When I was 5 years old my parents took me to see The NeverEnding Story in theaters. The flying dog in the trailer looked awesome and there was no summer camp on weekends, so we hit a matinee with high hopes and wide eyes.
As you probably know, the movie tells the story of a troubled (and kind of wussy) teen that stumbles upon a fantastical book about a boy named Atreyu, one he quickly finds himself immersed in. Sadly, the same was true of me; because without being too hyperbolic, I can say that one of the scenes in The NeverEnding Story scarred me for life.
The scene in question is set in the deadly Swamps of Sadness, an aptly named marsh that Atreyu is trying to cross with his majestic horse – and best friend – Artax. This begins a two-minute stretch of celluloid that makes John Wayne Gacy seem child-friendly. See, the swamp can sense bad vibes (or something), and Atreyu notices his companion isn’t moving through it quick enough. He laughs at first, but then he realizes the situation is graver than he assumed. Artax, a stunningly beautiful white horse, had stopped walking. The boy screams the horse’s name over and over, begging him to “Fight against the sadness.” His anger turns into last-resort reasoning, hugging Artax’s face and calmly pleading, “You have to try. You have to care. For Me. You’re my friend. I love you.”
Well, Artax doesn’t try. As a child, no matter how rough this set-up sounded, you assumed it would work out. Artax was obviously going to pull through. But the music got louder and more ominous and now you could only see the horse’s head. Atreyu screamed at the top of his lungs, “Move please! I won’t give up. Don’t quit” and the scene, and music, faded out. We return to the swamp where a defeated Atreyu is now alone, staring at the swamp and crying. THE HORSE FUCKING DIED. And I was never the same.
I mention this because I attended WWE’s annual SummerSlam event this past Sunday night in Los Angeles at Staples Center, surrounded by hundreds of kids that had a similarly high hopes and a recognizable set of wide eyes. SummerSlam has become an annual tradition here in L.A., while other tent-pole pay per views like the Royal Rumble and Wrestlemania bounce from city-to-city, it’s spent six-straight years in Tinseltown. How else are they gonna get Maria Menounos, Fred Durst, Mr. Belding and David Arquette in the same building?
Last night’s main event pitted WWE poster boy (and champion) John Cena, against former NCAA wrestling champion, storied MMA king and certified killing beast Brock Lesnar. On paper, Cena was severely outmatched and expected to be heading into a slaughter. Cena’s fanbase is made up mostly of children, while Lesnar’s contingent is the MMA faction, whose main focus seems to be booing Cena and wearing Affliction T-shirts. And while hating Cena has become a living meme within the audience, even his harshest critics would admit he represents an optimism and goodness similar on par with Santa Claus.
In the build-up to the match, Lesnar promised to leave Cena in a puddle of “blood and urine and vomit.” While the champ spoke humbly about Lesnar’s impressive height, weight and strength – calling him “easily the most difficult person I’ve ever been in the ring with” – Brock said he would “victimize” Cena. It was menacing, sure, but it was also just talk; after all, the WWE has a history of protecting John Cena, face of the franchise and mover of considerable merchandise.
Like a 2014 version of Hulk Hogan bodyslamming Andre The Giant, fans assumed we see more of the same, except when all was said and done on Sunday night…THE HORSE FUCKING DIED.
Lesnar was in complete control from the opening bell. After 10 minutes, Cena still hadn’t performed an offensive move against Lesnar, other than making a sad face when the Beast bellowed “I’m gonna kill you!” Lesnar subjected the champ to a staggering 16 (or maybe it was 15) German Suplexes throughout the match, tossing him around like Bernie Lomax. Adult fans appreciated the realism of what was going on, but many looked towards the ring entrance, assuming someone would jump out and make this match fair. But no one came to Cena’s aid, and as things dragged on, it became clear we were watching a “squash match,” a term used in the business to describe a one-sided slaughter.
The only difference was, wasn’t the dismantling a no-name jobber, it was the destruction of the WWE Champion, John Cena, the publicly traded company’s golden boy. It was a booking without precedent, designed to elevate Lesnar – who already ended the Undertaker’s famous undefeated streak at Wrestlemania – to monster status, at the expense of the brand’s biggest star. And when it was finally over, Lesnar stood over his crumpled opponent as the new champ. The horse was fully engulfed in the swamp.
Children seated around me were devastated. Crushed. One actually started crying, while his father laughed at him (that actually happened). Brock’s aggressive fans applauded and screamed obscene things to the unconscious Cena. Much like my reaction to the sinking horse when I was 5, these children watched a best friend, a hard worker, an innocent good guy sink to his death, and it didn’t matter how loudly they screamed for him to find a way out. They loved him, but John Cena couldn’t escape the sadness.
During Cena’s dozen years in the WWE, he’s been a workhorse, trudging on, carrying the water, playing his role. Now, he’s off to try his hand in mainstream movies – he’ll appear in Judd Apatow’s next film and a Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy – which means he might also be at the end of his trip through the Swamps of Sadness. I don’t expect John Cena to disappear permanently, but for the foreseeable future, the Artax of the WWE is gone.
At the end of The NeverEnding Story (SPOILER ALERT), Artax reappears, unscathed and reunited with Atreyu. It’s not super logical, but it’s probably the happy ending children (and the studio) needed. Last night on WWE RAW, with the company still reeling in the aftermath of the SummerSlam squash, John Cena fans didn’t get even one-tenth of that kind of closure. Cena was nowhere to be seen, as the company’s brass, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, presented Brock with his new Championship title and posed for photo opportunities.
The former champ was hardly mentioned, until Paul Heyman announced he was too injured to appear. And that was it. No setup for a rematch, or even a new direction for the man whose motto is “Never Give Up.” And because of that, what happens next for John Cena is hard to predict. He’ll be returning the most abused and beaten champion of all-time, always reminded of the time he was decimated by Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam. Will he get retribution? Does he even care? Does John Cena have anything left to prove? Or are the Swamps of Sadness just too much to keep going?
Either way, we’ll be yelling at him at the top of our lungs, telling him to keep moving or to just sink, because that’s what wrestling fans do.