John Cena is the Greatest Professional Wrestler of All Time. He has worked every conceivable style and every type of opponent brilliantly while remaining atop the largest promotion in the history of the industry for longer than anyone ever has before. He is an individual draw in an era where the brand is the star, and he is emerging as a bona fide Hollywood actor. As Big Match John starts to pull away from the WWE, one of his biggest fans takes a trip back through Cena’s career, from his humble beginnings as an undercard rookie on SmackDown to the unquestioned king of the sport he remains today. This retrospective will feature capsule reviews of every John Cena pay-per-view match, along with select significant TV matches, and will present both opinions on the matches themselves and historical context as we watch the development of Cena’s incredible, unprecedented career as the greatest ace Vince McMahon has ever had.
Our 2006 retrospective is split into two for sake of trimming the length of the two posts. This is part one.
John Cena vs. Carlito vs. Chris Masters vs. Kane vs. Kurt Angle vs. Shawn Michaels, New Year’s Revolution 2006
WWE Championship Elimination Chamber Match
I adore the Elimination Chamber. The anticipation of the staggered entry, the massive bumps into the steel chain and grate, the wild acrobatics, the thrilling drama as the match boils down to the final two competitors—for my money, the Elimination Chamber is WWE’s best gimmick match, perhaps just behind the Royal Rumble match. The original in 2002, both versions at the terrific No Way Out 2009, and 2017’s spectacular edition mark some of the best Chamber matches in WWE history.
2006 featured perhaps the worst.
It’s a match without a lot of star power, billed basically as Cena going into his first Chamber ever trying to defend the championship against five other guys. Angle and Michaels are the other clear stars in the match, and neither get anything to do. Angle is eliminated by Michaels within four minutes of entering, and while Michaels begins the match with Cena, he takes a nap for most of the match and ends up pinned off a standard rolling cutter.
Meanwhile, Carlito and Chris Masters are made the focal villains of the bout in a baffling decision, teaming up to eliminate both Michaels and Kane. Neither man had any real heat coming into the match, and you never once believe that either is a legitimate threat to the title, robbing the final segment of the match—so important in the Chamber—of all drama and suspense. Cena, of course, dispatches them when the heels go stupid, as Carlito turns on Masters and rolls him up only to end up in a roll-up from Cena for the final pin.
Two notable things here: one, Cena debuted a new submission finisher on the November 28th Raw, a stepover toehold sleeper he dubbed the STFU. Weirdly, the new finisher wasn’t used at all in the Chamber, but it comes into play in a big way soon.
The other (far more famous) note is that Cena’s night wasn’t done; Vince McMahon came out to announce that Cena would have another match, as Edge had decided to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase. Edge hit Cena with two spears to quickly earn his first WWE title. It was a landmark moment; the first MITB cash-in ever, Edge’s first taste of the main event, and Cena dropping the title for the first time since winning it from JBL at WrestleMania 21. **1/2
John Cena vs. Edge, Royal Rumble 2006
WWE Championship Match
Edge broke into the main event scene for good in 2006, going on to enjoy a successful and beloved five years near the top of the card before retiring due to spinal stenosis in 2011. While he was never a top star and was generally booked to be the weak, slimy heel against big top faces like the Undertaker and Batista, Edge found his place and took advantage of it.
He also emerged as one of John Cena’s greatest rivals in 2006, but you wouldn’t know it from this match. Conditioned as a mid-card babyface for years, Edge’s heel offense at this point was just awful. No one bought him working on top of Cena, and the crowd goes dead silent as Edge works over the former champ for nearly the entirety of their 15-minute bout.
Cena has a couple of failed comebacks before Edge, ever the WWE heel, creates his own demise, running into Lita on the apron and turning straight into an FU. Cena then locked on the STFU for his first submission victory on PPV and his second WWE Championship. There was a case to be made at the time that Cena vs. Edge should have been the WrestleMania match, but I actually agree with the decision to put Triple H in that spot. Edge just wasn’t ready. **
John Cena vs. Triple H, WrestleMania 22
WWE Championship Match
With SmackDown’s Rey Mysterio winning the 2006 Royal Rumble match, Raw held a “Road to WrestleMania Tournament,” an eight-man single elimination bracket to determine who would face John Cena at WrestleMania 22. Triple H defeated Ric Flair in the first round and went to a double count-out with Big Show in the semifinals, meaning both advanced to a triple threat final against Rob Van Dam, who had defeated Carlito and Chris Masters to reach the end. Triple H was, of course, victorious in the end, setting up his match with Cena in the main event of the Showcase of the Immortals.
