wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 John Cena PPV Main Event Matches

December 10, 2018 | Posted by Mike Chin
John Cena WWE Daniel Bryan

For better or for worse, John Cena was the undeniable face of WWE for nearly a decade. He remains the most recognizable performer of his generation to the mainstream audience, and while he hasn’t crossed over to the public consciousness as much performers like The Rock, Hulk Hogan, or Steve Austin, he’s probably just one notch down from them in terms of notoriety in pop culture.

Cena tended to get criticized for being vanilla, or for not being as exciting of an in-ring worker, or as unique of a personality as some of his peers. Cena was, however, a consistent company man who worked one of the most rigorous WWE schedules of all time, which included working high level PPV matches, and a disproportionate number of main events, month after month after month.

This week’s column looks at the seven best PPV main event matches Cena has had to date. The focus is only on one-on-one matches, because Royal Rumble and Survivor Series bouts would risk overtaking the countdown and aren’t entirely fair to evaluate as “John Cena matches,” because so many other talents were involved. The countdown also only includes matches that closed shows—not just matches that were billed as one of several main events—though that comes with the Money in the Bank caveat that if a cash-in followed the match, it didn’t negate that last scheduled match counting as the main event (so, for example though this match didn’t make the cut anyway, John Cena vs. CM Punk at SummerSlam 2011 was eligible, despite Alberto Del Rio cashing in on Punk afterward). The focus here is on stand-alone matches, not the surrounding storyline (though hot storylines and crowd reactions could, of course, influence how well a match came across). As always, my personal opinion weighs heavily on the order and matches selected.

#7. Randy Orton, Bragging Rights 2009

The program between John Cena and Randy Orton in 2009 tended to get a lot of flack from critics because of how long it stretched, and because neither Cena nor Orton were darlings of hardcore fans. Looking at most of their matches in a vacuum, however, they were often quite good. Sure, WWE might have been more creative in this era and offered fresher matchups, but the two were competent main event style workers with reasonable heat between them.

Bragging Rights marked the end of that iteration of the Cena-Orton feud as they blew things off in a world title match that was not only an Iron Man Match, but also a no DQ, falls count anywhere version of that match, making it relatively unique as a match-type. The hour-long battle was largely a representation of the feud, Cena won the first fall cleanly only to give way to Orton’s willingness to fight dirty and his vicious streak, which gave The Viper a commanding lead.

One could argue that theatrics like Orton trying to use the pyrotechnics on the stage to burn Cena were over the top and borderline cartoonish, but they also helped diversify the story being told and kept the hou-long match from ever really dragging. As such, this is my pick for the best match of the Cena-Orton feud, and an appropriate blow off for a story that had more than run its course.

#6. Brock Lesnar, SummerSlam 2014

Two key parts of what has made John Cena successful in the latter stages of his full-time career, and more recently as a part timer are his degree of clout as a main event talent that any fan would (even begrudgingly) buy winning in any circumstance, and conversely his willingness to put over others. It showed up in him putting over AJ Styles strongly over the summer of 2016, and his readiness to stooge for The Undertaker at WrestleMania 34. This chapter of Cena’s career arguably started in earnest at SummerSlam 2014.

The summer of 2014, Cena won the WWE Championship in some ways as a substitute after Daniel Bryan had to relinquish the title. He had the credibility to transition straight to the title, and he was a suitable face to defend that title against Brock Lesnar as the rising monster heel who was fresh off of ending The Undertaker’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania.

Most critics predicted that Lesnar would ride that streak-ending momentum to a title win, but to my knowledge no one predicted that Lesnar would spend fifteen minutes all but squashing Cena into oblivion. It wasn’t just a victory, and it wasn’t just a clean victory. It was a dominant victory that unofficially ended Cena’s time as the face of WWE once and for all and was key to reinventing Lesnar as an unstoppable monster.

This wasn’t necessarily one of Cena’s all-time great matches from a work rate perspective, but for how unique, unexpected, and satisfying it was in the moment, it was one of his greatest achievements in a WWE ring.

#5. Brock Lesnar, Extreme Rules 2012

Brock Lesnar may have been at his most impressive as an athletic spectacle in his original run during WWE’s Ruthless Aggression Era, and he may have had the most clout after he’d ended The Undertaker’s streak and taken strides toward the Suplex City period of his career. He was never more dangerous, though, than when he first came back to WWE after a successful run with UFC. With questions hovering about how long he’d stay with WWE, and if he’d do business as a traditional pro wrestler or might snap and go into business for himself, his match with John Cena felt like a dream match, even though it had been booked before. This was the most successful star to cross over from sports entertainment to legitimate MMA up against the guy who’d most benefited from that transition, as he became the family-friendly face of WWE In Lesnar’s absence.

This Extreme Rules match between the two in 2012 was a unique spectacle for Lesnar’s brutal, realistic, and ultimately bloody style of offense. The match looked fundamentally different from anything WWE was doing—especially in that era—and was an exciting brawl to boot. The only thing that really held this match back was the finish, as it was pretty confounding for Cena to beat Lesnar in his first match back. However, the fact that Lesnar controlled most of the match, and Cena needed to punch him out with a chain wrapped around his fist told the story as Lesnar was protected, and would remain special going into his next program with Triple H.

