A WrestleMania Preview THAT CAME FROM THE VAULT: Rusev vs. John Cena, US Title Match

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With WrestleMania Sunday, it's time for The Classical to present a WrestleMania Preview THAT CAME FROM THE VAULT. Today, it's Rusev vs. John Cena for the US Title.

Hulk Hogan’s run on top in the WWF was all about love: of prayers, vitamins, Hulkamaniacs, and most importantly of all, America. If you didn’t know that Hulk Hogan was all about the red, white, and blue, brother, I don’t know what rock you’ve been living under. At times, Hogan’s love for his country was surely part of a gimmick to make money, but it’s worth saying that few American celebrities have ever worn patriotism better than Hogan.

His first great moment as a babyface in the WWF, winning the World Title from The Iron Sheik, had been presented as a victory for Uncle Sam over the Ayatollah. So when it was strongly inferred -- to the point where journalists like Dave Meltzer wrote pieces like “Grunt and Grin” for hilarious 90s inventions like the National Sports Daily -- that another Middle Eastern baddie the likes of Saddam Hussein was in control of the WWF Heavyweight Championship, the Hulkster clearly had to saddle up and ride into Wrestlemania VII on his white horse. He was there to wave the flag, defeat the enemy, and win one for America.

The opponent for Hogan was turncoat and “Iraqi sympathizer” Sgt. Slaughter, the gross perversion of the American Dream (the other American Dream): a strong-jawed young man billed from Parris Island, SC, who had grown up and worked hard to achieve his dream of becoming the World's Champion ... by turning his back on Old Glory in a way that would make Jane Fonda blush. In a wrestling landscape that had recently lost the Cold War, the Wrestlemania VII build redefined what it meant to be an enemy of America. Sgt. Slaughter was a proud American by birth and by right, but he willingly tossed away his national identity by throwing in his lot with Saddam Hussein.

John Cena, if you discount that there were two active wars during nearly all of his prime years as the star of the company, has been far more “show, not tell” than Hulk Hogan ever was in the role of “American hero.” In the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania, Cena has wrapped himself in the American flag, but he primarily portrays American goodness through Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect rather than an overt reverence for Americana. In that way, Cena is far more a classic American hero than even Hulk Hogan: the heroic cowboy, the dutiful Marine, the man who sweats and bleeds to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Cena doesn’t need to talk too much about being an American hero or loving his country because he fits the mold so perfectly that his appearance and actions simply cause flags to spontaneously unfurl.

Of course, just like Popeye or John Wayne before them, '91 Hogan and '15 Cena also reflect the cultural weaknesses of the America they represent. Who embodied 80s excess and insincerity better than Hulk Hogan? Like Gordon Gekko, he used his charisma and smarts to establish a powerful and corrupt empire. By the early 90s, though, the economy wasn't what it had been during the peak years of Reaganmania, and self-worshiping rich men were on the outs as cultural heroes.

Cena (of the palatial mansion paid for by dueling "Let's go Cena!" / "Cena sucks!" chants) is the perfect stand-in for a country that finds itself unable to bring people together. No matter which direction he panders and what almost-clever line he delivers, he's a divider -- not a uniter.

As the dialogue grows more adversarial and polarizing each day, Cena remains confident that his way of doing things is right and he doesn't need to make concessions to anybody. And of course, in return, the genuine passion and tremendous volume with which he is simultaneously cheered and booed mirrors the modern American discourse as well as anything.

That Cena and Rusev are fighting over what’s been a definitively midcard belt during its WWE tenure seems oddly secondary, as their promos -- while also elevating the status of the title -- make it clear that this is about something “more”. This is an existential debate about the limits of decency in the face of perceived injustice just as much as "AMERICA RULES, RUSSIA DROOLS!". 

When playing “American Hero vs. Foreign Menace”, it’s obvious and easy to turn the entire program into an test of the limits of jingoism. But, for all the pomp and patriotic circumstance surrounding the two matches, both Wrestlemanias VII and XXXI feature characters that transcend the "foreign menace" trope and prove much worthier opponents for the proud United States than the army of two-dimensional character -- with those two dimensions almost invariably being “evil” and “some kind of foreigner/turncoat” -- who generally populate the world of wrestling and these storylines in particular.

Though even if they both represent the misappropriation of the American Dream in many of the same ways, Rusev is a far more traditional foreign menace than Sgt. Slaughter. Rusev came to this country as an immigrant aspiring to fame and financial success, and through sweat and merit, achieved his dream. Unfortunately, unlike an Olympic skater or a Nazi scientist, Rusev had zero interest in restyling himself as American to thank the country for the opportunity. Instead, like Slaughter, he pledged allegiance not to the flag, but rather to a sworn enemy of the United States. Rusev won the U.S. Title for Vladimir Putin, signifying the destruction of the natural order of things, a wicked repurposing of an American icon to worship a false god.

It’s in this space that the real story unfolds. With a feint towards a surprising amount of nuance -- especially for the level of vigorous patriotism involved -- the issue between the two is both exceedingly personal and broadly symbolic. Cena isn’t angry at Rusev because the latter is a non-American holding the US title or that he’s a “hero to the Russian Federation.” He’s angry because Rusev is a dick about it. This doesn't make The Russian SuperAthlete's redeeming qualities and admirable love of his own country insignificant, it amplifies them and feeds into the audience's frustration with him.

No one worth their salt, Cena included, is asking (even in storyline) for Rusev to not be proud of where he is from, just to stop constantly belitting publicly the place where he's been given an opportunity. Especially when he's also ostensibly representing it as its champion.  These are mostly reasonable requests, which Rusev is under no obligation to oblige. But, as will likely be made clear on Sunday,  that kind of defiance has its consequences.

As contests, both the Wrestlemania VII main event and Cena-Rusev at Wrestlemania XXXI are the good kind of predictable. Of course America triumphs -- it’s America, and this is America’s show, dammit. Of course the confidence of Hulk Hogan and the positivity of John Cena beat out the brutality of Saddam Hussein and the calculation of Vladimir Putin. Of course the flag will be waved vigorously as patriotic confetti falls from the rafters. With having to worry about the finish out of the way, you can sit back (or stand in elation) and enjoy the story as it unfolds -- and you don’t need to be a vigorous patriot to do that.

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