John Cena has been a mainstay at the top of WWE longer than many WWE fans have been alive. That blows my mind as a person who considering himself a late-bloomer to the pseudo-sport. I didn’t start watching until 1999, at the age of 15 and before that I never saw more than ten seconds of anything related to pro wrestling. When I started watching it, the top names (across WWF and WCW) were Steve Austin, The Rock, Hollywood Hogan and Goldberg. None of them, except for Hulk Hogan had been a fixture on TV for as long as I’d been alive. And even Hulk Hogan traces his first WWF Championship win to January of 1984, the year I was born.
John Cena has been a fixture on WWE TV since 2002. That’s fifteen years, also known as “five years before you were born” to many in WWE’s target audience. You know who was NWA champion five years before I was born?
Harley Race won the title on August 26, 1979; five years to the day before I was born.
By the time I came along that was ancient history. The business was already rapidly changing and was about to explode in the first Pro Wrestling Boom. Maybe it’s just the case that pro wrestling moves more slowly today since the Attitude Era ended, but regardless: John Cena’s rapid ascent to the top of WWE and seemingly-permanent fixture as the top draw has been nothing short of incredible.
When looking at a superstar like Chris Jericho (who had very few high profile matches at WrestleMania) it’s not really fair to judge his career based on that one event, but with John Cena it’s an easy way to condense his career and consider it as a whole. Let’s look back on John Cena’s WrestleMania history and reflect on his remarkable staying power…
RISING TO THE TOP
John Cena’s first WrestleMania might have slipped through the cracks if you weren’t watching Sunday Night Heat an hour before the show began. Cena didn’t actually have a match on the fully-loaded PPV, but he did perform a pre-show rap. This was well into the “Docter of Thuganomics” era, where Cena’s Vanilla Ice persona turned him from bland babyface a month away from being fired to a rising midcard heel that fans were starting to dig. Still, the rap itself was silly and, though harmless, it was largely a waste of time. This was his first taste of WrestleMania’s big stage, and it’s appropriate that it began as far down the ladder as one could get.
One year later the man who was on the pre-show the year before was now opening the main show. Cena’s “Word Life” phase represented the peak of his “older male” popularity and this match, with “forever whipping boy” Big Show, was hotter than it had any right to be. Turn the sound off and the whole thing is almost unwatchable. It’s slow and clunky, as Big Show was terribly out of shape and Cena was still very green in the ring. But you’re not supposed to turn the sound off in pro wrestling, which is why Rock vs Hogan is a four star match. Listen to the crowd going bananas for Cena’s very limited moveset and still-awkward presence. It’s no wonder the rocket was soon strapped to his back. Also, anytime you see Big Show hoisted up and slammed it’s a memorable moment, and this was one of Cena’s first (of many) big stage feats of strength.
Having gone from pre-show, to curtain-jerker, Cena skipped right past “mid-card special attraction bout” stage of his career and went straight for “main-event title challenge” era. Granted he was the “other” main-event, playing second fiddle to Batista vs Triple H, but soon after this he and Batista would switch places and Cena would solidify himself as the next top babyface in the company. This match marks the first in a string of seven straight WrestleMania world title matches (a record that bests second place wrestlers Hulk Hogan and Triple H, who both had a streak of five). If you extend that streak to include “title matches OR main-event matches” Cena’s number increases to nine (Hogan and Triple H still only had a streak of five). This match, which began that streak, is worth more as a statistic than as an actual match. It was weirdly paced, with the opening slow and deliberate like they were setting up for a long fight, but then, halfway through it they rushed for the finish, with Cena’s win seeming to come out of nowhere. It kicked off his reign, so it’s important for that…but not for much else.
This is the show where Cena’s place atop the pyramid was secured. You can argue he had already become “the man” a few months before this, when he and Batista swapped brands and Cena became the top superstar on Raw. But despite beating all of the holdovers from the Attitude Era—Christian, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Edge—he was never really crowned king will he toppled Triple H. Of course, this is the show where Cena’s male critics first hijacked the event and made their displeasure known. Nevertheless, he won the match: Cena, amazingly, submitted Triple H in the middle of the ring, after a match that is much better than fans remember due to the aforementioned bitterness. Now that years have passed and Cena is finally getting the recognition he deserves, it’s time to look back and see this match as a very good showcase of a quickly-improving talent, who was ready to become the top mover and shaker on the roster.
