Call him Big Match John, The Face of the WWE or just The Champ, but there’s little doubt that the WWE has been a different place since John Cena went out with a shoulder injury at the very beginning of 2016. The 15-time World Champion has been a staple at the top of the card for over a decade and has shaped the course of WWE like few others have before him.
Some would say Cena’s absence has been a breath of fresh air, as we’ve never had such an extended period of absence from the star and the “let’s go Cena/Cena sucks!” chants have been a staple of WWE programming for more than a decade. We haven’t had even two Cenaless months since 2008, so it’s been a chance for other people to get a chance in the spotlight.
Still, even if his character at times has gotten a bit stale, even his most fervent detractors have to admit that Cena can really bring it when he steps into the ring. He’s not just one of the most consistent draws in wrestling history, he can go with nearly any other wrestler in the business. He has a list of classic matches that put many others to shame, from fighting with Kurt Angle as The Doctor of Thuganomics to clashing with Seth Rollins and The Authority a dozen years later.
It takes two to tango, of course, and Cena has wrestled with nearly every competitor of note in the past decade. With Cena due to return to the WWE Universe soon enough, it’s a fitting time to go back and look at Cena’s top competition, finding those who brought out the best in Cena - and those who Cena fought the hardest. We’re looking both at main-event clashes and deeper cuts here, not just who he’s fought the most or who he’s fought with the highest profile, but who has gotten the greatest moments out of their feuds with Cena. Here are the 15 men who have proven to be Cena’s greatest and most bitter rivals.
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15 The Undertaker
While the stars have never quite seemed to align for what would have been one of the biggest matches in history, John Cena taking on The Undertaker and his streak at WrestleMania, the two did cross paths earlier in Cena’s career and fought in some underrated gems. In 2003, one year after he debuted on SmackDown, Cena, in his Doctor of Thuganomics persona, declared himself a locker room leader, which drew the ire of real-life locker room leader The Undertaker. This led to a really good brawl at Vengeance ’03, with 'Taker coming out on top. They’ve also had a couple very good matches on SmackDown, most notably the June 24th, 2004 edition—a near match-of-the-year candidate, marred by a poor finish. It’s a shame we’ve never seen a rematch with Cena in his prime.
Rusev’s back in the United States title picture, just in time for John Cena's return to in-ring action. Methinks I see the two on a collision course in the near future—which is just fine by me, considering the two have had great chemistry so far. Cena won the title from Rusev at WrestleMania 31 and defended it against him in Russian Chain and I Quit matches at the next two Pay-Per-Views. Some might argue three straight losses for Rusev harmed the big man somewhat, but the matches were entertaining—the best of Rusev’s relatively young career so far. I’d definitely be up to see them rekindle their feud this year, though hopefully with a more balanced win-loss record.
13 Kevin Owens
Another relatively recent addition to John Cena’s list of rivals, and one who could eventually move his way up these rankings significantly if the two continue to cross path, Kevin Owens made a splash in his WWE debut, laying out Cena in response to his United States Championship Open Challenge in one of the best moments of Raw last year. This led to three singles matches, at Elimination Chamber, Money in the Bank, and Battle Ground—and all three of them were legitimately great matches. Every other major Cena opponent has at least one bland match in their history, but every Cena-Owens match so far has been a classic.
One last great opponent from John Cena’s 2015 run as the United States Champion was Cesaro. While the two have yet to have a singles match on a Pay-Per-View, they’ve had three great matches on Raw that should get anyone hyped for potential rematches. On both the June 29th and July 6th editions of Raw last year, Cena and Cesaro fought a pair of great 20-minute-plus battles for the title, with Cesaro winning one by DQ and Cena taking the other. They had another great battle on Raw leading up to Elimination Chamber ’14, when Cesaro was part of The Real Americans, and some memorable exchanges in the Chamber match that year. They’ve yet to have an extended one-on-one feud, but Cesaro’s impressing more and more all the time. With both Cesaro and Owens in the Intercontinental Championship picture, and that belt being the one that Cena has never won, maybe a more extended feud is in the not-too-distant future?
From their days as Leviathan and The Prototype in Ohio Valley Wrestling to their star-studded present, John Cena and Batista have found themselves crossing paths multiple times. Their most focused feud was over the WWE Championship in 2010, with Batista siding with Vince McMahon over jealousy that it was Cena, and not Batista, who had risen to be the top star in the company. The two fought for the title four times from February to May that year, if you count the 30-second surprise match at the Elimination Chamber. Their WrestleMania match was very good and the feud-ending I Quit match at Over the Limit was sharp as well, but their greatest clash was in a Last Man Standing match at Extreme Rules, with the unique finish of Cena duct-taping Batista’s feet to the ropes.
10 Brock Lesnar
Welcome to Suplex City. Everyone remembers the SummerSlam 2014 glorified squash match, where Brock Lesnar hit John Cena with 16 German Suplexes on his way to winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but that’s hardly been the only time the WWE has sent their real-life UFC Champion against the biggest star in the company. Cena was Lesnar’s first opponent upon his return to the ring in 2012 and Cena beat him in an instant-classic Extreme Rules match. Add in 2014’s rematch at Night of Champions and the Triple Threat match with Seth Rollins at Royal Rumble ’15—one of the best Triple Threat matches in wrestling history—and it seems that whenever the WWE are in need of a huge match, they can throw Lesnar and Cena together and make something great happen. Lesnar would be ranked higher if the two fought more often, but whenever they do clash, it’s special.
