With the exception of his shocking return at the 2008 Royal Rumble, there's usually been some serious pomp and circumstance every time John Cena has made a comeback -- and Tuesday's edition of "SmackDown Live" should be no exception.
This time around, it isn't about an injury -- and Cena has certainly had his share over the years, suffering a torn pectoral, a herniated disk in his neck and a triceps tear, among other maladies -- but it's been more than four months since he's been on WWE TV regularly. In fact, since his SummerSlam classic with AJ Styles, Cena has only wrestled in three televised matches, along with about 20 live events and dark match main events.
After taking care of business outside of the boundaries of WWE -- he was off filming Season 2 of his reality show, "American Grit" -- Cena is ready to step back into the ring. He returns to a show that has done surprisingly well in his absence, as part of the blowout for "SmackDown Live"'s year-end "Wild Card Finals" spectacular, which will also feature three championship matches.
As much as Cena has thrived as the No. 1 player for much of his WWE career, he appreciates that the strong ensemble nature of the "SmackDown" roster, as currently constructed, allows for more shoulders to bear the weight and more chances for others to shine.
"I've always said we need to put forth the best product we can, and it seems like we're doing our best to do that," said Cena. "It seems like the dynamic itself is changing. Many years ago, you could look at the brand essentially as a one-man show with one man leading the way and him being held up by a cast of supportive players. I think Attitude Era was a bit of a segue into this [modern era]. Now you see more of a multitiered show, where it's a lot of talented superstars being able to showcase their talents."
Cena's last brief stretch on TV was centered squarely upon his desire to tie Ric Flair's all-time record of 16 world championships -- Cena currently sits at 15 -- but it's been two and a half years since he last held one of WWE's top titles. While that would have been unheard of at some points in his career, Cena was able to take the first title he ever won in WWE and, some 11 years later, return it to a place of importance.
"I reflect back to 2015 and what happened with the United States championship," said Cena. "There's a lot that can be done without that [world] championship match and that record hanging over the balance. It's only present when it's present, if that's a good way to say it. It's not something that I'm focusing on if it's not right in front of me."
Styles seems to be one of the likeliest targets for Cena upon his return, and in seeing Styles win the WWE world championship in his first year in the company, it becomes clear how much the company needed the influx of new talent and ideas that has taken hold during the past 12 months.
Cena is uniquely positioned to speak to just how much things have changed over the years.
"Over the past decade and a half that I've been around, the superstar turnover rate has been [high]," said Cena. "I've seen maybe three waves of talent come and go. I was just fortunate to be in a group in the turn of the century that was extremely talented, [with the] likes of Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar, just to name a few."
One of the biggest concerns about the long-term health of the WWE in recent years circled around the company's struggle to build new stars after the "Ruthless Aggression" era that made guys like Cena, Orton, Lesnar and Batista household names. It was the way they became stars, which included domination against much of the roster, that ultimately created part of this problem in the long term.
But the recent roster turnover, and emergence of new stars like Styles, Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, to name a few, has breathed new life into the company. And Cena has enjoyed success with all three of them.
"Everybody knows the stars resonate so heavily that they tend to have long and successful careers. But in the process, I've seen a bunch of guys come and a bunch of guys go," said Cena. "It seems like now we do have more able-bodied guys, and more of them than ever before. I think it's certainly a fresh look for our universe, and I'm certainly not opposed to it."
Each opportunity to see Cena hop into the ring with one of these new stars has been incredibly entertaining, as each one has pushed Cena to innovate and evolve his move set. Each match also seems like an event these days (that Cena continues to live up to) because of how much time he's been away from the company due to injury and other commitments.
In honesty, it's continuously surprising to see Cena come back over and over again from seemingly devastating injuries -- especially when you consider some of the other opportunities that fall onto his plate.
He's fresh off his first stint hosting "Saturday Night Live"; he hosted the ESPY Awards in 2016; and he's the host and executive producer on "American Grit" -- and that's just part of what he does outside the WWE. He's been a featured player on both "Total Divas" and "Total Bellas" and, after breaking into movies with starring roles in WWE Studios projects "The Marine" and "12 Rounds," Cena has starred in a number of major Hollywood films like "Trainwreck," "Sisters" and "Daddy's Home." In 2017, he's set for one of his most prominent roles yet alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the war film "The Wall."
"I just try to do good stuff. I opened the script to the 'The Wall,' and 15 minutes later I was done with it, and I loved the movie and wanted to be part of it," said Cena. "With any of the movies I've had a chance to do, or any of the TV shows I've had a chance to contribute to, people approach me and say, 'Hey, would you like to do this?' I laugh out loud and say, 'Yes, that'd be funny,' or I'm very moved by what I read and say, 'Yes. How can I help you?'
"I've been very fortunate to be a part of some cool stuff, and everything that I lend myself to is something I feel I can contribute to."
With a lot of outside work in the can for 2017, Cena is returning his focus to the ring as the calendar turns over to a new year. After being out of action with a shoulder injury for five months to start 2016, Cena is anxious to kick off the year doing what he does best.
"I don't think they use a ramp on 'SmackDown Live' anymore, but coming out of the curtain and running to the ring on Tuesday nights, it's going to be just as exciting as it always was," said Cena. "I hope the audience is as excited as I am, because I never lose one bit of excitement or passion for what I do."
Talk of whom Cena might face at WrestleMania 33 has started to heat up, but as far as he's concerned, that decision doesn't sit in his hands.
"I think with any challenge or any matchup, I can have my own personal feelings of what I want, but it really all depends on our audience," Cena said. "Our job is to give them the best entertainment that we feel is right. If it's something that they want to see, they'll be loud and vocal about it, and we'll do it."
While the all-time world championship record still lingers, one of the most popular choices for fans has been another WWE legend, The Undertaker, who also recently made his return to "SmackDown Live." While they've spent the bulk of their careers on the same show, the two have rarely crossed paths directly other than a couple of matches very early on in Cena's career.
"Undertaker certainly is a cornerstone of WWE, and just as I say to myself that I really would have liked to been able to get to know and certainly get in the ring with Andre the Giant, just because of all the respect and folklore that went around with Andre, I think The Undertaker has that same sort of respect and folklore around him."
On this point, Cena was clear -- he's all about making history, and a big-time match with one of the most iconic wrestlers of all time is something he's fully on board with.
"If you're asking if I'd want to be in a high-profile match with one of the most legendary superstars in the industry, my answer is yes."