BEING THE MAN
Originally, Triple H was set to rematch with Cena (and, let’s be honest, get his win back) at the next WrestleMania, but he tore his quad in January which threw a lot of plans into chaos. Needing a marquee opponent for the still-blossoming main-eventer, Shawn Michaels was brought in to pinch-hit. This match would feature HBK’s first one-on-one WrestleMania main-event story and match since 1998. The feud was built around the two men as reluctant tag partners. It was a well-worn trope but they turned it on its head by refusing to do the “partner attacks partner from behind, giving the feud a personal grudge” angle. Instead, Michaels spent the entire build-up promising that he was a changed man and wouldn’t turn on Cena. Throughout the build-up to the show, Michaels had Cena’s back. Despite multiple opportunities to attack him, HBK remained loyal to his partner…until the go-home show, when he kicked his face off. Their main-event match exceeded everyone’s expectations, and managed to top the Batista vs Undertaker bout that many thought had stole the show the moment it ended. If this was Cena’s first main-event after being cemented as the top guy, he handled the pressure perfectly and put on a stellar performance with Mr. WrestleMania himself.
A sudden injury in the fall of 2007 stripped Cena of the WWE championship, which he’d held since the summer of 2006. He returned at the Royal Rumble, about six months early (because of course he did), won the match and challenged Randy Orton for the title…at No Way Out. He lost and got a second opportunity, this time with Triple H added to the mix. By this point, there was no combination of those three men that hadn’t been wrestled a million times. Needless to say, fans were not feeling it anymore. Thankfully the title match, which Cena lost (his first loss at the show), was not the show-closer, but it was too familiar and too mundane to work up too much energy over.
For the second year in a row, John Cena (who was still far and away the most popular superstar on the roster) was not in the top match on the show. He was still in “a” title match, however, just not the most important one that year. The main-event went to Randy Orton vs Triple H in a Put The Audience To Sleep fight. John Cena, meanwhile, was given something of a “gold watch” sort of match. He was pitted against two of his more storied opponents not named Randy or Triple. He faced Big Show (his first WrestleMania opponent) and Edge (his most perpetual thorn-in-side enemy) in a triple threat match. The actual contest was nothing to write home about, but it did feature Cena one-upping his original Big Show deadlift from WrestleMania 20. This time he hoisted both Big Show and Edge up at the same time for a super-duper attitude adjustment and 1-2-3 victory.
For almost their entire WWE careers, John Cena and Batista were 1A and 1B and were almost always kept on different brands. 2010 featured the closest thing WWE could do (at the time) to manufacture an Icon vs Icon match (nevermind the fact that they met in a hastily-put-together fight at the 2008 SummerSlam). Batista is always at his best when he’s got one foot out the door. Here, with his contract soon to expire, he debuted a long overdue heel persona, complete with leather vest and aviator sunglasses. He was the ultimate douchebag and fans couldn’t get enough of him. He won the title from Cena in January, a few months before Mania, and clearly only won just so he could give Cena a big title win on a show that was all about Undertaker vs Shawn Michaels. Their match, like almost everything else on the card, was lost amidst the haze of Michaels’ retirement, but it was still a fun (though sloppy) 13 minute heavyweight fight.
The Miz is in the middle of his own little renaissance, as he’s currently one of the (arguably just the) most consistently entertaining parts of Smackdown. Rewind to 2011 and his so-far one and only world title run was a pitiful reign filled with weak matches and weaker booking. His match with Cena was overshadowed by the “guest host” of WrestleMania that year, The Rock. Naturally, during the match, fans mostly sat on their hands waiting for Rock to show up and do…something. No one knew what, but they knew it’d be something. Of course, neither man gave the crowd much of a reason to cheer; the match was sloppy and botch-filled, and featured a stop-and-start finish that saw Cena lose via shenanigans.
