#21 John Cena
Where to rank John Cena? If Triple H isn't the most controversial star to rank in the Top 50; Cena almost certainly is. For many hardcore fans, Cena has become the poster child for everything that is wrong with professional wrestling. For others however, Cena has been the babyface of a whole generation, still enjoying a lengthy run at the top of the card and still the most recognizable full-time wrestler in the world.
Cena grew up in a wealthy family on the north shore of Massachusetts and was a star football player in prep school, eventually playing at Springfield College where he was a Division III All-American as a center. After graduating he moved out to Southern California where he pursued a career in bodybuilding, before breaking into professional wrestling in 1999. He began working for Ultimate Pro Wrestling and developed the character known as "The Protoype" a cyborg-like character that demolished his opponents. Although still very green in the ring, Cena had a great physique and a strong work ethic, and he eventually signed with the World Wrestling Federation in 2001 and began working in their developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling.
After appearing as enhancement talent Cena made his official debut on an episode of SmackDown, answering an open-challenge by Kurt Angle and fighting admirably in defeat. Coming up just short against a champion like Angle gave Cena instant credibility, and he was able to become a mid-card babyface. Cena began to receive a push, but he himself was still very green both in the ring and on the microphone, Chris Jericho joked that he was "Wacky Roll-Up Guy" because he didn't even have his own finishing move.
That would all change when Cena attacked Billy Kidman after losing a tag team match, turning himself heel in the process. Shortly after on a Halloween episode of SmackDown Cena performed a dead-on impersonation of rapper Vanilla Ice. Impressed by Cena's ability to rhyme and come across as a legit rap star, Cena began to build a new, heelish gimmick. He dubbed himself "The Doctor of Thuganomics" and would recite humorous raps that degraded his opponents.
During the first half of 2003 Cena found himself in the main event, challenging WWE Champion Brock Lesnar. Cena would develop his own finishing move and mocked Lesnar by calling it the "FU" instead of the "F-5" which was Lesnar's finisher. Cena would come up short against Lesnar but his popularity continued to increase. A feud with The Undertaker followed and while Cena again lost to The Undertaker, his respectable showing continued to increase his star power.
Cena's popularity would eventually lead to a face turn and a United States Championship run after defeating The Big Show at WrestleMania XX. Over the years Cena's character has somewhat devolved to the point that he has become a babyface cliché, but at the time of Cena's original rise to superstardom, he was seen as someone that was extremely colorful and charismatic. His braggadocios attitude and his hip-hop attire lent him to being one of the few wrestling stars to come across as truly "cool" and he had mainstream appeal with the casual fanbase.
Cena would eventually win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21 as a part of a long feud with JBL, the New York millionaire who played a wonderful contrast to Cena's street-wise character. A bloody I Quit match that saw Cena retain the title over JBL would follow and then Cena was moved from SmackDown to RAW, taking the WWE Championship with him. Cena being drafted over to the flagship show of WWE was the turning point in his career; the time it became official that WWE was going to build their entire company around him, and a philosophy that still exists more than a decade later.
With Cena now on RAW, WWE decided to build him up by having him work programs with some top veteran names. While on paper that seems like a very wise strategy, it had an unintended side-effect for Cena. While Cena certainly had the popularity to be the top babyface in the company; his personality and character were not for everyone and while his in-ring skills were passable, for some hardcore fans that really valued the technical ability of their wrestlers, Cena left a lot to be desired. His first rivalry on RAW was with Chris Jericho and his second feud was with Angle, two veteran stars who were among the most talented in-ring performers in the world at the time. A trend began to develop during these feuds where mostly the women and children in the crowd (the so-called casual fans) would cheer for Cena while the men in the audience (the so-called hardcore fans) would cheer for his opponent. The dynamic where Cena split the crowd into two corners is by far the most unique thing about his performance as a professional wrestler.
Cena would hold onto the WWE Championship until January where he lost to Edge, who cashed in his Money in the Bank championship after Cena retained in a bloody Elimination Chamber match. In what would become a major theme of Cena's career, he would quickly regain the championship from Edge three weeks later. The quick change of championships allowed Cena to hold WWE Championships more times than any other wrestler in history, and it became a big criticism later in his career as it was viewed that Cena didn't really "earn" all those championships.
