Monday Night RAW on June 27th will be the first televised WWE appearance of John Cena in almost a year, but the event will also mark 20 years of Mr. Cena in WWE. It’s a milestone that is worthy of a celebration. However, it’s arguable that the desire to celebrate the man, now known as DC’s Peacemaker, has only enhanced the sense of anticipation ever so slightly for this RAW. In 2022, a John Cena WWE appearance is becoming less and less frequent, which makes every single moment he’s now inside the squared circle a highly anticipated event.

The thought of pro wrestling fans of all ages wanting to celebrate and embrace the former ‘Doctor of Thugonomics’ would have been unfathomable 5-10 years ago, yet here we are. For more than a decade, Cena was an incredibly perplexing personality within pro wrestling. This was not due to his character, which was as straightforward as could be, but because he simultaneously generated visceral hatred and unquestionable loyalty and support from the pro wrestling faithful. Those who hated him because of his “cheesy” morals and being WWE’s “golden child” would lash out at any and all supporters. Including universally popular figures like Mick Foley, who once received 600 negative messages “within minutes” after praising a John Cena promo. “Let’s go, Cena,” “Cena sucks!” chants were almost a part of the culture when attending a WWE event.

Upon reflection, however, beyond John Cena’s, at times, overbearing push, there was little to despise about the 16-time WWE Champion. He was a man of conviction and put his best foot forward, both in the ring and out. He earned the moniker “Big match John,” as his list of incredible PPV outings knows no end, and his promo skills are unmatched – remember him catching The Rock’s promo notes? Ouch! Knowing this, it’s hard to dispute Cody Rhodes’ recent statement in the video – The best advice John Cena has ever given me – that John Cena is “GOAT level.”

There’s arguably no better way to use the phrase: “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone” in wrestling other than to describe John Cena. His 20-year-long WWE career is full of countless iconic moments, which fans are now starting to truly appreciate. But whether you were once a Cena hater or you’ve always been a loyal supporter, don’t worry – this article is for you. To celebrate Cena’s 20-year anniversary, Humza, along with a few external supporters, took on the unenviable task of selecting the five greatest Cena matches and five greatest moments. Get ready, they may be as polarising as Cena himself once was.

The Champ’s Matches

John Cena vs. Rob Van Dam – ECW One Night Stand 2006

Words by: Nabeel Hussain.

The negative reactions towards John Cena were nothing new by this point, starting with his feud with Chris Jericho [in 2005] and escalating throughout his programs with Edge and Triple H, then finally hitting fever pitch here at ECW One Night Stand 2006, where he faced Rob Van Dam, an ECW darling in front of the original ECW fans, at the original ECW stomping grounds of Hammerstein Ballroom. Cena was met with chants of “F**k you, Cena,” “You can’t wrestle,” and “Same old s**t.” But while previously Cena would just ignore the crowd reactions and stick to the plan of being the babyface, here he made subtle changes all in the service of the match, his opponent and the fans themselves while still staying true to his character. From small touches like his disapproving facial expressions to adding new moves to his repertoire as a clap back at the “same old s**t” chants, and my favourite, the ingeniously improvised moment of continually throwing his t-shirt into the crowd, only for it to be thrown back at him. Any lesser talent would have stopped at the first attempt, but Cena saw it was an opportunity for crowd participation and adding more heat and drama to the match. The performance was a masterclass in being in the moment, using a hostile crowd to your advantage and putting over an opponent.

John Cena vs. Edge – Last Man Standing Match – Backlash 2009

John Cena vs. Edge was one of WWE’s hottest and most noteworthy feuds in the post-Steve Austin era. It captured fan interest, had longevity, and was a consistently reliable combination from 2006 onwards. At Backlash 2009, the pair had their final one-on-one PPV showdown and arguably produced their very best match and the best Last Man Standing Match of all time. Interestingly, for one reason or another, their Backlash match seems to go under the radar when people discuss Cena vs. Edge, but it should be spotlighted as the epic it is. Both Cena and Edge went nearly 30 minutes, and instead of falling into the trap of relying on gimmicks, they expertly built the match through simple yet effective storytelling.

The match revolved around Edge looking to capitalize on a lingering injury of Cena’s, which the commentators expertly sold. Also, for nearly half the match, if not longer, one weapon (the steel steps) was used. In addition, Edge being sent into the crowd from an AA off the announcers’ table was arguably the most “breathtaking” moment. The match prioritized selling the fatigue of battle and both Cena and Edge’s desire to out-grit the other, which resulted in a gripping performance that expertly built towards big moments and ensured every count from the referee meant something. It was (another) masterclass and one of the more impressive in-ring performances from Cena due to the psychology of this bout. Go watch it!

