John Cena & Goldberg: A Tale Of Contrasting Comebacks For WWE SummerSlam 2021
Cena & Goldberg both returned to WWE this week, but the reaction and context couldn't be more polarising...
It feels like more has changed in WWE over the last three days than it has for the last three months.
Since Sunday, we’ve seen three different Raw Women’s Champions, Karrion Kross losing his main roster debut and, of course, the focus of this discussion, two box office returns in the form of John Cena and Goldberg.
Both men have been plugged immediately into World Title programmes for SummerSlam, which is already threatening to eclipse WrestleMania 37 as 2021’s marquee wrestling event.
WWE are clearly focussed on injecting new energy into the product after a stagnant period since The Showcase Of The Immortals, coinciding with the return of live crowds. Nobody could begrudge that, and it sounds fantastic in theory, but how positive an impact will these big returns have?
Well, bluntly, I think one is great and the other a lot more worrying. Both will absolutely bring eyes back to the product, but Cena’s return has been met with huge enthusiasm and an equally huge pop.
Goldberg’s? Less so. Despite a largely positive reception from the live Raw crowd, much of the online wrestling world has been left with a feeling of ‘here we go again.’
I think this polarisation is a result of our initial match predictions. In the case of Cena, he seems the perfect candidate to further galvanise Roman's Universal title reign by putting him over strong.
The Tribal Chief’s dominance has been the best part of WWE in the lockdown era, and the more heroes he leaves in his wake, the more effective it’ll be when he eventually loses. Hopefully, whenever that actually happens, it’s to elevate a Superstar on the cusp of greatness. That’s pro wrestling 101, although it tends to happen far less in practice than we might expect.
Also, let’s not forget, this is John Cena. There’s every chance he could win, especially with WWE keen to regenerate interest in their product as the world returns to normal - and especially with that record-breaking 17th title reign in reach.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster, especially if Reigns were to beat him in a rematch, but it’s a diversion I’d rather not see.
On the whole, though, we’re looking at a feud between two charismatic megastars with the clearest of face/heel dynamics. It seems poised to be a big success for WWE, both critically and financially.
In the case of Goldberg, however, our concerns are a lot more justified.
Although not as universally praised as Roman’s run atop SmackDown, Bobby Lashley has been a great WWE titleholder. His shock defeat of Drew McIntyre at ‘Mania may have sent the Scotsman into a creative spiral, but Bobby has at least proven his worth as an interesting heel champion.
Now the worrying part: Goldberg crushes interesting heel champions.
At Fastlane 2017, Goldberg demolished Kevin Owens in 22 seconds, taking his championship and depriving us of an Owens vs. Jericho blowoff with World Title stakes. It could easily be argued that KO has never fully recovered, and it directly led to Jericho saying goodbye to WWE.
In February 2020, Goldberg rolled into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and defeated the indestructible Fiend, taking his championship and nullifying WWE’s most mysterious character. Wyatt has never fully recovered; it’s a point that doesn’t even need arguing.
Now the same concerns can be turned to Lashley. Is he the next victim of WWE’s part-time earthquake, crumbling even the best-laid booking plans in an instant?
In fairness, Goldberg is no longer as infallible as he once was, having lost to Braun Strowman at last year’s WrestleMania and McIntyre at this year’s Royal Rumble. But even that throws up two potential problems: is a win over Goldberg as impressive anymore?
Furthermore, would WWE dare book him to lose three title matches in a row?
Aside from the actual results of Cena vs. Reigns and Goldberg vs. Lashley, there’s also the question of match quality. SummerSlam 2021 is being treated as a very big deal by WWE, even more so than usual. Can Cena and Goldberg live up to their billing?
Again, the answers differ. Big Match John still looked perfectly capable when we last saw him compete, but that was two and a half years ago (not counting the Firefly Funhouse match at WrestleMania 36, which was arguably more acid trip than wrestling match.) On the other hand, Cena is only 44 years old, certainly not ancient by industry standards. Yes, there might be some ring rust, but Reigns’ recent matches play to Cena’s strengths.
For example, the 16-time champ won’t be expected to recapture the excellent form of his late 30s, most visible in stellar feuds with Kevin Owens and AJ Styles. Roman’s title reign has instead featured slow, dramatic, character-driven contests. Cena can really excel here.
As for Goldberg? He’s as unpredictable as ever. Watching a modern Goldberg match can feel like riding with a dangerous driver - it may be thrilling, but you’re only ever a moment away from witnessing disaster.
Since his shocking return squash of Brock Lesnar in 2016, the WCW legend has wrestled in just nine matches, including a short stint in the 2017 Royal Rumble. These bouts add up to less than half an hour of ring time, a timeframe of wildly differing highs and lows.
Let’s be honest, the quality has been all over the place. We saw an excellent, explosive effort when he dropped the Universal title to Lesnar at WrestleMania 33, but also a complete horror show in Saudi Arabia against the Undertaker.
The fan response to Goldberg has been just as erratic. Many loved his hilarious squash of Dolph Ziggler at SummerSlam 2019, but his previously mentioned defeats of Owens and Wyatt have been some of the least popular World Title changes in recent memory. A win over Lashley would surely provoke a similar reaction, while again bringing a premature end to a deserving title reign.
We’ve certainly highlighted a lot of contrasts between Cena and Goldberg, but they do share certain similarities - chiefly the delicate art of ‘winning a lot of the time.’ But even in this regard there are important differences.
A victory against Cena still feels like a monumental achievement, and his style has slowly evolved to really put over opponents. If you can stop the Five Moves of Doom at a ‘big four’ PPV, you’ve really done something special.
In contrast, a win over Goldberg feels altogether more random. You’ve spammed your finisher more than he has. Congratulations.
Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say that most of us feel the correct outcome would be for both Reigns and Lashley to retain, and that most of us fear a Goldberg victory more than a Cena one. That’s definitely my gut feeling too, for the reasons outlined above, but I wouldn’t bet on everything unfolding as we imagine.
If you’ll excuse the Vince-ism, the question now becomes: does WWE have the grapefruits to book losses for John Cena and Goldberg on a massive stage? When it’s laid out in those terms, I simply can’t see it happening.