Cena would defeat Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 22, once again splitting the crowd as Triple H got a significant amount of cheers despite trying his best to be a heel. Cena would lose the championship at ECW's One Night Stand event in June to Rob Van Dam in controversial fashion and would come up short in a Triple Threat match on RAW, which saw Edge walk out with the championship. Cena would then engage in a chase for the championship as Edge deftly avoided dropping the championship by getting himself disqualified and losing by count-out. Cena would regain the title at Unforgiven, defeating Edge in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match.
After a forgettable feud with The Big Show and a bizarre feud with musician Kevin Federline, Cena began to feud with the undefeated Umaga. Umaga, a 350lb Samoan brawler had been built-up as an unstoppable savage that decimated everyone that got in his way. Cena of course, would hand him his first loss, defeating Umaga at the 2007 Royal Rumble in what would become a repeatable storyline of Cena's career. Many times a wrestler would debut and get built-up as an unstoppable force, only to be fed to Cena who usually defeated them multiple times before moving on. WWE would then struggle to book those monsters after they had been slayed by Cena, which gave Cena the perhaps unfair distinction of being someone who stunted careers. There is probably blame for both parties, but it is true that Cena's invincibility as a top name restricted the development of talents beneath him.
For the third year in a row, Cena was in the main event of WrestleMania, defeating Shawn Michaels and retaining the championship at WrestleMania 23. Cena would then slay another monster, this time in the form of The Great Khali, before beginning a feud with Randy Orton. Cena would defeat Orton with the championship on the line but in October he was injured in a match against Mr. Kennedy, suffering a torn pectoral muscle. As a result of the injury he was forced to surrender the championship, ending the longest world title reign the WWE had seen since Hulk Hogan's original run as the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.
Cena would return earlier than expected, at the 2008 Royal Rumble which he won. Instead of waiting for WrestleMania, Cena cashed-in his title shot at No Way Out, which he won by disqualification. Cena would get chances at the championship again at WrestleMania XXIV and Backlash, but was pinned by Orton both times. Cena would renew his feud with JBL over the summer of 2008, defeating JBL in a First Blood Match at Judgement Day. He would then face off against Batista at SummerSlam and was defeated by Batista. Injuries would catch up with Cena again as he herniated a disc in his back and was sidelined until November.
Cena would return in grand fashion at Survivor Series, defeating Chris Jericho for the World Heavyweight Championship. Cena would hold onto the title until No Way Out in February where he lost the title to Edge, but he would regain it at WrestleMania XXV when he defeated Edge and The Big Show in a Triple Threat match. Continuing the trend of rapid title swaps that would go on to inflate the number of world title reigns for both Edge and Cena, Edge regained the title at the following PPV when The Big Show chokeslammed Cena through a spotlight in a cartoonish spot.
After a feud with The Big Show, Cena rekindled his feud with Orton, eventually defeating Orton at Breaking Point in an "I Quit" match. Cena would drop the title back to Orton at Hell in a Cell in the eponymous match, but regained it at Bragging Rights in a 60-minute Iron Man match. Cena defeated Shawn Michaels and Triple H at Survivor Series but was upset by Sheamus at TLC. Cena would win another championship when he defeated Sheamus at Elimination Chamber, but lost it to Batista who was given a title match immediately following the chamber match. Cena would make sure to pick up another title reign however, when he defeated Batista at WrestleMania XXVI for the title and successfully defended it against Batista in a Last Man Standing match and then an "I Quit" match.
The numerous title reigns that Cena has had has given WWE the right to claim that he is the greatest wrestler in company history. His 15 times as champion is officially recognized as the second most in history behind only Ric Flair, and Cena will surely pass that in the coming years. Ever since the Attitude Era, WWE has enjoyed rapidly changing the world title, to the point that during the height of the era there were around a dozen title changes each year. Taking a look back on his career and going over each year, it is incredible to see just how many times Cena lost the championship only to quickly regain it, sometimes losing it again right after regaining it. Despite those rapid changes, the title always remained extremely close to Cena. If six months had gone by and Cena wasn't the champion, that was quite a dry spell for Cena. In retrospect, that probably hurt the opportunities that other wrestlers besides Cena had with the world title; since it was expected that no matter who was champion, Cena would always end up with the title.
