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Greatest Royal Rumble moments, No. 4: John Cena makes a surprise return at Madison Square Garden

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In  the lead up to this year's Royal Rumble, we'll be counting down the 20 greatest moments in the history of WWE's most famous match. This list was determined by a panel that included Geno Mrosko, Bill Hanstock and me. We tried to keep it diverse, with a mix of comedy, emotion, story, and wrestling.


A simple hip toss to Mr. Kennedy (TNA's Ken Anderson) on a Raw in October 2007 resulted in a torn pectoral muscle for John Cena. Cena was in the midst of a feud with Randy Orton, and not only finished the match, but took part in a post-match beatdown angle with the Viper. Nevertheless, the injury ended his year-long WWE championship reign, and surgery revealed the to be worst case scenario - completely torn from the bone, resulting in an expected recovery time of 7 - 12 months.

Orton got a couple of his twelve World title reigns out of the deal (he lost the belt McMahon gave him to Triple H in the opening match of No Mercy, and won it back in the main event). What Cena got was much more important to his legacy, however.

The pec tear was the first real injury of Cena's WWE career. He'd been written off with a kayfabe one when he filmed The Marine in 2004, but three years later, it looked like maybe WWE had ridden their best horse a little too hard. We'd seen big stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels and Triple H need extended breaks for surgery and rehabilitation. Seemed like John's time was now.

Cena didn't have the track record of miraculously quick recoveries he's associated with today. Even a video with Dr. James Andrews discussing how well his rehab was going and a non-wrestling appearance at Tribute to the Troops didn't lead anyone to believe he'd be back anything more than a few weeks or a month ahead of the most optimistic timeline.

Not only was a return after three-plus months unthinkable, there were no whispers of it being discussed backstage. The internet wrestling community wasn't what it is today, but it's hard to believe there wasn't someone who floated a rumor about a Rumble return just for hits. But there was nothing.

When the opening of his iconic theme hit the speakers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 27, it capped one of the biggest and best surprises in not just Royal Rumble, but WWE history.

Once there, it was little shock the Doctor of Thuganomics would win his first Rumble. Cena ended up face-to-face with his old WrestleMania XXII nemesis Triple H (whose face upon hearing "The Time is Now" is almost as iconic as John's smug grin) as the final two. Setting a record for shortest time in the match by a winner, he sent The Game over the top with his fireman's carry takeover, still called a F-U at the time.

If you're having a hard time imagining LOLCENAWINS being something to cheer, it's because you've grown accustom to the kind of booking he received after the 2008 Royal Rumble. Some of the noise for his return was boos, but fans were happy to jeer him. Hunter as main eventer was a constant theme of the post-Attitude Era, and until John's shocking return, a win here seemed like a foregone conclusion for the Cerebral Assassin.

Cena winning in MSG was like if Roman Reigns had defeated Batista in 2014. He wasn't the fans' first choice, but he was better than the alternative. After this victory, he'd continue to make history in completely Cena-like ways, foregoing his Mania main event for a quicker shot at Orton, and still ending up in WM24's WWE title match as part of the threeway with Trips and Randy. Another injury followed, and he switched to the World Heavyweight title scene for several years after that comeback.


The '08 Rumble match is almost universally praised, and often mentioned among the top editions in history, somewhere in a pack behind Ric Flair's 1992 epic.

There are plenty of reasons why this one is great, but it's impossible to make a case for it without discussing the surprise everyone watching it live experienced when John Cena showed up to claim the last spot, and his place in WWE history.

Find previous greatest Royal Rumble moments here.

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