“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” This often used phased has never been more appropriate with the restrictions imposed by the global pandemic. It’s also the way I feel about John Cena.
Cena has always been a divisive character amongst fans, but there is no denying the massive impact he has had on the industry during his career.
When he debuted on Smackdown in 2002, the former Prototype in Ohio Valley Wrestling, showed ‘Ruthless Aggression’ in a competitive effort against Kurt Angle. It took a couple of years, but morphing over time into the Doctor of Thuganomics soon saw Cena become one of the most entertaining performers on the mic and in the ring.
19 years later, Cena has had a run unlike any top star since Bruno Sammartino – winning 16 world titles to date. Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair had amazing runs, but split between different companies. Steve Austin and The Rock were more universally popular, but both had relatively short runs in the main event. The Undertaker had the longevity but never the same championship success.
Cena was the king of the merchandise. At live events, you would regularly see more John Cena merchandise than any other wrestler’s. He was also the king of Make A Wish – granting more wishes for young fans than any other celebrity.
One of the main criticisms of Cena was his in ring work. The ‘five moves of doom’ were a regular feature of matches. His punches were not the most convincing, his STFU was not well-executed, and the Five Knuckle Shuffle required a massive suspension of disbelief (much like The Rock’s Peoples Elbow) – as his opponent had to lay motionless in the ring for far too long.
Feuds with The Big Show, Triple H, and Randy Orton seemed never ending. So why did I miss John Cena? When paired with the right opponent he had the ability to steal the show and invoke emotion unlike anyone else.
Cena had been WWE Champion since WrestleMania 21, until Edge surprisingly cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase at the end of New Year’s Revolution. Over the next eleven months they had a number of exciting matches on Raw, at the Royal Rumble, and at TLC. Edge was the archetypical heel, with Lita constantly causing a distraction and running interference. Cena was the babyface having to overcome the odds.
2006 did not see the end of the feud with one-on-one matches in Raw in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Backlash in 2009 saw Edge regain the title in a brutal Last Man Standing match. Both deserve massive credit for the longevity of their feud and never allowing it to get stale. Perhaps there is one more match still to come.
‘If Cena wins we riot’, just one of the memorable signs in the Hammerstein Ballroom for this intriguing title defence in 2006 against Rob Van Dam. RVD had won the Money In The Bank briefcase and called his shot, challenging Cena at the One Night Stand pay-per-view where he knew he would have the home area advantage.
Before the match, we saw Cena’s tremendous ability to improvise. Doing his usual routine, he threw his t-shirt into the crowd – only for it to be thrown back at him more than once. The crowd were vociferous throughout, chanting obscenities and insults at Cena. After interference from Edge, the reaction as Paul Heyman counted the pin for RVD blew the roof off.
Cena was equally hated in his title defence against CM Punk at Money In The Bank in Punk’s hometown of Chicago. It was widely known by the fans in the arena that Punk’s contract was expiring after the show, so the common perception was that it would be inconceivable for Punk to leave as champion. After over 30 minutes of action, that perception was proved wrong, despite the efforts of Cena and Vince McMahon. Again, John showed his willingness to put over his opponent and send the fans home happy.
The storyline associated with this match ensured every two count was dramatic, and John subtly displayed heel tendencies to further infuriate the Chicago crowd. Punk hit the Go To Sleep, avoided a cash in attempt from Alberto Del Rio and ran through the crowd with the title. It was a fitting ending to a match rated five stars by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Seth Rollins cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 31 and headed into SummerSlam as WWE Champion, while Cena won the United States Championship from Rusev at the same WrestleMania. A winner takes all title versus title matched was announced for the hottest event of the summer at the Barclays Center.
The build up to the match was centred on a broken nose Cena suffered after taking a knee lift from Seth on an episode of Raw. Extra publicity was given to the match by the involvement of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who was at ringside. Cena was in his element when appearing on The Daily Show days before the match, his ability to promote WWE in the mainstream media unmatched and often under recognised.
The match itself saw Cena put in a fantastic performance against another technically gifted opponent. Cena was again favourite to win, but ended up getting pinned after Jon Stewart turned on him and used a chair. The finish led to more mainstream publicity for Cena and WWE after the event, and elevating Rollins at the same time.
One was the face of WWE. The other was the face of TNA (Impact Wrestling). When they finally met at Money In The Bank in June 2016 they had the first in a series of great pay-per-view matches, with Styles getting the victory on this night.
Cena tried to even up the score at SummerSlam that same year, but again AJ was victorious. The ending of match saw Cena display his showmanship as he took off his wristband and laid it on the canvas. A normally anti Cena crowd proceeded to give him a standing ovation.
After taking some time off, Cena returned at the end of the year to challenge then WWE Champion Styles to another match – this time at the Royal Rumble. Despite his absence, Cena returned sharper than ever and put in perhaps the best technical wrestling performance of his career in winning his sixteenth world title.
In addition to those great rivalries, John has a wealth of WrestleMania moments. Enjoyable matches with Rusev at WrestleMania 31 and Batista at WrestleMania 26. A classic with Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 23. The electricity of the face off with The Rock at the start of their WrestleMania 28 main event.
I jumped out of my seat at the return of the Doctor of Thuganomics at WrestleMania 35 and there was a tear in my eye when John proposed to Nikki Bella at WrestleMania 33.
These are just some of the many the many reasons I have missed John Cena, but he has now returned – for a few weeks at least. The crowd and online reaction as he confronted Roman Reigns at the end of Money In The Bank confirmed I wasn’t the only one who missed him. Movies will beckon later in the year and I will miss John Cena again – but with the anticipation of another surprise return in 2022 and more memorable matches.