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.
Royal Rumble Match, Royal Rumble 2005
For the first time in his career, John Cena entered the Royal Rumble match with a legitimate chance not only to get a serious shine, but to win. Raw’s Batista was considered the favorite, but Cena was a real contender and the live crowd treated him as such. Cena had finished destroying Carlito and came into the PPV with tons of momentum and the crowd still firmly behind him.
Incredibly, Cena had maintained unanimous support to this point despite working in sub-par feuds for most of the year and mainly dropping the rapper gimmick that got him so over. 2005 was an absolutely pivotal year in Cena’s career for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the most interesting (if not, in the end, the most important) is to watch how the vocal adult male fanbase turns on him and why they do it.
For now, though, Cena is a beloved babyface ready for his big push. He and Batista, linked together so frequently for the next five years, had their first true stand-off as the final two in the match. Both men entered late (Cena at 25, Batista at 28) and left plenty in the tank for the final showdown, executing a double elimination perfectly. This is the infamous moment where Vince McMahon managed to tear both of his quads coming down to the ring to restart the match, and while the Chairman was helped backstage, Batista tossed Cena to win the match and go to WrestleMania.
Cena also picks up his first three career eliminations in this Rumble, tossing Kane and Viscera on his own while teaming with Batista to throw out Edge, a man Cena would get to know very well come 2006. N/A
John Cena vs. Kurt Angle, No Way Out 2005
WWE Championship No. 1 Contender’s Match
Cena had ascended into the main event picture with his big performance at Royal Rumble, but falling to Batista left him shy of a world title match at WrestleMania. How fitting, then, that Cena’s last PPV match before becoming world champion came against the man that started it all, the man with whom he had carried SmackDown for the better part of the previous two years.
I’ll likely end up ranking Cena’s best matches and opponents at the end of this retrospective, and you’ll certainly see names like Randy Orton, CM Punk, and AJ Styles near the top of the list, but don’t sleep on Kurt Angle. He and Cena were almost inextricably linked through Cena’s first three years in WWE, whether it was the debut, Cena playing heel, Angle as an authority figure, or this match, where both men angled to face JBL for the world title at WrestleMania. Angle consistently brought out the best in a young Cena, and it’s a shame we never got to see them cross paths once Cena truly blossomed in 2006 and 2007.
This match works beautifully as an end of an era and an all-time underrated rivalry, with both men pulling out all the stops for nearly 20 minutes. Angle works a great heat, hitting the rolling Germans and even locking in a crossface at one point, before Cena comes back and debuts a new signature move, his now-patented top rope leg drop. Cena follows immediately with the FU, but Angle, as he did in 2003, kicks out.
Angle, sensing danger, snatches the ankle lock, but instead of tapping as he’d done every time in the past, Cena gets the ropes. A furious Angle knocks out referee Charles Robinson and goes for the chain, but Cena has learned his lesson, countering with the FU for the huge pinfall win, his first-ever victory against Angle. John Cena had to finally overcome the face of SmackDown in order to reach the pinnacle. ****
John Cena vs. JBL, WrestleMania 21
WWE Championship Match
WrestleMania 33 was lampooned during its build for featuring numerous part-time wrestlers, including Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Triple H, Shane McMahon, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, and the man himself, John Cena. Of those wrestlers, only Lesnar (facing another part-timer) and Cena (in an angle where the match result didn’t matter) emerged victorious, with the others all dropping their matches to full-time stars like Roman Reigns, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, and Kevin Owens.
I mention WrestleMania 33 because it has a chance to go down in the record books as a “changing of the guard” show in the same vein as WrestleMania 21, which saw the elevation of three men that would help carry the next five years in WWE: Batista, Edge, and John Cena. Big Dave, the Royal Rumble winner, defeated the unbeatable Triple H in the main event for the World Heavyweight Championship, while Edge won the first-ever Money in the Bank ladder match to kickstart his main event push.
John Cena, meanwhile, got to go over JBL, who had reigned terror over SmackDown since beating Eddie Guerrero for the WWE title the previous summer. JBL’s title run was part of a grand tradition in WWE of midcard acts cosplaying as main event champion, a trend only exacerbated by the Money in the Bank gimmick that came out of this show. As such, defeating JBL didn’t appear, on its face, to help Cena as much as beating HHH would help Batista.