9 Alberto Del Rio
Never one of the biggest stars in the company, Alberto Del Rio nevertheless has floated in and around the top of the card for years, including a number of memorable matches with John Cena. They fought in 2011, with Cena winning his twelfth world title in a solid match at Night of Champions, losing it back to Del Rio in a Triple Threat Hell in a Cell match with CM Punk, and then losing the rubber match in a minor classic Last Man Standing fight at Vengeance. They crossed paths again, albeit less memorably, in 2013, with Cena taking the World Heavyweight Championship off of Del Rio at Hell in a Cell in his first match back from an elbow injury. Cena dropped the United States Championship to Del Rio last year and Cena’s last two matches before hitting the injured list were against Del Rio. Don’t be surprised if their feud isn’t over just yet.
8 Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels and John Cena really represent two very different eras of WWE’s history, but the two legends have crossed paths quite a few times early in Cena’s career. The two were Tag Team Champions in 2007, with HBK and Cena working together despite Michaels making no secret of the fact that he wanted a title match at WrestleMania 23 and the knowledge of Michaels’ past history of turning on his tag partners. Cena beat Michaels in a great match at the main event and then Michaels turned on Cena, costing the duo the tag titles. The two wrestled in Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Match of the Year in 2007—a near hour-long marathon on the April 23rd edition of Raw—before meeting again in a Fatal Four-Way for the world title at Backlash, alongside Edge and Randy Orton. Injuries kept the feud from continuing, though the two did meet again in a solid Triple Threat match with Triple H at Survivor Series 2009, but it had incredible heat while it lasted.
7 Kurt Angle
John Cena’s WWE debut saw him answering Kurt Angle’s open challenge on the June 27th, 2002 edition of SmackDown, helping coin the “Ruthless Aggression” phrase that would define that era. The two had an extended feud in 2005 and 2006, fighting for the WWE Championship at Unforgiven, Taboo Tuesday, Survivor Series, and New Years’ Revolution, but their greatest match came before that, at No Mercy in 2003, where the still-developing Cena managed to hang with one of the greatest technical wrestlers the world has ever seen.
6 Chris Jericho
John Cena and Chris Jericho have had two major feuds. The first was over the WWE Championship in 2005, with Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff picking Jericho as his hand-picked champion to remove the belt from the uncooperative Cena. The second was over the World Heavyweight Championship in 2008 and 2009, with Cena coming back from neck surgery to capture that world title for the first time. They’ve never had a truly great match together, though their 2005 SummerSlam may come close enough for most people, but they had great chemistry together on the mic.
5 Seth Rollins
As The Authority’s lead guy and main in-ring weapon, Seth Rollins and John Cena have already fought more than most. While you can argue that the WWE has gone to this well a few times too often, Cena and Rollins continue to put on legitimately great matches in the ring. Rollins was part of that epic Triple-Threat title match with Brock Lesnar at Royal Rumble '15 and then had a quadrilogy of great matches against Cena from July through October, including showdowns at SummerSlam and Night of Champions. SummerSlam’s Title-Versus-Title match is my favorite for the duo, though Jon Stewart’s interference at the end knocks it down a rung. WWE hammered this feud in a bit too hard last year, but you can’t argue with the quality of the matches inside the ring.
4 CM Punk
Was there ever a greater fit for an opponent for John Cena? While Cena has played the goody-two-shoes smiling babyface for the majority of his career, CM Punk perfected the anti-establishment voice of the people role. The two were fantastic every time they met, from Punk’s role in the second incarnation of The Nexus through their Pro Wrestling Illustrated Feud and Match of the Year in 2011. They’ve met up time and time again in classic matches—Night of Champions ’12 and their #1 Contenders' fight on the February 25th, 2013 edition of Raw stand out in particular—but nothing else quite compares to their showdown at Money in the Bank 2011. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter has given its highest rating—five stars—to only five WWE matches throughout history, with Cena/Punk’s match in front of a molten-hot Chicago crowd being the only such award since 1997. Everyone should watch that match at least once in their lives.
3 Triple H
In recent years, Triple H has been a thorn in John Cena’s side as the leader of The Authority, but he’s battled Cena in the ring plenty of times as well. They’ve battled for the WWE Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 22 and along with Randy Orton would fight in a Triple Threat match for the title at WrestleMania XXIV. Cena and Triple H have had regular interactions over the course of many years and while they’ve never had a truly great match, they've put on quite a few entertaining shows over the years and still are enjoyable to watch to this day.
The most significant wrestler of the PG Era versus the Rated-R Superstar—what could be better? In 2006, Edge became the first man to ever cash in a Money in the Bank briefcase, with the feud really kicking into high gear with title matches at SummerSlam and Unforgiven, with the latter being a TLC match. Edge and Lita were perfect scummy, sleazy counterpoints to John Cena’s squeaky-clean image, and the result was one of the most memorable feuds in WWE history. The two would re-kindle their feud in 2009, with Edge making a surprise entry into Raw’s Elimination Chamber match at No Way Out to win Cena’s title, leading to a match between the two, and Big Show, at WrestleMania XXV. Their final Pay-Per-View showdown—a Last Man Standing match at Backlash in 2009—might be the best of the lot, but you can scarcely go wrong with a match between the two of them.
1 Randy Orton
As two World Champions and Superstars who emerged at roughly the same time, it’s not surprising that John Cena and Randy Orton have gone at it over and over and over again. The two came up together through OVW and have never managed to really distance themselves from the other. With so many matches between them, many for the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship, it’s become clear that this is the defining matchup of their era. If you want to see the definitive Cena-Orton showdown, check out 2009’s Breaking Point, where they fought in a classic I Quit match, but really, they’ve fought each other so many times by now that you know what you’re going to get whenever they go out—a very good match between two of the best at what they do.
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