minds on Cena, and the famous double quad story of Vince McMahon.”

Tweet of the Week

Roman Reigns must deal with a fair amount of grief on social media, but he absolutely has a soft spot for children.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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