John Cena has been the face of the WWE since the mid-2000s, but his matches at WrestleMania have not always been the most important ones on the show. (Photo by Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images)
With the gigantic John Cena vs. The Rock WrestleMania 28 match coming up Sunday (April 1, 2012), it's as good of time as any to take a look back at their prior matches on the grandest stage of them all.
We've already examined The Rock's history at Mania; today is a review of John Cena's WrestleMania matches.
Cena's seemingly done it all at WrestleMania, from pre-show to curtain jerker to main event: He won his first singles title and his first WWE title; topped both members of D-Generation X; battled each of his top contemporaries; and lost to a former member of the "The Real World."
Let's take a trip down Memory Lane.
WrestleMania 19: John Cena vs. "Jay-Z" and "Fabolous"
John Cena begins his illustrious WrestleMania career during the pre-show in a battle rap with rappers Jay-Z (in an Austin Powers outfit) and Fabolous (in a Mini-Me outfit).
Perhaps some explanation is needed as to why this rapping was necessary: After a hot debut match almost beating Kurt Angle in June 2002, Cena quickly foundered as a generic, vanilla good guy (much like his WrestleMania 28 opponent).
He first showed some life in a Halloween episode of Smackdown, doing a Vanilla Ice impersonation that changed the course of his career (only in wrestling, or perhaps in the impersonation business, could a sentence like this be uttered).
So he rapidly went from tight bicycle shorts to baggy throwbacks and would rock some ill rhymes aimed at his opponents. Actually, he was kind of like Leaping Lanny Poffo (only more nefarious, so perhaps like the Genius, though less effeminate).
It's easy to forget that he spent that first year as a rapper as a heel, mostly because he didn't do anything too dastardly, I guess. And people pretty much liked him anyway, because who doesn't like someone who can cleverly rhyme "safari" and "Atari".
So that's why he's rapping here. Apparently the idea was he'd freestyle against these two men, but neither of them showed up. I don't even know who Fabolous is, but then again I'm not familiar with any musical artists after 1997.
As far as this battle rap goes, I actually found the awkward banter between Jonathan Coachman and Lita more amusing than anything contained therein. I did chuckle at Cena's references to "Get the F out" and calling Fabolous a bad idea "like the XFL." I also sort of enjoyed Cena's garish white WrestleMania 19 hoodie and sweatpants. But I can't recommend it, even though I'm posting the video below.
WrestleMania 20: Big Show vs. John Cena for the U.S. title
The first thing that strikes me about this is Cena's introductory rap while donning a Patrick Ewing throwback jersey (is it weird that a guy so identified with Boston wears jerseys from their close rivals?): It's kind of easy to imagine how Cena could have settled into the role of a catchphrase-laden crowd pleaser.
Seriously, imagine Cena as 1998 Konnan. Or 1999 Road Dogg. Or 2000 Scotty 2 Hotty. Or even 2012 Santino Marella. Because at this point in Cena's career, that's basically who he was (granted, he clearly had upside that none of the aforementioned ever showed; and he'd had a main event or two already when he was a heel).
This is very basic, but it's a solid enough match pitting big man against not-as-big man that plays to each of their strengths. Cena bumps big for Show's power moves, and there's a nice twist in the end: Show kicks out on the first FU, Cena uses some trickery and hits Show with knucks behind the ref's to win the title (and it's a nice call-forward to Big Show's match with Floyd Mayweather four years later).
Now, maybe some might complain about a good guy using such chicanery to unfairly win his first title, but the way Cena pulled it off made him seem like a mischievous prankster instead of a total jerk. Like wrestling's Eddie Haskell.
Also, I want to commend Big Show for paying tribute to longtime Milwaukee Brewer Gorman Thomas with his walrus mustache. Bonus points.
WrestleMania 21: John "Bradshaw" Layfield vs. John Cena for the WWE title
All the elements of a classic story were here: Bradshaw had turned from bar-fighter into a boorish millionaire and managed to grasp onto a championship he didn't deserve in 2004. Cena lacked polish but was the tough, blue-collar worker who started at the bottom and almost had risen to the top. For whatever each man lacked in the ring, they seemed like perfect foils just with their strong personalities and contrasting characters..
WWE had handled Cena's rise over the past two years almost perfectly. After he turned back into a good guy, WWE didn't rush him to the top despite his popularity in 2003 and 2004. He had a strong run with the U.S. title, including a series against Booker T, until losing it to newcomer Carlito.
JBL, meanwhile, kept a hold of the WWE title by hook or by crook, earning the longest WWE title reign in more than a decade and garnering a ton of heat while he was at it. When Cena got to him, it seemed like fans should have been frothing at the mouth for someone to finally dethrone him.
But this fell flat. Maybe Cena's chase was overshadowed by the much-hotter story of Batista battling his former Evolution mate Triple H. Or maybe the match itself just didn't play to their strengths: Imagine an intense Cena triumphing over the brash but truly cowardly Bradshaw, like a modern-day Warrior beating Honky Tonk Man. Or maybe it was this:
Whatever it was, there was no build to a climactic finish giving the fans their catharsis. No moment of comeuppance. No transcendent moment of celebration for Cena. They just had a lackluster wrestling match.
Though they'd follow with a bloody classic I Quit match at Judgment Day in May that served as a better launching pad for Cena-mania, it's a shame their WrestleMania match lacked the same oomph.
WrestleMania 22: John Cena vs. Triple H for the WWE title
The phenomenon of John Cena getting a very loud and very split reaction (women and kids: "Yay." 18-34 men: "Boo.") really took off late in 2005 when Cena was in the midst of a feud with Kurt Angle, then the darling of fans enthusiastic for technical wrestling. This played somewhat to the attitude of certain fans who felt Cena was a phony who couldn't wrestle.
This was further emphasized in the WrestleMania story: Cena, who had been champion since vanquishing JBL (save for a quick reign when Edge cashed in the first Money in the Bank), was presented as the underdog who lacked the wrestling acumen of Triple H.
An aside: How strange was it for smart fans to gravitate toward notorious backstage politicker and holder-down of budding young stars Triple H, the longtime dominant villain who apparently now represented old-school grappling (because, I don't know, he does a knee lift?).
This set up a Chicago atmosphere in which Cena was heavily booed and Triple H was cheered (after the fans overcame the silliness of Cena coming out as a Chicago gangster and Triple H coming out as a barbarian king). Much of the crowd seemed to expect a Triple H win as an inevitability that they welcomed.
So when Cena locked in the STF and forced Triple H to submit to conclude an entertaining match, many in the crowd were visibly stunned and shocked. A few threw their hands in the air in disgust. It was a wonderful curveball by WWE, and I'd argue this is the moment in which it became clear that the split reaction that accompanied Cena could be used to WWE's advantage.
WrestleMania 23: John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels for the WWE title
A WrestleMania 22 rematch was widely expected, but Triple H suffered a knee injury in January that shelved him until the summer. So his D-Generation X running buddy, Shawn Michaels, stepped in to provide the necessary crotch chops in Detroit.
This story played off the inevitability that Shawn Michaels was going to turn on John Cena, because, well, he's Shawn Michaels.
And at first he didn't.
And then he didn't again.
And he still didn't again.
Until he did.
Meanwhile, Cena was in the midst of a run in which held the WWE title for 24 out of 28 months. He was also having a series of pretty great matches, particularly with Edge and Umaga, and that would continue into 2007, even against lesser performers like the Great Khali and Bobby Lashley.
This match doesn't quite get its due as one of the classic main events in WrestleMania history, but I'd argue it deserves that status. It's full of drama and intensity. I don't think I've ever seen Michaels quite as vicious as he is here. If John Cena doesn't randomly forget about his leg injury midway through the match, this might be my favorite Mania main event of all time.
Random: Is it weird that Cena has had five years in between closing the show at WrestleMania?
WrestleMania 24: Randy Orton vs. John Cena vs. Triple H for the WWE title
This was an oddly flat match. Perhaps that was in part because we'd already seen various one-on-one combinations of these three (and would see many, many more) or perhaps it was, quite surprisingly, in the middle of the show. Or perhaps because it just wasn't that great, despite Jim Ross' best efforts to try to convince us it was. Or perhaps it was the lack of compelling story (note how the hype video lacks a narrative and just focuses on it being a match between three top stars at the time, two of whom overcame injuries). This certainly fell far behind Michaels vs. Flair, Mayweather vs. Show and even Undertaker vs. Edge in terms of what was memorable on the show.
