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 MatchN/A
From Royal Rumble 2004 on 01/25/2004
Now a true babyface, Cena did what any good wrestler in the midst of a turn would do: change nothing about the gimmick that got you over, just go after heels instead. Cena continued battle-rapping his way to the ring and running down his opponents; they just happened to be bad guys. In a clever move, he also started wearing the hometown team’s jerseys to the ring, wearing a classic powder blue Phillies Tug McGraw to the Royal Rumble Match in Philadelphia.
Cena enters very late in the match at 28 and weirdly doesn’t get nearly as long in 2004 as he did the year prior. He does get to shine a bit more when he comes in, but you can tell Cena is still an undercard guy at this point. This is the last time until 2011 in which Cena entered a Royal Rumble match and didn’t win (2008) or place second (2005, 2010). Big Show, being built as a monster for Chris Benoit to toss at the end, threw out Cena as part of his rampage.
Kurt Angle vs. Big Show vs. John Cena***1/4
From No Way Out 2004 on 02/15/2004
No Way Out eventually became the Elimination Chamber show, but in 2004 WWE utilized it to set up the SmackDown side of the WrestleMania XX card, with a Brock Lesnar-Eddie Guerrero title match headlining and this triple threat underneath. Cena really didn’t have to be in this match at all, but his new babyface run was getting over big and the powers-that-be saw fit to put him in the title picture for the first time since his loss to Lesnar at Backlash 2003.
The match itself is fairly short at just over 12 minutes, but it’s a fairly fast-paced match for what we get, even with Show in there. Big Show’s best run really was this 2003-04 monster heel gimmick, with the three-way with Angle and Lesnar at Vengeance 2003 and this match. Angle is clearly directing traffic and does a pretty damn good job of it. Cena, selling a knee injury throughout the match, manages to get his shit in before tapping to the ankle lock.
It’s a fine three-way to set up WrestleMania (and it was of course immediately overshadowed by the excellent Eddie-Brock match), but this is really a more notable match for its historical importance: this is the very last time that John Cena ever tapped out.
WWE United States Championship: Big Show (c) vs. John Cena*1/4
From WrestleMania XX on 03/14/2004
John Cena and WrestleMania have an interesting connection. You’d think the longest-reigning top babyface in Vince McMahon’s time running WWE would be forever linked to the show, with huge, career-defining moments at the Showcase of the Immortals. But WrestleMania has always been a minor stage for Cena, relatively speaking; he’s only main-evented five times out of 13 appearances, winning just three. He really only has one great WrestleMania match, against Shawn Michaels in 2007. Cena’s best moments all came on far lesser shows, which speaks to his consistency and drive.
For instance, his 2004 WrestleMania debut is one of his most underwhelming matches ever. Cena comes out and fires up the crowd to open the show with a great rap, but his match with Big Show for the US title is a slow, boring affair, with Cena selling well but neither man generating much interest. The match is built entirely around Cena trying to get the giant up for the FU, but he already did it at Survivor Series earlier in the year, so the entire affair falls flat.
In the end, this was about Cena getting a WrestleMania debut and winning his first gold in WWE, which he did, finally hitting the FU on Show for the pinfall.
WWE United States Championship: John Cena (c) vs. Rene Dupree**1/2
From Judgment Day 2004 on 05/16/2004
After winning the US title at WrestleMania, John Cena decided to innovate the belt’s design a tad, introducing the first “spinner” belt wherein the central plate spins. Why? Because that’s awesome.
Rene Dupree, a prissy heel best known as part of tag team La Resistance, came over to SmackDown in March 2004 and debuted a talk show called “Café de Rene,” where he and his poodle Fifi would sip wine and, well, generally be French. It even had a live accordion player, whom Tazz claimed was named Al. The segment lasted one episode, as Dupree splashed wine on Torrie Wilson, his first and only guest, and then decided it’d be a good idea to physically assault her. Cena crashed the proceedings to save Torrie, igniting a feud with Dupree (continuity nerd note: if you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that Cena powerslammed Torrie back in their mixed tag match in 2002).