A LEGACY PERFORMER
John Cena and The Rock join the illustrious company of Hulk Hogan, Sid Justice, Bam Bam Bigelow and Lawrence Taylor as the only men to main-event a WrestleMania in a non-title match (I’m not counting the first WrestleMania, since that main-event featured the WWF Champion). The feud lasted a year, featuring in-ring segments from Cena, and the now-infamous “live via satellite” promos from the Rock. It was a weird feeling throughout 2011, as older fans wanted to cheer the Rock but also grumbled at his infrequent appearances. Those same fans wanted to boo Cena but couldn’t help but admit he had a point that he was always around and Rock would just drop in whenever he felt like it. In the end they met to settle their differences in the Rock’s hometown of Miami, and after a slightly messy but oddly exciting (thanks to that crowd) match, Cena ate the pin. This was the first true Icon vs Icon match since Rock vs Hogan, and many fans were shocked to see the older icon not put over the younger. Of course we didn’t know just yet that there was a bigger plan, so the finish was legitimately surprising to many. Nevertheless, regardless of the loss, Cena stood toe to toe with Rock and was presented as his equal in stature and pro wrestling prominence. He’d clearly become bigger than just another main-eventer.
Nothing about round two with the Rock worked. The first match was preceded by an energized feud, happened in front of a hot crowd, and ended up being a “good not great” match with a memorable finish. The sequel had a feud no one wanted to see, no one was excited while it was going on, had no energy or earnestness from a storytelling standpoint, happened in front of a dead crowd, and ended up being a subpar match with a predictable finish. It was evident from the moment Cena won the Rumble (if not before) that everything going back to WrestleMania 27 was leading to this moment, with Cena ultimately triumphing over Rock in front of the WWE’s home in a main-event title match. This would be his final, to date, title/main-event match at WrestleMania and even though the actual contest disappointed, it’s still remarkable to look back and see how much he accomplished across the past nine years. The match still sucked though.
John Cena’s first non-title, non-main-event match was obviously given plenty of spotlight in the weeks leading up to it. In fact, the match was almost bigger than a typical title match, as the story was built around Cena’s “legacy.” All his charity work, his (very real-life) good guy character, his never give up sloganeering which has inspired so many children; it was all put on an altar and Bray Wyatt had the torch. Looking back, the post-Mania portion of the feud disappointed, but the initial run-up to WrestleMania and everything until the final three seconds made this one of Cena’s best Mania feuds. I still think the wrong man won, though I totally understand why they gave the “W” to Cena. Detach yourself from seeing Bray Wyatt’s win streak end with a Cena victory that did nothing to evolve his character, and just consider the match itself. This was one of Cena’s best.
After the Wyatt feud ended, Cena was thrust back into the WWE title picture on account of Daniel Bryan vacating the championship. His reign was short lived and ended in the most lopsided and dominating loss, not only in his career but arguably in the history of the WWF/E Championship. Sure, Diesel beat Bob Backlund in seconds, but that was never supposed to be a fair fight. Cena was manhandled by Brock Lesnar in a match everyone expected him to be at least competitive in. No top babyface had ever lost so humiliatingly; even Bruno looked good for most of the fight with Koloff. That loss is really what started John Cena on the path to becoming the nearly-universally beloved seasoned old vet he is today. After his rematch loss to Lesnar, he stepped away from the title picture until January, when he and Lesnar and Rollins put on the match of the year at the Royal Rumble. After that, he entered a feud for the United States championship, which was a surreal sight for fans who followed his career over the years. Stepping away from the top belt to feud for a midcard title was unprecedented for someone as popular as he was. Hogan, Hart, Michaels, Austin, Rock; none of them ever did something like that. But Cena did it, because he wanted a fresh challenge. His match with Rusev was nothing special, but it was solid and was buoyed by WWE’s always-excellent production value. The US title reign that followed, however, was frequently the best part of Raw each week, and slowly but surely Cena won over almost every detractor he’d accumulated over the years.
“The biggest WrestleMania ever” was the slogan. 100,000+ people was the attendance. The most breathtaking stadium in the country was the venue. And John Cena was nowhere on the card. The days of his Wolverine-like recovery times are behind him, and an injury he sustained months before continued to nag him. He wasn’t booked for the card at all, not even for a special appearance. Considering his ability to move tickets at house shows remains unsurpassed, it was clearly a trial balloon by WWE to see how well they could get along without Cena being advertised. In the end, the show broke all kinds of records (some of them legitimate) and, sure enough, Cena made a surprise appearance, to help frenemy Rock take down the Wyatts. He got a hero’s welcome and a big “moment” befitting the man who carried the company on his back for over a decade.
WrestleMania 33 is fast-approaching, and Cena will once again be found in the middle of the card. That’s the new normal for him, as are the cheers from fans of all ages. His time at the top is done, and hopefully he has many more years ahead of him. Either way, his WrestleMania legacy stands alone as one of the most dominating runs in sports entertainment history.