Every April for thirty five years, at Wrestlemania, the WWE has promised not just the biggest wrestling show of the year but a landmark cultural event. Catchphrases like ‘the showcase of the immortals’ create images of professional wrestlers transcending into grand heroes and villains of the greatest stature, men and women performing not just wrestling matches but writing wrestling legends that will be told for generations to come.
Hulk Hogan v Andre The Giant at Wrestlemania III is the quintessential example of The Wrestlamania Match. Two mammoth personalities, bringing to the ring towering legacies in the industry, meeting in a match that no matter the outcome will immediately be granted an entire chapter in wrestling history books. The Rock v Stone Cold Steve Austin trilogy is the next example that comes to mind. Two superpowers meeting at the all time peak of the industry and fighting across three matches firstly for a championship and eventually just their place in the pantheon of greats.
Every year the WWE promises at least one match on that level, an absolute must see event for every wrestling fan no matter how jaded, a match that will truly move the cultural needle. Sometimes they hit it, a lot of the time they don’t quite. In Wrestlemania main event history there are many good matches, some misunderstood ones and some flat our poor ones but only a few truly transcendent ones.
However in 2012 and 2013 the WWE served up back to back main events that fulfilled the promise of Wrestlemania. No matter what you think of the performers, their skills, the program they were in or the creative behind the matches there is absolutely no denying that The Rock v John Cena had ‘IT’ and had ‘IT’ in spades.
The setup was simple, the man who had risen to the top of the WWE at its most successful time in the late 90s and early 00s before leaving and to pursue a career in Hollywood against the man who rose up to replace him at the top of the card. A match up to see if the returning champion could still match it with the current champ. A simple and timeless formula. Behind that simple formula though was two personalities or to be more specific two egos that would ignite a heated rivalry that dominated wrestling’s grandest stage for two years.
In the volatile world of wrestling where half the fun is the unpredictability of it all, if a match gets announced 364 days in advance it is almost destined to be the biggest thing ever. In many ways it has to be the biggest match ever simply to justify such vaunted positioning. In John Cena and The Rock though the WWE had the only two men they could do it with and maintain anyone’s interest.
The biggest star of the current generation, against arguably the biggest star the WWE has ever had. A champion who had beaten all comers for years and years, against a man who in his twenties rose to be the biggest name in the industry and at thirty one, when most wrestlers are just entering their prime, left the industry entirely to become a leading man in Hollywood. And they had never met before.
Despite being only a few years apart in age, John Cena and The Rock had never shared the same ring, just as Cena was paying his dues in the midcard as The Doctor of Thuganomics, The Rock sailed off to Hollywood.
After Rock left John Cena would rise up the card and by the time The Rock returned to be the Special Guest Host of Wrestlemania 27, Cena was up to his seventh run as WWE Champion with a combined total reign of over nine hundred days. The match against The Miz would be his third Wrestlemania Main Event and his seventh world title match on the biggest stage of all. For six years he shrugged off contender after contender in such a monotonous fashion that an audience that once loved him, had turned against him.
For The Rock’s part, while his Hollywood journey wasn’t an overnight success, by 2011 with his appearance in the Fast & Furious franchise he had begun to establish his brand of ridiculous action and charismatic humour. While he had left the WWE in a state of flux without its biggest star to bridge the gap between the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Era, in the fans mind distance had made their hearts grow fonder. His fans remembered the grand old days and desperately wanted to see a return of the antics of The People’s Champ.
Two mountains of charisma and magnets for crowd cheers and boos, there simply was not a bigger match the WWE could have made.
Some of the best stories in wrestling are dipped in truth and somewhere in the year of build up things changed between John Cena and The Rock. What started as a heated but professional rivalry turned into something very different and became a battle between two alpha males for personal supremacy. For two men never short of a word, the resulting fireworks were pointed and inflammatory.
Cena felt justified in pointing out that The Rock had abandoned the WWE when it needed his star power more than ever and then upon returning insulted him for not having the company at the level it was when he left. Cena was absolutely right that Dwayne Johnson had left Cena and his generation with a herculean task of rebuilding a franchise without its biggest star. Now having finally built up the company’s base, Dwayne thought he could waltz back in on his own terms? And just to add insult this Hollywood actor thought he could step to The Champ after nearly ten years away from the ring? No thanks.
But then on the other side of the coin, why was it The Rock’s responsibility to take a company on his back when he could strive for bigger and better things? When the chance for a bigger cheque came up, one that wouldn’t require him to constantly put his body on the line, who wouldn’t take that? Wouldn’t Cena do the same thing if he was in the same position? Funnily enough years later even Cena would admit The Rock was right about that particular point. Beyond that The Rock had presided over the greatest boom time in wrestling history and was now coming back as an even bigger star, lifting John Cena up in the wake of his return.
Both men felt entirely justified in their position and both men thought the other man needed them more than they needed the other man.
It is this story of ego and animosity that would play out when the pair finally met in-ring at Wrestlemania 28 and 29.
Their first meeting would be a grand spectacle, nearly an hour in run time from the start of the video packages, through the gregarious live music entrances, to the match and celebration afterwards. In front of a crowd hanging off every move the pair would tell a tale of grand hubris as Cena got the better of The Rock, controlling the flow of their exchanges and remaining one step ahead of the Brahma Bull for most of the match. However in looking to put an exclamation mark on his performance Cena would try to use The Rock’s signature People’s Elbow only to be caught by The People’s Champ in a Rock Bottom and pinned by a man wrestling his first singles match in nearly ten years.