Watching this run of US title defenses back, it is so odd to hear the adult male fans chant LET’S GO CENA, considering how their hatred would overwhelm his matches once he reached the top of the mountain. It’s deeply ironic, too, considering Cena wasn’t a consistently great singles worker until after the hardcore fans had turned on him. This was a ho-hum match, with Cena trying to get something interesting out of Dupree and nearly succeeding before hitting the standard FU for the pin.
The Undertaker vs. John Cena***1/2
From SmackDown on 06/24/2004
So here’s a real treat. While Cena was working with the secondary title in 2004, the Undertaker returned to his Deadman gimmick and the top of the SmackDown card. After a brief return feud with Booker T, Undertaker engaged in one of the more ridiculous storylines in a career filled with them, as Paul Heyman had the Dudley Boyz kidnap Paul Bearer, holding Taker’s storyline father hostage to force the Deadman to work for him.
During the build to Great American Bash, where Undertaker was told to lay down for the Dudleys or risk Bearer being buried in cement, the Deadman tombstoned John Cena on Heyman’s orders. Cena came out the following week looking for an explanation, and heel GM Kurt Angle, who was faking an injury (2004 SmackDown was a head trip), made a TV main event pitting Cena against the Undertaker.
And so we have the only time in history where Cena battled the Undertaker in the Deadman gimmick. It’s a dream match that will never happen on the big stage, a WrestleMania moment lost to time and what-ifs, but it does exist…and it’s pretty good! Undertaker, naturally, works heel and takes most of the match, with Cena showing a lot of fire in his comeback.
After a really good TV battle with some cool finisher reversals, there’s a ref bump and Cena hits the FU for the visual pin, which is actually a massive moment in the young man’s career. Theoretically, Cena had the Undertaker beat clean months before he even sniffed permanent main event status. However, with no ref to count the pin, the match continues, and the mind-controlled Undertaker uses Cena’s chain and a tombstone for the win. These two could have created absolute magic in a big main event, but this is the best we have.
WWE United States Championship Elimination Match: John Cena (c) vs. Booker T vs. Rene Dupree vs. Rob Van Dam**
From Great American Bash 2004 on 06/27/2004
Cena had, at the mid-point of 2004, settled in nicely as “really useful mid card babyface we can program with guys who have nothing to do,” and so he found himself in this cluster of an elimination match to open the Great American Bash PPV. Dupree remained paired with Cena, and the feud added newly-heel Booker T and peppy face Rob Van Dam, two men who had been tag champs on Raw just a few months prior.
The impetus for all of this was Kurt Angle, the evil GM, attempting to get the belt off Cena, whom he despised. Cena vs. Evil Authority Figure is a story that rears its head a lot in Cena’s career, but this first instance was almost certainly the best, as Cena still felt like an underdog and Angle was a phenomenal foil.
The match itself is a bit of a nothing burger; Cena and RVD do the reluctant babyface team-up, Booker and Dupree do the evil heel team-up, RVD gets rolled up by Cena in a weird choice, Dupree goes next, and Cena cleanly beats Booker T with the FU to retain.
WWE United States Championship Best of 5 Series - Match 1: Booker T (c) vs. John Cena**1/4
From SummerSlam 2004 on 08/15/2004
Following his win at Great American Bash, Cena continued to feud with Angle, with the heel GM setting up a US title defense on the July 8 SmackDown. Cena accidentally bumped the wheelchair-bound Angle during the match, leading to Angle stripping Cena of the title. It was actually kind of wild to see a heel authority figure do something about a babyface champion they don’t like, rather than just keep giving said babyface title shots.
Cena caught a break, though, as Angle was revealed to have been faking his injury for months, leading to him becoming an active wrestler again. New GM Teddy Long gave Cena a chance to win the title back in an 8-man elimination match, but Booker stole pins on Cena and RVD to claim the belt for himself. Long then set up a Best of Five Series between Booker and Cena to determine the true United States Champion, with the first match set to take place at SummerSlam.
The Biggest Party of the Summer has traditionally been tough sledding for Cena in terms of booking, which is unsurprising as SummerSlam tends to be a heel show to kick off the chases of the fall. Cena is 4-9 on the show, including losses every year from 2011-16. However, his match quality at SummerSlam has generally been far better than at WrestleMania, with an absolute classic against Daniel Bryan in 2013 and other great matches against foes like Randy Orton, Seth Rollins, and AJ Styles.