This was the first of five Cena WrestleMania main events, and it probably ranks fourth for me. There’s a lot of praise online for this match, and while I’m usually the first to shower love on John Cena (and I think pretty highly of The Game as well), this one just doesn’t do it for me. Oh sure, it’s fine; Triple H has had several worse WrestleMania mains, and this one doesn’t do anything offensive or even all that dull. It just never gets out of first gear.
The entrances are the highlight. With “King of Kings” blaring, Triple H rises from the stage dressed like Conan the Barbarian, then sheds his kingly gear as “The Game” hits and the Chicago crowd erupts. Chicago, naturally, adores Triple H and boos the hell out of Cena, who is led to the ring by a group of Chicago mobsters (one of them, famously, is CM Punk).
The match just doesn’t do much from there, though. There was never any real beef between the two men; Triple H was clearly headed for a face turn (and the DX reunion was right around the corner), and there was no blood feud or personal drama like there often is with big WrestleMania matches. These two were much more suited to a big bloody gimmick match than a straight wrestling encounter at this point, and the match just kind of exists. The most startling moment is the finish; it feels like there are at least 5-10 minutes of the match left, but Cena just slaps on the STFU and taps The Game right in the center of the damn ring. This match cemented Cena as the main player in the WWE. I just wish it was better. ***
John Cena vs. Edge vs. Triple H, Backlash 2006
WWE Championship Triple Threat Match
While John Cena and Triple H occupied the main event of WrestleMania 22, Edge was busy having the match of his life on the undercard, stealing the show in a brutal hardcore match with Mick Foley. Edge really needed that win to get over as a main eventer, and his second stint in the WWE title picture came off far better than his initial three-week January run.
The build to the match featured three different combinations of handicap matches between the three, with everyone getting pinned or submitted by someone else. Naturally, a triple threat was made for Backlash. Triple H felt like the featured performer heading into the PPV, with the crowd really starting to get behind him for the first time since early 2002. Cena, the champion, had taken a bit of a backseat, his rapper gimmick completely gone by this point.
As far as triple threats go, this is standard WWE fare, with all three guys (Triple H in particular) getting shine in one-on-one sequences before going to the cluster finish. Cena ends up pinning Triple H via jack-knife roll-up, which causes Triple H to freak out and destroy Cena and Edge in the post-match. This was never followed up on and served only to get Triple H his heat back, and helped contribute to the DX reunion feeling bigger than the Cena-Edge feud that took place in the summer. Welp! ***1/4
Rob Van Dam vs. John Cena, One Night Stand 2006
WWE Championship Extreme Rules Match
Rob Van Dam, forever a mid-card player (and occasional Cena opponent and tag team partner during Cena’s US title run in 2004) in WWE, found himself getting very over early in 2006, and subsequently won the second annual Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania 22.
As a babyface, it would be odd for RVD to cash in the way Edge had back in January, and so WWE had him schedule his cash-in ahead of time. RVD wasn’t stupid, though. He had the match booked for One Night Stand, the ECW-style PPV that took place inside New York City’s famed Hammerstein Ballroom where he’d have home field advantage and the ability to use any weapon he wanted.
The following spectacle that ensued is maybe the most volatile live reaction of the decade in WWE. The crowd, made up almost entirely of adult male marks, absolutely LOATHES Cena, showering him in expletives and vicious chants. Cena’s usual brigade of women and children wasn’t there to counter. For the first time in his career, Cena was a total heel, and he goes against what he’s told and leans into it, flashing just a little glimpse of that famous smirk that would come to define him and his Five Moves of Doom.
One Night Stand 2006 was a huge step in the evolution of John Cena as Immovable Object, that constant certainty in the WWE main event scene that, love him or hate him, would always come out on top. Yet in a grand dose of irony, Cena loses this match and the title. After some wild bumps through tables and chairs, Edge shows up in a motorcycle helmet and lays out Cena, allowing RVD to capitalize with the Frog Splash for his first WWE title. Editor’s note: Paul Heyman counted the pin, not the original official. ***3/4
Part two sees the greatest one-on-one TLC match in WWE history, also serving as a kickstart to one of the greatest title reigns in the history of pro wrestling. Stay tuned to Cena Sunday.