When looking back to the 2015 Slammy Awards one of the categories that stood out most to me was that of Rivalry of the Year. The nominees were interesting to say the least:
Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar won and deservedly so. It was a tremendous rivalry between two larger than life characters that was capped off by two excellent matches. Roman Reigns vs. Bray Wyatt wasn’t an artistic masterpiece, but it was a lengthy program with some good PPV matches thrown into the mix. Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins was a weak pick, but they had a great WrestleMania match that featured what was perhaps the most memorable RKO spot in history.
The two remaining choices—Team Bella vs. Team BAD vs. PCB and John Cena vs. Rusev—were so weak that I almost thought they were selected as some kind of an inside joke.
Team Bella vs. Team BAD vs. PCB was basically the entire Divas Revolution in a nutshell. There was enough written about this atrocity in 2015 so the less said the better
Cena vs. Rusev really got me to thinking though. If the purpose of a rivalry is to produce great matches, leave lasting memories and elevate both guys, then Cena vs. Rusev was a failure on every level.
By the time their rivalry concluded Cena had dominated Rusev with a 3-1 record in their PPV matches. Rusev began 2015 as the undefeated “Hero of the Russian Federation” and finished as a member of the horrible League of Nations faction. Quite the downward trajectory.
Today I’m going to take a look at some of Cena’s major rivalries with WWE’s emerging talent over the years to explore why so many of their careers were never the same after facing him.
Wade Barrett arrived on the scene in 2010 during the inaugural season of NXT, back when it was more of a reality show instead of the developmental territory it is today. He was a good talker who showed tremendous heel potential. Not only did Barrett end up as that season’s winner, but he established himself as a potential top star when he made his main roster debut alongside Nexus in one of the more memorable angles in Raw history.
The Team Nexus vs. Team WWE rivalry dominated the summer of 2010, climaxing with a 10-man tag team elimination match at SummerSlam. Cena cleanly pinned Barrett to win the deciding fall in a decision that was widely criticized at the time. Cena was already established star who had nothing to gain from the win. Barrett was on the rise and a win over Cena would’ve given him instant credibility.
It wasn’t long before Barrett and the rest of Nexus began losing steam. Barrett was constantly booked to look inferior to Cena at every turn, even during a storyline where Cena joined Nexus and was then fired. Cena later defeated Barrett in a match where Nexus was forced to disband per the pre-match stipulation.
Following the split Barrett would go on to lead the Corre, which was essentially a group of former Nexus members that vanished shortly thereafter.
Although Barrett has gone on to become a multiple-time Intercontinental Champion and the 2015 King of the Ring winner, he has never come close to reclaiming the momentum he had during his run as the leader of Nexus.
Dolph Ziggler had been a consistently good performer for some time, but he really caught steam in 2012 after winning the coveted Money in the Bank briefcase, thus earning himself a future world championship shot.
But before that moment arrived he had a brief detour courtesy of Cena. Ziggler lost to Cena on the November 26, 2012 episode of Raw which built to a rematch where Ziggler put his MITB briefcase on the line at the December TLC PPV. Ziggler beat Cena in that match due to outside interference from AJ Lee.
It really looked like Ziggler’s career was on the upswing. Not only was he destined to become a future champion, but he had just beaten the company’s biggest star in a PPV main event.
The momentum didn’t last long as he opened 2013 by losing to Cena on both the January 7 and 14 episodes of Raw. The latter encounter was a cage match where he overcame interference from both AJ Lee and Big E. Langston.
While Ziggler would go on to win the championship, his run on top was cut short after suffering a severe concussion. While Ziggler’s concussion was likely the main cause of his fall from main event stardom, it did him no favors to repeatedly lose to Cena at a time when he had so much momentum.
Despite Ziggler continuing to have several good matches and always being over with the fans no matter how badly he’s booked, the company seems determined to not push him past a certain level.
Bray Wyatt was one of the most compelling new characters to come along in years when he debuted on the main roster alongside Luke Harper and Erick Rowan in 2013. By early 2014, the Wyatt Family was involved in a hot program against the Shield which resulted in a spectacular six-man tag at that year’s Elimination Chamber show. Shortly after, Wyatt found himself feuding against John Cena heading into WrestleMania 30.