The entrances were incredible, at least. JBL came out with his limo and rained $100 bills with his own face on them from the rafters, leading to a hilarious reaction from Tazz. Cena entered with his brand new theme song, “The Time is Now,” and had with him a special steel chain with the “Chain Gang” logo on it. Awesome stuff.
However, after the terrific entrances, Cena and JBL worked a standard TV match, with JBL taking almost all of the offense and Cena working a quick comeback and finishing cleanly with the FU. It was an especially odd choice considering the build was quite brutal, with Cena being cost the US title, limos being destroyed, and a threat that Cena would lose the title shot if he touched JBL unprovoked in the run-up to the match. Fortunately, the two men would redeem themselves greatly in their rematch. **
John Cena vs. JBL, Judgment Day 2005
WWE Championship I Quit Match
After their disappointing WrestleMania match, few were clamoring for WWE to go with the rematch clause story with JBL and give him another shot at John Cena and the WWE Championship. And while they did, they added a stipulation that would begin a brilliant legacy in John Cena’s career: this match would be an I Quit match.
Cena had done the street fight with Jesus (lol) back in December 2004, but he’d never really been given a chance to show what he could do in a main event brawl. Starting with this match, the big walk-and-bump gimmick match would become somewhat of a specialty of Cena’s through his first several years on top, before he evolved into the brilliant all-around wrestler he is today. We will see them all through this retrospective, but few match the brutality of this one.
Cena rides a goddamn 18-wheeler into the arena, which will be known henceforth as Chekhov’s Truck. After a slow start, things really pick up when JBL tries to piledrive Cena through the announce table, only to eat a back body drop into the other table for his troubles. They trade monitor and chair shots, and then JBL goes back into the ring, hits three Clotheslines from Hell, chokes Cena out with the chain, and calls him a punk ass bitch. Bad idea.
Cena comes back with the Five Moves of Doom that won him the title at WrestleMania, but of course a pin doesn’t matter here. This is where a lot of people complain that Cena pops up and no sells to do his moves, and while that does happen at times in Cena’s career, it wasn’t really an issue for him in his first few years as a main eventer. Cena sells tremendously well on offense, not just holding body parts like a lot of critics look for, but in his acting. With pained expressions etched on his face, you can tell it hurts Cena nearly as much as it hurts JBL for him to go through this sequence, and it’s those little nuances that the “smartest” fans sometimes miss.
Things inevitably head towards Chekhov’s Truck, which is now accompanied by Chekhov’s Limo. Both guys get smashed onto the limo’s hood, JBL chokes Cena out with an electrical cord, Cena throws JBL into a TV in a phenomenal spot, and blood is everywhere. Eventually, they do finally make it to the truck, which hilariously has a perfectly placed folding table on the flatbed where a DJ had played Cena’s entrance. Of course, JBL ends up going through the table, and after Cena rips off a smokestack and threatens him with it, JBL quits.
This is the match they should have had at WrestleMania, and it’s probably the finest individual moment of JBL’s career, which is maybe the most notable moment here: for the first time, John Cena brought out the absolute best of his opponent. It would become a trademark for Cena, as guys like Edge, Randy Orton, CM Punk, Seth Rollins, and many others all owe their best matches to Big Match John. If you’ve never seen this, it’s absolutely worth your time. ****1/4
John Cena vs. Chris Jericho vs. Christian, Vengeance 2005
WWE Championship Triple Threat Match
The WWE Draft in 2005 was done as a lottery over the course of three weeks, with random superstars headed from one brand to the other. Chris Jericho decided to host the Highlight Reel to announce the first man headed from SmackDown to Raw, and naturally, John Cena appeared for the first time on the show where he’d reside for the next 11 years.
Jericho was a babyface at the time, and WWE positioned Christian as the first Raw challenger to Cena’s WWE title, with the champ also drawing the ire of Raw GM Eric Bischoff, with whom he’d feud for the remainder of the year. Bischoff booked Christian and Cena in a title match at Vengeance, with Cena bringing back his rap gimmick for a freestyle takedown of Christian on Raw. Jericho was none too pleased with this, attacking Cena after a tag team match to try and get himself noticed. It worked, as Bischoff added him to the Vengeance match.
The match is fine, as you’d expect with these three guys in there, but the most notable aspect is Cena working like the favorite to win, really for the first time in his career. Cena got over with the live crowd on SmackDown by working his way up the ladder and valiantly fighting from underneath in most of his matches. Here, he’s the force of nature Jericho and Christian have to get rid of just to have a chance.
