By Will Pruett
This is part two of a five part series looking at John Cena's ten WrestleMania matches that will air Monday's on Prowrestling.net.
Click here to read Part One.
The most important decision made in John Cena's career was the one to stay the course with him as a babyface. This is notable because around this time (2006 and 2007) many people both inside and outside of the wrestling business were calling for him to turn heel. Think about it, the babyface WWE Champion (who was WWE Champion for 20 of the 24 months between WrestleMania 21 and WrestleMania 23) was being booed out of buildings. He was being rejected by the hardcore audience. Even though kids loved him and some believed in him, the hardcore fans continued to thrash him.
In most cases, WWE would go with their vocal audience and turn John Cena into a dastardly (and possibly mustachioed) heel. In this case, they pushed back against the change and created the defining dynamic of WWE in this era. This is where we see John Cena evolve from a wrestler mainly participating in short matches and being protected to a big-match performer. This is when John Cena comes into his own.
WrestleMania 22 - John Cena vs. Triple H for the WWE Championship
If WrestleMania 21 was the crowd quietly breaking up with John Cena, WrestleMania 22 was the loud fight three days later when Cena came back to get his things. The story of WrestleMania 22 has very little to do with Triple H. In a way, he is the least significant player in the match. Plug anyone into Triple H's spot and he would have been cheered just as heavily by the Chicago crowd. The quality of the match didn't even rely on wrestling, but on what, at the time, was an unbelievable crowd reaction.
WrestleMania 22 would be the inciting incident of the defining feud of John Cena's career; his feud with the vocal more mature sect of the audience. Cena vs. these fans would go on to color every significant feud he would be involved in. His match with Rob Van Dam at One Night Stand 2006 was more about how the ECW fans would react to Cena than about RVD. C.M. Punk was the "voice of the voiceless" and the "voiceless" happened to (ironically) be these vocal fans. The Rock has defined himself as "The People's Champion" for his entire career, so he was the perfect avatar for these people. Even minor Cena feuds have been marked by the "Let's go Cena"/"Cena sucks" call and response. WrestleMania 22 wasn't the beginning of the rebellion, but it was the shot heard 'round the world.
Let's back this Cena train up to mid-2005, when John Cena was moved to Raw and the very conscious choice was made by WWE to build around him. Suddenly, his deficiencies as a worker could not be hidden. A feud with Kurt Angle, who very clearly out-wrestled Cena (in a weird effort that made both men look bad) in the summer hurt Cena even more.
Now it was WrestleMania time and the shpw happened to be in one of the "most traditional" (according to Jim Ross) wrestling cities in the country. The most hardcore fans were in attendance and the growing problem with John Cena became a full-blown show-changer. It was bound to happen, eventually, but it seemed like more of an event on the grandest stage of them all.
Triple H was standing across the ring from Cena. "The Game" had spent the last four years as WWE number one villain. He had spent the last two in the main event of WrestleMania dropping the World Heavyweight Championship to Chris Benoit and Batista. With these hardcore fans, there was some animosity towards Triple H (shocking, I know), but also some admiration of him. Triple H, before the match, decided Cena was not a challenge to him at all. In the pre-WrestleMania press conference he told the media and fans how easy this night would be.
WWE made every effort to make John Cena friendly to Chicago. His entrance was based on prohibition era Chicago in the 1920's and discussed the Chicago mobster's love of hustle, loyalty and, respect. Triple H's entrance involved a throne, a pelt of fur, and a large crown. The entrances to this match are some of the most fascinating (and silly) in WWE's history. (C.M. Punk was also notably riding on the car preceding Cena's entrance.)
The crowd was passionate. They were intense. They hated Cena. They loved Triple H. This would become the prototypical John Cena crowd reaction. As Lillian Garcia did the "big match" in-ring introductions, John Cena was focused, but also hyperactive. Whenever Triple H and Cena exchanged blows in the middle of the ring, the crowd responded with a "Yay" for Triple H and a "Boo" for Cena. We are used to this response now, but it was amazing to see at the time.
While Triple H played to the crowd and even teased a D-Generation X reunion, John Cena "stood strong in the face of adversity" and fought through the crowd's hatred of him. He also fought through a sledgehammer shot from Triple H. In the end, John Cena would break out his recently acquired submission hold, the STFU and use it to defeat "The Game" clean via submission. The crowd was shocked. The celebration was subdued.