John Cena vs. CM Punk – Money in the Bank 2011

Rightfully so, Money in the Bank 2011 is known as the crowning moment of CM Punk. However, one of the reasons it was such a memorable and significant night was due to Punk’s opponent, John Cena. Punk was rebelling against the WWE, and aiding his cause was the fact he was pitted against the company’s biggest star. Alongside Cena’s status, his clean-cut character and fan base, as well as his knack for delivering in pressure situations, made him the perfect opponent for Punk. Therefore, the results at Money in the Bank 2011 were nothing short of spectacular, and it’s a fair argument that this remains Cena’s greatest in-ring performance to date.

The atmosphere in the Allstate Arena in Chicago was so electric that the match essentially began during the entrances, and from the moment Cena stepped foot into the arena, he played his part in this iconic PPV match to perfection. Much like One Night Stand ‘06, Cena adapted to the hostile environment, as was evident by his entrance, which saw Cena walk straight to the ring without acknowledging the crowd and, more significantly, without a salute. In the match, Cena allowed Punk to play to his hometown crowd, while he remained the Champion focused on the task at hand. The match itself was an expertly crafted pro wrestling bout that took the already hot Chicago crowd on a ride. It featured a plethora of nearfalls and a dramatic conclusion involving Vince McMahon, which was WWE at their brilliant best. Cena intelligently remained a “good guy” in hostile territory by refusing to cheat, as he clobbered John Laurinaitas before receiving a GTS that led to Punk winning the WWE Championship.

At the end of MITB 2011, wrestling fans had been treated to a 5-star classic, a perfect conclusion to a story, and they were given a new megastar in CM Punk. So, looking back, it’s undeniable that a large thank you has to go to John Cena for playing a brilliant part in this classic match.

John Cena vs. The Rock – WWE Title Match – WrestleMania 29

“Cena beats The Rock at WrestleMania 29. A two year-long feud coming to a head! This match took Cena from the top of his game, to a name you say among the greats. Cena needed the win to prove he can stand among the icons of WWE, and that’s why, to me, it’s so special.” – Beth Alice.

In 2013, many complained about WWE revisiting John Cena vs. The Rock for the main event of WrestleMania 29, primarily due to the fact their first match a year prior had been built as “Once in a lifetime.” However, in order to complete the cycle and truly cement their present-day superstar as a “great,” it was necessary for WWE to book the rematch and let The Rock do the honours for Cena. Although the match was weaker than their first meeting, it did feature a thrilling finale that saw Rock and Cena exchange finishes, including Cena delivering a Rock Bottom. Eventually, Cena hit one more AA and finally got his big win against The Rock. It was a nice finale that saw the pair share a respectful moment to close the Show of Shows, with The Rock endorsing Cena and putting him, as Beth said: “among the greats.” If for no other reason, this match belongs on this list for that.

John Cena vs. Roman Reigns – No Mercy 2017

“John Cena is the superman of the wrestling world. While he’s putting ‘THE GUY’ over, he shows his strength has not deteriorated whatsoever over the years by doing his finishing move the Attitude Adjustment, then rolling over Roman and lifting him off the ground into another Attitude Adjustment, leaving the audience gobsmacked with what they’ve just seen! Love him or hate him, you HAVE to respect John Cena!” – Imran Hussain

Before SummerSlam 2021’s main event, WWE attempted to cement Reigns’ place atop the WWE by pitting him against John Cena at No Mercy 2017. 2017 was the year Cena’s reduced WWE schedule became much more apparent, which is arguably why the results of his program with Reigns were even more impressive. In the build-up, Cena took the wrestling world by storm with a scathing promo on WWE’s new poster child, but it was one that allowed Reigns to show some much-needed aggression and fire. The match was a wonderful clash of two main event stars with brilliantly placed big spots, such as his double AA, and engaging nearfalls. Showing a reduced schedule had no effect on Cena’s ability and commitment. In addition, it was an example of how to put someone “over.” Throughout the main event, Reigns appeared the more dominant one, he kicked out countless times, much to the shock of Cena, and when it was time to lay down for ‘The Big Dogg’, Cena did so without any politics. He lost, clean!

The Champ’s Moments

Backlash 2003 Build-Up

Words by: Nabeel Hussain

Before Backlash 2003, John Cena’s then relatively new heel character, the ‘Doctor of Thugonomics’, was essentially a comedy gimmick and still very much a “jobber.” But newly crowned champion Brock Lesner needed an opponent, and with an incredibly weak heel roster on the SmackDown side, management decided to save the bigger name heels for the bigger PPVs, so it was decided that John Cena would get a one-off main event push against Brock on a filler PPV. Cena brought his A game, and as legendary announcer Jim Ross so often preaches, he maximised his minutes. Making the most of the opportunity, Cena carried the build with his genuinely impressive freestyle raps, taking advantage of the then less PG-friendly programming – his verbal assaults were intense, clever and funny. After Backlash 2003, Cena was no longer considered a comedy act or a jobber but once again a legit main event prospect.

