TAMPA — What the WWE is billing as “The Summer of Cena” rolled into Tampa on Aug. 6 when, as part of his return from hiatus to the wrestling promotion, John Cena performed at the Friday Night Smackdown held at the Amalie Arena.
He did not disappoint.
The crowd erupted with the loudest cheer of the night when Cena entered the ring to win the main event.
Cena is having a moment outside the ring, too.
By starring in summer blockbusters F9 and The Suicide Squad, the Land O’ Lakes resident has transcended professional wrestling to become part of mainstream pop culture.
Is he professional wrestling’s top living pop culture star? No, that title unquestionably goes to the Rock, Dwayne Johnson.
But what about in Tampa Bay?
Cena has competition from Clearwater’s Hulk Hogan and Tampa’s Dave Bautista.
So, the Tampa Bay Times asked fans at Smackdown which performer’s work was tops in wrestling, Hollywood, standing as a role model and music. The local winning the most categories would be crowned pop culture king. You know, by science. Or just us.
With six world titles, Bautista had an impactful 20-year career before hanging up the boots in 2019.
Still, this category was a two-man race between Hogan’s 35-year career and Cena’s ongoing 22-year career.
Mark Rosado chose Cena due to his record-tying 16 world titles to Hogan’s 12.
“Hogan was the man, but Cena takes the cake,” Rosado, 29, said.
Nolan Edwards agreed.
“John Cena! John Cena! John Cena!” the 6-year-old chanted. Nolan said he was only at Amalie Arena to see Cena. Or maybe not to see Cena. “You can’t see me,” he said, mimicking Cena’s catchphrase.
But, overall, more fans gave Hogan the nod.
“Without Hogan, there is no wrestling,” Aaron Fournier, 40, said. “John Cena is possible because of Hulk Hogan.”
Jacob Hough, 52, listed Hogan’s accomplishments. “He turned wrestling mainstream in the ‘80s, slammed Andre the Giant in the biggest moment in wrestling history, made wrestling cool again in the ‘90s when he started the NWO, and WrestleMania got its name from Hulkamania. So, it has to be Hulk Hogan.”
Despite a featured role as Thunderlips in Rocky III and his own television series, Thunder in Paradise, which lasted for 22 episodes in 1994, Hogan was left out of this debate. (No, reality TV does not count.)
“Hogan is a classic. He had some parts,” James Trevelino, 40, said. “But today it’s between Cena and Bautista.”
Besides his two blockbusters released this summer, Cena has also starred in Bumblebee, Ferdinand, Daddy’s Home 2 and Trainwreck and is the star of the upcoming Peacemaker television series based on his Suicide Squad character.
“I think Cena is becoming a big action star,” Douglas Schwartz, 40, said. “But this has to go to Bautista. He has the MCU.”
Bautista’s acting resume includes Army of the Dead, Hotel Artemis, Blade Runner 2049, Spectre and the upcoming Dune remake, but his role as Drax in multiple Marvel movies won him this category.
“He has Marvel, what else does he need?” Rosado said.
Alfredo Teta, 36, agreed that Drax is “fun,” but said his family’s favorite is the comedy Stuber starring Bautista as a cop who, while recovering from eye surgery, recruits an Uber driver for help in a case.
“He showed he is as funny as he is tough,” Teta said. “We love it. He is a great actor.”
Hogan rose to fame by telling kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins, but steroid, sex and race scandals disqualify him from this category, fans agreed.
“I’m sure Bautista does great work for charity,” Richard Williamson, 23, said, “but he does it quietly, so I don’t know much about it. Cena, every wrestling fan know what he does. He has the world record for most Make-A-Wish Foundation wishes.”
According to Sports Illustrated, as of May 2020, Cena’s record stood at 650 wishes granted to sick children.
That Make-A-Wish work was the common answer among fans.
“You got to give it to Cena,” Jason Garcia, 38, said about charity work.
Plus, Cena introduced fans to Ybor City when he shot a pro-diversity PSA there in 2016.
“I loved that,” said Jillian Jacinda, 20. “That gives me chills.”
Without a link to mainstream music, Bautista is disqualified from this deciding category.
Hogan — then known as Terry Bollea — was a teenage bass player in Tampa. But he is also musically known for his role alongside pop star Cyndi Lauper in the WWE’s 1980s “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” story line, which culminated in a match with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper on MTV and brought professional wrestling its first mainstream pop culture moment.
Cena can counter with his You Can’t See Me rap album, which went platinum in 2005.
Still, when 32-year-old DeMarcus Owens learned that the music category would break the tie between Cena, Hogan and Bautista, he said it could only end in one way.
“In matches between big stars, there is never a winner,” Owens said. “It always ends with someone running in and ruining the match.”
So, who would run in?
“Chris Jericho, of course,” Owens said. “He has Fozzy,” a heavy metal band. Jericho resides in Odessa and now works with the AEW promotion.
Owens then mimicked a wrestling announcer calling a match between Hogan, Cena and Bautista that was spoiled by Jericho.
“Wait, whose theme music is that? My god, it’s Chris Jericho’s. The referee is calling for the bell. He’s declaring this match to be a no contest. Damn you, Jericho. Damn you.”