(THE ONE WHERE CENA TOOK TWO YEARS TO DO WHAT BENOIT DID IN ONLY TWO MONTHS)
The year was 2007 and Triple H just tore his quad.
At the New Years Revolution pay-per-view (PPV), Triple H hit a routine spinebuster, tore his right quad, and went on injury reserve until SummerSlam.
According to reports, the planned main event for WrestleMania 23 was to be John Cena vs. Triple H in a rematch from the year prior. Their first encounter will show up a little later on this countdown but suffice it to say, it was a memorable main event and a sequel would not have been scoffed at had it happened.
/Insert WrestleMania 29 joke here/
With Triple H out, John Cena, who, apart from brief runs by Edge and RVD, had maintained a lock on the WWE Championship since 2005, needed a dance partner on his biggest stage to date.
He won the title in Los Angeles at WrestleMania 21 in front of 20,000 supporters. He retained in Chicago at WrestleMania 22 surrounded by about 17,000 people (a little over half of whom were cheering for the other guy). This WrestleMania, the 23rd edition, would be the showcase of this next generation of pro wrestlers. This WrestleMania would be the biggest since X-Seven. This WrestleMania would take place amongst 80,000 faithful followers of Vince's wrestling empire.
This WrestleMania deserved a big main event.
Triple H vs. John Cena was probably the biggest you could ask for, even if it was a sequel. Who would replace a seemingly irreplaceable workhorse and superstar like Triple H? Who better than Mr. WrestleMania himself?
Shawn Michaels' road to WrestleMania 23 began at the Royal Rumble. The big match was one of the rare ones where there wasn't an obvious winner on everyone's mind. Last year, everyone figured Cena would take it. Before that, everyone was expecting Chris Jericho to win (and he should have!). In 2009, Randy Orton was in the main story and that Rumble was his Rumble. Same with Rey Mysterio in 2006.
Every now and then there'll be a Rumble where the winner is pretty well viewed as a surprise. Usually that's because someone returns from an injury (Cena in 2008, Edge in 2010). Here, however, there was no returning main-eventer this time. No, this time it was a final four featuring well-established superstars (Orton, Edge, Michaels and Undertaker).
The final two were Undertaker and Michaels and after a marvelous mini-match (and tease of future greatness), Michaels was eliminated and "The Deadman" won his first Royal Rumble.
Undeterred, Michaels beat Edge and Orton and won the right to face Cena at WrestleMania. Michaels had been a big babyface (apart from his short feud with Hogan) basically from the time he returned in 2002. The feud with Cena would not have the classic good vs. evil spark that creates the best WrestleMania feuds, but instead of trying to force it, the story embraced the "face vs. face" concept and played around with it.
The feud worked around the idea that Michaels, in whatever era you put him in, always ends up stabbing his partner/friend/running buddy in the back. At some point, like the scorpion and the fox, it's just his nature; he's going to strike.
Instead of kicking off the feud with a superkick, the two opponents teamed up, winning the tag titles the day after the Rumble and even defeating the team of Undertaker and Batista at No Way Out in February.
Things were going swimmingly for the duo, with each having the other's back Raw after Raw. Throughout the build up Cena sold his suspicion amidst Michaels' insistence that he was a changed man and not the backstabber he once was. For the length of the "feud", Cena and Michaels stood tall, side by side.
And then good old "HBK" kicked Cena's face off on the go home episode of Raw.
I remember in the run up to this WrestleMania that a lot of people wondered if this match would go on last. At the time, Batista was 1B to Cena's 1A. The former had closed out WrestleMania 21 and the latter had stood tall at the end of WrestleMania 22. With Undertaker being the Royal Rumble winner there was a lot of talk and assumption that Batista vs. Undertaker would close the show. Instead, they went on in the undercard and arguably stole the show, saving Michaels vs. Cena to end the night.
The match itself was very good, with a few little quirks here and there dragging it down a bit. Cena very infamously no-sold a lot of Michaels offense (or, better put: he didn't sell it as well as some ring technicians would). Also the finish of the match featured Michaels in the center of the ring tapping out to the STF(U), which, I get it -- it's a true finisher -- but its just so butt fugly in its application that it almost takes you out of the match at the worst possible time.
Still, it says something that Cena tapped out Triple H and Shawn Michaels in consecutive WrestleManias. If you weren't a regular watcher back then, it may be hard to appreciate, but THAT was the moment that moved Cena from "co-top guy" with Batista to "the top guy, period."
A lot of people back then were talking about Cena as the franchise player for the next decade, but even then there were people saying "this whole ‘half the people hate him' shtick will hold him back." After WrestleMania 23 it became clear that the WWE brass was all-in with Cena as the next Hulk Hogan. The champ would continue his reign, undefeated (in title matches) for over a year (September 2006-October 2007) before being forced to vacate the belt due to injury.
And to think, he was probably going to lose to Triple H.
Sound off, Cagesiders. What's your take on this main event? Should it be higher on the countdown? I personally thought they had better matches together, and of course the "face vs. face" feud, while very good, couldn't compare to many of the classic "good guy rising up to conquer bad guy" feuds that WrestleMania has had over the years. I think #12 is a good spot for it.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Tomorrow's main event wasn't a "good vs. evil" showcase either, but it was a much more epic encounter...for those with good enough seats to see it.
See you then!
- Ranking Mania main events #13: Undertaker vs. Edge
- Ranking Mania main events #14: Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels
- Ranking Mania main events #15: Batista vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #16: Mick Foley vs. The Rock vs. Triple H vs. Big Show
- Ranking Mania main events #17: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna II
- Ranking Mania main events #18: John Cena vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #19: Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
- Ranking Mania main events #20: Hogan & Mr. T vs. Piper & Orndorff
- Ranking Mania main events #21: Triple H vs. Chris Jericho
- Ranking Mania main events #22: Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
- Ranking Mania main events #23: Triple H vs. Randy Orton
- Ranking Mania main events #24: Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
- Ranking Mania main events #25: John Cena vs. The Miz
- Ranking Mania main events #26: Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid
- Ranking Mania main events #27: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
- Ranking Mania main events #28: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna
- Ranking Mania main events #29: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow