When you really look at it, SummerSlam is an interesting cornerstone to WWE’s year of storytelling. It’s part of the “Big Four” PPVs and while two of them revolve around gimmick matches, the other two are about how high-profile the regular matches are. WrestleMania is the climactic, explosive event that the company treats as the ultimate show of the year. They’re going to give you the biggest matches possible there. SummerSlam, on the other hand, is…big, but not THAT big.
Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage vs. Ted Dibiase and Andre the Giant is a huge and unique match, but nothing compared to the championship tournament that came months before it or the Hogan vs. Savage match that happened months after. Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Orton was a big match, but due to not being WrestleMania, they had the freedom to give it a more abrupt and questionable ending. Lex Luger couldn’t seal the deal in a title match against Yokozuna at SummerSlam because Vince McMahon figured it would be better to wait on such a big moment and perhaps do it at WrestleMania (an idea he then scrapped over time).
Granted, there are a couple exceptions, like comparing WrestleMania’s Undertaker vs. Sid to SummerSlam’s Undertaker vs. Bret Hart in 1997. For the most part, SummerSlam is the high-but-not-too-high-profile WWE show.
Now, one interesting thing about last year’s SummerSlam was that there was no John Cena. It wasn’t too surprising because after being squashed by the Undertaker at WrestleMania and having a meaningless match against Triple H in Saudi Arabia, Cena had been off the radar for months. Even after the show, he was built up to take part in the show Crown Jewel, but dropped out due to moral/PR reasons and has only been seen on WWE TV one time since.
On the other hand, 2018 was the first time John Cena wasn’t on the SummerSlam card since 2003! Good God! John Cena has been part of the PPV from 2004 to 2017 with no breaks and when you look at all of his appearances, it really does paint the rise, plateau, and fall of his career.
PART I: RISING TO THE TOP
Cena debuted in 2002 and while his first televised match was a valiant losing effort against Kurt Angle, he was still low on the SmackDown card and around the time of that year’s fantastic SummerSlam, he was busy taking on the likes of Reverend D-Von on Velocity. Soon after, he turned from vanilla face to Vanilla Ice heel and started to gain some serious traction as a foul-mouthed rapper. He hit a sweet spot where he was able to challenge against top names like Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, and Kurt Angle, but wasn’t a big enough deal to get any meaningful wins. By the time SummerSlam 2003 happened, Cena was in-between losing feuds and was near the end of his heel run. He wasn’t totally forgotten, but they had nothing for him.
Cena’s first SummerSlam was in 2004 and a lot had happened since getting snubbed in 2003. Shortly before Survivor Series 2003, he turned face and his popularity led to him winning the United States Championship at WrestleMania XX in the opening match against Big Show. Part of Cena’s initial success came from getting the rub from being Chris Benoit’s main ally and going into SummerSlam 2004, Cena would be following Benoit’s lead.
…in a good way, I promise.
One of Benoit’s high points in WCW was his Best of Five series with Booker T and they decided to remake history with having Cena get stripped of his title and having to earn it back via facing Booker T in their own Best of Five. SummerSlam 2004 was their first round with Cena getting the first win. The final match took place at the following No Mercy and ended with Cena winning the exact same way (dodging the Scissors Kick into the FU), which kind of takes away from the whole first-to-three deal.
Cena soon outgrew the secondary title and became WWE’s penultimate star, ranking just below Batista, but still being big enough to become World Heavyweight Champion. While seeing him dethrone JBL was very welcome, the hardcore fans started to turn on him due to his follow-up opponents. Guys like Christian and Chris Jericho, who many felt were underutilized, were doomed to put on matches with a man who was still a little green and whose fictional fighting style was just take a bunch of damage and then automatically win with his big move.
That’s what we got at SummerSlam 2005 with Cena powering through everything Jericho could do to him and silencing him with the FU. Not that it was a bad decision. Jericho was about to leave the company after his initial six-year run and despite being known as a guy who can evolve his character better than near anyone, Jericho instead spent his final years coasting and growing stale.
PART II: RULING THE ROOST
The Cena problem got worse because not only did his feud with Kurt Angle turn people against him (to the point that Angle did a hilarious promo about how he could say virtually anything offensive and still be more popular than Cena), but Triple H saw the situation as a challenge he needed to complete. He saw Angle as a failure in getting over as a heel and putting Cena over as a face. This was a job for Triple H!