The other oddity was after John Cena's awesome return from injury (he'd been stripped of the title because of it) with a huge surprise at the Royal Rumble, was him using his cash-in in February instead of Mania for no discernible reason other than plot convenience to allow Triple H in the match as well.
Cena suffered his first WrestleMania loss here, and it couldn't have come more anti-climatically: Triple H hits Cena with a pedigree and -- before the ref can count 3 -- Orton punts Triple H out of nowhere. Hunter rolls to the side, and Orton steals the pin on Cena to retain.
Here's a question to ponder more deeply at another time: Between Cena's win over Triple H at 'Mania 22 and the end of Triple H's full-time career (April 2010), how often was what Triple H was doing presented as more important than what Cena was doing (when both were active, obviously) despite Cena being the marquee attraction?
But for those keeping track, this was the third WrestleMania with no new faces in the WWE title picture. Also, this began a streak that has reached four WrestleManias of the Royal Rumble winner failing to win the belt.
WrestleMania 25: Edge vs. John Cena vs. Big Show for the World title
This was an odd rehash of two of Cena's major past rivalries, which was kind of his theme from 2008-09 (a long series with JBL again, losing to Triple H and conquering Chris Jericho; only a Summerslam match with Batista would cover new ground).
Edge had managed to both lose and win titles on the same night in Elimination Chamber matches, ending up with the World title. He and Big Show were fighting for Vickie's affections at this point. Jim Ross, in one of my favorite descriptions of anything ever, refers to Big Show as "a biscuit or two shy of 500 pounds."
The match, while nothing special, is at least more lively than the prior three-way, and includes a memorable Attitude Adjustment from Cena with both Big Show and Edge on his shoulders, thus proving that John Cena is indeed a very strong man. And we have Vickie Guerrero (general manager of both Raw and Smackdown) and noted Cena critic Chavo Guerrero at ringside as well, which is always good for entertainment.
We also get the best John Cena WrestleMania entrance ever.
Also, let the record show: this match followed the first Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker classic and the fans were completely into it. It is possible to do that.
WrestleMania 26: John Cena vs. Batista for the WWE title
Now here's a story, as well as a fresh feud: Batista and John Cena had roughly parallel WWE careers: Both came into WWE around the same time and won their first world titles at WrestleMania 25. But in the fateful draft of 2005, they would trade shows. Cena became WWE's golden boy on Raw and Batista became an afterthought on Smackdown, eventually becoming the WWE's black sheep.
Watch Batista explain the whole story here, in one of the great WWE promos of the past few years. What a brilliant character he became as a villain, maybe even playing off some real animosity toward Cena.
A bit of sloppiness aside, this match is terrific, too. Batista might not have been the workhorse, but he'd have weird chemistry with the right opponent and could create some classics (he had the same vibe with Undertaker). The finish is outstanding, too, with Batista meekly tapping out, the bravado stripped from him (at least until the next night).
WrestleMania 27: The Miz vs. John Cena for the WWE title
But someone else came around to hog the spotlight: The Rock returned to WWE after nearly seven years away and immediately stirred things up by badmouthing both Miz and Cena. This led to lots of back and forth between Rock and Cena (and Miz)
This match had some problems: the crowd didn't seem particularly interested in most of it until The Rock appeared late after a double countout (a finish that fell flat for obvious reasons). Cena seemed lackluster through much of it, whether he had his bell rung or whether he was just selling.
In any case, with Rock interfering to cost Cena the match, the whole thing was all basically a setup for the next night's Raw, in which Cena and Rock for WrestleMania 28 was made official. That made the previous night's match seem a bit pointless, which is not a feeling one should get at a WrestleMania main event.
Luckily, we did get this awesome Miz introduction video. But otherwise, blah.
Hope all you Cagesiders enjoyed this look back at history. Who has the better WrestleMania track record: The Rock or John Cena? Please let us know what you think in the comments.