May 1, 2011 was a day like any other in WWE history, a pay-per-view in Tampa Bay, Florida whose content, unless you’re a true weirdo, I can’t imagine you’d remember. Highlights from Extreme Rules 2011 include Randy Orton defeating CM Punk in a Last Man Standing Match, Jack Swagger and Michael Cole beating Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross in a Country Whipping Match, John Cena besting both The Miz and John Morrison in a steel cage, and John Cena announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.
Professional wrestling is often called an escape from reality, but I’ve always found that to be too simple. There are so many variables to your standard wrestling show, physically and narratively, that there is no escaping the fact that this very fake thing is also real, the same as legitimate sports like basketball and soccer. Usually when I overthink wrestling like this, I mean in terms of injury, but here what I mean to say is that wrestling is a prism through which reality is fragmented any number of ways, whether it’s Nikolai Volkoff celebrating the opening of relations between the United States and Russia, Right to Censor parodying the Parents Television Council, Muhammad Hassan, JBL patrolling the US-Mexico border, Jack Swagger and Zeb Coulter’s Tea Party gimmick, or John Cena telling the assembled 10,000 people in St. Pete’s Forum that Osama bin Laden had been “compromised to a permanent end.”
It’s surreal, and not really because of the event that spurred Cena to words. Back then, the day that it happened, the motley crew of randos gathered at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Allen Park, Michigan, united in our desire to see Extreme Rules without paying for it, chattered about how they’d never forget where they were when they heard about bin Laden’s death. Clearly I do — I was at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Allen Park, Michigan, probably fuming about CM Punk losing to Randy Orton. I can only imagine what it must have been like to watch John Cena win a cage match, to boo or cheer him as one does, only to find out from Big Match John himself that Osama bin Laden, the great villain of the American imagination for nearly a decade, had been compromised to a permanent end.
It’s fucking wild. More so than The Rock hinting at bin Laden’s death before it was announced.
Just got word that will shock the world – Land of the free…home of the brave DAMN PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) May 2, 2011
When Vince McMahon and the WWF roster took to the stage on 9/13/2001 so McMahon could give a rousing speech about freedom and not backing down against fear, it was shot flat, matter-of-fact, a rare moment in the history of the company where they understood the solemnity of the occasion and rose to the challenge of putting on a show just far enough outside of the bubbles of its own universe and the tragedy which it sought to help heal. John Cena is, by comparison, full volume like he’s calling out bin Laden in the opening segment of Raw. He’s standing on the announce table, his jorts are loose and his undies are peeking out over the waistband, he is glistening with the sweat of having wrestled for 20 minutes, and he has to deliver this news that is very fresh to this crowd, who apparently weren’t following The Rock on Twitter.
I know this was a heartfelt declaration of pride in America, of (theoretically) ending a period of trauma that only revenge could heal. But the way John Cena says “we have caught and compromised to a permanent end Osama bin Laden” overshadows all of it. This phrase has lived in my head for eleven years because he doesn’t put away his wrestling voice. “Compromised to a permanent end” is the star of the promo — a weird, semi-poetic way of getting around the word “killed,” if I had to guess — but listen to the way John Cena says Osama bin Laden’s name. The syllables are loud. They are heavy. They are in the voice of a man challenging someone to come out from the back. I don’t remember how I felt that night, but even without him saying he’s proud to be an American, you can tell that John Cena is, and that this is him at perhaps his most proud.
He’s vibrating. And, conspicuously phrased or not, the crowd in the arena explodes. For me, this is officially where reality fractures. When the WWE Universe begins to cheer, when they start pumping their fists and turning to each other to express their shock and joy, all of this is captured with regular WWE camera work, edited like the aftermath of a championship victory at WrestleMania. John Cena raises his WWE Championship up about halfway and says “This is something tonight, but I feel damn proud to be an American,” his wrestler voice breaking down to something more real, more human.
And then John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” plays, which is what Cena walks out to, high-fiving people while the camera burns some dude’s bad patriotic tattoo into wrestling history. John Cena salutes the crowd, and thats where we leave things: The Miz and John Morrison defeated, Osama bin Laden dead.
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It’s probably obvious why this tiny slice of wrestling patriotism has bored its way into my brain for eleven years. For 10,000 people, John Cena was the first person to tell them about Osama bin Laden’s death, and the way he put it, “compromised to a permanent end,” was more distinct than anybody else that night, even Barack Obama. It also feels like a little secret kept by people who were watching at that time, something that gets a little traction on Twitter every year, but The Rock acting as the occasion’s hypeman is, unless you care specifically about wrestling, the weirder way of looking at the day. This was before CM Punk’s pipebomb, before Grantland started running extended meditations on pro-wrestling, before the boom that culminated at WrestleMania XXX. It’s in the same category of wrestling as Vince McMahon’s illegitimate son Hornswoggle the leprechaun painting Looney Tunes tunnels on the walls to trick people into banging their heads — if you were there, you remember it; if not, I don’t know what you’d make of it.
But facts are facts: eleven years ago today, John Cena announced that Osama bin Laden had been caught and compromised to a permanent end. He did so on the Spanish commentary table because they couldn’t raise the steel cage fast enough to give him the ring. Michael Cole’s protective enclosure is behind him. Extreme Rules branding is everywhere. Someone snatched the AUX cord and queued up John Phillip Sousa. And 10,000 people exploded in a way they rarely did at the time, proud to be Americans, enthralled as if John Cena had compromised Osama bin Laden to a permanent end in the very ring in front of them.
Only WWE could get away with something so triumphant, and they did.