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.
Kurt Angle vs. John Cena***
From SmackDown on 06/27/2002
“Who in the hell are you?”
“I’m John Cena.”
“John Cena, huh? Well, you tell me, what is the one quality that you possess that makes you think that you can walk out here, come into the ring, and face the very best in the business?”
And so begins the saga of John Cena, plucky underdog, with an almost picture-perfect debut against Kurt Angle, a man Cena would induct into the WWE Hall of Fame 15 years later. It’s fitting that Cena, arguably the most successful and enduring top guy in the history of Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire, would manage to coin the name for an entire era in his fourth and fifth words ever spoken on a WWE microphone.
Watching the moment back now, it feels fated that Cena would become The Man in WWE; he is brimming with confidence, almost snarling in an attempt to seize the moment. You instantly believe him as soon as he opens his mouth. But as we’ll find over the next several matches, Cena did not instantly find his footing. In fact, without a happy accident involving a throwaway rib, Cena might not have lasted six months in the company.
You wouldn’t know it from this match, a fun little sprint that exemplifies both Cena’s natural talent and why Kurt Angle was the best thing going in 2002 WWE, carrying the TV in the way AJ Styles does today. Cena doesn’t bother with a feeling out process and Angle doesn’t go ahead and work on top like a traditional WWE heel. Rather, Cena immediately tries all sorts of pinning predicaments in an effort to instantly win the match, giving the bout a sense of urgency and following through on the young man’s promise of ruthless aggression. Angle does take it after the short back-and-forth with a creative chicken-wing pin, but Cena was established as a legitimate player and someone the crowd could get behind.
John Cena vs. Chris Jericho**1/2
From Vengeance 2002 on 07/21/2002
Cena’s first WWE PPV match came against Chris Jericho, a man who had main evented WrestleMania X8 not four months prior. Jericho, through no fault of his own, was in a way WWE’s prototype for the mid carder-as-champion they love so much in the Money in the Bank era. Jericho was almost never allowed to get over on his opponents, but remained champion nonetheless, leading to a heatless and ultimately disappointing WrestleMania main event against Triple H. Jericho continued to lose throughout the spring, and by the time he got to Cena, his heat had vanished.
All this adds up to him being a pretty poor first PPV opponent for Cena, who was still green as grass despite his immense natural talent and needed strong wins if he was going to receive any kind of meaningful push. The match, lasting all of six minutes, never gets off the ground, and Cena grabs the banana peel win off a roll-up against a foe who had lost tons of momentum. The work isn’t bad, and Jericho does his best to try to get Cena over, but the win meant nothing for Cena, and Jericho felt even more useless in defeat. Notably, we see Cena use the Throwback, one of his signature moves early on in his career. **1/2
Billy Kidman & Torrie Wilson vs. John Cena & Dawn Marie3/4*
From Rebellion 2002 on 10/26/2002
John Cena teamed with soon-to-be-fiancée Nikki Bella against The Miz and Maryse at WrestleMania 33, but that wasn’t his first mixed tag on WWE PPV. That came at the United Kingdom’s Rebellion show in 2002, in a match that was decidedly lower-profile.
Some context: despite getting the win over Jericho at Vengeance, Cena struggled to break out as a babyface in the summer of 2002 on SmackDown. With the debuting Rey Mysterio added to an already loaded roster that included Brock Lesnar, Edge, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Hulk Hogan (for a time), Rikishi, and show MVP Kurt Angle, Cena never found the TV time to establish himself, and his act lacked any sort of hook to get over with the crowd. In a way, he reminds me of Apollo Crews today, a guy who looks the part and can work a little but just has no connection with the crowd.
The Undertaker was added to the SmackDown roster after SummerSlam to feud with Brock Lesnar for the WWE title, crowding the babyface picture further. In an effort to spice up Cena and balance the roster, WWE had the future Face That Runs The Place turn on Billy Kidman following a tag team loss against Angle and Benoit. Unfortunately, Cena didn’t do much differently other than act like a jackass, keeping the same solid blue shorts and spiky hair look.
A convoluted storyline was taking place simultaneously wherein Dawn Marie married Torrie Wilson’s father and (I’m not making this up) killed him by having too much rigorous sex on their honeymoon. Somehow Kidman and Cena’s feud was combined with this, leading to a mixed tag at Rebellion. The match is terrible; Cena had no idea how to work heel in any sort of interesting way, and the focus was almost entirely on the women. Cena loses clean, to boot, though he does hit a power slam on Torrie beforehand. A black mark he’d like to forget, I’m sure.
Royal Rumble MatchN/A
From Royal Rumble 2003 on 01/19/2003
Cena’s initial heel push did not work out, and it appeared his release or at least a total re-packaging was imminent as Halloween rolled around. As a rib, the powers-that-be made Cena dress as Vanilla Ice and rap on the festive episode of SmackDown. Expecting it to be laughed out of the building, everyone in the back was shocked when Cena crushed the part and the crowd ate it up. The Doctor of Thuganomics was born.
As 2002 wrapped up, Cena added on his signature hand gesture and “Word Life” catchphrase, along with what this writer believes to be his best-ever theme song. He also added a bodyguard in the form of “B-2,” a new gimmick for Bill Buchanan, best known as a former WWF Tag Team Champion with Right to Censor.
Unfortunately, as goofy and endearing as the act was, Cena and B-2 never appeared together on PPV. The closest they came was in the titular match at Royal Rumble 2003, where B-2 entered at number 11 and was eliminated with little fanfare after 24 seconds. Cena entered at 18 for his first PPV appearance in the Doctor of Thuganomics gimmick and proceeded to have one of his marquee moments in the character, rapping all the way through the timer until Charlie Haas entered at 19.
Cena managed to last nearly 20 minutes in the match while doing almost nothing of note, and he was tossed quietly by the Undertaker after the American Badass entered in the number 30 spot. Still, Royal Rumble 2003 marked a major moment for Cena, as he finally had his hook to get over with the live crowd.
Next time: John Cena plays the heel, and faces several undisputed WWE legends while still honing the basics of his craft. Come back and read it, it’s gonna be lit/And if you don’t, you ain’t worth *raises mic to crowd*