Every decade of pro wrestling has its breakout star. In the 1980s, Hulk Hogan ran wild across the WWE with his 24-inch pythons and the unstoppable support of Hulkamania at his back. In the late '90s, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin rose as WWE's venomous anti-authoritarian Texas Rattlesnake. And from the 2000s into the 2010s, up-and-coming superstar John Cena became the defining face of WWE's product.
Originally billed as the Doctor of Thuganomics, Cena won audiences over in the early 2000s with his rapid-fire comedic rap verses. As time passed, Cena abandoned his street-smart rapper gimmick, establishing himself as a clear-cut face who valued “hustle, loyalty, and respect” above all else.
A controversial figure in WWE programming, longtime fans of the promotion have responded to Cena's prominent booking and two-dimensional character with equal parts praise and scorn. Criticisms over Cena's career aside, Big Match John has since garnered the widespread respect of the wrestling community, with many considering him one of the greatest performers of all time.
From his earliest matches against Shawn Michaels and Edge to his later feuds with CM Punk and AJ Styles, here are some of John Cena's best matches, ranked from best to worst.
John Cena vs. CM Punk (Money in the Bank 2011)
While one can argue John Cena had better rivals in the form of Edge or Randy Orton, it's impossible to take anything from his momentous summertime feud against CM Punk in 2011. Often ranked as one of the greatest matches in WWE's history, Cena's championship bout against Punk cemented the Straight Edge Superstar as a legitimate champion in pro wrestling – a worthy successor to rebellious personalities like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. With a cinematic story that blurred the lines between scripted television and reality, the resulting bout is a crowning achievement in sports entertainment – not to mention the best match in either Cena or Punk's careers.
John Cena vs. Aj Styles (Royal Rumble 2017)
Like his earlier feud with The Rock, the potential for a showdown between John Cena and AJ Styles seemed like an unlikely fantasy for most wrestling fans in the 2000s. The mainstay attraction of TNA for over ten years, Styles eventually signed with WWE in 2016, setting the stage for an inevitable encounter with his larger-than-life counterpart in Cena. Like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan in the '90s, what started as a promising one-time dream match between the two soon culminated in a long-standing feud, paving the way for Cena and Styles' WWE Championship match at Royal Rumble 2017. Reversing moves left and right, each man went to the extremes in trying to put the other away. After several back-to-back Attitude Adjustments, however, Cena did the unthinkable, recapturing the WWE Championship for a record-tying 16 times.
John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels (Raw)
A rare WrestleMania rematch that eclipsed the original match-up, Shawn Michaels and John Cena went above and beyond when it came to their climactic grudge match on the April 23, 2007 edition of Raw. One of the finest matches ever shown on WWE's flagship series, Michaels and Cena took ample advantage of their allotted television time, wrestling for a whopping 40 minutes. With both men exhausted and dripping with sweat in the closing moments of the bout, a hair-raising F.U. reversal into a Sweet Chin Music granted HBK his hard-earned victory, redeeming his previous loss at WrestleMania 23.
John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan (Summerslam 2013)
A SummerSlam classic on par with Bret Hart versus The British Bulldog, John Cena's championship bout against Daniel Bryan helped make the World's Toughest Vegan a star in WWE. Passing the torch down to his younger successor, Cena sold every one of Bryan's moves with masterful ease, appearing as a formidable obstacle in the G.O.A.T.'s path to career prominence. What's more, Cena battled his way through the match with a triceps injury, making his performance here all the more impressive to see.
John Cena vs. Kevin Owens (Elimination Chamber 2015)
As incredible a talent as he is, John Cena has never been very well known for putting WWE's future stars over in a match (for proof, just look at all the up-and-coming prospects Cena buried over the years, including Nexus, Bray Wyatt, Zack Ryder, Ryback, and Rusev). On the flip side, Cena did step aside to make way for incoming NXT star Kevin Owens at the start of 2015.
Battling for the first time at Elimination Chamber 2015, the leader of Cenation made Owens look like a formidable opponent in the ring, giving Owens plenty of room to hit his most devastating offensive moves. Without this match, it's hard to say whether Owens might have had the same successful run in WWE, his victory over Cena giving K.O. some critical momentum as he climbed to the top of WWE programming.
John Cena vs. Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar (Royal Rumble 2015)
Rarely does an undercard match outshine the actual Royal Rumble at the eponymous WWE pay-per-view. Whereas most people try to forget the subpar quality of the 2015 Royal Rumble, the Triple Threat match between John Cena, Seth Rollins, and Brock Lesnar lives on as an unsung classic in Cena's extensive career. With Lesnar relying on his brute strength, Cena on his resilience, Rollins on his opportunistic strategy and high-flying offense, the match juxtaposed the unique movesets each man possessed, guaranteeing a remarkable championship bout.
