“I was the color red in a sea of black and white.”
Have you ever had that piece of fictional media that just haunts you, leaving you wondering about what just happened? Something that just sticks with you, even though it didn’t wear out its welcome or explain itself too much? On night two of WrestleMania 36, I had that happen to me.
To set the scene, John Cena was someone who had been built up in the 2000s to be one of WWE’s fresh, big stars, and he was perhaps the biggest, for better or worse. Trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that had been “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock, John Cena was the biggest face that ran the place. So much so that he saw too much success, drawing the ire of many a fan. Despite preaching about loyalty, hustle, and respect, John Cena had his many big failures and all of his jokes and victories at the expense of others. In 2020, after all his failures, John Cena was starting to look like a shadow of his former self.
As for Bray, he had been left behind by many of his followers and friends: Luke Harper, Erik Rowan, Braun Strowman, Randy Orton, and Matt Hardy. Wyatt was just there, all alone, and barely getting on television. So, he made himself feel less alone. Enter: The Firefly Funhouse, a place where the friendship never ends. His puppet friends kept him company, and kept him happy; Abby the Witch, Ramblin’ Rabbit, Mercy the Buzzard, and Huskus the Pig.
In the vignettes leading to the unveiling of Firefly Funhouse, nobody knew what to expect other than something dark. When it came time for the first “episode”, everyone was left confused. Baffled even. Some fans were speculating on if this was a burial to Wyatt’s character, while others wondered where this was going. Each episode became layered in it’s own way, leading to the unveiling of The Fiend, a dark, sinister monster that lived within him, representing his pain and anger. The pain of someone held back. The hurt of someone who tries to include others, only for them to leave every single time. The sting of being alone. The Fiend remembers all that crossed and left him.
Taking out legends like Mick Foley and Kane, The Fiend also amassed a body count, consisting of Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan, and The Miz, before being trounced by Goldberg, having once again his chance stolen from him. Yet, among his path of destruction, he left change. Finn Balor left for NXT and found himself returning to his Prince character from Japan, Seth Rollins became a detestable remnant of his Authority days with a God complex, Daniel Bryan’s bitter behavior (and most of his hair too), and The Miz once again became a cocky, cowardly Hollywood heel.
At a time where the world was facing rampant fear and confusion, WWE decided nonetheless that the show must go on – which the company is fond of doing – and in an eerily quiet WWE Performance Center, many of the matches would have the energy of a cacophonous crowd sucked away, with only the soundtrack of commentary and wrestling on these nights as these stories unfolded.
However, two stories were told in vastly different ways. Night One had concluded with a cinematic match between AJ Styles and The Undertaker, in a Boneyard Match. It was fun, brutal, and as someone who grew up during Undertaker’s biker dad phase, it was nostalgic in a way. But the Firefly Funhouse Match on Night Two in the penultimate match is what caught more of my attention.
To set the scene: Bray Wyatt had, in controversial fashion, lost his Universal Title to Goldberg, and many had feared he would be floating somewhere in the card again, that his character would be ruined.
Enter: John Cena. In one of the last episodes of SmackDown before the world had to shut down, John Cena addressed WWE fans, stating he would sit out 2020’s WrestleMania, and let new talent take over and shine without his shadow looming over them. Regardless of what John Cena thought he was going to do, someone wasn’t satisfied with the announcement and sought to make that known. That someone was “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt. In The Fiend’s eyes, there was unfinished business between him and the Leader of the Cenation.
Then came the international breakout of COVID-19, and the feud would then be taken to the Performance Center on Smackdown. Bray, in his Firefly Funhouse guise, professed the pain he went through after losing to Cena at WrestleMania XXX. Unfortunately, Wyatt’s stock had dropped within the company, and his Wyatt Family, though bona fide stars, were not on that fast track that Wyatt had hoped for.
With vengeance on his mind seeing Cena back, The Fiend would find himself on the same path he started out with the megastar before – proving to the world he was not as good and altruistic the character made himself out to be. The mission had finally come full circle and there was no way Bray was going to let his second chance at Cena fall to shambles a second time. Cena could see it too. You can even see it in a mean-spirited promo John Cena unleashed on Bray Wyatt, laced with venom; in his vitriol, Cena would find his insecurities bubbling up. His words would have due consequence, however.
As Cena rolled into the Performance Center, ready for whatever match he was partaking in, he found himself in Wyatt’s Firefly Funhouse, confused and alone. Without his fans, Cena was nothing but prey for The Fiend, and what followed next was psychological horror disguised as goofy antics reminiscent of a children’s educational television program and is met with a puppet version of Vince McMahon, demanding Cena display “ruthless aggression.”
Bray’s own pain and anguish would be shared instantly by Cena as he relives his debut in a repeat of his face-off with Kurt Angle. Bray taunts him with how embarrassing Cena was in what was his “biggest failure”, which was true; Cena was almost fired months after his debut, due to his fanbase dwindling. It was Cena’s lack of character that almost cost him his opportunity. Bray’s taunts bother Cena, however, he can only respond with “RUTHLESS AGGRESSION!” and stiffly swing his arms about. It is clear at this point Cena is not in control of himself. Wyatt dodges all of these swings, and to rub salt into the wound, he mockingly sings “You can look, but you can’t touch!”, the introductory words to John Cena’s former fiancé, Nikki Bella’s entrance music.