Royal Rumble 2008 Comeback

“One of my favourite moments. I will always go back and re-watch this match over and over just to watch this moment. I still get goosebumps watching the reaction of the crowd, the atmosphere of the arena, and the smile on Cena’s face when he lifts his head up on the entrance. Spectacular.” – Beth Alice.

Beyond being one of the most electric Rumble entrances and one of the genuine shocks in the PPV’s long history, the moment solidified Cena’s place as the premier player in the industry. Had Cena not miraculously returned from a torn pectoral months ahead of schedule, the likelihood of him receiving boos at Madison Square Garden (Royal Rumble 2008’s venue) would have been high. However, his surprise return generated a thunderous pop from the live crowd and an emotional investment that proved, whether fans chose to boo or cheer him, their investment in the then Franchise Player ran deep. For a brief moment, “haters” were fully engrossed, cheering their supposed “least favourite” wrestler. Plus, that iconic shot of Cena lifting his head on the entrance ramp was not too shabby.

John Cena Responds to The Rock – Thugonomics Style:

The Rock’s return to WWE in 2011 was a game changer for multiple reasons, as it brought back an audience that had stopped watching wrestling. More importantly, however, it set up the biggest money match in pro wrestling history: The Rock vs. John Cena. During his return promo, The Rock verbally attacked Cena, like only he can. The table was then set for Cena to offer a retort on RAW, and what many fail to remember was just how significant this retort was in kick-starting the biggest program in WWE (and pro wrestling) history. If Cena failed to jab back at The Rock, he would have immediately been perceived as less than by the large majority of fans. On the other hand, if he succeeded, he would have millions (and millions) of people invested in every word of The Rock and his. Safe to say, he succeeded.

By 2011, Cena had not rapped in almost five years, therefore adding to the buzz of his verbal attack on The Rock. Cena’s best insults often came when rapping, and in 2011, he was once again in a position that required him to be at his trash-talking best. The rap was possibly one of Cena’s best as it was full of hilarious jabs at Rock’s past films, non-PG insults, and some intense, heartfelt statements. The crowd oohed, aahed, and cheered every step of the way, and post-RAW, it was the talk of the town. Even high schools, where wrestling chatter was mostly non-existent at the time (as this writer can attest to), were abuzz with what John Cena said about The Rock and what The Rock was now going to say in response. Thus laying the foundation for the year that would follow, and in many ways, it was all thanks to Cena.

John Cena and Sting Meet Cancer Survivor Kiara Grindrod:

When RAW went off the air on September 14, 2015, John Cena and ‘The Icon’ Sting shared the ring after they were victorious in a tag team match. While the pair sharing a ring was pretty significant, this moment was by no means about that fact. Instead, it was about how Cena, like he has done throughout his entire career, put everything into perspective by sharing the heart-warming news that a 7-year-old, Kiara Grindrod, had won her battle with cancer. Cena’s touching speech led to the live crowd cheering Kiara and her heroics. Then, as Cena and Sting adorably met Kiara and her family, the whole arena chanted: “This is awesome!” It’s as heart-warming a moment as you’ll ever get in professional wrestling, and it’s one I’d suggest people visit whenever they take the fictional storylines too personally for one reason or another. This interaction between Cena, Sting, and Kiara reminds you what’s truly important, as well as the heart possessed by John Cena.

Money in the Bank 2021 Return:

“One of my favourite moments of John Cena has to be his return at Money in the Bank 2021. When his music hit and the audience cheered so loudly they blew the roof off the place, it just defined the saying “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” When Cena returned, those boos he previously received had evaporated because everyone appreciated him just as much!” – Imran Hussain

John Cena’s most recent WWE return came in 2021 when he made a stunning entrance to interrupt Roman Reigns, who was fresh off his title defence against Edge. Fans had heard the rumblings that Cena would return for a summer showdown with The Tribal Chief, but few expected the feud to kick off during the climax of MITB. Reigns was stunned, the fans (including Michael Cole) were sent into a frenzy, and an engaging and blockbuster summer officially kicked off. Cena looked genuinely happy to finally be back in the WWE, and the WWE faithful were equally ecstatic to see him back. During the segment, it felt like a genuinely special moment, and it quickly reminded you how special a superstar like John Cena is, especially in 2022.

John Cena makes his WWE return on RAW on June 27 2022.

All images and videos are courtesy of WWE

By Humza Hussain

Humza Hussain is SteelChair Magazine's Interviews editor. He has been a lifelong professional wrestling fan and has conducted interviews with names such as DDP, Aleister Black, and Bayley. He also writes film news, reviews, and interviews!

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