This was the face.
This was the one that ran the place.
Now he doesn’t.
And in this moment, he knew he was not going to any longer.
Wrestling, or at least WWE’s(as I will admit to being committed to this one brand of wrestling; I simply cannot jump ship to any other promotions after having loved this one for so long) version of it, is all about moments. Key instances that remain in your brain for all of eternity. Some of my personal favorites that you(likely) don’t remember are The Miz’s Money in the Bank cash-in, the entire Edge and Chris Jericho tandem/rivalry in ’09-10, and John Morrison’s Intercontinental Championship win over Rey Mysterio in September ’09. That last one was the match that, to an at-the-time nine year old, hooked me for life on this frustrating, yet lovable product.
You’re probably raising your eyebrows, shaking your head, or trying to dimly recall any of these instances. And that’s okay. Every wrestling fan has their own moments that they remember more fondly than others*.
But so rarely do we really have a ubiquitous moment that resounds throughout the ENTIRE fanbase. Any consumer of the WWE product cannot ignore this match and its ramifications, whether you’re a Cena fan, a Styles fan, or just don’t even like either of them. Even a casual Raw viewer knows how significant this match is to the SmackDown brand without ever watching an iota of content from the blue brand. I would go as far as to argue that the last match with this kind of consequence was Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena at SummerSlam 2014.
That said, they’re entirely two different beasts. That much is clear. John Cena’s willpower, his determination, were tested in each, to be sure.
But there is a difference between full out domination and simply being bested.
In a way, John Cena the character would much prefer the former. John Cena never gives up. We know that, right? So being crushed MOTIVATES him. It’s why, within kayfabe boundaries, he’s able to bounce back from a loss in a series to usually dominate the remainder of it(see: Bray Wyatt, Rusev, and Kevin Owens).
But this time around, John Cena was not dominated. He was defeated.
The entire Cena/Styles rivalry makes so much sense now, and it’s one of my favorites of all time because of the progression of the story. Let’s take a gander, shall we?
The initial John Cena vs. AJ Styles match was much more in AJ’s court than Cena. In fact, the announcers even acknowledged that AJ was wrestling CIRCLES around Cena, to the point where the Face That Ran the Place simply couldn’t keep up for the bulk of it. Sure, perhaps he had the visual pin after an Attitude Adjustment when the ref was KO’d. But as JBL so eloquently put it, "Maybe AJ knows the referee was knocked out. He’s conserving energy."
Up until their one-on-one rematch, there was no reason to believe that was true. It, at the time, sounded like an excuse from the heel commentator.
But at SummerSlam, Styles’ resiliency shone through. There was no miracle popup that was going to put this man away. He took John Cena, at his best, and endured his heaviest weapon in the Super Attitude Adjustment. To my knowledge(keep in mind I’ve only been watching since ’09), only Kevin Owens has ever kicked out of said move, and when he did so he was too spent to muster up the strength to do anything else but feebly tap out to the STF.
But AJ did it, and John Cena responded with the expression you see at the beginning of this fanpost. He even, if you looked carefully enough, mouthed a four letter word we’re not used to John Cena saying. His mien was one of shock. Disbelief.
And maybe even… acceptance?
This is the biggest part of it all to me, the final piece to this masterfully constructed puzzle. John Cena had been preaching since 2014 that "the future must go through him" and that one day, someone was going to come along and truly best him. That mantra was only highlighted through the United States Championship Open Challenge he held most weeks during his title reigns. Although Alberto Del Rio won that challenge(and did so cleanly), he did not truly emerge as Cena’s better. John visually had the title won back on the last Raw of ’15 and even beat him on the SummerSlam go home show.
This was different. Much different. This wasn’t about stakes, or pride. AJ Styles believed that he was the future of WWE, and he DID defeat Cena at Money in the Bank. He called Cena a liar and a hypocrite for not acknowledging that AJ was his better, for trying to write off his defeat at the hands of Gallows and Anderson’s timely interference. Although, yes, John Cena did get a return pin on Styles, it came after a grueling six-man tag team match that even saw Styles fighting until the very end(if you notice, on that Super AA Styles was still hitting Cena even on the dive down).
But the draft eliminated their respective backups. All that was left now was the true core of the rivalry - John Cena and AJ Styles.
Styles still knew in his head he was superior. And why wouldn’t he be? He controlled the match at MitB and only lost to Cena in a multi-man encounter.
The problem was not defeating the Franchise, it was breaking the Franchise. Anyone can beat John Cena once; that’s been proven. AJ had to end the Franchise. He went for Cena where it hurt - he challenged his love for WWE and baited him into a rematch to ensure that he could prove it again, to prove that he could definitively defeat John Cena.
And he walked right into SummerSlam and proved that Cena’s prophecy was realized. AJ Styles endured everything Cena could hurl at him and responded with even more.
Just like that, AJ Styles had become the Franchise. AJ Styles became the Face That Runs the Place.
And there was nothing John Cena could do to stop it. He never stood a chance.
He rose back up to his feet after AJ had departed, soaking in both a few tears and a well-deserved ovation for not only the near-flawless match, but the story told within the ring. John Cena left all he was in the ring, and true to what he stands for, he never gave up.
There was little else to do. John Cena kissed his armband once, reminding himself of the journey his pursuit of finding "the future of WWE" had taken him on.
And with one final salute to the crowd, John Cena was gone.
We don’t know what this means as fans. Yes, the "smarter" fans know he’s off to do more media appearances and the like. But we don’t know what this means for the character. When(or if) John Cena returns, what’s next for him? Does he acknowledge that, while he loves the WWE, it’s time to hang up the boots for good? Does he try and prove himself one last time against AJ Styles? Does he finally let the doubt in his mind consume him and let himself fall into villainy?
I don’t know what’s next for John Cena’s character for the first time EVER.
And it’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced in my wrestling fandom.
Thank you, AJ Styles. Thank you, John Cena. You gave me my personal Match of the Year thus far and a moment I will remember for decades to come.
*(If you have one that is lesser known, feel free to share it in the comments section.)
Hopefully you enjoyed my first foray into this site(this is literally the first thing I’ve done on Cageside), and here’s hoping that I get to know all of you better!
DeltaRott is an avid wrestling, Dragon Ball, and Nintendo fan. Although only seventeen years old, he has been creatively writing for five years and exercising snark for double that. He is an aspiring YouTuber under this particular handle, and although his channel has not been formally launched yet due to wanting to familiarize himself with his new equipment, you can follow him at @deltarottyt for wrestling snark, keys to motivation, and sometimes silly and irrelevant meming.