WWE Ruthless Aggression: Episode 2 Report by Josh Lopez
The following is a transcript of WWE Network’s newest series, “WWE Ruthless Aggression.” Please share some of your favorite Ruthless Aggression moments in the comment section. We’ll be highlighting the comments made by the superstars, producers, and executives from that era and fan perspective from the current members of the WWE Roster.
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Episode 2: Enter John Cena Narrated by Michael Rappoport
Description:“With Vince McMahon’s declaration of Ruthless Aggression to the entire WWE locker room, a rookie Superstar attempts to grab the brass ring and shake things up. Enter John Cena. Featuring brand-new, never-before-heard commentary from The Dr. of Thuganomics himself.”
WWE Producer: Very first question. What do the words “Ruthless Aggression” mean to you?
John Cena: The takeaway of Ruthless Aggression for me — failure. I failed at that. It was a golden opportunity and one of the biggest misses in my WWE tenure. I failed. And although I didn’t know how to fix the failure, I sure as shit knew that I failed.
John Cena’s Time In OVW
JBL: Every era is defined by a main feature star. You had Sammartino, Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold. You need that guy that transcends the business to go into the mainstream.
Hulk Hogan: You know, to become a top star here in the WWE, you have to have the total package. You have to have a look. You have to have in-ring skills. But there’s a big difference between becoming a WWE Superstar and being an attraction. There are a lot of WWE Superstars. There are very, very few attractions.
Brain Gewirtz: It’s a star driven business. During that period of time, especially in 2002, we need new, we need fresh, and we need it now.
Michael Rappoport: In Sports Entertainment, there’s no foolproof prototype for success. While WWE’s developmental system was loaded with potential, there was no sure thing.
Brian Gewirtz: Our first exposure to Cena was an accident, complete accident. We were looking at tapes of Rico and Rico was teaming with Cena at the time in OVW. From that, like hey, what did you think of the Rico DVD that you watched? I’m like, yeah, Rico is good. Did you see Cena? This Cena guy, we’ve got to watch this reaction.
John Cena: I remember walking into OVW and seeing the place. And then immediately seeing Shelton Benjamin walk the top rope without using any assistance. And then Randy comes in making everything look effortless when I don’t know how to get out of my own way. The group that was assembled was a group of stars.
Randy Orton: I remember when Cena came and everybody was kind of like, who the fuck does this guy think he is? You know, he was a different kind of cat, but there like was something special about him. Prototype they called him.
John Cena: All I did was read and study. And I immersed myself in the culture. Especially when we’re here practicing, I just like to watch Lou Thez. I want to learn as much as I can about pro wrestling. It sounds way old-school, but why the fuck not?
Jim Cornette: Cena, not only from day one, not only did he look the part, but he could talk the part.
Brian Gewirtz: That charisma caught our eye pretty quickly. That’s how we discovered John.
Batista: He was just a natural born entertainer. And he just had a strong sense of professional wrestling. We were a little further into training, but he felt like he was already a step ahead of us.
Shelton Benjamin: At the time, The Rock was the best guy in the stick. But not if you were in OVW. Cena was Cena the entire time I met him. He just hadn’t had his big break yet.
Michael Rappoport: As Cena and the other OVW hopefuls continued to show promise for the future, Vince McMahon issued a direct challenge to the entire WWE Roster.
John Cena’s WWE Debut
John Cena: He was giving and begging the people who laced the boots, like, hey, i’m just waiting to give somebody the keys to the city. Go out there and take it. I was really affected. My eyes were like saucers, just like absorbing this information.
The Miz: Everyone can stand there and say i’m going to give you 110%. But who is actually going to do it? Who is my next guy? Like you felt the emotion. You knew he was looking for it. And who was it going to be?
Michael Rapporot: WWE’s Resident Olympic Hero, Kurt Angle, seized upon Mr. McMahon’s challenge as an opportunity for himself.
John Cena: Someone had to wrestle Kurt Angle. And I had been wrestling on the main roster in some live events and not screwing up. And they had nobody else.
Bruce Prichard: All right, kid. Can you hang with Kurt Angle? If you can hang with Kurt, then you can pretty much hang with anybody.
John Cena: They said they wanted me to go in and talk to Vince. My first conversation with Vince was someone knocking on his office door. Come on in. Opening the door, me being shoved into Vince’s office. Michael Hayes I believe saying, what do we do? And I quote, my first conversation with Vince McMahon was cut his fucking hair. Out of the office to get a haircut.
Kurt Angle: John is one of those guys that you give him a challenge, he’s going to step up to it. He’s not only going to deliver, he’s going to hit a home run.