#4. Edge, Unforgiven 2006

John Cena’s feud with Edge over the course of 2006 was one of the defining ones for both men’s careers. Cena had risen to the top, but was starting to hear the boos of fans who felt he was a lackluster in ring worker, and was pushed too heavily. Meanwhile, Edge had finally broken the main event glass ceiling via the buzz of an alleged real-life affair with Lita, adding her as her femme fatale sidekick on screen, and cashing in the original Money in the Bank. While fans were split, the Rated R Superstar was about the only top heel who could get even half the crowd behind Cena in that era.

The two had a number of good matches, but in my estimation the best was their TLC bout at Unforgiven 2006. Edge had the Toronto crowd behind him, and this was one of Cena’s finest performances as a white meat babyface operating in hostile territory as he took the fight to Edge in his signature gimmick match. The bout was a very, very good one while the concept of one-on-one TLC matches was still relatively fresh. The encounter notably included Cena accidentally choking out Edge for real momentarily with a ladder-assisted STF, but both men carried through like professionals to battle to the planned conclusion—an epic Attitude Adjustment off the ladder, through two tables to pave the road for Cena’s victory.

#3. Rob Van Dam, One Night Stand 2006

When WWE realized what it had in John Cena as a favorite of casual fans and kids, and public enemy number one to the hardcore audience, it shrewdly contrived a situation for Rob Van Dam to schedule a match against Cena (via Money in the Bank) at the second One Night Stand, ECW-themed show. The crowd reached a fever pitch, booing the heck out of Cena, and all-in behind RVD, including iconically throwing Cena’s t-shirt back at him over and over again before the opening bell rang.

The bout to follow was very good from an in-ring perspective, but it’s that fiery crowd that pushes it over the edge to legendary status, and the shortlist of Cena’s most memorable and enjoyable main event matches. In the end, it was Edge who got involved to cost Cena the belt, much to the approval of the ECW crowd, as RVD arrived—however momentarily—at the top of the wrestling world.

#2. Daniel Bryan, SummerSlam 2013

The summer of 2013, Daniel Bryan became an unlikely hero. After three years of proving himself by making chicken salad out of every questionable angle and gimmick WWE threw his way, his talent and work ethic shone through to get him a shot at the top of the card, and a world title shot against John Cena at SummerSlam.

Cena tends to get criticized for only showcasing a small handful of moves in his regular repertoire, and focusing on showmanship over technique. Just the same, beneath these more debatable factors is a worker who can keep up with just about anyone in the world. This match with Bryan was a showcase for exactly that dynamic as Cena used his power and brute force offense to keep overwhelming Bryan, only for Bryan to keep coming back at him—most literally in a spot in which Bryan repeatedly Cena atop a turnbuckle despite being pushed down again and again.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Cena put Bryan over cleanly. While this wasn’t the first or only time Cena did something like that, it was an unusual circumstance of him doing so to elevate another talent in a main event scenario and while Cena was still at the top of his game in terms of his kayfabe standing. The match was historically important in passing the torch to the short-term top face (until Roman Reigns was properly groomed) and it was one of the best of both Cena and Bryan’s WWE careers to date.

#1. CM Punk, Mondy in the Bank 2011

The summer of 2011, under the threat of CM Punk walking after his WWE contract was done, the company rolled the dice on an off-beat angle. Punk delivered a largely shoot promo on Raw about his views on the company en route to challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship in front of a hometown crowd in Chicago on what was ostensibly Punk’s last night under contract.

Punk’s promo got over on a larger scale than anyone could have predicted, and the live crowd in Chicago was a perfect fit of vocal, hardcore wrestling fans with an indie edge and ones who were especially predisposed to cheer on The Straight Edge Superstar as one of their own. As such, the positively nuclear fan reactions that bookended this match would have been enough to elevate even the most pedestrian match to three-star-plus status.

Punk-Cena probably wasn’t objectively a five-star match based on pure mechanics of what happened bell-to-bell. The action was good, though, and the way the crowd fed into it elevated the encounter to a fever pitch, making every moment feel like a thrill, and every false finish like a legitimately epic moment. The finish was a bit of schmozz with Vince McMahon and John Laurinaitis getting involved, ostensibly to cost Punk the match, only to inadvertently distract Cena and hand Punk the win. A more jaded viewer might suggest that this sequence took away from the bout, but from another lens, the chaos of it fit the scene perfectly as Punk represented a change agent and the raucous Chicago crowd all but demanded a finish with some mayhem packed in.

The visual of Punk winning, then evading a Money in the Bank cash-in to escape through the crowd was picture perfect, and a prime example of WWE manipulating Cena’s status as the chosen-one-face-of-the-company to position him as a de facto heel and create a genuinely electric moment.

Which matches would you add to the list? Cena’s WrestleMania 22 match with Triple H, and his TLC match Dolph Ziggler were some of my nearest misses. (And no, I didn’t forget about Cena vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 23—that one simply wasn’t my cup of tea, and while I get that it would probably be top five for a lot of people, it would be a fringe top ten pick in my book.) Let us know what you think in the comments.

Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.