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Pruett's Blog: Ten Years of John Cena Part 5 - John Cena vs. The Rock: Twice in a Lifetime at WrestleMania XXVIII and WrestleMania XXIX
Mar 31, 2014 - 5:51 PM




By Will Pruett

This is part five of a five part series looking at John Cena's ten WrestleMania matches.

Click here to read Part One.
Click here to read Part Two.
Click here to read Part Three.
Click here to read Part Four.


John Cena found his equal in The Rock. The long search ended, but Cena had a new problem to deal with: The Rock was not around WWE every week and he was. Here he was, with a match made a year in advance, and he had to carry the burden all on his own. Every time he stepped into the ring, no matter who his opponent was, the specter of The Rock hung over him.

The Rock had also exacerbated Cena's problem with the most vocal portion of the crowd. Rock, who was a hero to many of these adult males before they were adults, gave them permission to boo John Cena. Rock gave them ammunition they could use against Cena. The Rock made hating John Cena even cooler than it originally was.

2011 will, at least for John Cena, be remembered as a year in limbo. He had exactly one semi-meaningful match (teaming with The Rock at Survivor Series 2011) in a year where he wrestled on every pay-per-view. Cena found exactly what he needed, but he had to wait to fully embrace it.

WrestleMania XXVIII - John Cena vs. The Rock
This match was pure spectacle. It took over a year to get to the moment the bell rang. It took almost thirty minutes of the show itself to get there. It was a build and a match like nothing else WWE had ever put together. The entire idea was revolutionary and, despite some shortcomings, immensely entertaining.

The Rock returned in early 2012 to resume feuding with John Cena. Their exchanges were extremely heated and contained an awkward combination of wrestling tropes and devices put in place purposefully to break them. Every time either man spoke, it lead to hours of analysis claiming "Cena playing dirty" or "Rock being disrespectful" from both the informed and uninformed. Somehow, these men put together a rivalry people on both sides of the curtain were buying into.

For The Rock, it was about being the best ever. He had defeated Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan. He just needed one more to hit the "era defining star" trifecta. He needed to beat John Cena.

For John Cena, it was much more. He was always seen as less than the men who came before him. He was always a distant second. He needed to prove he belonged in the conversation with Rock. He needed to win in order to go on. After all, Cena would be in WWE for the next twelve months, while The Rock left to make movie after movie. Cena winning wasn't just his need, it seemed to be the only logical move.

WrestleMania XXVIII, in The Rock's hometown of Miami, finally arrived and no one knew what would happen.

In what I consider to be the best mix of a concert and a wrestling event, each man's theme music was preceded by a performance from a musical artist. For John Cena, it was "Invincible" by Machine Gun Kelly, who also cut a mid-rap promo about Cena being a true underdog and about this night being for underdogs. WWE knew Cena would be the heel here, especially in Rock's hometown, but this assured it. The Rock had Flo Rida (appropriately named for the state they were in) performing before his theme music. It was less eventful.

Cena was noticeably greeted with hostility and The Rock took his time to soak in some universal love. Justin Roberts introduced both men. As the bell rang, there was a roar from the crowd like nothing else. They cheered for the match beginning. I had never seen this before.

The first ten minutes of this match were all stare-downs and lock-ups. Rock and Cena tried their best to capture the rare magic Hulk Hogan and The Rock had at WrestleMania X-8. They didn't quite achieve the unique reaction from ten years earlier, but their reaction was fantastic. The fans seemed to live and die with every move in this match. Punch after punch landed and every one of them was accompanied by noise.

This match was consciously built around Rock's limitations. He was selling a rib injury for most of it, thus giving him an excuse to breathe heavily. Rock was winded for most of this contest and didn't seem up to keeping up with Cena's (occasionally brisk) in-ring pace. Cena worked over Rock with an almost heel-ish aggression as the announcers justified his behavior as evidence of his determination. The second act of this match with Rock selling and a whole lot of headlock was more compelling than a match with this many rest holds has any right to be.

Soon, it was time to trade finishers and Rock and Cena were delighted to do so. Cena struck first with the Attitude Adjustment, but Rock soon followed with a Rock Bottom. He also locked in his awful version of the Sharpshooter and landed a People's Elbow. Basically, Rock emptied his tank of finishers to attempt. This forced him to go to the top rope and attempt a Flex Cabana-esque Crossbody. Cena managed to roll through this, catching Rock in the process and landing an Attitude Adjustment. This was the best near fall in the match.

John Cena would soon get over-confident. He found himself standing over Rock and, instead of locking in the STF or hitting his patented Five Knuckle Shuffle, he went for The People's Elbow. As he crossed over Rock, Rock jumped up and hit Cena with a Rock Bottom. Cena would lose the match he had to win.

The Rock celebrated in the ring in front of his hometown crowd while Cena sat, dejected and alone, on the ramp. This would present a major opportunity for John Cena and could have become the most interesting period of his career. Cena had the opportunity to show some vulnerability. He had the opportunity to change as a character, show disappointment, and allow disappointment to affect him.

In losing, John Cena could have gained everything he wanted. Sadly, his loss wouldn't mean as much as it could have and his character would remain awkwardly unchanged. Cena's stagnation remained the biggest argument his critics could make against him. He had met his equal, risen to a new level, but stayed the exact same. The real story was just how little the story meant.