Except…Edge kind of dethroned Cena in the interim. Using the first Money in the Bank cash-in at the most opportune time, we finally got new blood in the title picture and the ratings started to climb. Unfortunately, Cena vs. Triple H was considered a lock for WrestleMania, so Edge dropped the title back to Cena pretty quickly. Then Triple H realized that, whoops, he couldn’t get people to cheer Cena either.
Edge ended up getting the belt back and showed that while he couldn’t outfight Cena by any means, he could constantly connive against him by exploiting the rules. Even at SummerSlam 2006, Edge was able to escape with the WWE Championship due to excessive cheating, thereby giving Cena his first SummerSlam loss. Then again, during this era, a heel could only last against Cena for so long until he got the last word in and when the time came, Cena won the feud.
While Cena’s reign on top continued throughout the following year, they at least had something up their sleeve for SummerSlam 2007: a bona fide dream match that they had been building for years on the side. John Cena and Randy Orton both arrived in WWE around the same time and rose up the ranks in similar fashion. Due to being on different shows for five years, the two were separate enough that the very idea of putting them up against each other was major.
Cena won cleanly, but the feud would continue. Dear God, would it ever continue…
By SummerSlam 2008, John Cena and Batista were both miraculously missing from the top title pictures. Triple H was busy defending the WWE Championship against the Great Khali and CM Punk was the newly-crowned World Heavyweight Champion, defending against JBL. Cena and Batista were still the top two faces of that era and much like with Orton, the company did such a good job keeping them separate that finally putting them up against each other was a big deal.
Batista ended up winning, while inadvertently injuring Cena’s neck and putting him on the shelf. One could argue either way who was supposed to be the bigger star at the moment in the eyes of WWE. Sure, Batista came out on top, but WWE has a history of pushing SmackDown over Raw in cross-promotion battles to make up for Raw being seen as the A-show and this could be seen as the same thought process. Did Batista win because they saw him as their top star or did he win out of pity for being the lesser of the two?
It was a moot point as Batista would leave the company within the next two years.
SummerSlam 2009 gave us yet another John Cena vs. Randy Orton match for the WWE Championship. What was once a fresh and long-awaited matchup became possibly the most tired feud in WWE history. Cena/Orton would plague WWE for years and this instance didn’t help soothe the pain. It ended with Orton winning thanks to the interference of Brett Dibiase, whose existence was pretty much ignored after the show.
PART III: OKAY, WE GET IT!
At least things got fresh in 2010. Through the introduction of NXT, WWE gave us the Nexus, a team of rookies out to conquer the company. For someone interested in the behind-the-scenes antics of wrestling, the Nexus was truly fascinating because it was essentially the New World Order storyline done with a bunch of guys who had zero political pull and could only do exactly what management and the veterans told them to do.
The main event of SummerSlam 2010 gave us an elimination tag match of John Cena, Bret Hart, Chris Jericho, Edge, R-Truth, John Morrison, and a returning Daniel Bryan vs. Wade Barrett, Skip Sheffield, Justin Gabriel, Heath Slater, Darren Young, Michael Tarver, and David Otunga. All-in-all, it was a rather fantastic match with a few snags.
For one, they had to work around the fact that Bret Hart legitimately couldn’t take any damage due to having suffered a stroke. Second, it showed how gung-ho WWE was about Cena being the bestest ever because even though Michael Cole was an insufferable heel on commentary during this era, especially when discussing Daniel Bryan at any point, he couldn’t bring himself to rag on Cena about choosing Bryan to be part of the team. While the days of Hulk Hogan had Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan verbally antagonizing him, WWE didn’t want anyone in the announce booth being negative about Cena. Even if they were heels!
While Cena was always going to go over the Nexus as the last man standing, he went about it in a really disastrous way where he endured a DDT to the concrete floor and recovered with ease to defeat Justin Gabriel and Wade Barrett within a minute. Apparently, this was Cena’s call, even with Jericho and Edge telling him it was a bad idea that would hurt Barrett and Gabriel’s credibility. Only after going through with the spot did Cena agree that he messed up.
The only Nexus guy to come out of the match looking great was Skip Sheffield (AKA Ryback), who was treated like a monster. Unfortunately, he suffered a major leg injury shortly after the show.
