This review was commissioned by Saul Delgado over on my Ko-fi account.

It’s like John Cena. You know what he does. He does the five things, and like that’s it. So if you can’t figure that out, then you know, you’re in trouble.

-CM Punk, “Best in the World CM Punk,” Starrcast III

When it comes to wrestling John Cena, knowledge has always felt like CM Punk’s greatest advantage. The above quote sort of speaks to that idea in reality, that Punk found it easy to work matches with Cena when there’s an established set of moves and tropes to work around. The beauty is how well that translated into their in-ring work, where it seemed that Punk always had an answer for Cena’s signature moves, which was a strategic and psychological edge that really kept Cena from making significant advancements against Punk.

Punk’s almost bone deep instincts and reactions to Cena have consistently forced the latter’s hand when they’ve wrestled. That comes through in something like their Night of Champions match from 2012, when Cena has to bust out wild, crazy new things like a tope suicida or a German Suplex off the ropes in his attempts to beat Punk. It doesn’t work out for Cena in 2012, with the latter move ending with him having his shoulders down as well and the match ending in a draw. But the general idea stays true, that Punk’s ability to anticipate and counter Cena forces Cena to shift things up.

What I love about this match in 2013 is the patience it has to lead us through that story they’ve been telling across two years before bringing us to its proper conclusion.

Most of the match starts by keeping us aware of the problem at hand: Punk’s pretty much figured out Cena’s Five Moves of Doom pretty handily. This is the linchpin to Punk’s strategy that gives him the edge, because when they’re butting heads in a more even scenario, it’s not nearly so cut and dry for Punk. After all Cena definitely has the size and power advantage, and much as Punk may posture himself the “better wrestler” of the two, they’re not that unevenly matched on the mat either. Take note of the early chain work, Cena not only keeps up but also flusters Punk at some points. In a segment of the match only aired on the WWE app too, Punk sort of yields the battle on the mat when he sucker punches Cena at one point to retain control. That’s nothing new for Punk at this point though. Throughout this rivalry, he’s not shied from taking advantages where they come, and that’s part too of what’s made him so difficult to overcome.

When Cena tries to build momentum, he defaults to that famous five moves sequence, and that’s where Punk finds the most success. He dodges the shoulder tackles to send Cena tumbling to the floor, he counters the big slam into the Anaconda Vice, he kicks Cena’s head in when he leans over to set up the Five Knuckle Shuffle. He’s also got the finishes scouted, notably being able to counter an STF right into the Vice. Each time Cena goes back to the well, it takes just a little more effort than before to try and get the momentum going as he builds his way through the sequence.

Where the match excels though is that Cena can’t just brute force his way through his finishing sequence to get the wind. It’s a game of wits and creativity as much as it is a game of physicality. Cena consistently finds new ways to disrupt Punk’s control which allows him to get back into the swing of things. Early on, for example, there’s him powering Punk right off the mat to put an end to his grappling. Late in the match too, it’s small things like flustering Punk with kicks to the leg in between trading punches, something that drives Punk himself to shift and escalate towards trading headbutts.

At the same time, as much as Punk’s learned Cena’s game, the reverse is true as well. Every time Cena gets a big counter in on Punk, it feels rapturous. Perhaps my favorite is absorbing the big knee in the corner only to counter Punk’s attempt at the short arm clothesline into an AA, but there’s also catching Punk’s knee on a GTS attempt to get into the STF.

At a certain point, it’s enough to rattle Punk himself. One gets the impression throughout that while Punk’s figured out how to anticipate Cena, he’s far less prepared to innovate on the fly. He’s sticking to the things that have worked before and waiting for Cena to slip as he always had before. Cena gets Punk so rattled that there’s some real desperation behind something like Punk hitting that piledriver in the closing moments. Not only is the move protected enough in the WWE to garner a real, genuine pop of surprise from the crowd, Punk sets it up in a particularly nasty way too with a kick right to the knee cap.

This time, it’s Punk that’s caught slipping when he returns to his signature moves. He attempts the big Macho Man elbow but Cena’s ready to dodge, and that’s when Cena finds just the right moment.

A hurricanrana out of nowhere.

It’s not entirely pretty but that just kind of adds to its charm. Punk’s not ready for it at all, it’s such a shock to the system, and the next thing he knows, AA and one, two, three, WrestleMania slips from his grasp yet again.

It’s honestly beautiful. It feels like not only the most complex and ambitious in-ring story these two have told just from a pure nuts and bolts standpoint, but I don’t think they ever executed their vision quite as perfectly as they do on this night. A perfect strategic and moral victory for our boy Big John as he finally gets over one of the biggest hurdles of his 2010s career, setting him up to get over another (far less talented) obstacle down the line.

I wouldn’t fight anyone that said this is the best Cena/Punk match, I think the action speaks for itself. Really the only thing keeping it from that distinction is that this fails to be an industry-shaking moment the after effects of which we’re still living through today.

Just that, you know. No big deal.

IS IT BETTER THAN 6/3/94? In basically every way, yes. Pacing, structure, emotional pay off to the ring work. You got it, it’s all there. An emphatic victory for the greatest ace ever against his scrappy, career rival.

Rating: ****3/4

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