WrestleMania XXIX - John Cena vs. The Rock for the WWE Championship
One of the most compelling stories in all of wrestling is the story of redemption. Both inside and outside the ring, fans buy into these narratives. People relate to redemption stories. They are at the core of most, if not all, religions. They are featured in tabloids. They are at the heart of sports storytelling. Redemption is one of the easiest ways to get into a person's heart.

This match, if you believe the narrative, was about redemption. John Cena had been through the "worst year" of his career. He was brutalized by Brock Lesnar. He lost to John Laurinaitis. He went for over a year without being WWE or World Heavyweight Champion. He even got a divorce. John Cena had a down year, because he was focused on his loss to The Rock.

It sounds like a good story, right? Well, it was. And it would have been if this was the story WWE told. While all of these statements were true, it was also true that John Cena was in the main event of almost every show between these two WrestleMania events. He won WWE's two big milestone moments with the Money in the Bank Ladder Match and the Royal Rumble Match. John Cena's down year, looked at through the lens of unfiltered reality, was one of the best years any wrestler could hope for.

The narrative was false. No matter how many times WWE's announcers pushed it and no matter how often Cena mentioned it himself, it was false. This story would have been so easy to tell and allow to cross into reality. John Cena's year truly could have been horrible, with the Royal Rumble being his major turning point. It's not impossible to take a major star and tell this interesting story. Sadly, there was a lack of confidence, either on WWE's part or Cena's, in their ability to tell this story. What resulted was an over-sanitized artificial version of the story WWE wanted to tell.

The Rock returned to WWE (yet again) at the Royal Rumble and ended C.M. Punk's 434 day WWE Championship reign. After defeating Punk in a rematch, his sights were set on defending the WWE Championship against John Cena. The challenge, for WWE, Rock, and Cena, was how to keep this rivalry fresh. We were going into the third year of Rock and Cena verbal exchanges. For this feud, little was needed to heat it up. In a way, it was riding on the previous year's build the entire time. Legends were brought in for long verbal segments. Rock and Cena suddenly very respectful of each other, but determined to win.

Through it all, there was an artificial spirit. Rock and Cena seemed like corporate spokespeople for competition, not competitors themselves.

The fans reacted to them in this way at WrestleMania XXIX as well. When John Cena entered, with his most normal WrestleMania entrance to date, he was booed, but was not showered with boos like he was a year before. When The Rock entered, he was cheered mildly, but not passionately. The Rock, through his many appearances, had gone from being an immortal giant to a mortal man. It was a slow process, but over three years, he went from being the only man above Cena to being his equal. It's not that Cena rose to his level, it's that they met in the middle.

The match began with a stare-down and a lock-up, much like the year before. Through the beginning, it was obvious Rock's conditioning had improved. He was able to participate in more (thoroughly choreographed) exchanges of moves and keep up with Cena's pace. Even though they took the same long rests from the prior year, Rock and Cena wrestled a better match. This better match was greeted with less of a crowd reaction. The wrestling was better, but the spectacle was not.

John Cena launched into his series of finishers and traded with Rock. They played on the prior year's effort with specifically planned spots (Rock going for the Five Knuckle Shuffle, Cena toying with going for the People's Elbow) that seemed far too contrived. They probably created the feeling of a nice sequel when they were written on paper, but in execution, they felt scripted. This match, more than any other Cena WrestleMania effort, felt like you were watching wrestling through multiple layers of artificiality.

In the end, both men forgot how to perform any moves that weren't the Rock Bottom or the Attitude Adjustment. They traded finisher after finisher and reversal after reversal, until Cena hit his final Attitude Adjustment and the referee counted to three. Cena found his artificial redemption through an artificial match. The story was scripted well, but too detached from reality.

When the match was over, Rock and Cena stood face to face. They talked and Rock made sure the camera heard him say "I came back for this very moment right now. Thank you." Rock and Cena hugged and Cena left the ring. Much like the year before, Cena left the ring and Rock soaked in the public adoration. It felt like his victory lap after (as he has said himself) "doing the honors."

The Rock endorsed John Cena as an equal and sent him on his way.

At the end of Cena's WrestleMania decade
One of the most grating things about John Cena's ninth and tenth WrestleMania efforts was the artificiality of it all. John Cena, especially at WrestleMania XXIX, rarely seemed real. He didn't have real problems. Even the realist thing to happen to him in years, his divorce, was placed in an artificial box. WWE pushed and over pushed Cena to a point where fans naturally rebelled. Instead of switching to an equal (as they would have a year before) they were left with just hating the man in front of them. Hulk Hogan had Randy Savage for fans to switch to. The Rock and Steve Austin had each other. John Cena was left with no one.

At the end of WrestleMania XXIX, fans were begging for something real to happen. John Cena, over the course of ten years and ten WrestleMania's, has become distanced from reality. As good as he is (and Cena is very good), he is also unreal. At WrestleMania XX Cena was loved by New York because he was real. At WrestleMania XXIX, he was greeted with apathy because he is not.

This is the plight of John Cena. He is great, but artificial.

This blog has been edited by Ryan Kester.

Want to chat with me about John Cena and this blog/series? Feel free to email me at itswilltime@gmail.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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