This review was commissioned by Joey Hickmann over on my Ko-fi account. As of this writing commissions are still open, they’re going for $10 a pop. If you want to seek out my specific thoughts on a match that I haven’t gone into yet, this is the way to do it.
In the middle of this match, there’s a shot of Lesnar, having dished out the beating of a lifetime, looming over John Cena. Cena’s crawling on the canvas, barely staying in the fight, and Lesnar is standing tall over him. The ringside cameraman moves in, getting the camera low to capture the frightening figure that Lesnar cuts in the moment. In a company that’s become famous for it’s impatient visual style, something like this can’t help but stand out. It might just be one of the greatest shots in WWE history.
On the surface, it captures the immediate narrative that the match has been building towards for the entirety of its runtime. Lesnar comes across as this overwhelming, towering force that has turned the WWE’s greatest hero of the 21st century up to that point into a tiny, brutalized mess.
Beyond just the physical threat of Lesnar though, there’s a broader philosophical battle being waged in the moment. Much of this match’s build has centered around Lesnar being brought in as “The New Face of the WWE,” a legitimate athlete meant to unseat Cena from his position at the top of the company. While it’s not quite an overnight change, history will show that Lesnar eventually made good on that promise. Brock Lesnar in the 2010s would become the ultimate challenge for anyone in the promotion, a man so far beyond the rest of the competition that his absence constantly left voids that the promotion always tried to fill.
In this camera shot, we get a glimpse of what Lesnar will come to mean in the WWE in the decade to follow. The ring, the crowd, his opposition, everything in the WWE is collapsing towards the unstoppable gravity of Brock Lesnar’s aura.
For so much of this match, Brock Lesnar feels untouchable. Extending it further, to give him credit where it’s not always provided, this is something he’s able to cultivate through his promos as well. In a sit-down interview reminiscent of a UFC hype video, Lesnar tells us, “I don’t give a crap what’s running through [Cena’s] mind. What’s more important is what’s running down his leg…. The guy is scared pissless.”
He’s immediately brutal, smothering and cutting off Cena at every pass. The man with the sharpest elbows in the game busts open Cena the hard way, and in doing so forces this match into an entirely different atmosphere than anything else in the WWE’s history since the shift to PG programming. Once again, it’s an imposition from Lesnar, forcing his violent athleticism upon the WWE itself, as represented through John Cena. Commentary would make note in the later portions of the match that Lesnar’s dealings with GM John Laurinitis has granted him free rein over not just Cena’s well-being (this is an extreme rules match after all), but over the WWE’s referees and officials.
A monster has been set loose upon the company.
It’s can’t be understated how impressive Lesnar’s performance in this match is. Mechanically, he’s always been this athletic freak of nature. That comes through in so many ways, from the power he puts behind a lariat to drop Cena to the awe-inspiring leaping knee he does off a set of steel steps, sending himself and Cena both crashing down to the floor. It’s some of the most physically impressive stuff you’ll ever see in a professional wrestling ring, all with a frightening amount of power and mass behind everything too.
There’s a charisma in Lesnar’s performance here too. The cocky swagger, bouncing on his feet, the smug arrogance of knowing he doesn’t need Cena’s chain to continue dominating the match. It’s such a whole and complete performance in every aspect one wants from a pro wrestling match, it’s almost unthinkable that Lesnar hadn’t been an active in-ring competitor for almost five years at this point. To do so, while also transforming his in-ring persona and style into something even more aggressive and brutal than it had already been back in the early 2000s is the stuff that all-timers are made of.
But Brock Lesnar isn’t the only all-timer in this match.
It’s emphasized constantly throughout the build of this match that Cena’s in a bit of a funk coming off his loss to The Rock at WrestleMania. In a happy accident though, this match against Lesnar taking place in Chicago’s Allstate Arena can’t help but recall another major defeat Cena’s faced in the last year as well.
As he did at Money in the Bank 2011, John Cena enters the match with the weight of the world on his shoulders. I’ve always admired how skilled Cena was at conveying the gravitas behind any given match. He’s a very present, reactive wrestler. It’s something that makes moments like his entrance into the Hammerstein Ballroom against Rob Van Dam or the match against Punk from 2011 really pop. It shows again here with Cena expressing the slightest bits of caution–not fear, definitely never fear–coming out to face Lesnar. Few wrestlers embody the spirit of the “away game” quite like John Cena.