Cena’s status as dominant ace of the company was getting tiresome. Whenever someone got over as a heel, Cena was there to knock them down a peg. Not just Cena, but also Triple H and Randy Orton. Guys like Miz, Sheamus, Wade Barrett, CM Punk, and R-Truth (yes, that was a thing) couldn’t succeed in any meaningful way and it was really hurting the company.
Thankfully, there was a new path to greatness in CM Punk’s frustration. He appeared to be on the way out due to unhappiness with his status and was going to put over Cena before leaving. They ended up turning it into part of the storyline, borrowing heavily from Punk’s Ring of Honor days, by having him rally against the status quo and swear that he was going to take the championship with him when his contract was up. Having that title match in his hometown of Chicago only added to the atmosphere and his controversial victory over Cena was booked perfectly.
Too bad the company tripped over themselves in the aftermath. They rushed a tournament to crown a new champion without Cena in it and once Rey Mysterio came out as the winner, they shoved him into a defense against a very fresh Cena and acted like it wasn’t shady as hell. Again, the commentators weren’t allowed to call him out on this. Instead of letting any of this intriguing angle breathe, they had Cena immediately beat Mysterio and then have Punk return the same night. They could have saved Cena vs. Mysterio for SummerSlam, but they just couldn’t help themselves and rushed the Punk rematch.
WWE had a new flavor in its main event scene and a Dark Knight to go with Cena’s Man of Steel as a top face. In their rematch, Punk once again won in a controversial way, but still got to be the Undisputed Champion. That is, until Kevin Nash ran in, laid him out, and Alberto Del Rio successfully cashed in the Money in the Bank briefcase. Not only did the explanation for Nash’s involvement get stupider by the week, but Punk never got to face him in a match and the whole thing was an exercise to get Triple H over by having him defeat both Punk and Nash.
Punk would get his title back and have a lengthy reign, but the damage was done and he’d never have the same heat to his name. Hell, even his reign as champion had him relegated to second banana while Cena was the main event.
So what was Cena up to for 2012? He was having “the worst year of his professional career.” See, Cena lost a match against the Rock at WrestleMania and then that led to a bad year which involved…beating Brock Lesnar, winning Money in the Bank, doing away with evil authority figure John Laurinaitis, and winning the Royal Rumble. WWE wanted to give him a redemption arc without giving him much in terms of an ordeal.
At least he lost at SummerSlam 2012 in a triple threat match against Punk and Big Show. Granted, he didn’t get pinned. He took out Big Show, Punk threw Cena out of the ring, and Punk retained via pinning Show.
Eventually, Punk dropped his title to the Rock so that Cena could get the ultimate redemption by not only getting his win back from the Rock at WrestleMania, but doing it for the WWE Championship. It was the finale to a story taking place over three WrestleManias. In a way, it was the biggest, most climactic win he could get, but it was almost bittersweet because what more could you do with him? Sure, Cena could continue to be the top guy for years if fate allowed it, but would it ever match that peak?
After finishing a feud with Ryback, Cena was penciled in to go over rising star Daniel Bryan at Money in the Bank 2013. As the story goes, Cena disagreed with Vince McMahon’s call to waste such a match on a B-list PPV. As far as he was concerned, Cena vs. Bryan for the title was the biggest money match they had available. Intrigued by this, McMahon decided to go with that idea and instead turned Money in the Bank’s title defense into a match against Mark Henry.
Cena defended the WWE Championship against Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam 2013 and the original plan was that he’d win, only for Randy Orton to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase to steal the title with some help from crooked special referee Triple H. Cena and Orton would start feuding all over again because time is a flat circle. Things didn’t work out as expected due to a nasty-ass growth in Cena’s elbow that really needed to be taken care of. Cena put over Bryan, who then fell victim to Triple H and Orton and immediately lost his belt.
Then, after getting that elbow taken care of, Cena and Orton went on to feud over both top titles. Yup.
The important thing in all of this was that when Bryan beat Cena, he beat him cleanly. In a finish that had nothing to do with the gross baseball of flesh near Cena’s elbow, Bryan knocked Cena out cold and pinned him 1-2-3. That was huge and shocking, especially after all the different ways Punk got past Cena without doing it 100% clean.
