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Stay At Home, Watch Wrestling: Vol. 4

By Joe Baiamonte, published on 24th April 2020

“From West Newbury, Massachusetts….” cue the cacophony of boos, cue the irrational hatred from grown men, turning puce red at the sight of a 250lb, neon t-shirt, jean short clad buzzcut as he sprints to the ring with all the grace of an alcoholic toddler.

We love you, John Cena. Happy (belated) Birthday.

First of all, forget the ‘Five Moves of Doom’, forget the Fruity Pebbles, forget the sophomoric dick jokes and the jorts, even. Were it not for a fortuitous freestyle on an overseas tour 18 years ago, the old Prototype may have spent the mid-noughties bouncing around the Impact Zone down in Orlando or perhaps he’d have hooked up with CM Punk and Bryan Danielson a few years earlier in Ring of Honor?

That the Doctor of Thuganomics came so perilously close to never gracing our TV screens, before going on to dominating the next decade of WWE programming en route to crossover superstardom and meme immortality speaks volumes about Cena’s impenetrable self confidence and, still to this day, despite 16 World Title reigns and countless MOTY contenders, horrendously underrated skillset.

As Vince McMahon’s franchise player for the Ruthless Aggression era and beyond, Cena’s presentation and character tore up the rulebook for what a clean cut, say your prayers and take your vitamins WWE headline act was supposed to be. Cena transcended the game with his audience reactions. Hogan or Austin were never booed to the ring or out of the arena, but Cena turned this modern day fandom to his advantage, utilising it to effectively feud with a myriad of superstars across the heel/babyface spectrum.

A 13 month WWE Title reign between September 2006-October 2007 irked many traditionalists, but on further review, was actually Cena’s coming out party as a bona fide all timer.

Edge, Umaga, Shawn Michaels, The Great Khali, Bobby Lashley and Randy Orton were all dispatched during that time. All in very different circumstances, providing varying degrees of stylistic challenges to Cena. All of which he overcame with the aplomb of a master honing his craft, evolving as a top tier worker before our very eyes.

Maybe at times, Cena was a tad too Superman for everyone’s tastes. Some of the comebacks became a little obvious and there’s plenty of people out there who will never, ever forgive him for the Nexus feud of 2010. But given how willingly he served himself up for Brock Lesnar not once (Extreme Rules 2012) but twice (SummerSlam 2014), perhaps he’s forgiven for Wade Barrett never holding the big strap?

His WrestleMania matches may have become ‘WrestleMania Moments’ over the last four years, but Cena’s resumรฉ at the Grandaddy of ’em all holds up against anybody else’s: Triple H at 22, Michaels at 23, Batista at 26, The Rock at 28, Wyatt at 30 and Rusev at 31 all worthy of the grandest stage and all worthy of countless repeats. They call him Big Match John for a reason y’know.

But even when his bigger matches were behind him, as US Champ in 2015, Cena made time for Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Neville and Cody Rhodes during his ‘invitational’ run on Raw. Oh, and let’s not forget his helping hand in making Kevin Owens, either.

So, with all this in mind, while John remains trapped in the outer reaches of Bray Wyatt’s imagination or wherever it is that he ended up at WrestleMania 36, let’s devote today’s SAHWW to a few of the most important matches from West Newbury’s finest…

Vengeance 2003: John Cena vs The Undertaker

You all wanted heel Cena for years, right? Well you had him in 2003 and, fair play, he was pretty fucking brilliant. The ‘rookie with a chip on his shoulder’ to Undertaker’s ‘Gran Torino Clint Eastwood’ made for natural storytelling and, while Cena was being led by the wily old vet here, he wasn’t stepping on toes, either. A ‘making of…’ match, if ever we saw one.

Judgement Day 2005: WWE Title ‘I Quit’ Match: John Cena (c) vs JBL

Blood. So much blood. Mid-South and Memphis feud ending levels of blood. Muta scale blood. Johnny Depp being sucked into a mattress by Freddy Krueger blood. This match was drenched in the claret stuff and was as wild a first PPV title defence as any of us could have ever imagined, even in the crimson soaked mid-noughties, when Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels were practically gushing every other episode of Monday Night Raw.

This bout is the WWE taking all the disappointment of Cena and Bradshaw’s cruelly curtailed (thanks, Hogan) ‘Mania 21 title match and using it to fuel the barnburner to end all barnburners. It’s been rare over the last 15 years that we’ve seen Cena engaged in such levels of ultra violence, yet his efforts in this realm are always home runs. Having a big Texan hoss of a dance partner didn’t exactly hinder the Champ here, either.

WrestleMania 22: WWE Title Match: John Cena (c) vs HHH

Goddamn, we need another WrestleMania in Chicago and soon. LISTEN to how molten that crowd is. That hatred could power a thousand suns with reserves left to burn. This is Cena’s first ‘Mania main event, less than a year removed from when he celebrated IN THE CROWD at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. Twelve months on and he’s Public Enemy Number One. His opponent? The guy who, for a variety of different reasons, has been Public Enemy Number One for the previous four years before this. An underrated classic and a ‘Mania main event we don’t talk enough about. But yeah, we need another Chicago ‘Mania majorly soon.

