Cena vs. Cesaro. Agony or passion?

“CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk!”

The crowd that filled Allstate Arena for a filming of WWE’s Monday Night Raw on July 6 wasn’t afraid to express its desires. A hive mind of vengeance, retribution, and demanded payoff, Chicago’s wrestling crowds are notorious for their insatiable cries for greatness. Cheers don’t come easy. Boos are more prevalent. It’s the perfect wrestling environment. It wasn’t long before I stood up with the rest of the nosebleed crowd in Section 204 and joined their chant for Chicago’s hometown wrestling icon: “CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk!”

I learned to hang with the WWE crowd at an early age, when my father took me to the 2005 edition of Summer Slam in Phoenix. I was 11 years old, and when I came home in an Undertaker T-shirt and told my mom how Stone Cold Steve Austin had chugged a beer in the middle of the ring and flipped off the crowd, she told my dad I wasn’t allowed to watch wrestling anymore. Alas, it was too late—I was already wondering if I could get away with trying a tombstone piledriver on my sister.

As I grew older and my father continued to sneak me out of my room at night to watch the weekly episodes of Raw, I became a hardcore believer in the wrestling gospel. Not a lot of proselytizing goes on—who’s going to admit they love watching men in spandex fake fight?—but when it does come up, the first question is always the same:

“Don’t you know it isn’t real?”

Yeah, of course, but that’s part of the fun. From a fan’s perspective, watching the WWE is like tuning into any other TV show. A collection of good guys and bad guys act out pre-scripted story lines within a House of Cards-esque world of power grabs and mutinies, gunning for the various championships and title belts. It’s fiction made to look like sport—a dynamic called “kayfabe”—so the WWE presents the in-ring events as true and leaves the whole “everyone knows it’s fake” thing reverently unsaid.

“The wrestlers—they’re there to perform and entertain,” saaid Lucy Nava, a 48-year-old attendee at RAW. “That’s why it’s W-W-Entertainment, not W-W-Real Shit.”

And the July 6 episode of Raw was certainly entertaining. A car was driven out to ringside before fan-favorite Brock Lesnar ambushed the bad-guy drivers (two cronies of current champ/heel Seth Rollins), beat the crooks into submission, and took a pair of axes to their vehicle. Dolph Ziggler kissed the ex-girlfriend of his rival Rusev, who promptly threw off his crutches (he had a “broken ankle” at the time) and crushed Ziggler’s neck in retaliation (some guy down the aisle: “Thank you, Rusev!”). The night’s main event featured John Cena (who, despite being the baby face and all-around good guy of the WWE, is absolutely hated in Chicago for reasons I’ll explain in a second) against rising star Cesaro for the U.S. Championship. There was no shortage of action, intrigue, and carnage. It took three hours, but the WWE finally coaxed the hard-to-please Chicagoans into a “This is awesome!” chant amid the brutal final fight.

“The Chicago crowd wraps around people,” said Eric Goobie, 30, a first-time RAW-goer. “Allstate is great—it’s so intimate, and there’s not a bad seat in there. Everybody’s into it. I feel like a kid again.”

The real children in attendance were mostly there to watch Cena, the WWE’s most kid-friendly star. His trademark “U Can’t See Me” hats and wristbands were rampant in youth sizes all throughout the arena, and when the oldsters began to chant “John Cena sucks,” the kids’ shrill “Let’s go Cena!” response was almost as loud. It’s a hostile environment, in retrospect.

“My wife’s little kid loves John Cena,” Sean Henkelman, 36, told me. “I’d never take him to a match though.”

You could argue it’s over-the-top to yell right in a kid’s face that his favorite wrestler sucks, but according to fans like Nava, that’s part of the culture. Everything is over the top.

“Some people do their jobs and go overboard—wrestlers go overboard for us,” she said. “Athletes can go overboard—like Rusev tonight.” She described how after Rusev assaulted Ziggler a medical team ran out with a stretcher and carted Ziggler away. “That guy went to the hospital! That makes you think, ‘Damn, it is real.'”

That’s not something you would have heard when CM Punk was wrestling. The curtain of kayfabe is heavy, but Punk was one wrestler who dared to lift it. The native Chicagoan has constantly fought against WWE Corporate’s hush-hush nature, which puts him in stark contrast to John Cena, who has a quiet “yes sir” approach. (Cena would never, ever betray those he worked for and would always adhere to the “honesty” of his craft). Punk called out writers for his lack of story lines, he spat at WWE CEO Vince McMahon, and over time, he became a symbol for the fans. Our thoughts were his public words, and his words would become our thoughts.

Punk single-handedly created Allstate Arena’s anarchist culture. We hate Cena because we think Punk hated him. We hate WWE Corporate because they continually pushed Punk to the brink of quitting. We love guys who praise him, and we hate guys who try to sweep his stunted career under the rug. Chicagoans show up to wrestling events with the attitude that their local superstar had: ready to pounce on any little thing we don’t like.

So when John Cena (inevitably) beat Cesaro for the U.S. Championship on July 6, he was met with a hearty round of boos. To hell with this guy and his goody-goody bullshit—he’s just another brainwashed company man who lies to us every night. Time to go, Cena, you’re standing in our ring.

“CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk!”

Even all the way out in Section 204, a spot that the TV cameras can barely see, we yelled the name of our retired hero right in Cena’s face. He stood alone in the ring and finally, he raised the microphone. He ignored the cries.

“In 2002, my very first match was right here in the Allstate Arena,” he began.

A few proud whoops.

“. . . that might have been the last time you guys cheered me, so thank you very much.”

More proud cheers.

Cena went on to laud his opponent Cesaro, saying he was an excellent wrestler and was overdue on big-time opportunities (this speech came after Raw went off the air). He thanked Chicago, calling it “the greatest wrestling city on the planet” and said that every time he felt like he had nothing left to leave in the ring, the great Allstate crowd pushed him to give just a little bit more.

It was a great moment on the mic for Cena, and of course we acknowledged it the only way we knew how. At once, over 10,000 people rose to their feet. We pumped our fists and screamed out over the ring.

“Cesaro! Cesaro! Cesaro!”