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.
WWE Championship: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. John Cena**3/4
From Backlash 2003 on 04/27/2003
Despite his new gimmick getting over, Cena found himself off the WrestleMania XIX card, instead of engaging in a pre-show rap battle with…cardboard cut-outs of Jay-Z and Fabolous. No, I don’t understand either. Cena, dressed in an all-white tracksuit, somehow manages to pull an entertaining three minutes out of this, because he’s the greatest ever.
Impressed by his embrace of the rapper gimmick, Vince McMahon decided to push Cena into the title picture following WrestleMania. With Kurt Angle on the shelf indefinitely resting his neck, Brock Lesnar needed a new opponent for the WWE Championship, and a tournament was commissioned on SmackDown to find him a challenger. Cena appeared to be an easy first-round get for Eddie Guerrero, but the Doctor instead managed to defeat Latino Heat, following that up with a shocking upset of the Undertaker in the semifinals (it was not close to clean, but alas). Cena finished off his Cinderella run by beating Chris Benoit in the finals to set up the Backlash title challenge.
Cena probably wasn’t quite ready for this kind of push, but Lesnar was at the absolute height of his powers in 2003, and the Next Big Thing managed to get Cena to a passable match on the PPV. Lesnar takes a lot of the offense for a babyface, but Cena uses his Dastardly Heel Cheating to get an edge. His weapon of choice at the time was his steel chain, which he’d often use off of ref bumps to win matches, but Lesnar avoided the death blow and hit the F-5 to retain.
That was all she wrote in the main event picture for Cena in 2003, who would slip into the undercard for the grand majority of the year. Perhaps the most important development of this little feud, though, was Cena debuting a new finisher, a fireman’s carry takeover which he dubbed the FU as a mockery of the F-5.
John Cena & The FBI vs. Chris Benoit, Rhyno & Spanky*3/4
From Judgement Day 2003 on 05/18/2003
What on earth?
Maybe the weirdest PPV match in John Cena’s career took place at Judgment Day 2003, as he teamed with a stable of Godfather-style hitmen called “the Full Blooded Italians” against the rag-tag team of Chris Benoit, Rhyno, and Brian Kendrick, then under his Spanky name. Cena was originally feuding with Benoit, and Rhyno got involved to back up Benoit, so then Cena joined forces with the evil Italians, and…yeah, I don’t know.
The match is goofy as hell and mostly involves Kendrick taking the heat for its four-minute runtime. Things predictably break down into a mess, and the match ends up being a vehicle to put over the FBI, as they hit the Kiss of Death on Kendrick while Cena sits locked in the Crippler Crossface.
The Undertaker vs. John Cena***
From Vengeance 2003 on 07/27/2003
For years, everyone’s dream match for the Undertaker has been John Cena at WrestleMania. Imagine a Cena Streak match; the man who never loses against the man who had never lost at WrestleMania. But once Brock Lesnar broke the Streak in 2014, interest died down a bit, and Undertaker retired against Roman Reigns three years later.
But fear not, Cena vs. Taker dreamers! The two crossed paths numerous times on SmackDown, and once on PPV in 2003, as Cena received a push back towards the top of the card to face the American Badass in the waning days of his biker gimmick. The feud was one of those “just because” type deals; Cena attacked Orlando Jordan after a match, and the Undertaker raced down to the ring for the save. Things escalated from there, as Taker cost Cena a match in a US title tournament, and Cena retaliated with his usual battle rap brilliance.
The match is about as close to No Disqualification as a standard match is ever going to get, and it was the right way to work it. Undertaker takes the grand majority of the match, probably more than he should have considering Cena’s obvious potential and then-tenuous position on the card, but it obviously didn’t harm Cena in the long run. Cena cheats by spitting water into Taker’s face, taking control, but the Deadman kicks out of the FU before delivering a vicious Last Ride for the pin. Nothing special, but a fun walk-and-bump brawl.
Brock Lesnar & John Cena vs. Kurt Angle & The Undertaker***3/4
From SmackDown on 10/02/2003
Cena, having lost decisively to the Undertaker, did not make the SummerSlam card, and lost a Street Fight to Eddie Guerrero for the United States Championship in September. He began feuding with Angle, having attacked the Olympic hero (in the midst of one of Angle’s trademark football season babyface runs) the week prior to this match. Lesnar, fresh off a heel turn and an Iron Man match victory over Angle two weeks before, began a feud with the Undertaker for the WWE title. In traditional WWE TV fashion, the two feuds were combined for a tag match.