Cena’s SummerSlam debut in 2004 was not the show that started either trend. Cena picked up a clean win in the series’ first match with a flash FU just six minutes into the match, which short-circuited whatever they were going for. It’s clearly the first match in a series that expects to build on itself, and it does what it needs to do to get things started. Not much as an individual viewing, though.
WWE United States Championship Best of 5 Series - Match 5: Booker T (c) vs. John Cena***
From No Mercy 2004 on 10/03/2004
Cena and Booker’s series of matches continued on episodes of SmackDown (and a live event) following SummerSlam, and things went about how you’d expect. Booker T picked up two wins in a row, cheating for both, and Cena fought back to even the series 2-2 to force a rubber match at the PPV.
This was clearly the match Cena and Booker were building towards; it’s much more coherent than their SummerSlam match and calls back on elements of the series to create a satisfying conclusion. That’s not to say this was an all-time classic series or anything, but this works well as a blow-off, and Cena picks up the strong win, kicking out of the Bookend before hitting the FU for the pin and his second United States Championship.
Survivor Series Traditional Elimination Match: Big Show, Eddie Guerrero, John Cena & Rob Van Dam) vs. Carlito, Kurt Angle, Luther Reigns & Mark Jindrak*1/2
From Survivor Series 2004 on 11/14/2004
Following his victory over Booker T at No Mercy, John Cena coughed up the United States Championship just five nights after he won it, losing to the debuting Carlito Caribbean Cool on SmackDown via steel chain to the face. This, in Cena’s eyes, was not Cool. Carlito, protected by his bodyguard, Jesus, yes, I swear that is his name, went on to rip off a string of successful title defenses while Cena waited for his rematch. Eventually, an angle ran where Jesus stabbed Cena in the kidney in a nightclub, again being totally serious here, I promise.
The “kidney injury” was done so Cena could go film The Marine, a major break in the young man’s entertainment career. Despite poor reviews, The Marine was the most successful in WWE Studios history for a long time, grossing nearly $20 million at the box office. The film’s performance proved Cena could deliver as a top draw, and WWE would work a military tribute aspect into Cena’s gimmick over the next year, to the point where it was his defining character trait by mid-2005. But more on that later.
For now, Cena returned and immediately defeated Carlito on free TV for his third United States Championship, primarily because Carlito had a shoot injury he needed to heal. WWE did not reveal this and instead booked Carlito as part of SmackDown’s 4-on-4 elimination match for Survivor Series, joining Kurt Angle and his goons, Luther Reigns and Mark Jindrak, against a team captained by Eddie Guerrero. Cena, in a great bit of continuity, chases Carlito straight out of the arena at the start of the match, as the Caribbean villain and Jesus hop into a car and speed off into the night, never to be seen again.
And now that I’ve gone three paragraphs delving into Cena’s angle with Carlito, we get to the body of the match itself, which is rushed and incredibly forgettable. Angle was obviously screwed with two jobbers on his team, and Carlito running away only made things worse. RVD was the only babyface eliminated, with Big Show picking up the final pin on Angle for his team. The angle is great, skip the match.
WWE United States Championship Street Fight: John Cena (c) vs. Jesus**
From Armageddon 2004 on 12/12/2004
John Cena vs. Jesus. Just typing it pops me. Of course, you pronounce it HEY-zeus, but don’t let semantics get in the way.
The Carlito feud was running out of steam after Survivor Series, and with the main heel out with an injury, it was down to Jesus to carry the in-ring against Cena. Big Match John absolutely destroys poor Jesus’s ass all over the building, no selling what little offense Jesus managed to get in while whacking the guy with a kendo stick, sheet metal, and a trash can lid, among other hilarious items. Once the two men get back in the ring, Cena hits the academic FU for the pin.
The match does what it needs to do, which is put over Cena strong headed into his spring main event push. It’s really notable as the last time Cena finds himself in a true undercard match. The top match on the card was a Fatal 4-Way between JBL, Eddie Guerrero, Booker T, and the Undertaker for the WWE title, with Cena almost deliberately kept out of that scene as a preface for his big upcoming push. Not the end of an era just yet, but the first phase of Cena’s career begins to end with this match.