Drew McIntyre: That’s something that’s going to be replayed until the end of time. He slapped Angle as hard as he possibly could. And that Kurt Angle at that time could have beat up anybody in the entire planet, so it was a ballsy move.
Bruce Prichard: John delivered his promo with heart, with feeling. You felt it because it was real.
Kurt Angle: I tried to get him tired. I tried to blow him up. I tried everything I could to exhaust him. And even thought it was only a 12 minute match, there was a lot going on. It was high action. It was non stop and John rose to the occasion. That night, he earned my respect because I didn’t think he was going to last.
Adam Cole: I remember even at that time being very impressed with John Cena. I had no clue who John Cena was. I knew nothing about his career before WWE. And just seeing this guy, who went toe to toe with Kurt Angle, impressed me from the gate.
Michael Rappoport: Despite coming up short, Cena’s debut sent shock waves through the WWE Universe. The impact of that moment was felt by the superstars and fans alike. Even WWE’s most revered and stoic leader took notice of the young upstart.
– We see a clip of The Undertaker shaking John Cena’s hand after his debut match with Kurt Angle.
Bruce Prichard: Guys lined up to shake Cena’s hand and congratulate him because he was able to hang with Kurt. And if The Big Dog, The Undertaker, comes up and he endorses him, then the audience is going to go, oh my god, this must be the guy. This must be one of the guys. That was real. We recreated it and made it happen on TV.
Kurt Angle: Taker doesn’t usually step out of his way to tell somebody something, but he did that night. And I knew right away that John Cena is going to be something special.
Michael Rappoport: After a fantastic debut and a phenomenal stamp of approval, Cena seemed certain to be the sure thing that WWE was hoping for.
Falling Out Of Favor
John Cena: The people that like remember, The Ruthless Aggression John Cena and look back at that as a success, they are not looking back on it correctly. It was a failure.
Brian Gewirtz: It’s difficult when you are in the position that John was put in. It’s great for that day, but then what? Then what are you going to do?
Kurt Angle: He had these shorts where he would wear different colors that matched the sport teams in each city. I heard he bought like 40 pairs. But that wasn’t going to do it.
Drake Maverick: Hey, I’m the guy. It’s your town. I’m wearing the different colored tights. I just was disconnected by the blandness. I don’t even think character is the wrong word. I don’t think he had one.
Natalya: Those tough times for WWE Superstars, kind of those ugly ducklings years, it teaches you a lot about who you are and what you are made of and how much you want it.
Brian Gewirtz: He had passion and charisma and all that. But there wasn’t a character there. In the mid 2000s, that’s not enough. We’ve got to do something, otherwise, he’s going to fall to the wayside and he did fall to the wayside.
Christian: If you don’t get that connection with the audience, you are fighting an uphill battle every single time you go out there. You have to figure out that way to connect with the audience. Whether they cheer for you or boo for you, you have to figure out how to get a reaction out of them.
Michael Rappoport: With a roster stacked full of veteran superstars like The Undertaker, Triple H, The Rock, and now bolstered by rookie sensation Brock Lesnar, John Cena quickly found himself falling out of favor. The kid who a short time ago felt like a sure thing was suddenly at a complete loss and looking for answers.
John Cena: I was on Velocity, wrestling matches on Velocity, which is a program none of you ever heard of. I wasn’t stressed to like got to be perfect. I was more stressed in the fact that I didn’t know who I was.
Adam Cole: When are you trying to find yourself as a performer, it’s incredibly obvious to the audience. They know that you are trying, but as far as being truly beloved by the audience, not until you find who you are as a performer is that ever going to happen.
Bruce Prichard: John had a hard time finding himself. He was a wrestler. He was boring. He was bland. He was vanilla. Yes, he had balls and yes, he wanted it. Yes, he was willing to do whatever it took. But he needed a personality. He needed something else to take him to the next step.
The Doctor Of Thuganomics
John Cena: The WWE, they used to make a series of cut around late November and around mid May. I was told that I would be getting my release in Christmas cuts because it just wasn’t working. And there was no argument there. It wasn’t. They gave it to me on a silver platter. John Cena, Ruthless Aggression and I failed. I messed it up. I was on my last european tour and I think I was in a mixed tag team matches. This is how well it didn’t go. Like I was just there to maybe have one last time in the ring. But I was on the way out. We travel as a community. So we are all on the same bus. So I heard a bunch of guys sitting on the back of the bus, like Rikishi and Rey Mysterio kind of leading the charge and they were all free styling. Just to pass the time. It was long bus rides. And I remember just being like let’s go try this. Just dove right in. And it was like it resonated with me.