Cena won a good, but otherwise forgettable WrestleMania match. Wyatt beat Cena at Extreme Rules in a match that was considered as one of the worst of 2014. In case you forgot, this was a cage match where Cena successfully fought off interference from both Harper and Rowan thus making the entire Wyatt Family look like complete jobbers. He only lost after being distracted by a young boy who used some type of voice modulator to make himself sound super creepy. In fact, the Cena vs. Wyatt rivalry featured some truly wacky moments involving children.
Cena rebounded from the loss by beating Wyatt in a great last man standing match to effectively close the book on their rivalry. While Wyatt has gone on to be involved in some significant rivalries since then he still feels more like an upper midcard act rather than a true superstar attraction.
Owens exploded onto the main roster last summer during a period where he was also the NXT Heavyweight Champion. He was pulling serious double duty by feuding with the likes of Finn Balor and Samoa Joe in NXT while tearing it up with Cena on Raw.
Owens stunned everyone by cleanly pinning Cena at Elimination Chamber in one of the year’s best matches. The guy who many said would never be signed to a WWE contract had just beaten the company’s top star clean in the center of the ring.
Despite their Money in the Bank rematch being severely rushed, occurring only two weeks after Elimination Chamber, the two put on another strong outing which Cena won. However, Owens attacked Cena afterwards thus keeping his momentum strong. Their rubber match at Battleground was the perfect opportunity to catapult Owens into the upper echelon. Instead of doing what was best for the health of the company’s future, Owens lost via tapout in another excellent match. It was the ultimate kiss of death and a sign that the company never had any true intentions of elevating Owens past a certain level.
There was no post-match angle or any follow up on Raw. Cena simply beat Owens and moved onto his next challenge.
Let me start by saying that there is no way possible you could consider Seth Rollins’ WWE career a failure. He held the World Heavyweight Championship for most of 2015 and was even voted Superstar of the Year.
But even Rollins wasn’t immune from running into the brick wall known as Cena.
Cena won three of the four major matches they had last year on television and PPV. The only time Rollins beat Cena was due to outside interference from former Daily Show host Jon Stewart.
Throughout the duration of their rivalry Cena’s U.S. Championship was made to look more important than Rollins’ World Heavyweight Championship, which should’ve never been the case.
What Does All of This Mean?
While my goal in writing this isn’t to draw any kind of conclusive study on the effect that Cena had on each man’s career, it is worth noting that none of the wrestlers I profiled ever beat Cena more than once during their respective rivalries, while Cena beat each of them on multiple occasions.
Without question the most puzzling aspect of Cena’s rivalries is that the company seems legitimately afraid to have Cena lose cleanly to any star on the rise. Owens was an exception to the rule, but Cena got his win back a mere two weeks later which was just too soon.
Cena would likely get over as a more believable, sympathetic babyface if they allowed him to show true weakness in defeat. Cena loses so rarely that he doesn’t come off as being human. Whenever he does lose he gets his win back so quickly that it kills his opponents’ momentum.
I respect Cena for all of his accomplishments inside and outside of the ring, but I must call him to task for his inability to help create new stars. While every decision in WWE ultimately goes through Vince McMahon for approval I believe that Cena has enough political leverage to possibly tweak the outcome of his programs if he really wanted to.
While Cena is technically the biggest star in WWE, it’s clear that the company is building around Roman Reigns. With Cena nearing 40 and clearly showing the wear and tear of years on top, now would be the perfect time for the company to utilize his somewhat diminished profile as an opportunity to elevate some of its young talent. Cena shouldn’t be a jobber, but he can afford a few losses every now and then since Reigns is the one who will be carrying things going forward.
Cena is currently out recovering from a shoulder injury and is expected to miss anywhere from 4-6 months of action. He could regain the U.S. Championship immediately upon his return. However, it would be more beneficial for him to return and lose, preferably to someone on the rise, and then be built up for a future championship shot.
If Cena comes back and dominates as usual then it will only serve as further proof that he isn’t too concerned about building the future of the company he’s been the face of for the last decade.