John Cena would spend the rest of his career awaiting these reactions. His most notable matches often took place in front of biased crowds, predisposed to hating him. Even the most pro-Cena crowds will often have a "Cena sucks" chant creep in. WWE would spend the next year or two resisting the urge to turn Cena. Perhaps they saw how special this type of reaction actually is. Perhaps they just stubbornly expected these fans to eventually give up.
Luckily, these fans took a cue from John Cena, who asked them to "never give up." This was one of the most important nights of John Cena's career. His signature opponent wouldn't be a wrestler, it would be the fans.
WrestleMania 23 - John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels for the WWE Championship
If ever a match seemed custom made to follow the John Cena heel narrative, it was his match against "The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 23. Michaels was (and still is) beloved by most fans. The kids love him for his legendary status. The vocal adult audience loves him for his amazing wrestling talent. If WWE was trying to make people love John Cena, Michaels seemed like an odd choice of opponents.
What cannot be forgotten is Michaels' mastery of wrestling psychology. He knew how the hardcore fans would react to Cena. He knew how they'd react to him. To keep the entire building from turning away from Cena and cheering old "H-B Shizzle" he played the heel from bell to bell. He was ruthless as he went after John Cena's knee, delivered a Piledriver on the ring stairs, and did everything he could to take the WWE Championship from Cena. The performance of Shawn Michaels in this match kept an 80,000 person version of what happened in Chicago from happening again. It also gave Cena his best WrestleMania match and his best match to date.
Cena was still stuck in his will he or won't he turn turmoil. He entered Detroit after doing a couple laps around the stadium in a muscle car and burst through what Jim Ross referred to as "the WrestleMania glass" (which makes it sound completely normal) before exiting the car to his standard theme music. Cena's entrance was customized to the city once again.
This would be the first time the Tag Team Champions (which Cena and Michaels were at the time) would meet in the main event of WrestleMania. It would also be Cena's longest WrestleMania match. The drama and intensity were there from the beginning as a handshake was attempted and rejected, which lead to a Michaels slapping Cena. These two men would have a bloody war in the middle of the ring (and around ringside). This would be the only time Cena would bleed in a WrestleMania match.
The closing moments of this match were some of the best in Cena's career. Reversal after reversal and near fall after near fall, they fought tooth and nail for the WWE Championship. It was amazing to see Cena stand toe-to-toe with one of the best performers of all time and hold his own. He had to be lead to this great match, but it was one of the first examples of how Cena can rise to his opponent's level.
Michaels was able to take away the crowd's drastic effect from a year before. He was able to minimize their reaction. There was still a massive pop when Cena was dropped on his head on steel steps. There was still a "Cena sucks" chant. There were still vocal fans who were not into John Cena, but they must have known they were watching poetry in motion. Cena and Michaels had an underrated classic.
The most amazing part of this match isn't the crowd's reaction, Michaels' pseudo-heel performance, or match quality. The most amazing part of this match is how Cena and Michaels managed to top it less than a month later in a one-hour classic on Raw.
Two-fifths of the way through the decade
Cena grew as a performer and a character through these two years. He had to. He went from being the up and coming superstar to being the guy WWE built their company around. Cena had never closed a WrestleMania before 2006 and here he was closing two in a row. His growth in the ring is stunning from year to year. His connection with the fans also developed in an interesting way.
Chicago paved the way for "Cena haters" to react with passion and vigor. John Cena's stone-faced reaction to it paved the way for him to move forward for years to come. Cena's performance at WrestleMania 23 was a delightful response to a crowd who believed he couldn't wrestle. It was exactly what Cena needed when he needed it.
Next week, Cena embarks on a couple lost years of his WrestleMania legacy, as he faces two triple threat matches containing some longtime rivals.
This blog has been edited by Ryan "The Ry-man" Kester.
Want to chat with me about John Cena and this blog/series? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to interact with me on the Twitter at twitter.com/itswilltime. All interaction is welcome, as long as you're not pitching your idea for a John Cena heel turn.
Pruett's Blog: Ten Years of John Cena Part 2 - The most significant feud of John Cena's career begins as he faces off with the two founding members of D-Generation X at WrestleMania’s 22 and 23.
Mar 10, 2014 - 06:00 PM
Mar 10, 2014 - 06:00 PM
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