Cena devotes himself to the moment here, rushing head long into the fight and eating absolute shit for his attempts. Our hero spends much of the match on the back foot, failing twice to get an advantage by rushing in, and getting outmaneuvered when he tries to instead lure Lesnar in his direction instead. It’s one of the greatest babyface performances of all time, Cena’s battered selling, combined with the nasty gash at the top of his head, is exactly what Lesnar needs to introduce the company to his new, killer self. Cena has a great thousand yard stare in this, but even better than that is the unceasing determination in his eyes, the kind of physicality that captures the idea of “down but not out.”
For the nerdier crowd too (I count myself in this number), Cena even delivers a great limb selling performance in this match. When Lesnar’s able to go to the Kimura consistently as a weapon against Cena in the latter half, it basically neutralizes Cena’s arm. It’s a simple way to convey it but Cena hanging his arm dead at his side just so efficiently tells the story here. It can’t help but echo a similar physicality from Jushin Liger in his famed match apuesta match against Naoki Sano–another match about a pro wrestling-ass pro wrestler overcoming a hellacious beating from a legitimate shooter.
The common criticism that’s plagued this bout for years though–even among its fans–is whether or not Cena should have won. I can understand those that say he shouldn’t. Lesnar’s just making his return to the company after all, it would be good to cement his spot early on, and it wouldn’t come as too much of a detriment to Cena who is already in the middle of a story about being at an emotional low. It’s a sensible enough criticism, one that I don’t have too much problem with whatsoever, especially when so many can generally agree that match rocks regardless.
With every passing day though, the more convinced I am that Cena winning is a feature here, not a bug.
Again, hindsight is our friend here. Eleven years removed from the match itself, we have the certainty of knowing that there’s inevitability to Lesnar’s eventual domination of the WWE main event scene. It’s easy to look at this as a momentary stumbling block for his character, something that didn’t take away too much from the timeline of what was to come. Many like to lay blame at the booking of this match here, forgetting that Lesnar still had a rivalry with Triple H to follow soon after this, one that’s far less magical and arguably way more detrimental in its booking.
The magic of this match then, is in Cena’s fight against the inevitable. It’s a grueling, uphill climb against this powerful force set to steamroll the company that he’s stewarded for the last decade. Again, we all know at this point that there’s no stopping Lesnar eventually, and the tragic fall that many look for in this match would be granted to us later on anyway in their SummerSlam 2014 bout. If you want that decisive, crushing Cena defeat, it already exists for you and it’s beautiful in its own right.
The beauty here is that for one night, John Cena holds his ground.
As with so many others in the past, it’s pride that spells Lesnar’s doom. As awesome as it is for him to forego using a chain to batter Cena, it’s that same cockiness that undoes Lesnar in the long run. Despite dismissing the chain, Lesnar can’t help himself but bring the steel steps into the ring. His fault then when Cena powers through the Kimura to slam him onto the steel. Later on, Lesnar goes to the well one time too many. He tries to repeat the astonishing leaping knee to Cena on the apron, but this time Cena’s ready with the chain to smash Lesnar in the head with it. Lesnar dismissed the weapon out of sheer arrogance, but a wounded animal like Cena will take any measure to survive.
The final moments of the match are pure magic. Cena roars in pure, bloody defiance–as true and inspiring as any babyface in the history of pro wrestling has ever been. His match has been one about patience and survival, finding and grasping for that single opening and it finally presents himself. The monster got lost in trying to prove a point, while Cena came out focused enough trying to win a match. Meanwhile, as great as Cena has been on the sell match long, Lesnar equals his efforts in just a few seconds. That slow rise, using the ropes for balance, eyes already knocked loopy, blood coming down his face, it’s so satisfying all these years later. Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face, it all falls apart even quicker when you get punched with a chain.
AA to the steps, one, two, three. Fuck yes.
In his promo after the bout, John Cena tells that Chicago is and always has been a pro wrestling town. And he’s right. On this night especially, he pulls off the magic that pro wrestling constantly aspires for: making the impossible seem real. In one of the greatest matches of all time, John Cena does more than make the impossible feel real.
He makes it feel right.
IS IT BETTER THAN 6/3/94? For many, the Kawada/Misawa bout from 6/3/94 acts as a peak, a pinnacle to a particular style. While I’d argue that it’s not the peak for that particular style, there’s a validity to the idea that it embodies the finer qualities of a certain time and place in wrestling. Lesnar/Cena hits a high peak, but it doesn’t embody anything. It’s a violent, transformative intrusion to the otherwise sanitized world of the WWE. It’s the kind of match that reshapes pro wrestling around it, not the other way around. Lesnar and Cena take the win here.