Bruce Prichard: Everybody is clapping and popping on every little thing. Well, if he can entertained the group backstage, the most cynical group you could ever ask for, he can entertain the masses.
John Cena: And Stephanie just happened to be in front of the bus. On the way out, she was like, how do you remember all that? Are you kidding me? I don’t. I just kind of think of words on the spot and come up with it. That’s how you freestyle. You don’t remember it. She was like yeah, you rhymed everything. Yeah, that’s the deal. And we are walking on our flight to go to our next destination. She had a can of tuna fish. She was eating healthy. She was like, okay, rhyme about this. In two seconds, I made a small rap about the tuna fish, the jet way, the plane we were about to go on and the destination. And then kind of close it with a comment about Stephanie. She was like, would you like to do this on television? Absolutely.
Michael Rappoport: On the Halloween edition of SmackDown, John Cena’s entire career was on the line. He had one shot to prove his new freestyle rapping persona could connect with the WWE Universe.
Brian Gewirtz: This was the sink or swim moment for John with this rap because he might not get a chance to talk again after this. We have all seen it plenty of times where a talent is being given a promo and the feedback afterwards is, ugh, that’s a kind of charisma black hole, let’s not do that again.
John Cena: I’m going to go out. And if I fail, i’m taking the blame. And I realize the blame is me walking away and never coming back. But i’m betting on myself 1,000%, you’re wrong, i’m right, i’m going to do this thing.
The Miz: As a fan, remember I’m watching at home. That’s where the first time I looked at it and went, ooh, this guy has something.
John Cena: The greatest characters we have, the second they show up, you know who they are. I knew just by dressing a certain way, I could come out and someone would be like, I get that. And I went all in from that one second. I went all in.
Adam Cole: He was coming out with a swag that I hadn’t seen in a really, really long time.
John Cena: If you look at the early installments of The Doctor Of Thuganomics Character, the yellow corduroy pants and the matching beanie, the blue sheepskin jumpsuit, I tried to be as outlandishly dressed as possible.
Mark Henry: People started dressing like him. With throwback jerseys and shorts and five or six different wrist bands. He was able to do stuff that made him look way different than everybody else. And it was fresh. It was something new.
Drake Maverick: Why was John Cena so cool? He said a lot of naughty words, naughty things and made me laugh. That’s what I think is a big key with any entertaining character. If they make you laugh, you feel it in here and you remember that feeling of happiness. Bland, white meat babyface, John Cena, didn’t make me feel anything. But this John Cena made me feel something.
Bruce Prichard: John didn’t do the same rap in Houston that he did in Chicago. It was different every single night. And the audience felt special and felt a connection to John. And that, in my opinion, is what jump started John Cena’s career in many, many ways.
John Cena: The John Cena Doctor Of Thuganomics persona is a happy accident. Nobody can tell me how to do hip hop. Nobody. There wasn’t a qualified source. They were just like, ugh, I guess. Which was awesome. It gave me the ability to be myself. Going in the right direction. It’s gonna be a long process, but we’re headed in the right direction.
Michael Rappoport: While The Doctor Of Thuganomics was embraced by the WWE Universe, Cena was getting a much different reaction behind the scenes.
Backstage Resentment & Becoming United States Champion
John Cena: Everybody backstage had their reservations about me. Nobody liked me at all.
Christian: There’s a little bit of air of jealousy as well, right. Why is he getting the opportunity to go out and do this? Sometimes when guys go out there and just take a chance and it works out, you start to get more chances. And maybe some people are a little more upset that they didn’t take that chance.
Kurt Angle: It was tough because I was so damn good at everything that I didn’t think anybody was gonna step between me and being the top guy. I saw this young whippersnapper basically taking my place. And there was nothing I could do about it. This is guy is going to make it big right here, John Cena.
John Cena: I never cared about the perception of myself behind the curtain. The people that didn’t like me aren’t going to like me. But it didn’t affect me in how I did work. I didn’t listen to their comments because I knew they weren’t genuine. They were a reflection of their own insecurities. Because, wow, this thing is building some steam and maybe i’m not ready for it.
Michael Rappoport: After blowing his first big opportunity, nothing could stop Cena this time. Despite all the locker room jealously, Cena kept upping his game.
Brian Gewirtz: When someone new is getting over, it’s like a brand new toy to play with. It’s a brand weapon in your arsenal. Oh, my god! Now we have this person. And we can use this person and put him or her into all these situations. And John just went into a zone and knocked it out of the park. Every week it felt like it was better than the previous week.