PART IV: WINDING DOWN
Due to fans loudly pushing against the revised status quo of Cena, Orton, and a returning Batista ruling the main event scene, Daniel Bryan won the unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXX. At the same show, Brock Lesnar made major waves by ending the Undertaker’s legendary undefeated streak. The plan was for Bryan vs. Brock to happen at SummerSlam 2014 with Brock squashing the champ to add to his momentum.
Bryan’s neck crapped out on him and he had to drop the title instead. At Money in the Bank, the vacated title was up for grabs in a ladder match and Cena ended up the winner. That meant Cena vs. Brock at SummerSlam and at the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We already had this match two years earlier.
The match that followed was mind-blowing. In their 2012 bout, Cena squeaked out a win in an uphill battle. Here, Brock absolutely annihilated Cena. Tore him to ribbons and shrugged off all of his major moves. After all these years of Cena being this unbeatable superhero, he was being stomped into nothingness in a way to get Brock over as the ultimate monster. Brock cleanly and decisively won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and looked horrifyingly unstoppable.
Even though it was the weakest Cena’s ever looked, WWE still didn’t want the fans to lose stock in him and the following Raw had Cena beat up the entire Wyatt Family by himself. They had Bray Wyatt cry for mercy just to remind everyone that Cena was still strong and good.
Cena found a new lease on his career when he won the United States Championship at WrestleMania 31. Over the years, Cena had developed into an amazing competitor and as US Champ, he’d do weekly open challenges so he could have fresh, entertaining matches against anyone throughout the midcard.
Another winner at that WrestleMania was Seth Rollins, who used Money in the Bank to scheme his way into being WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Rollins spent the next six months being a cowardly champion backed by the top brass. This led to a champ vs. champ winner-takes-all battle of Rollins vs. Cena at SummerSlam 2015.
The ending was absolutely stupid, but telling about Cena’s storied career. The show’s host and massive wrestling fan Jon Stewart ran in and attacked Cena with a chair to help Rollins win. Why? Because in his decade-plus career in WWE, Cena had accumulated fifteen world title reigns. One more would make him equal to Ric Flair’s and Stewart didn’t want Flair overshadowed.
As dumb as that was, it did point out that Cena had done pretty much all there was to do. He could be champion maybe two more times, but then what? It just becomes meaningless, especially in a time when the company has succeeded in creating new stars.
Cena’s MO became a focus on simply having awesome matches before his time was done. That led to the absolutely kickass match with AJ Styles at SummerSlam 2016. They had the longest and best match on the card with AJ Styles – the heel in this – cleanly taking out Cena with two Phenomenal Forearms. Afterwards, a distraught and disappointed Cena left his armband in the ring and quietly walked away. Unlike that “worst year of his professional career” bullshit from 2012, the company decided to show their work.
It should also be noted that this was Cena’s sixth SummerSlam loss in a row! How crazy is that?
Cena did make his return and gained his sixteenth title reign by beating AJ Styles at Royal Rumble 2017. It felt extremely earned. He soon dropped the title to Bray Wyatt and slumped down the midcard.
Showing up on both Raw and SmackDown sporadically, Cena made sure to put over the necessary talent when need be. Guys like Dean Ambrose, Shinsuke Nakamura, Seth Rollins, Braun Strowman, and Roman Reigns beat him cleanly one way or another. He was paying back the business that made him a star.
He still wasn’t a pushover. His final SummerSlam appearance did at least give him one last victory. He took on Baron Corbin, a promising talent whose attitude got him put in the doghouse at a bad time. Corbin looked like a punk with a failed Money in the Bank cash-in and lost pretty badly to Cena at SummerSlam 2017. Especially damning was during the “LET’S GO CENA!”/”CENA SUCKS!” chant, Cena pointed out that nobody had anything to say about Corbin.
Cena won, yes, but it was also the first match on the main show. His showdown was no big title match or epic dream match. It was just another spot on the card while others got their time in the sun. Even guys like Jinder Mahal.
Cena’s job is basically done. He’s found success outside of the ring as a movie star and voice actor. While he stops by from time to time, he appears to be sitting it out this SummerSlam. This time we actually can’t see him.
Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and went out of his way not to mention that Cena/Ryback Last Man Standing match because of how long he’d be ranting about that ending. Read more of his articles here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L
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