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Over a two-decade WWE career, John Cena has proven he’s an athletic force as well as a consummate entertainer — and that applies equally both in and out of the ring. Whether it’s in jorts while sorting out a WWE opponent, or settling scores with idiots and aliens in "Peacemaker," Cena’s got a showman’s gift for racking up style points while snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
As his 16 world-title track record suggests, Cena can lay claim to some of pro wrestling’s most thrilling wins, whether it’s from his early days as the Doctor of Thuganomics or his present-day mainstream status as the reigning face of the WWE. From The Rock to Brock Lesnar, from Shawn Michaels to The Miz, Cena’s pretty much fought ‘em all — and more times than not, he’s emerged as the last Superstar standing. Right on cue for Cena’s celebrated return to Monday Night Raw for a 20th-anniversary bask in the WWE spotlight, there’s no way more apt to mark the occasion than to reflect on some of the biggest victories of his storied career.
5. His First-Ever Championship In 2005
Call us sentimental, but how could we look past the match that handed Cena his very first title? Already a big name well before taking the WWE championship from John Bradshaw Layfield at WrestleMania 21, Cena found himself in prime position to seize the spotlight from late-career Superstars (ahem, The Rock) who’d gone Hollywood.
The legacy Cena’s 2005 takedown of JBL left behind is memorable for the history it made as much as for the action in the ring: Three years after answering Kurt Angle’s summons for a new face who possessed “ruthless aggression,” here was Cena, dues fully paid and poised to show he was truly ready for his main event moment. As the record books show, he made the most of it, serving up a definitive statement that a new Superstar was in charge at the WWE.
4. Tying Ric Flair’s 16-Title Record
At the other end of Cena’s career spectrum stands this, his awesomely athletic 2017 Royal Rumble outing against AJ Styles to tie Ric Flair as the only WWE Superstar to lay claim to 16 overall championships. Unlike Cena’s very first title match, though, number 16 felt special even while it was happening: Both pros were at the top of their game amid a storyline that found Cena challenging Styles for the championship in a rematch of the duo’s 2016 SummerSlam face-off, which Styles — who was undefeated in one-on-one competition at that point — had won.
The high stakes were on full display in the ring, where Styles kept the crowd on his side with one Phenomenal Forearm after another, while Cena stayed aggressive and matched him step for step in a bout that saw each Superstar pull off thrilling last-minute duck-outs from the other’s would-be finishing-moves. In the end, Cena proved he’d brought stamina to burn, landing two consecutive Attitude Adjustments to finally put down one of the worthiest WWE contenders he’d ever faced.
3. Beating Batista At WrestleMania 26
In hindsight, let’s just call this the Marvel-versus-DC match. Two future comic book movie stars traded super-heroic blows in this 2010 WrestleMania bout; one that pitted Cena — a decade before his "Peacemaker" breakout — against Guardian of the Galaxy-in-waiting Dave Bautista (aka Batista). No CGI effects were necessary, though, in a grueling face-off that took a heavy toll on both Superstars. This wasn’t the most flashy face-off these two would have during their running WWE feud — but it was definitely their most raw, no-frills fight.
Batista got off to a punishing start, almost icing things midway through with a Batista Bomb that Cena narrowly escaped on a two-count. More pain followed, with Batista doling out tons of punishment and looking all but destined to make good on his much-hyped pledge that Cena simply couldn’t beat him. But Cena, visibly weary from an epic struggle that put the talents of two primo athletes to the complete test, wised up at the end: He rolled through what looked like a match-ending Batista Bomb and straight into an STF, locking a stunned future-Drax into final submission.
2. Surviving Shawn Michaels At WrestleMania 23
If we could only show Cena newbies one single match to explain him at his pro wrestling best, this would probably be it. In a veteran-versus upstart newcomer feud, “Mr. WrestleMania” Shawn Michaels tested Cena at WrestleMania 23 in ways that most Cena fans, back in 2007, hadn’t yet seen.
Michaels had a knack for bringing out the best in his opponents, and it definitely applied here: His deep bag of power moves forced Cena into a drawn-out slugfest; one punctuated by lighting-fast momentum swings that kept the crowd on their feet ’til the very end. Truth be told, these guys were pretty evenly matched — so much so that Michaels and Cena fought to a near-standstill, leaning on each other to stay upright until one could tap some last reserve of power to finally notch the victory. That honor would go to Cena, who overcame an injured knee (and a textbook Superstar performance from Michaels) to force one of the most well-earned submissions of his entire career.
1. Rolling The Rock at WrestleMania 29
Two of the biggest Superstars the sport has ever seen, squaring off at the height of Cena’s game to drive an epic storyline that pitted The Rock’s A-list status against Cena’s blue-collar tenacity: Yep, Cena’s collision course with destiny at WrestleMania 29 had it all. These two titans had met on the WWE’s biggest stage only a year earlier, throwing down for what was then billed as a “once in a lifetime” match that came with loads of baggage and intrigue — the kind that could only eclipsed by the fan-pleasing opportunity to meet one more time and do it all over again.
The Rock had walked tall with the victory over Cena at WrestleMania 28, making for an unlikely rematch that, thanks to a year’s worth of ensuing hype, set the stage for a 2013 title defense that surged with an extra jolt of Superstar celebrity energy. WWE history would go on to elevate this match to one of the sport’s biggest and most epic just for the names on the marquee alone, but the bout itself lived up to the buzz: Every signature move in the book came out, with plenty of ill-advised taunts and walloping People’s Elbows, Attitude Adjustments, and more ravaging both pros until Cena finally found redemption. A shifty escape from one final Rock Bottom, followed by a well-timed retaliating AA, and Cena’s year-long nightmare of living in The Rock’s shadow had finally come to a decisive end.
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