John Cena vs. Edge (Unforgiven 2006)
One of the standout feuds of the Ruthless Aggression Era pitted John Cena with the burgeoning Rated R Superstar, Edge. Cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase and winning his first WWE Championship from Cena at the start of 2006, Edge went on to face Cena throughout the remainder of the year. As many great matches as the two had, their defining match-up came in the main event of Unforgiven. Brawling in Edge's speciality match (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs) and with a jeering Canadian crowd firmly in Edge's corner, Cena overcame the odds to reclaim his WWE Championship, reaffirming his place as the main star of 2000s-era WWE.
John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar (Extreme Rules 2012)
After exiting the WWE under somewhat acrimonious circumstances in 2004, Brock Lesnar returned to the company eight years later in a return very few people could've expected. Meeting his Ruthless Aggression Era rival John Cena in his comeback match at Extreme Rules 2012, Lesnar proceeded to show the wrestling world he bore little to any signs of ringrust from his temporary retirement. Leveling Cena out with MMA-style strikes and submission holds, Lesnar also rolled out his decisive new moveset (made up of suplexes and high-impact punches and elbows). A fitting return to form for Lesnar, the only thing that might've made it better is if Lesnar had ended the night the victor instead of Cena.
John Cena vs. Kevin Owens (Money in the Bank 2015)
Hoping to redeem his loss at Kevin Owens' hands at Elimination Chamber 2015, Cena met K.O. later in the year at Money in the Bank. Kicking the match with a slower technical style, Owens and Cena soon reverted back to a mix of brawling and heavier offensive maneuvers – with Cena busting out a plethora of innovative moves he'd never used before. The change in style worked wonders for the former Doctor of Thuganomics, allowing him to secure a pinfall victory over Owens (even if Owens had the last laugh, powerbombing Cena into the ring-apron as revenge for the loss).
John Cena vs. The Rock (Wrestlemania Xxviii)
A match 20 years in the making, the possibility of seeing Cena wrestle his Attitude Era counterpart in The Rock seemed like a mere pipe dream throughout the 2000s. Upon the Great One's return to WWE in 2011, however, The Rock made a thrilling proposition for WWE fans at the time, challenging Cena to a match at 2012's WrestleMania XXVIII. With shades of Rock versus Hogan at WrestleMania X8, these two legends conducted an otherwise iconic dream match that lived up to viewers' high expectations.
John Cena vs. CM Punk (Raw)
Competing for a chance to face The Rock at WrestleMania 29, Cena came toe-to-toe with his former rival CM Punk in yet another phenomenal match between the two polar opposites. With Punk favoring a more mat-based technical offense and Cena opting for his signature ground-and-pound brawling style, the ensuing bout once again illustrated Punk and Cena's incomparable chemistry.
John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt (Payback 2014)
Cena's victory over the late, great Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 30 remains one of the most egregious decisions in WWE's creative booking. Making up for their underwhelming match at WrestleMania, Cena and Wyatt went on to enjoy a superb Last Man Standing match at Payback 2014. Once again, the choice to have Cena go over on the Eater of Worlds made no logical sense in the slightest. As harebrained as the ending might have been, the match itself is loaded with unpredictable spots that left fans speechless, from The Usos and The Wyatt Family warring at ringside to Cena piling multiple equipment crates onto Wyatt's prone body.
John Cena vs. Rob Van Dam (One Night Stand 2006)
Regardless of how fans feel towards Cena and his prominent placement in WWE, one has to give him credit for going out in front of hostile crowds on a regular basis – especially in the case of One Night Stand 2006. The second ECW reunion show produced by WWE, reigning WWE Champion John Cena went head to head against ECW original Rob Van Dam in the pay-per-view's main event. In front of the rowdiest crowd he'd ever performed for, Cena took part in an intense and brutal Extreme Rules match against RVD, relying on a more unique moveset in a bid to impress the riotous audience at ringside. One of the most violent matches Cena ever competed in, the finished bout demonstrated Cena's adaptability, blending in with whatever kind of wrestling match he fought in.
John Cena vs. The Rock (Wrestlemania 29)
The second act in The Rock and John Cena's epic rivalry, The Rock and Cena's rematch at 2013's WrestleMania may not have been as exciting as their original WrestleMania XXVIII encounter one year earlier, but it nevertheless ranks among the best matches in each man's career. Showing far more determination than he had at the previous WrestleMania, Cena cranked his performance up to a significant degree, dominating most of the match through his heavy offense and damaging submission holds. Emerging as the WWE Champion by the night's end, The Rock and Cena concluded their legendary feud in the most cathartic way possible, embracing not as enemies, but as respected equals.
John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Randy Orton vs. Edge (Backlash 2007)
One of the most underrated matches of the Ruthless Aggression Era, the main event of Backlash 2007 is nothing short of pure anarchic fun. Pushing Cena and Shawn Michaels' WrestleMania feud forward, the match also made use of the in-ring chemistry between Randy Orton and Edge, the menacing duo running roughshod on Raw as Rated-RKO. With temporary alliances formed between Orton and Edge and a vindictive Michaels gunning for him, Cena managed to hold out long enough to score a controversial pinfall over Orton (albeit with a crucial assist from Michaels).