For the rest of 2012 the loss would haunt Cena. Over the course of the year he would set his sights on the WWE Championship held by his other nemesis of that period, CM Punk, but fail to win it on multiple attempts, along the way he would become the first man to fail at a Money In The Bank cash in, would take a hellacious beating while barely scraping past a returning Brock Lesnar and would even lose a match to John Laurinaitis at Over The Limit.
It felt like Cena’s mind was stuck replaying the monumental loss. With all the trash talk in the lead up, it wasn’t just his reputation that had been smeared, the legacy of the generation of wrestling Cena represented hung in the balance.
By contrast, The Rock would go from strength to strength, letting the Wrestlemania win take him into a WWE Championship match with CM Punk at The Royal Rumble 2013, a match he would win, reclaiming the WWE Championship for the first time in ten years.
Come 2013 Cena would finally find his feet and fight his way back into contention. His newfound confidence would see him win the 2013 Royal Rumble and in the weeks after beat CM Punk for the first time since 2011 to set up Cena v The Rock 2 at Wrestlemania 29.
Rock v Cena 2 wasn’t the popular choice for fans, but in Vince McMahon’s WWE it was the only choice. Even though their first match was the biggest PPV the WWE ever sold, their second match felt like it had even more stakes. For Cena a second loss would be devastating to his legacy and Rock was desperate to show his first win wasn’t a fluke.
When the pair met for the second time they would wrestle a grittier match, an intelligent direct sequel to their first meeting. Both men approached it as if they had been spending the entire year reviewing tape of their previous match and working on countering the moves and traps they got caught in.
Nearly every move each man attempts, sequence they initiate or counter they pull off has its roots in their first match. Right from the start where they immediately go at one another instead of the show-boating of the first match it shows their intent and also awareness of what happened the year before. There are of course the obvious references such as when Cena holds onto the ropes after repeating the People’s Elbow spot that lost him the Wrestlemania 28 match, but there are also more subtle moments like The Rock slipping out of Cena’s AA after being caught off the flying cross-body, a move that lead to a close near fall for Cena the year before.
The win for John Cena validated not just his year of struggle but his legacy in the industry. A second loss would have thrown permanent shade on him but as the top guy of his generation he was able to stand on an even level as the man who came before him.
Perhaps more importantly though these are two of both men’s greatest performances in the WWE ring. For Cena particularly these would stand as his finest hours. Going in he was the one tasked with leading the matches and he pulled out two truly great performances on the grandest stage of them all. Alongside the win they would cement Cena’s long term legacy alongside the transcendent greats of the industry.
For The Rock these two matches would just reinforce his greatness, armed with pure charisma and with barely a tune up match he had managed to will his body to two of the best Wrestlemania main events of the modern era.
At the end of it all animosity would turn to respect and the pair would be happy to share the stage as peers.
When you put these two matches in some sort of historical context I don’t think it is far off the mark to say that this was the peak of Wrestlemania. Of course there is the pure finance of Wrestlemania breaking the PPV buys record, a mark that will likely never be broken. However, more than that, in so many ways The Rock v John Cena was the true fulfilment of Vince McMahon’s vision nearly thirty years before.
All of it rolled into two genuine global superstars facing off in a WWE ring.
Pure box office.
The years afterwards would serve up some great moments, some great matches and some great stories but there was nothing that reached the blockbuster calibre of Rock v Cena. Other main events would be called ‘the greatest ever’ or ‘historic’ by the commentators calling them but none truly justify it like the combination of these two men.
It is another curious historical fact that this would be the peak for each of the men in the ring too as neither man would play an equivalent role again at Wrestlemania. Despite still being arguably the biggest star on the roster for a number of years after, Cena’s post Mania 29 palmares would read as two midcard singles matches, a mixed tag match done for a post match angle, two impromptu squash matches and a throwback promo as The Doctor of Thuganomics. The Rock hardly did anything more than cut three promos.
As an organisation the WWE would take a new approach after Wresltmania 29. It’s flagships show would move onto the WWE Network to be sold alongside a monthly subscription. Wrestlamnia would be promoted by its name value more than by any particular match and to make up for a lack of true star power would eventually become bloated with marathon run times, filled by returning legends wrestling today’s indy stars. None of it would capture the same box office feel as The Rock v Cena.
While the original ‘once in a lifetime’ tag and Cena doing exactly what he criticised The Rock for when he left for his own acting career, became two large sticks to beat this program with, this rivalry and pair of matches was the peak of sports entertainment. The glitz, the glamour and the over the top nature of everything in these two matches, it all feels earnt.
In a company where every Mania is the biggest in history, every main event is the biggest main event in history, every championship win is the biggest win of the wrestlers life and every match the most important of their career, for once a match actually felt like it was all of that.
Thanks for joining me for this week’s edition of Stories That Defined A Decade, make sure you check back over the coming weeks as I explore more stories that shaped pro wrestling this decade. I’d love to hear what you thought of John Cena v The Rock in the comments below or on Twitter @Sir_Samuel. You can also find links to the other pieces I’ve written in the series below.