Pulling Cena into the next level of his personal Hell, Bray met Cena in a VHS-tinted segment of Saturday Night’s Main Event. While Wyatt was decked out in his fitness outfit, Cena was turned into Johnny LargeMeat, a bodybuilder. Reflecting both Cena’s early career pursuits of bodybuilding and the WWF scene of the 1980s, Johnny LargeMeat exercised with dumbbell curls, shocking and impressing Wyatt and his puppets, yet as before, Cena is not in control. Unable to curl any further, Johnny LargeMeat’s power fades and John Cena is left numb. Taking advantage, Bray yanks Cena into yet another nightmare from his past.
Thrust into the identity of the Doctor of Thuganomics, Cena discovered instantaneously that he could only talk in rhyme, confined in the very character that saved and changed the trajectory of his career. Cutting a promo with proper rhyme, Cena belittled Bray Wyatt, echoing his sentiments on the previous weeks of SmackDown, going so far as to mention Wyatt’s weight struggles and telling him “you’re a slut for opportunity; you’re blowing every chance.” Visibly affected by this particular jab, Wyatt bemoans having worked for every chance, to only have it stripped from him. Wyatt’s pain shone through his words with a small hint of the former Bray Wyatt – the swamp-dwelling cult leader of the Wyatt Family – leaving it indistinguishable as to who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. As Bray would point out, Cena is given “unlimited chances”, and steps on everyone beneath him. Unfazed and unsympathetic, the Doctor of Thuganomics attacked Bray at the turnbuckle. Alas, he was unaware of Bray’s teleport ability, as he was behind Cena. With a steel chain wrapped around his fist, Bray punched Cena into the next transition.
“I was the color red in a world of black and white”, said Wyatt in his swamp-dwelling gimmick, rocking back and forth in his rocking chair. This time the nightmarish scenario was at the exact moment of Bray’s downfall: WrestleMania XXX. He had the whole world in his hands, and a swing of a steel chair would have changed both men’s careers, but Cena stuck to what he believed was his morals and didn’t follow through with it. Maybe he just didn’t believe Wyatt was worth it. Maybe Cena thought he was too good to resort to weaponry.
Whatever the case, the clean win had made Wyatt’s words meaningless and his status made weak. Not to mention, Cena had a history of doing some bad things, being this “top guy”, while throwing anyone climbing up back into the abyss. Cena was the real heel all these years, and this match exposed that – exposed Cena. Yet he knew in his WrestleMania XXX bout with Wyatt, that the chair shot was what he wanted. To show the world who he really was, and send about a fundamental change in Big Match John. In this setting, however, Bray handed Cena the chair with a chance to fix things. Recreating the moments in the match leading up to chair instance, Bray screamed at Cena to “fix it”; Cena swung the chair like Babe Ruth, but nothing was there.
Nothing was there, except a transition to WCW Monday Nitro! In a jacket and NWO Wolfpac shirt (again, “the color red in a sea of black and white”.), Bray mimicked an Eric Bischoff introduction for Hollywood John Cena, wearing a black-and-white NWO baseball cap and t-shirt. In this moment, unbridled rage and pain from Cena’s own past, the rejection of the fans, it all rises to the top. In finally embracing the heel turn, Cena lets it all out, striking Bray Wyatt for having the audacity to think he was good enough. In his flurry of punches, he finds he’s no longer attacking Bray Wyatt, but rather his puppet: Huskus the Pig (a symbolic Firefly Funhouse character, representing the judgement Bray faced for his weight).
NWO John Cena was no more now, only vanilla John Cena, the one we’ve all come to know. Only this time, he’s weak. He’s defeated. He had undergone a psychological attack that has stripped him of all his heroics and peeled the layers to show a man who has fallen – a man who had fame, wealth, power, and supporters, who strived to achieve a stature of moral altruism. A man who was all alone, except for The Fiend.
With a mandible claw, The Fiend had Cena on his back, and the fun-loving Firefly Funhouse version of Bray counted the pin. There is no bell.
With the Fiend standing tall in victory, Cena then disappears into nothingness. As Cena was in the midst of this loss, his words from SmackDown, that at WrestleMania came to bite him, and the declarations of “putting an end to the most overhyped, overvalued, overprivileged” WWE superstar took a turn for the ironic, as John Cena was squashed.
This Firefly Funhouse Match was not one focused on maneuvers, finishers, spots, or submissions, but through character work and both men delivered a piece of media that delves within psychological horror.
When watching the match for first time, one would be forgiven to think it was some goofy, wacky back and forth between Bray Wyatt and John Cena, but when you know the further context in subsequent watches, you see that John Cena’s past is haunting him, and he has no control. His “Ruthless Aggression!” self, Johnny LargeMeat, Doctor of Thuganomics, and NWO John Cena were all just him bending to the will of Bray Wyatt, much like a puppet.
While we haven’t heard anything of John Cena the wrestler since then, Bray Wyatt had continued his ways. Fighting Braun Strowman during the summer of 2020, Bray was eventually able to reclaim his title, until Roman Reigns returned at SummerSlam to reclaim it for the first time in less than two years. Since then, Wyatt found companionship in Alexa Bliss, had a brief feud with Kevin Owens, flirted with violence towards Retribution and Andrade, until resuming his old, toxic rivalry with Randy Orton. At TLC in December of 2020, Randy Orton defeated Wyatt in a Firefly Inferno Match, and burned The Fiend alive. Since then, he hasn’t been seen.
What waits for John Cena and Bray Wyatt when they next step inside the squared circle? Only time will tell, and we are all puppets in the grand scheme of time.