In the summer of 2010 Cena would engage in a new and exciting feud, against a team of rouge rookies named The Nexus who destroyed Cena on an episode of RAW and cost Cena the championship to Sheamus at Fatal-4-Way. Eventually Cena formed an alliance of top stars and defeated the group at SummerSlam in a controversial match that saw Cena almost single-handily defeat the remaining members of the group, a move that many would criticize as the beginning of the end for what was a promising stable. Cena would lose to Nexus leader Wade Barrett at Hell in a Cell, with the stipulation being that Cena had to join The Nexus if he lost. Barrett made Cena his lackey and tried to force Cena to help Barrett snatch the world title away from Orton, but eventually Cena turned on Barrett, which led to Cena being fired by Barrett.
Despite Cena being fired from the company, he still managed to appear on every RAW and eventually secured a match against Barrett at TLC and defeated Barrett in a chairs match. Cena would polish off The Nexus at The Royal Rumble where he eliminated most of the group in the match. Cena would then feud with The Miz, who had the WWE Championship at the time, and would lose to The Miz in the main event of WrestleMania XXVII when The Rock interfered and cost Cena the match. Cena would regain the title at Extreme Rules before moving into the defining feud of his career.
Cena's greatest challenge as the face of WWE for so long is that he never really had a true rival. Orton was always portrayed as the greatest rival for Cena by WWE, but the two just didn't have the requisite chemistry in the ring together to really define a generation of WWE with their matches, the way The Rock and Steve Austin or Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels did. The constant insistence that Cena always be the undisputed kingpin of the company probably hurt Cena in the long run, because he probably wouldn't have gotten as stale as quickly as he did if he had a true rival.
His greatest rival would end up being CM Punk, who was portrayed as the anti-Cena, a true anti-hero who connected with audience members who had been disenfranchised with Cena's run on top of the company. After a memorable promo that saw Punk rip into Cena and WWE's management, a red-hot feud was ignited between Punk and Cena that saw Punk defeat Cena for the title at Money in the Bank in a match that received a Five-Star rating from The Wrestling Observer and was probably the best match of Cena's career. The storyline had Punk "leaving" the company, in theory vacating the title which eventually ended up being in the hands of Cena. Of course Punk returned to the company and claimed to be the real champion and eventually defeated Cena in a title unification match at SummerSlam.
For reasons that still remain unknown, WWE had Alberto Del Rio cash in his Money in the Bank contract to defeat Punk at SummerSlam after Punk had been laid out by Kevin Nash of all people. Cena would end up as the number one contender for the title and defeated Del Rio for the championship at Bragging Rights, only to lose it back to Del Rio at Hell in a Cell. Cena would then step away from the world title scene for the time being and focused on a feud with The Miz and R-Truth, calling in The Rock to be his tag team partner at Survivor Series in a match that saw Cena and The Rock prevail. Cena would then engage in a forgettable feud with Kane before facing off against The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII, losing to The Rock in a match one year in the making.
Cena would face a returning Brock Lesnar at Extreme Rules, defeating Lesnar, and then moved into a long and arduous feud with The Big Show and RAW General Manager John Laurinaitis. After losing to Punk at SummerSlam, Cena injured his arm and was forced to sit out until Survivor Series, where he was pinned by Punk. Cena would then feud with Dolph Ziggler, eventually defeating Ziggler on multiple occasions despite frequent interference from Ziggler's girlfriend AJ Lee and his enforcer Big E Langston.
At the 2013 Royal Rumble Cena won his second Royal Rumble to become the number one contender to The Rock's WWE Championship. Cena defended his number one contenders status against Punk in a match on RAW that is widely recognized as one of the best in the show's history. Cena would go on to defeat The Rock at WrestleMania 29 for the WWE Championship, avenging his loss from the previous year. Cena was then thrust into another feud with a monster, this time Ryback, defeating him several times with the title on the line and then defeated Mark Henry at Money in the Bank.