Royal Rumble 2007: WWE Title Last Man Standing Match: John Cena (c) vs Umaga

Remember when I wrote earlier about Ultra Violent John Cena not turning up much, but when he does it’s always a home run? Exhibit B, your honour.

Seriously, have this John Cena tour the territories in the ’70s and ’80s and let him loose against Brodie, Hansen, Funk and Lawler and you would have a license to print money. The same could also be said of his opponent here; the late, great Edward ‘Umaga’ Fatu. Between them, the pair literally tear the house down, ripping off ring ropes, hurling stairs around and destroying tables.

Cena, once again, bleeds an absolute gusher and promptly makes Umaga look colossal, like Big Van Vader and Godzilla had an illicit fuck sesh and produced an otherworldly wrestling warlord. Fatu should have been destined for greatness within WWE and could have had a legendary, long term dynamic on top with Cena, based on the brief taster we sampled in January 2007. May the big man forever Rest In Power. Every ounce of his offence looked like a ton of boulders hitting Cena, who sold with every millimetre of his soul to make Umaga look like a champ-in-waiting. Last Man Standing matches ever since have been found wanting.

Great American Bash 2007: WWE Title Match: John Cena (c) vs Bobby Lashley

Remember when Bobby Lashley was treated like a legitimate ‘Next Big Thing’ and not the third most important part of a cuckholding storyline? In 2007, pre-All Mighty Lashley was hot shit, having just come off a record breaking, if unfortunate placement as Donald Trump’s hired hand for WrestleMania 23’s Battle of the Billionaires against Vince McMahon’s Umaga.

Thirty-year-old Lashley’s strength, speed, size and freakish athleticism were tailor made for multiple WWE Title reigns and, when he headlined 2007’s Great American Bash against The Champ, it seemed as if Vince McMahon had officially rolled the dice on his newest money maker.

At the time, with Cena well into the tenth month of his Title reign, there were many expecting Lashley to dethrone Big Match John and become the new franchise player.

And while big Bob eventually came up short, he looked every inch a legit challenger, only finally succumbing to a top rope Attitude Adjustment – an added extra reserved specially for him at that point to further emphasise just how much Cena had to do to put him away.

The greats always have a way of winning while also getting over their vanquished foe. Cena may have beaten Lashley clean, but he also made the challenger feel like a much bigger force than he had been 15 minutes before the final three count.

Had Lashley not gotten injured during this bout before eventually being released six months later, there were enough legs here for a SummerSlam, or even WrestleMania headlining rematch, with the future Mr.Lana finally claiming the spoils. That this never happened remains a tremendous disappointment, but it should also not dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for this diamond in the rough.

Breaking Point 2009: WWE Title ‘I Quit’ Match: Randy Orton (c) vs John Cena

Look, we had to include at least one Randy Orton match. In defence of the endless series of bouts these two were pitted against each other in, very rarely, if ever, did they stink the place out. More often than not, the two faces of the Ruthless Aggression era interweaved their styles seamlessly together; Cena’s blood and thunder, 1000mph juggernaut versus Orton’s meticulous, punishing crawl.

By September 2009, the pair had plenty of history, having already exchanged pleasantries in 2007 and 2008. This clash, at Breaking Point, was the first in a trilogy of gimmicked confrontations, which would also spawn a Hell In A Cell and Iron Man outing. The pair peaked here, though, with Cena’s selling almost cinematic in its storytelling, in particular when he is at Orton’s mercy, tied to the ring post, being belittled and brutalised in equal measure. You feel his humiliation and anguish, from the punches to the abdomen to the drenching with water to the puffed out cheeks feeling the rasp of a kendo stick across the epidermis, leaving welts for weeks.

Ideally, this would have been the last match in their feud but that’s the smallest of criticisms for what is an oft forgotten banger.

Extreme Rules 2012/SummerSlam 2014: Brock Lesnar vs John Cena

We couldn’t include one without the other and, let’s face it, these are two of the best WWE matches of the last 10 years. In fact, they might be two of the best matches from any promotion in that timeframe, as is the case with a lot of Cena and Lesnar’s top tier work.

World class professional wrestling requires three things: Intensity, believability and psychology. Both of these matches have all of that in abundance and then some.

Both times Cena charges Lesnar at the bell. It’s all he can do. It’s all he knows how to do at this point. In 2012 he tells Charles Robinson “I’m ready”. Twenty seconds later, it’s clear he was anything but ready for the freight train that’s just elbowed his forehead wide open. But Cena being Cena, he takes that narrowest of victories in Chicago with him to SummerSlam two years later and believes the same tactics will prevail again. Only this time the Lesnar he’s coming up against has evolved. This is an Undertaker WrestleMania Streak ending Lesnar. A Lesnar that remembers Cena embarrassing him with that chain and stair assisted fluke victory in 2012.

The reactions of Lesnar and Heyman upon Cena kicking out of the first F5 at around 30 seconds of the SummerSlam title match say it all. They’re happy. The assault doesn’t have to be a quick fix. Lesnar and his advocate can take a little longer to earn their money. They’ve got nowhere to be. So out come the suplexes. So many suplexes. Cena perpetually looks like he’s been thrown from a moving car to such a degree that, even when he musters the strength to mount a comeback, his energy is so depleted, Brock is barely halted by Big Match John’s heaviest of artillery.

