John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan (WWE SummerSlam 8/18/13)

Match Reviews

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

In which Cena and Bryan both have something to prove. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Bryan who has the most to gain here. It’s the title win that kicks of his run towards the famous WrestleMania XXX moment and also a solidification of him as a top WWE babyface in spite of the WWE’s attempts to sabotage their own accomplishments in the months to come. But in these 2010s Cena vs. indie faves matches, there’s always a running meta narrative as well of Cena proving his own worth as a worker.

Typically, Cena’s response to the “You can’t wrestle” chants is a sort of dedicated indifference. While I wouldn’t say he never adjusts in response to those chants before this, he often did it with the quiet confidence of simply knowing the chants were wrong. One can see it in his performance against Fraud Van Dam in the Hammerstein or even against CM Punk in Chicago, but it takes on a different tone here against Daniel Bryan.

This is the first time that Cena reads as insecure.

I think that’s because for the first time, there’s a real potential successor here to what he’s meant to the company for so long. For however much Punk really challenged him in-ring, it’s the earnest quality to Bryan here that makes him feel so much more suited to take on the mantle of WWE top babyface. There’s just so much heart behind everything Bryan does and here in 2013, he’s in the process of becoming one of pro wrestling’s greatest ever babyfaces.

This innate struggle for the top spot also manifests as a different conflict for Cena here. For the first time, it feels like Cena’s really trying to disprove those “You can’t wrestle” chants. A large part of that comes from those fan sentiments becoming text now. Both Punk and Bryan have sort of poked at that idea, but it’s in this Bryan feud where he really questions Cena’s credibility as a straight up pro wrestler. I think it stings more in this particular time period as well, when all the 2000s indie greats finally started breaking through on the mainstream stage, and those barbs carrying a little more weight coming from the likes of a Daniel Bryan than a 2006 Triple H.

That being said, I feel that Cena’s attempts to adjust are what doom him in this match.

Cena’s a phenomenal wrestler, point blank, and working to appease an outside view of “great” pro wrestling sort of muddles so much of what made him specifically so great at pro wrestling. And it comes through in how this match plays out as well. Cena’s actually no slouch when it comes to taking things down to the mat, structuring old school problem/solution style spots, and going for quick pinfalls in an attempt to close things out. But there is a shift where one sees him try to play Bryan’s game—trying to stand and trade with him in the strikes and even throwing out leg kicks in the style of Bryan. It’s allowing himself to be pulled into his opponents that likely leads to his loss here.

I do also think it occasionally waters down the match as well. Cena starting to shift towards a more “smarky” style of pro wrestling feels like the end of a certain era of his work. I also can’t help but feel that a more grounded and focused Cena performance, with less budging towards a different perception of “great” wrestling, might have ended up producing something even better than what we get here.

That being said, it all still works for the most part based off the natural talents of two of the greatest wrestlers ever.

And the other half of this match is the best to ever do it. While I wouldn’t call this the most compelling or essential Daniel Bryan performance, there is something incredibly important happening in the midst of this bout. Bryan also has something to prove here: that he can bear the mantle that Cena has carried for so long. It’s not about proving skill—something that was without question for over a decade at this point—but rather the capability to fulfill a very specific role: being the top babyface in the WWE.

Bryan’s attempts to usurp his competition are far more successful. While he occasionally dips into a more heelish control, such as when kicking at a downed Cena and going after Cena’s swollen elbow, there is a real transition in becoming the hero of the moment. It’s when he sits up on the top turnbuckle from the Spider German position, pumping his fists, drawing in the crowd, boom that’s the moment. Daniel Bryan becomes The Guy, and just has to close out the match to prove it. Where Cena wavers, Bryan transcends. He debuts the running knee and wins the WWE Championship.

In a broad sense, the match is a success. I would say that the match makes choices that a feel little too obvious at several points though. Things like Cena using a desperation AA as a transition, for example, feel like a lesser choice to get a quicker pop. Also, the motif of the like-for-like exchanges such as both men trading comeback sequences or Bryan grabbing an STF do occasionally feel like hammering the point home in a very blunt manner instead of something with a little finer finesse to it. It does at least make the running knee more significant as a big innovation finally topping off the attempts at one upmanship though.

It’s the most direct path to this babyface vs. babyface passing of the torch they’re attempting. It gets us to where we need to go, even if it’s not the most thrilling possible journey.

Rating: ****1/4

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