At SummerSlam 2013, Cena found himself in a feud with Daniel Bryan, a loveable babyface who got very much the same support that Cena got from women and children, but was also beloved by hardcore fans as well. Bryan defeated Cena cleanly in the middle of the ring for the world title, and Cena left to get surgery done on his triceps. He would return at Hell in a Cell and defeated Del Rio for the World Heavyweight Championship. Of course, having a secondary title like the World Heavyweight Championship was not good enough for the face of the company, so Cena challenged WWE Champion Randy Orton to a unification match that saw Orton walk away with both championships. Cena would then move onto feud with Bray Wyatt and The Wyatt Family, defeating Wyatt at WrestleMania XXX. Wyatt won a cage match at Extreme Rules when a singing child distracted Cena (seriously) but Cena would defeat Wyatt in a Last Man Standing match, quite literally burying Wyatt underneath stage equipment to pick up the victory.
Cena would win his 15th world title at Money in the Bank when he captured the championship after it had been vacated by Bryan. Cena would lose the title at SummerSlam when he was squashed by Lesnar in a surprising match that saw Cena barely get in any offense. Cena was unable to recapture the title at Night of Champions and then moved onto a feud with Orton, defeating him in a Hell in a Cell match to become the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
With Lesnar working a limited schedule, Cena feuded with The Authority, eventually getting them fired by defeating their team in a 5-on-5 elimination tag match at Survivor Series. The Authority was able to return just a few weeks later however, when Seth Rollins forced Cena to bring back The Authority while holding Edge hostage. Cena defeated Rollins at TLC but would lose to Lesnar at The Royal Rumble.
Cena then moved onto targeting the United States Championship, which was currently in the hands of Rusev. Cena would lose to Rusev at Fastlane, but defeated him for the title at WrestleMania 31 and then again at Payback. Cena also began hosting open challenges on episodes of RAW, which saw him defend the title against great workers like Cesaro, Neville, Stardust and others. He also had several high-quality matches with then-NXT champion Kevin Owens.
One of the biggest knocks on Cena from hardcore fans was that he is not considered a very good wrestler. While it is true that no one will ever confuse Cena with Bret Hart in the ring, Cena has quite an impressive resume of great matches. Through is United States open challenges he certainly had the consistently best matches out of anyone in the company in 2015, and he has had instant classic matches with guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and Edge. The knock on Cena as an in-ring performer is that he cannot really carry a lesser talent to a great match, so that some of his title feuds with below-average workers (The Big Show, Ryback, etc.) have been filled with less than spectacular matches. For someone that has been the face of the company for so long you would like to see that trait; but to argue that Cena is incapable of having a great match is to be ignorant of his entire career.
Cena would lose the United States Championship to Rollins when comedic talk show host Jon Stewart interfered. He would regain the title at Night of Champions and would hold onto it until Hell in a Cell where he lost the title to Alberto Del Rio. Cena was then forced to miss a significant amount of time with shoulder surgery heading into 2016.
Cena is not well-respected among hardcore fans. Part of that is because they don't respect his wrestling ability, another facet is that he has been on television for so long as the supreme babyface of the company. Cena's run as a babyface has extended beyond any other wrestler of the national era, and he has dominated the company for well over a decade now. While Cena has a ton of undeniable talent, every character gets stale after a while and Cena has been stale for years now. Whether it is management or Cena himself, Cena's character has remained the same for quite some time, in fact it has devolved over time, going from the Doctor of Thuganomics to a generic babyface with a massive following.
People might not like Cena, and hardcore fans certainly don't revere him the way they do Shawn Michaels, or even Kurt Angle, wrestlers who rate below Cena on this list. Cena was never the worker that those men were, not even close, but Cena certainly deserves to be in the Top 25 and a case could be made that he should be ranked much higher, perhaps even in the Top 10. Cena has been the undisputed top babyface for the largest wrestling company in the world for over a decade and continues to remain the most recognizable face in all of pro wrestling. The sheer number of big shows that he has headlined, the tickets he has sold, the merchandise he has moved, is staggering. Austin and The Rock may have been more popular at their peaks than Cena, but Cena has far outlasted them when it comes to tenure on top. He will probably never have the same amount of respect from fans as the rest of the 50 Greatest Wrestlers of the Last 50 Years, but he is undeniably one of the most significant wrestlers over that time period.
Next week we enter the top twenty with a wrestler who parlayed his success on the mat into being one of the greatest bookers in wrestling history
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
21. John Cena