Michael Rapport: John Cena’s controversial antics made him a major attraction. But going into WrestleMania 20, his backstage detractors were still not buying in.
Big Show: I remember going into WrestleMania 20. I was fighting him for the US Championship. I can’t tell you how many times guys pulled me to the side and said, Show, you can’t let this guy win. He’s a flash in the pan. It will hurt your career. You’re a giant, blah, blah, blah.
John Cena: Everyone is like, hey, don’t work with John. He has no respect for anybody. He has no respect for this business. I don’t think he’s going to be anything. He was like you’re wrong.
Big Show: I was really impressed with John. John had an undeniable hunger to be successful in our business. John Cena picked me up for his finish, everybody went crazy and that’s what we wanted.
Adam Cole: I’ll never forget him winning the United States Championship in Madison Square Garden at WrestleMania 20. Those fans lost their minds. They were so happy when he won that championship. And that agin for him was kind of the start of when things started snowballing.
John Cena: It was amazing. You are in Madison Square Garden and I got to win a championship. I remember I parked in the public parking lot. I took the United States Championship and all my stuff and my little roller bag out to my Jeep Cherokee, I think it might have been. And to the 8th floor of the public parking lot and left the building with all the fans. So you want to talk about a wonderful moment of success, but a moment to keep you grounded and let you know, hey, don’t get consumed by all this and you’re only as good as your next one, just kind of walked out like everybody. Hey, nice job tonight. Okay, thanks.
Michael Rappoport: The overwhelmingly positive reaction to John Cena’s victory in Madison Square Garden came at a critical juncture in WWE history. Turns out WrestleMania 20 also marked the end of the line for two of the biggest attractions in WWE history. The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Adding fuel to this potential dumpster fire, Brock Lesnar, the personification of ruthless aggression, abruptly departed WWE.
Bruce Prichard: Brock wants to move on to new ventures, so definitely opened the door when Brock left for talent to step up and take it.
The Champ Is Here
Drake Maverick: And over the next year, Cena grew and he grew and he grew. And then we get to WrestleMania 21, he’s fighting for the WWE Championship.
JBL: I think he was the perfect foil at that time for JBL. JBL was this old rich aristocrat who hated the world and walked out front and yelled at the clouds and the kinds on his front lawn. And he had this kid come along who is the doctor of thuganomics. It was the perfect counterpart to JBL. And I think it resonated very well. I just thought John was going to be the guy that was going to be the flag bearer for WWE for a long time. And Vince McMahon pulled me aside and asked me. He said, how is John Cena? I said he’s your guy.
Michael Rappoport: John Cena’s rise to the top of WWE was unconventional and controversial. So big surprise, the champ ruffled even more feathers by putting a new spin on an old tradition.
John Cena: With the overwhelming consumer success of the United States Title, it was a no brainer that we took what I thought was a pretty bland looking championship title — and this is supposed to be the richest prize in our business. Let’s revamp it.
Big Show: The spinner belt. 30 something pounds of garbage.
Brian Gewirtz: I think it was very divisive. On the one hand, it sold a lot of merchandise and the younger audience absolutely loved it. The more traditional old school audience thought, what the hell has the prestigious WWE Championship turned into? It’s a toy now.
Michael Rappoport: Changing the WWE Championship to a spinner was a polarizing move to say the least. But with Cena now at the top of the WWE, he made an even bolder decision that would cause permanent dividing line.
Fans Beginning To Switch Sides
John Cena: Performers don’t stop and look around enough. They don’t look at the people they are trying to entertain. Here I had a personality that attached to the people who were watching, but then slowly the people who were watching changed. It began to be more kids and more families to come to these events. I saw it happen. I didn’t need a sheet of analytics. I could see it. So I said this is it. We’re changing up right now. I remember going into Vince’s office and said I have to stop rapping. For an older viewer, an older male if you liked what you saw in 1999, when you tuned in 2005 and 2006, it’s not the same thing. And it’s easy to pin it on me.
Brain Gewirtz: You had John getting this electric reaction whenever he came out, both positive and negative. And watching it when it first happened, you’re going, holy shit, they are booing him out of the building. What the hell? And yeah, there’s a little bit of panic there because this was all new territory. You never really saw something like this.
Jim Cornette: You’ve got the paradox of the really devoted hardcore fans, wanting to come specifically because it got to be cool to boo John Cena. But at the same time, all the kids, they are buying the t-shirts and the merchandise and the tickets because they want to see John Cena. And that just assured that he would be on top for years and years to come because whether they like you or whether they hate you, the most important thing is that they feel strongly one way or the other.
