Amidst a long-running ratings downturn, John Cena returned to WWE Raw last night, spiking ticket sales and probably viewership. Amidst an ever-growing scandal, Vince McMahon used the opportunity to once again put himself in front of the TV cameras, coming out before Cena’s segment to introduce the sixteen-time champion.
The night was ostensible all about John Cena, who was featured in various video packages and tributes from colleagues, including WWE Hall of Famers like Booker T, Shawn Michaels, Triple Hand Stone Cold Steve Austin, as well as AEW stars, like The Big Show, Chris Jericho, and Bryan Danielson. Cena featured in several backstage segments, including a meetup with his smaller, younger doppelganger, Theory, as well as a funny segment involving Seth Rollins and The Nigerian Giant Omos.
But as his grip on power in WWE becomes more tenuous, Vince McMahon, in many ways, stole the show, and not in a good way, by coming to the ring to introduce Cena himself at the top of the third hour of Raw. McMahon has already been forced to temporarily step back from his role as Chairman and CEO of WWE as the company’s board investigates a $3 million hush money payment made to a former employee with whom McMahon is said to have had a sexual relationship, along with other payments and non-disclosure agreements for misconduct allegations said to involve McMahon and Head of Talent Relations John Laurenitis, who is currently on administrative leave. Monday morning saw another scandal added to McMahon’s growing collectionas New York Magazine published a bombshell story by Abe Riesman wherein a former WWE wrestler corroborated, for the first time, a thirty-year-old sexual assault allegation by WWE’s first female referee, Rita Chatterton.
Though Cena’s gooey speech focused on his relationship with the crowd, assuring viewers that his recent Hollywood success is not his own accomplishment, but their together (where’s our cut of the money then?), McMahon’s garish attachment pulled the focus onto the scandals that threaten to bring down the sports entertainment mastermind and WWE’s stock prices with him. The forty-five-year-old Cena promised that he would wrestle in more matches someday, and encouraged the crowd to speak up in criticism of WWE booking decisions they didn’t like, a stark contrast to the fans in the front row who, while McMahon made his entrance earlier, literally bowed to him, “we’re not worthy” style.
Amidst this double spectacle of nostalgia and ostentation, it was hard to focus on anything else happening on WWE Raw last night. Some people qualified for the Money in the Bank ladder matches. Some soon-to-be-forgotten feuds were advanced for the PPV. Logan Paul was promised for SummerSlam. But mostly, this period in WWE history will go down as either Vince McMahon’s last stand or a defiant victory lap, and it could be weeks or months before we know which one it is. In the meantime, it’s Vince McMahon’s world, and we’re just spending three hours watching it on television. Happy anniversary, John Cena!