The four names in this match are absolutely astounding, with a combined 34 world championships to date between the four (16 of them belonging to Cena). Not surprisingly, it was Cena’s best match in the WWE at that point, as the other three were over as bona fide main event superstars and the match had an incredible amount of heat.
Seeing Lesnar and Cena team together is an absolute delight. The two are among the very best talents the WWE has ever produced, and they work together really well as heels. Cena doesn’t feel out of place in the match at all, a testament to his massive potential and future as a main event star. WWE even gives him the win, as Lesnar distracts the referee long enough for Cena to use the chain on Angle for the pin. As a moment in history and a really fun tag team main event, you should absolutely seek this out.
Kurt Angle vs. John Cena****
From No Mercy 2003 on 10/19/2003
Angle and Cena built their feud to the No Mercy PPV, where they’d face off one-on-one for the first time since Cena’s debut as a bicycle shorts-wearing rookie a year and a half prior. The two had brilliant chemistry together, and they’d find it again at No Mercy for the first legitimately great match of Cena’s career.
It is admittedly odd to see babyface Kurt Angle wrestling heel John Cena, but the two men fit their respective roles like gloves. The two work a really strong wrestling match, going 50/50 with offense and building a terrific WWE-style main event match, the first of Cena’s career. Cena would, as we’ll see in this retrospective, become an absolute machine in cranking out four-star WWE-style main events, but this was new ground for him.
Cena hits some really cool offense, including an apron DDT and a bucklebomb. He nails the FU late in the match, but Angle kicks out. Cena kicks out of the Angle Slam, his first big finisher kick out in the WWE, then uses Angle’s medals for a huge two count. Angle eventually counters another FU attempt into the Ankle Lock, and Cena (in a sight you’ll never see today) taps out. Really great match, and a sign of things to come.
Team Angle (Bradshaw, Chris Benoit, Hardcore Holly, John Cena, Kurt Angle) vs. Team Lesnar (A-Train, Big Show, Brock Lesnar, Matt Morgan, Nathan Jones)**1/2
From Survivor Series 2003 on 11/16/2003
As he built on the Doctor of Thuganomics gimmick throughout 2003, John Cena found himself getting more and more babyface pops from live crowds. After all, the gimmick really was endearing and fun; who doesn’t love a good diss track? Cena’s startlingly proficiency (he really wasn’t a half-bad rapper) and his full and undying commitment to the role both helped him get big cheers, and despite his attempts to run down beloved characters, there was nothing WWE could do to stop the momentum he was building with the live crowd.
Thus, we have reached the end of John Cena’s time as a heel in professional wrestling. The man he turned against, as so many other would-be babyfaces have in the past, was Paul Heyman, who attempted to recruit Cena as the fifth man for Brock Lesnar’s Survivor Series team. Cena turned down Heyman and Lesnar, citing an independent streak, and Lesnar had his goons jump Cena for his refusal. This led to Cena joining up with the babyface team, led by old rivals Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit.
The story of the match was that Benoit and Cena don’t trust each other, but have to get along to survive Lesnar’s team of behemoths. The match itself is handicapped severely by the limited amount of time granted to it; this is also the show with Shawn Michaels’ last stand against Eric Bischoff and a Triple H world title main event. There’s a string of weird early eliminations (including Holly getting disqualified before the match even starts), along with that Survivor Series trope of signature moves that normally get two counts earning pinfalls.
Angle gets eliminated, leaving Cena and Benoit against Lesnar and Big Show. Lesnar, the WWE Champion at the time, ends up tapping out to the Crippler Crossface, leaving Cena and Benoit to work together to slay the giant. And of course they do, as Cena smashes Show with the chain and hits his first 500-pound FU for the pin. Just way too rushed to work all that well as a match, but it’s Cena’s first true big babyface moment in the WWE.
Next time: Newly-babyface Cena gets his first WrestleMania moment and title run in WWE, plus a dream match no one knew existed.