Bruce Prichard: Love him or hate him, they tuned in and cared about him. So we’ve got a star.
Michael Rappoport: No WWE Champion had ever received such a mixed reaction. But heading into WrestleMania 22 in a match against Triple H, the divide shifted into overdrive.
John Cena: Everything was going in the opposite direction. When I was wrestling with JBL, he was a wonderful villain. Triple H is a cool wrestler. People don’t root against him. So this new kid is in competition with the really cool guy, the line is drawn. And the remaining fans of the attitude era are clinging to that line in Triple H and the newer fans are like, John is great. Remember the hall of fame. I am up really early in the program to introduce our inductee to the celebrity wing, William Perry. I remember as they introduce me, the wave of hatred, there was a pulse to it. And I remember turning to this Vince and like what the fuck am I supposed to do? He goes, just go out and smile. And it was like no one person in here wants me to walk out alive. And then just addressed the situation. I knew you would be salty, maybe a little more than salty. Letting them know I heard, but also letting them know i’m not going to waver. When I came back, I was so nervous and shaken to my core. But he was right. That was a lesson that would stick with me forever. My take away from WrestleMania 22 was to trust Vince McMahon.
Shelton Benjamin: Up until then, I felt like he was being built. But no, he’s being given the reins. You beat Triple H at WrestleMania, once he did that, he was the man.
Bruce Prichard: That was a perfect example of anointing and crowning and saying here you are, take it and run. Now you have it. Can you carry it? That was the task and that was the challenge that John faced ahead.
The Face Of The Company
Brain Gewirtz: What the company asked of John to do during this period of time in terms of media appearances, in addition to working a full schedule, I can’t even put into words how huge that amount of time committed would be. John is the master of the no sell. If he was tired, or if he thought it was too much, or if he thought, my god, i’m not a robot, how many things can one company ask me to do? You would never know that. He would never let on that this was too much. In fact, if anything, you got the impression he wanted even more. The life of a WWE Superstar has a limited shelf life. And if you are going to be put in that position, make every second count. And nobody really took that philosophy more than John.
Bruce Prichard: John worked tirelessly from the moment he woke up until the moment he went to sleep to do whatever he could for the company, for himself, just to be better.
John Cena: I did everything I could, everything.
Jim Cornette: Look at the schedule John Cena had. To have time to work out, to travel, to wrestle, to fulfill make a wishes.
John Cena: There was not one second that I felt as if I couldn’t accomplish all the things that I was scheduled. I took great pride in trying to find my limits and testing them.
Michael Rappoport: After years of WrestleMania being held in arenas, this 23rd installment of the grand spectacle, marked WWE’s return to stadiums. At WrestleMania XIX, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin filled Safeco Field in Seattle. And now four years later, WWE will be setting a new stadium attendance record. This time with John Cena headlining the showcase.
Brain Gewirtz: The overall business that he drew, I think, allowed us to be in Ford Field.
Mark Henry: John was a very high commodity. And he became almost a partner to the WWE because he was so over.
Michael Rappoport: Despite his undeniable success as an entertainer, Cena still had his detractors when it came to his in-ring ability. At WrestleMania 23, he was challenged to prove himself against the greatest in-ring performer of all time.
Shawn Michaels: I think people looked at it sort of, is John going to be better at this job after he comes out of the ring with me? And, of course, he did.
Michael Rappoport: Cena is unquestionably the most polarizing champion in WWE history. All the while continuing to headline and sell out countless WrestleMania’s. But when it comes to John Cena, there is a fine line between love and hate. And also between success and failure.
John Cena: I failed. And although I didn’t know how to fix the failure, I sure as shit knew that I failed and I wouldn’t let it happen again. I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I’ve just never been complacent. I always think there’s room for growth. If I get passionate about something, you’re gonna have to stop me. And WWE filled me with passion, purpose and then I just found something that resonated with me so strongly. I made it my life and my life kept giving back. But I had to earn every fucking inch.
Bruce Prichard: Cena stepped in at a time when there was a need for a major crossover superstar. And John was able to fill and check every box. He had the look, he had the charisma. He had the talent. He was unique.
Hulk Hogan: Well, I’ve got a special place in my heart for John Cena. There’s not many people that love this business so much that they would put the business in front of everything else in their life.
Natalya: John Cena needed WWE to grow. And WWE needed John Cena to help build their company. They needed someone that was rock solid, reliable and entertaining for our WWE audience.
Checkout Episode 192 of The Hoots Podcast