As you’d expect, they don’t, as Cena does a Tower of Doom spot midway through, and ends up knocking over Jericho while carrying Christian before hitting the FU on Captain Charisma for the pin. I almost would have liked to have seen what Cena and Christian could do in a singles match, but this worked for what it was. ***1/2
Hulk Hogan, John Cena & Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho, Christian & Tyson Tomko, Raw June 27, 2005
6-Man Tag Team Match
This is a goofy entry and no one remembers it, but I had to include it for the visual of Cena, Michaels, and Hogan all celebrating in the ring together. This was just before Michaels turned heel on Hogan for their infamous SummerSlam feud, and it’s one of the goofiest Raw main events you’ll ever see, lasting just a few minutes as Hogan gets his hot tag, runs wild on the poor heels, and hits the leg drop on Tomko for the pin. Come for the match, stay for Cena doing the Hogan flex pose afterward. **1/4
John Cena vs. Chris Jericho, SummerSlam 2005
WWE Championship Match
Christian and Tomko were shipped off to SmackDown after jobbing out to Hogan on Raw, leaving Jericho as the top heel on the show for Cena to face at SummerSlam. Jericho himself was on the way out, disillusioned with the wrestling business and burnt out on a decade of road life. With his band, Fozzy heating up and his place on the card seemingly cemented below full main event status, Jericho decided to leave WWE indefinitely.
Fortunately, Jericho went ahead and put Cena over big time before leaving. There’s a myth that’s cropped up around this match that the live crowd turned on Cena for facing off with indie darling Jericho, but that’s not exactly true. Cena still receives a pretty strong face pop at the show, and Jericho did his darndest to get over as a heel despite his popularity with the smark set that tends to shell out for big PPVs. The whispers of the adult male crowd reacting negatively to Cena were present, no doubt, but the big turn would have to wait. The only move that really draws big heel heat for Cena is the Five Knuckle Shuffle, which has always been the most hated spot in his move set.
As a match, it’s the first of many very strong SummerSlam performances from Cena, though the match is laid out pretty poorly, with Jericho taking way too much offense. Jericho does a lot of things well, but he’s never been believable as a heel working on top of a larger babyface, and Cena’s attempts to sell it don’t go much of anywhere, despite the strong effort. Things pick up considerably when Cena makes his comeback, and the two work some typically strong sequences before the FU finishes clean. ***1/4
John Cena vs. Chris Jericho, Raw August 22, 2005
“You’re Fired” Match
After the clean win at SummerSlam, it looked like Cena had triumphed over Jericho, but WWE needed a way to write Jericho off the show for good with his contract coming up that Thursday. Vince McMahon and the creative team decided on a “You’re Fired” match, and in a smart move, they had Cena put his career on the line as well to better get him over as a babyface. The match worked in the story, too; Eric Bischoff had chosen Jericho as his man to get rid of Cena, and the ruthless GM was giving Y2J one last chance. I suppose it doesn’t make much sense why Bischoff didn’t just fire Cena outright if he was willing to have Cena put his career on the line in a match, but wrestling gonna wrestling sometimes.
Perhaps it was the stipulation, perhaps it was just better agenting, but this match was really damn good, better than the SummerSlam bout and probably the best match Cena and Jericho ever had against each other. Jericho works with a tenacity fitting a man in what very well could have been his last-ever match, and Cena gets a lot more to do than just sell here, which makes for a much more compelling match.
The finish is predictably screwy, as Jericho hits Cena with Bischoff-supplied brass knuckles for a terrific two-count, then gets pushed into Bischoff and slaughtered with the FU for the pin. Bischoff does a great “YOU’RE FIRED” into the mic to send Jericho on his merry way, and Cena had put down another challenger to his new throne. He’d done so in a way that saw him drop a good bit of what got him over—the rapper gimmick, the playful mic work, the underdog ring-work—and adapt a superhero-style personality that would turn every arena he entered into a live debate.
The uber-popular Kurt Angle arrived to attack Cena following the match, all but guaranteeing mixed reactions for the remainder of Cena’s run. And while those reactions never amounted to much business-wise, as Cena was quickly becoming the top merchandise and ticket seller in the company, they dominated the conversation around Cena for the rest of his career. ***3/4
Next time: Cena struggles to find his footing as a main eventer, even as he finds himself in a WrestleMania main event with the most pushed act of the decade.