Pruett's Blog: Ten Years of John Cena Part 1 – It all begins again with WrestleMania XX and John Cena, then Cena captures his first WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21
By Will Pruett
This is part one of a five part series looking at John Cena's ten WrestleMania matches that will air Monday's on Prowrestling.net.
Why do people hate John Cena? No, really, I can't figure it out. He's a fun guy to boo, especially when he's up against a crowd favorite like Daniel Bryan, but I cannot discover why some people legitimately think he is everything wrong with wrestling. In a perverse way, this series is here for me to try to discover this.
More than searching for hate (and beyond embracing hate like Kane in 2012), I was amazed to look back in the last few months and realize Cena has now had ten WrestleMania matches. This year he will have his eleventh. This is stunning. On Steve Austin's podcast interview with Cena, he referenced this as one of the longest runs anyone has ever had in wrestling. Does John Cena truly have this staying power, or is he propped up by the machine? Once again, my goal is to discover this.
Finally, I hope to see what it is about Cena that has led to him being in eight World Championship matches and nine WrestleMania main events over ten years. This statistic alone should make him one of the best ever, but in the eyes of many, the statistic is hollow. Is John Cena what his record says he is, or what his detractors say he is?
WrestleMania XX - John Cena vs. Big Show for the United States Championship
On the show "Where is all began again" in the opening match, WWE presented the act they would begin again with. They opened the show with a man who would symbolize the next ten plus years of wrestling. They presented "Smackdown's fastest rising star," John Cena. It was borderline poetic.
This wasn't the John Cena we know today with corny humor and a lack of wit. This was the throwback jersey, chain, and padlock wearing, "Word Life" saying John Cena. He entered to a pretty decent pop and proceeded to make fat jokes about Big Show in the form of a "freestyle" rap (or a Dr. Seuss book). This John Cena connected to every part of the crowd through pure edginess. He was a heel-turned-babyface because people liked how he acted as a heel. The Madison Square Garden crowd (men, women, and children) chanted "Cena" boisterously as he concluded.
Big Show was on the larger side of his weight spectrum. He had been presented as an unstoppable giant dominating as United States Champion. Big Show was in full-on mountain mode. John Cena was getting set to climb.
The match was basic, which is what Cena could do in 2004. Big Show beat up Cena, Cena attempted to show some fire, Big Show stopped Cena, and repeat. While this formula often doesn't work in front of hardcore crowds, it works exceptionally well here. With every cutoff, the "Cena" chants grew stronger. At one point, a full blown "Let's go Cena" chant began, which sounded a little weird without its Cena-hating companion.
As the match drew to a close, Cena pulled off the first of many WrestleMania feats of strength, as he lifted the rather large Big Show off his feet (which he had not left during the match) and onto his shoulders delivering his trademark F-U. Big Show kicked out at two.
At this moment, we saw a glimpse into Cena's future. Instead of reaching deep down and finding the will to beat Big Show, he turned to trickery. This was an odd action for a babyface. Even odder was the crowd's adulation of him for it. Cena went to use a chain, threw it down, and with the referee distracted, used one of the "Word Life" brass knuckles he had worn to the ring. One more F-U and Cena would capture his first championship in WWE, the United States Championship.
The crowd roared as an emotional Cena celebrated his landmark victory. It all began again with John Cena winning. The symbol of WrestleMania XX was not the celebration of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit at the end of the show, it was John Cena winning at beginning.
WrestleMania 21 - John Cena vs. JBL for the WWE Championship
One year later and John Cena had been through a lot. He was "stabbed" in a nightclub by Carlito's cousin Jesus. He filmed The Marine (this was far worse than the stabbing). He spent a year fighting to defend (and occasionally regain) the U.S. Championship. John Cena was on the ascension, with upper-mid-card feuds with the likes of Booker T and Carlito.
John Cena was also transitioning himself. He left throwback jerseys behind and began wearing every piece of his own merch he could find. The edges leftover from his heel character were slowly smoothed out. His promos stopped rhyming and containing childish, but occasionally vulgar insults. The older male fans seemed to be abandoning him, but had not yet turned against him.
JBL was in the midst of a mostly middling, but recently quite hot heel run. After winning the WWE Championship from Eddie Guerrero at the Great American Bash in June 2004, the newly christened John Bradshaw Layfield became the corner-piece of Smackdown. He improbably won championship match after championship match, while proclaiming himself a wrestling god. JBL had even picked it up in recent months and gone from lame-duck champion to legitimate heat generator.
Going into WrestleMania, the story was made out to be John Cena "from the streets" taking on JBL from Wall Street. It was simplistic, but it worked. According to JBL, people like John Cena (upper class white dudes?) weren't supposed to be champion, while people like JBL (upper-upper class white dudes?) were.
JBL entered WrestleMania with a police escort in his trademark white stretch limousine as hundred dollar bills with his face on them rained from the sky. He sent his entourage, including the current United States Champion Orlando Jordan, backstage. JBL wanted to beat John Cena all on his own.
Cena entered second as his theme music told us his time is now. While the music insisted we could not see John Cena, his location was obvious. His ovation was less so. He didn't get the roar MSG gave him just a year before. There were no "Cena" chants to be heard. He went from being the rebel beloved by all of the crowd to slightly over-pushed. It wasn't a rebellion, but it was a stark contrast.
This match was much like the prior year's, as Cena fought from underneath, taking a beating, occasionally giving a glimpse of hope, and then taking another beating. It was far less successful, as the crowd's emotional investment in both wrestlers had faded. The crowd was also pretty burnt out after a brilliant Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle match and an odd Big Show sumo wrestling debacle. They were saving themselves for the more over of the two main events.
Cena eventually went on a tear in his comeback and never looked back. JBL bumped and fed like a true pro and Cena offense looked great. After ducking a Clothesline from Hell, Cena gave JBL the F-U and pinned him to win his first WWE Championship.
He jumped into the crowd and celebrated with happy, but not elated fans. WrestleMania 21 was seen as a changing of the guard, ushering in the era of John Cena, Batista, and Randy Orton, but it was also the first sign of something awry with the push of Cena.
One-fifth of the way through the decade
John Cena's first two WrestleMania matches show the reason WWE went with him and the hazards they face when they forcefully go with any superstar. Cena was a fan favorite, until the fans realized he was supposed to be and he began acting far too much like one. They fell in love with him one way, but he changed. Maybe WrestleMania 21 was the beginning of something being wrong with John Cena's relationship with the fans.
Next week, we're going to see what happens when a relationship is allowed to go rotten as John Cena heads to Chicago.
***Thanks to Ryan Kester for his editing work on this series.
Want to chat with me about John Cena and this blog/series? Feel free to email me at email@example.com 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.
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