I find it difficult to believe that I (or anyone for that matter) should have to defend John Cena against his detractors in 2009. Although his matches in 2008 and 2009 have not eclipsed his epic run in 2007, he has still had several matches that stand out not only as ?worth watching? but as ?worth selling a kidney in order to see.? All of his matches with Randy Orton (including their ?I Quit? and ?Iron Man? matches), his television matches with Shawn Michaels, some of his matches with the Big Show (particularly the early matches of their feud), his Summerslam 2008 encounter with Batista, and many others make it clear that any attempt to make a list of John Cena’s good-to-great matches ends up being a list of almost every major PPV and one-on-one television main event in which he participates.
I might not lose any sleep over it, but it depresses me to read the posts of fans who think it would be a good idea to turn Cena heel (a decision that makes no sense in terms of storylines OR in terms of merchandising). But what bothers me more is the fact that there are still those who bicker and complain about elements of his in-ring performance. Some want Cena to clasp his hands ?correctly? when applying the STF; others want him to stop using the Five Knuckle Shuffle and to try to execute a standard hip toss; others expect him to maintain a consistency of selling that very few wrestlers have ever managed to perfect. (Finlay comes to mind here; at the recent ECW-Superstar-Smackdown taping in Providence, I remember that he sold a variety of things ? even his ear! ? even as he walked backstage after his match with Jericho!)
When thinking over all these bitter diatribes (which often seem to be attempts to make a splash on community forums or attempts to show that one ?really knows? their wrestling), I am left wondering what sort of lame match reviewers still hold sway over the IWC, baffled that people still listen to those who think that the ?best wrestling in the world? must axiomatically happen in Ring of Honor or overseas. Regardless of where these specific and ?impossible to please? and misguided (in my opinion) attitudes come from, I just have a single request to make in response to them: For a moment, just pretend that there isn?t a single method to being or becoming a professional wrestler . . . and see if you manage to enjoy wrestling even more. I?m not asking anyone turn off his or her brain or to find John Cena ?cool.? All I?m asking is that people, only for a moment, pretend that there is no rule in professional wrestling that states that ?technical wrestling? (whatever that is!) is somehow ?real? or ?true? wrestling, i.e. ?wrestling as it should be.? I can?t think of two wrestlers more different than Billy Robinson (perhaps the best ?hold? wrestler I?ve ever seen) and Jerry Lawler (perhaps the best ?pure striker? [as Michael Cole likes to say] I?ve ever seen); the point is that they have both put on matches with a variety of opponents that blow my mind. Same with Benoit. Same with Hulk Hogan. Same with Ric Flair. Same with Dick Murdoch. Same with Misawa and Kawada and Kobashi and Mutoh and Liger and . . . John Cena.
To make myself feel a bit better regarding those who still need to be spoon-fed arguments I have no energy to make anymore, I returned to the John Cena match that I consider to be the Best Match of the Decade (across promotions, across borders, across seas, across the board): John Cena vs. Umaga from the 2007 Royal Rumble PPV. Although I?ve written a great deal about this match in my columns as well as in the Match of the Year Project that year, I thought I?d do what I rarely do anymore and meditate a bit on some of the things that caught my eye on this go-around.
From the moment his music hits to the moment he walks to the back, I cannot say enough about the importance of John Cena’s face and his demeanor. Notice his stoic facial expression as he walks to the ring, as he removes his title belt, as he actually paces, betraying the doubt we are to believe (or might believe) that he feels. In fact, we?ve just watched a video package that emphasizes the impossibility of defeating Umaga, how Cena barely escapes New Year’s Revolution. As he faces-off with Umaga once the bell rings, the look in Cena’s eye and his rigid expression feels so odd, so blank compared to his typical expressions, so much a front and a disguise . . . a disguise that cracks as soon as Umaga cuts off his early flurry with a quick shot straight to his mid-section.
But Cena’s attitude and his expression only complement a more important facet of his performance: namely, the way he sells each blow and each high-impact move differently. At times, he screams in pain. At other times he crumbles to the ground. He quickly bumps onto his back at other times. Sometimes he clutches his ribs, arches his back. Each shot is important; rather, each stage and progression of Umaga’s offense is paralleled with a fresh response from Cena, whether he responds with offense of his own or with grimaces and hollers and visuals meant to express a variety of pains. More impressively, however, are the moments in which Cena collapses to the ground as if unconscious, with his legs bent at weird angles and his arms spread out. Some of my favorite touches to the match are the sudden starts he makes from these positions, jerking himself back into consciousness, fighting off the temptation to stay down.
And, of course, I love the fact that the very rules of the Last Man Standing match, rules that make it harder to defeat Umaga (remember: he can?t escape with a flash pin as he did at New Year’s Revolution), actually make it harder for Umaga to beat Cena as well. In a normal match, the ?Samoan Bulldozer? could continue laying on the offense, but Armando Estrada keeps calling him off, asking him to back off after each hard shot or high-impact slam, hoping that every move might keep Cena down for the ten-count. That break after each flurry, however, allows Cena to gather his wits each time, allowing him a brief comeback, each of which wear down Umaga more and more, eventually leading to the all-important flurry of the top rope leg-drop, the ring-post slam, and the television monitor smash.
Although some might complain that Cena ?hulks up? after getting cut open, he chooses to have a burst of adrenaline particularly at the moment when he sees his own blood, drawing in the audience once more into maintaining hope that he could pull this off . . . only to eat an enormous Samoan Drop, one that makes me cringe every time I see it. The blood not only intensifies Cena’s beating, however, it also signals another gear of sorts, a new injury that actually forces Cena to a new level of urgency.
In fact, the whole match has a thread of urgency running through it. Every time Umaga decides to use a weapon, Cena must reverse the attempt. He HAS to reverse the attempt because Umaga’s regular offense is hard enough to fend off. And, again, the very rules and/or temptations of the ?No Disqualification? environment make it possible for Cena to reverse these attempts, partly because the Last Man Standing rules have built-in breaks for recovery time (as mentioned above), but also because Umaga is strangely out of his element when using weapons. He takes too much time setting up his destructive spots, and each time (whether it be because of the steel steps or the ringside tables or the turnbuckle and ropes) the challenger fails and creates openings for the champion within the very match in which he was supposed to be unbeatable.
Perhaps we might say that the match operates according to an escalating level of urgency, an oscillation between comebacks and cut-offs, each creating conditions of possibility for future comebacks and cut-offs . . . all leading to the incredible ending, one of my favorites (not only of 2007 but of this decade): the return of John Cena’s stoic demeanor, now bloody, now exhausted, now without that crack of doubt, now with a crack of disbelief. There’s no excitement here, no jumping up and down. It all fits together so wonderfully, so perfectly.
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In some ways, the beauty and perfection of this encounter between John Cena and Umaga give away what did not work in Cena’s later matches with the Big Show. They never managed to capture the impossibility of Cena’s chances at victory . . . But at the very least any disappointment over Cena’s recent feuds with JBL and the Miz and the Big Show should not be grounded in how much Cena sucks. It should be grounded in what we know about Cena’s ability and about what he has already proved himself capable of.
With that, I leave all you ? my little darlings ? at peace. Until next month!