John Cena vs. Rob Van Dam (ECW One Night Stand 2006 6/11/06)

Match Reviews

This review was commissioned by Nicholas Anderson over on my Ko-fi account.

June 2006 would have been my sixth ever month of being a professional wrestling fan. As a ten-year-old child at that time, it’s probably no shock to anyone that my favorite wrestler on WWE Raw was John Cena. That’s just the obvious thing, top babyface at the time, and a cool guy who wins matches as the WWE Champion. Imagine my confusion and shock then to find that the crowds I saw on TV weren’t as sold on this hero as I was. My first real introduction to anti-Cena sentiment was the WrestleMania 22 main event which saw a partisan Chicago crowd throw in their lot with Triple H (deeply ironic and hilarious in hindsight). That reaction was shocking to me at the time, but it did at least prepare me for the pure vitriol thrown Cena’s way in the Hammerstein Ballroom at ECW One Night Stand 2006.

This hatred made sense, at least, even for a child who only knew what WWE TV told him. ECW’s this outsider group who made their name on challenging authority and reveling in blood and guts, while Cena’s the champion of the far more straight laced WWE. All that makes sense to me, and while I still pulled for Cena, I at least understood that ECW meant something extremely powerful to these fans in the Hammerstein. It sucked to see Cena lose, especially to be robbed by dastardly Edge at the end, but I got why the crowd celebrated so strongly. In hindsight too, this remains one of the many, many examples of John Cena doing the honors for a beloved “smarky” option and giving them a huge win on their resume.

Too bad all those filthy unwashed marks in the Hammerstein Ballroom were fucking wrong.

John Cena is the man and in this match he turns in a powerhouse of a performance so strong that it turned me into JBL in the balcony of the 05 One Night Stand. About five to ten minutes into watching this match back after so many years, I just started howling at the live crowd in attendance, mentally mocking them for how blind they were to the fact that someone was transcending into all-timer greatness before their sad, bitter eyes. Maybe if they squinted harder through all that Fraud Van Dam-endorsed marijuana smoke, they might have seen it better. “You can’t wrestle!” being aimed at John Cena here? Truly one of the most powerful self-owns from a crowd proudly admitting they simply do not know ball.

Let’s be serious for a second though and really dig into this Cena performance because it’s a doozy.

By now, everybody’s familiar with the most famous aspect of Cena’s singular dynamic with this particular crowd on this particular night. That image of him coming through that narrow entranceway, head down with the belt held proudly over his head is one of the first truly great examples of Away Game Cena. Immediately following that up too with the pre-match interaction of tossing his shirt into the crowd only to repeatedly have it thrown back is absolutely hilarious. A lesser talent would have done it once and just taken it in stride, but Cena lets this crowd have their fun because he’s aware enough to know that he’s positioned on this night to be hated and to eat shit.

To that end, there’s so many wonderful details in how he actually wrestles on this night. In a broad sense, it’s astonishing just how reactive and present Cena is. He seems infinitely more plugged in with the crowd working to play against them than RVD feels working to play to them. Cena’s performance feels light on its feet without being showy. The crowd chants, “You can’t wrestle,” so he does a crispy suplex. The crowd chants, “Same old shit,” so he comes off the top rope to dive onto RVD on the floor. It’s in the small spaces between the big spots too, the way he lets the heat wash over him without ever indulging. It’s a shockingly nuanced performer from someone so early in his run as a top level main eventer, giving these fans every reason to hate him but never truly turning his back on who he is at a core level. This is the John Cena you get on WWE TV, just thrown into a more hostile environment that requires a certain harder edge to him.

This also might be one of the all-time great ECW heel performances ever. There’s always that little riddle to solve of how does one generate heat in the wrestling when there’s no disqualifications and anything’s free on the table? Cena answers that question masterfully: he breaks the rules of pro wrestling but only in the most uncool ways possible so as never to draw any sort of admiration or awe from this crowd. Most notably, his use of the ropes in this match is astounding. At one point, after intercepting a Rob Van Dam splash with knees and a chair, Cena makes two quick pinfall attempts, each time wrapping his feet around the bottom rope for leverage. It’s such a subtle detail, Taz and Styles don’t even catch it on commentary, and it’s not a focus of the camera either as we see it in a wideshot. It’s such a shitty, pissy little thing to do but also entirely legal in the setting. The much more famous escalation of this comes later on when Cena has the STFU locked on and refuses to break when Rob Van Dam gets to the ropes.

And why should he break? Sorry to you, Mr. Van Dam, that you’re not hardcore enough to find a proper way out of a submission hold when it’s already no DQ in your favor anyway. Ridiculous favoritism from the referee here too, Cena was absolutely right to sock him.

In all seriousness, RVD does sort of hold this match back from achieving true classic status. All the ingredients are there, but at no point does it feel like RVD’s ever on the same page as Cena exactly. It’s not that Rob Van Dam doesn’t fit into this match, it’s just that he and Cena seem to be aiming for two different goals entirely. Rob Van Dam’s here to be ECW’s hero, but performance-wise, that mostly just translates to Van Dam just hitting all his signature spots in no particular order. Cena’s working on an entirely different level, being so reactive to the crowd, and really cleverly deconstructing the idea of an ECW match itself with his subtle heel tactics.

To his credit, Rob Van Dam does what he’s asked to do well. The bumps all look great on his part, the best one being him basically launching himself full-force head first into a chair propped up in the corner. But even more traditional bumps get a little more oomph in them when RVD’s tasked with them, the powerbomb off the top or even a superplex look a little bit more gnarly when he takes them. And he even does wrap things up with a really great bump like the FU to the floor from the ring.

Van Dam’s bumping is great, but all those emotional beats between the spots rest squarely on John Cena’s shoulders.

And also? Fraud Van Dam couldn’t even get the job done on his own. Needed Edge to come in with the assist to absolutely rob our ace in New York City. Nothing more than a back alley mugging if you ask me.

I know, it’s just Vince’s hand reaching in to protect his guy while doing just enough to launch a new TV show. I get that. But it’s pro wrestling, baby. Victory laps are few and far between, and while John Cena lost the battle on this night, history has shown legacy will win the war. 10-year-old me was right.

Rating: ****+

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