While Extreme Rules saw the wrong man win, SummerSlam rectified all that, even if it was two years too late. As brilliant a squash match as you’ll ever likely see in a WWE main event, it’s the perfect example of John Cena’s body of work. He spends north of 10 minutes getting tossed about like a useless seal pup being flung across the ocean by a dead eyed Orca. Yet when the comebacks arrive, you believe they signal the end. You believe that, once again, Buzzcut John’s pulled it out the bag. He’s not beaten Lesnar, he’s escaped him. He’s survived. But during round two, he experiences no such luck and is mercilessly beaten by a more highly evolved predator. Not many talents can make you invest like that. It has long been second nature to Cena.

Elimination Chamber 2015: John Cena vs Kevin Owens

What we would give for 2015 United States Champion era John Cena to be a thing in 2020’s WWE. Just think of the possibilities; Andrade, Ricochet, Aleister Black, Buddy Murphy, Apollo Crews…

And we could even see him run it back with a certain Prize Fighter one more time.

Before extolling the virtues of this match, it’s imperative I emphasise just how vital Kevin Owens felt in 2015. NXT Champion KO could have been handed every title in the company and had a few resurrected just for him and no one could have convincingly claimed he didn’t deserve them. After ruining his best friend Sami Zayn’s entire life and ripping his title from him, he had plenty of ready made programmes waiting for him on the black and gold brand but, rather than dive headfirst into Finn Balor or Samoa Joe, up he went to Monday Night Raw. It proved to be one of the E’s wisest booking decisions in recent memory.

The hype package here is extraordinarily well done, both demonstrating Cena’s sportsmanship and dominance as US Champ, while presenting Owens as more than just a cocky upstart. His credentials are resting right there on his shoulder for all to see. His dismissal of Cena’s title in favour of his own is a triumph of simple but oh so effective self promotion that is seldom seen nowadays.

It could have been so easy for Cena to run down Owens, mocking his appearance and comparing their accolades, but instead, veteran John gives up the entire stage to KO, feeding his pop up power bomb without so much as getting a word in. The then 15 time World Champion is out thought before the match and out fought during it, doing the honours and helping create a star in one night.

That they rushed a rematch at Money In The Bank immediately after does hurt this bout a little, as it really should have set up a finale at SummerSlam, which ultimately would have been more beneficial for Owens. However, as a standalone match, this is some of Cena’s finest work, at a time when he really didn’t need to be delivering it, with advancing years and more extra curricular activities at this point peaking his interest away from the squared circle.

The crowd, rightfully, eats this one up from beginning to end, with the right man claiming the spotlight at the end. You want one last full time John Cena run? This is the Cena you want for it.

Royal Rumble 2017: WWE Title Match: AJ Styles (c) vs John Cena

His last great match, the Ric Flair equalling title victory (sort of) and, how is this already three years ago?

Before mindlessly running through (what should have been) big money dream matches with Shinsuke Nakamura, Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman and Drew McIntyre between the back end of 2017 and beginning of 2019, we saw the last of Big Match John on 29th January, 2017. We just didn’t know it, then.

If this is to be the last true sighting of BMJ, at least it was THIS good. Much like the pair’s SummerSlam show stealer, a little too heavy on MOVEZ at times, but, with more at stake than their Brooklyn effort in the previous August, Cena and Styles upped their game once again at the 2017 Rumble, giving us the ‘Big Fight’ feel that’s missing from far too many PPV Title matches these days.

The story of Cena doing the honours for Styles in their previous two single outings, unable to outdo the new ‘Face That Runs The Place’ no matter how deep into his arsenal he delves, played out to perfection here, with each man pulling out all the stops when it felt like there were no more stops to pull. Maybe each man had an eye cocked towards the historic Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega IWGP Title match that had shook the wrestling world to it’s core a few weeks earlier in the Tokyo Dome, deciding they wanted six stars of their own.

Whatever star rating system you may or may not adhere to, there is no denying this is BJM at his very, very best, not far behind his Chicago effort with Punk and probably on a par with Bryan at SummerSlam and Owens at Elimination Chamber. Given that Styles pulled an exciting title match out of Jinder Mahal, it’s no surprise he thrives when paired with one of the most natural storytellers of the last 25 years.

This victory tied Cena with the Nature Boy’s 16 World Titles, although not much was made of the fact as he was dropping the belt a few weeks later to Bray Wyatt at Elimination Chamber. It would have been preferential for this reign to lead to something more substantial at WrestleMania than what ended up being an incredibly ill fated engagement to Nikki Bella, but what can you do? Whinge forlornly about never seeing Cena vs Samoa Joe on the grandest stage of ’em all? Yes, you can actually. And that’s precisely what we’re going to do now.

Happy (belated) Birthday, John. Here’s hoping for that one last run when you return from wherever it is Bray Wyatt left you.

By Joe Baiamonte, published on 24th April 2020
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