Bianca Belair has the potential to eclipse John Cena as the company’s top babyface of this generation.
WWE fans who tuned in to Backlash were treated to a fantastic night made even better by the hot crowd in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The reaction to the opening match created some online chatter, but no, Bianca Belair isn’t another John Cena.
The night kicked off with two of Smackdown’s newest superstars competing for the Raw Women’s championship after an increasingly confusing and pointless WWE draft. Bianca entered the match still champion after over a year with the title, greeted with her typical positive fan reaction. Then her challenger Iyo Sky came out with an even bigger reaction. Once the match between the two got underway, the crowd continued to cheer for Iyo but started to jeer and boo Bianca’s offense. The crowd reaction was consistently one of the best parts of Backlash 2023, but it did catch WWE by surprise here.
Commentary, who had previously hyped up how electric and amazing the live audience was, dipped into their usual schtick about the bizarre nature of foreign or big market audiences. For fans of a certain age, it was reminiscent of ECW One Night Stand 2006 and the reaction that John Cena received from that crowd in his prime WWE Championship days. The Backlash reaction led to those exact comparisons on social media, with some fans wondering if the Bianca Belair title reign had gone on too long. The questions about whether she has been too dominant over the last year and spoiled her support forget one crucial detail. Bianca Belair is better than John Cena.
Bianca Can Wrestle
So much of the negative fan response to John Cena in the mid-2000s was a response to his in-ring ability, especially when compared to his contemporaries. Cena is one of the best Promos ever in WWE, and frankly, his wrestling abilities are better than a subset of wrestling fans want to give him credit for. However, while others in the industry and even on WWE programming were pushing themselves to put on great matches, Cena was formulaic in the match quality and the story he told in the ring.
Also, in Cena’s prime, he had to work with a wide range of superstars and make them believable contenders. Some incredibly gifted stars, like Umaga and Shawn Michaels, made classic matches with the top guy. Others, like The Miz and Great Khali, needed the champion’s to make them shine, and Cena couldn’t hack it.
By comparison, Bianca Belair is as good as her contemporaries in the ring by about any metric. She has put on instant classics with Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, Asuka, and more. Furthermore, she rarely has a bad match, which means each of her challengers looks like a good option for the woman to beat her. Part of that is the talent in the women’s division, but Bianca has put on some decent matches with both Tamina and Natalya, neither known for stellar wrestling in recent years. While fans were upset that John Cena kept winning back in the day, part of that frustration is that many felt he was beating folks who were better than he was. Worse yet, he did so while making them look bad. Nobody can look at the list of matches Belair has had on the main roster and come to that conclusion. Everyone involved looks phenomenal in the ring, which is at least partly due to Bianca’s abilities.
Bianca has a Unique Presentation
John Cena’s run as champion was a product of its time. When Cena was in the Ruthless Aggression era, he was Ruthless like almost everyone else. Talking trash harassing his enemies, and so on. When it extended into the PG Era, he went full cartoon protagonist to match the rest of the roster and feel of the show. When they moved into the Reality Era, he created a more grounded version of that hero and has stayed relatively still since 2015. Cena seemingly always had colleagues running a very similar style to his own while he was at or near the top. He was undoubtedly the standard bearer and possibly the most charismatic. Still, he was never alone, while well-known talents like Undertaker, Edge, and CM Punk did over those same periods.
Bianca feels alone from the rest of the current roster of women in WWE. Nobody is running with the uber-talented clean-cut babyface gimmick on the main roster. NXT does have a very talented underdog babyface in Roxanne Perez, but aside from her, the women’s division is devoid of any real competition for that spot. Without that competition, fans are not likely to turn on the champion, even if the title reign has gone on a bit too long. It is hard to turn on a portion of a variety show like WWE when it is actively different than the rest of the show. Some people on the men’s side are getting close, which might explain the recent chatter. However, ultimately she is still a unique entity in women’s wrestling.
Bianca Breaks the Mold
Similar to the presentation, the championship run of both stars encapsulates the biggest difference between the two. Cena’s reign is really a journey of three different John Cenas. The first is an upstart underdog with a fighting spirit and anti-hero personality. Second, is the All-American, WWE-loving, never say die babyface. Both of those characters were done better by at least one other World Champion in WWE history.
John Cena was the new Stone Cold Steve Austin and the new Hulk Hogan. But being the new something means a comparison from a bygone era of wrestling still exists. Part of the response to John Cena was that he was a redux of these two characters, so much so that it all felt repetitive by the time he merged the two into a unique trash-talking American superhero. Roman Reigns originally faced the same problem, ironically because he tried to riff on Cena’s third gimmick.
It is impossible to name another WWE Women’s champion that compares to Bianca Belair cleanly. Just to name a few, the title has been held by Trish Stratus, Lita, AJ Lee, Paige, Nikki Bella, Michelle McCool, Ronda Rousey, and all four horsewomen (Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and Bayley). Bianca doesn’t feel like any of those women, her background is incredibly unique. Each of the women who came before had an edge.
Maybe it was a rebellious streak, an ego; you name it, each memorable women’s champion had something. Bianca is a babyface whose edge comes from her authentic story of fighting to make it when society and circumstance stacked the deck against her. That is more relatable than anything a room full of writers can think of. Not everyone in the company or industry believes that, but most fans do, and they love Belair as a face because of her personal growth and professional journey. The fans won’t ever fully betray Belair because they are also invested in that part of her. They see those struggles in themselves and connect.
#LOLBiancawins is Still a Concern
Despite the crowd’s boos during the match in Puerto Rico, they all cheered big time when Bianca arrived and gave her massive props when she won in a stellar bout. By 2008 there was quite literally nothing John Cena could possibly do to get live crowds to cheer. He was left as a performer exclusively for kids. Given the WWE’s turn to PG programming, this move was fortunate, or maybe just fabricated. This is really why Bianca Belair isn’t another John Cena. She is perfect for this moment, can wrestle with anyone, and feels fresh comparatively. Fans like to jeer, and there is some genuine boredom, perhaps, but while the WWE Universe blamed Cena a decade ago, they don’t seem keen to target Belair. However, while Bianca has those benefits that Cena didn’t, there is still a weakness that needs addressing.
Comparing Cena and Belair isn’t helpful, but comparing Backlash 2023 and One Night Stand 2006 is. Both were specialty shows in front of a hot audience that only gets a little by way of WWE content that is catered to them. Also, both sets of fans favored a smaller, more impressive ring worker of the larger, more traditionally pushed athlete. WWE has come a long way with this, but all Backlash proved was that fans want more high-octane performers Like Iyo to have a real push. Having Belair lose would have made more sense in that regard; even Cena lost in 2006. Still, Bianca will likely fall away from the title picture for a while once she loses. She may even lose now and again, something WWE was never keen to do with Cena long-term. Suppose WWE can push other young performers as the future and give fans that shot of adrenaline in the title scene every once in a while. In that case, Bianca Belair will have no issue being accepted d as the great-EST Raw Women’s Champion by the WWE Universe.