Many fans thought this match would never happen. The idea that AJ Styles, arguably the best in-ring wrestler of an entire generation, would share a WWE ring with WWE’s most notorious golden boy in years seemed absolutely ludicrous. The two were polar opposites in so many ways, yet here they were, competing in front of WWE’s audience hoping to determine once and for all which of them was the better wrestler.
This review came as a request from one of TJR’s readers. The match we’re looking at has been praised by many people as some kind of genuine classic. And now, long after the initial hoopla and emotional knee-jerk reaction to it is gone, we’re looking at it with cool heads to see how well it holds up.
Thus, today we revisit the singles match between John Cena and AJ Styles from SummerSlam 2016.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
AJ Styles made his long-awaited WWE debut in the 2016 Royal Rumble match. after lasing almost 30 minutes in that match, he entered a brief feud with Chris Jericho that concluded in a loss at WrestleMania 32, which was negated the following night on RAW (‘Mania 32 was a dumpster fire for many reasons). Styles tried twice and failed twice to win the world title from Roman Reigns, and then failed to qualify for the MITB ladder match. Frustrated over his failures, Styles turned his attention to a returning John Cena, who had been sidelined for months with a shoulder injury but made a one-off appearance at ‘Mania 32 to destroy the Wyatt Family alongside The Rock (again, Mania 32 = dumpster fire).
The huge first-ever singles match between Styles and Cena took place at the 2016 MITB PPV and ended with Styles winning thanks to interference from Styles’ allies Gallows & Anderson. Cena rightfully argued that Styles’ win was hollow and looked to get revenge on Styles and his Club for using the numbers advantage. At Battleground, Cena along with Enzo and Cass beat Styles, Gallows and Anderson. That win led to this match at SummerSlam, which was to be different from the MITB match. That first one had shenanigans take place. This rematch was to be ‘pure’. It was to be a straight singles match with no seconds and no cheap avenues to victory. It was to be the deciding contest to see which of these two men really was the better wrestler.
This match originally took place on August 21st, 2016 at WWE SummerSlam. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and ****3/4 by TJR’s own John Canton. It was also named Match of the Year for 2016 by Pro Wrestling Illustrated and I’ve heard a lot of good things about it being one of the best matches of the modern era. Now that enough time has passed, let’s see if that reputation is well-deserved.
The crowd is vocally behind Styles as the bell rings. They have a long lock-up that ends in a rear waistlock for Styles. Cena grapples out but then Styles applies a deep headlock. Cena throws Styles off and he trash-talks Cena, which leads to more mixed chants from the audience. Cena applies a headlock this time but Styles escapes and lands a dropkick. He gloats in a corner but when he turns around Cena drops him with a huge right hand. Cena whips Styles into one corner and Styles does the Bret bump, and then whips him into the opposite corner and Styles hits hard back-first. Cena hits a few more punches and then goes for an AA on the apron. But suddenly Styles escapes and suplexes Cena right onto the apron. Hard landing for Cena.
Back in the ring, Styles hits some elbows but Cena counters an Irish whip and hits a big back body drop for the first two-count of the match. Cena follows with a chinlock but Styles elbows out and charges, only to run into a dropkick from Cena. Styles kicks out of a pin at two so Cena hits a snap suplex and some more punches as the crowd gets louder. The two trade strikes until Styles lands a KENTA rush. Styles follows with a basement forearm but misses a corner attack. That allows Cena to his hit comeback sequence to a torrent of boos from people tired of seeing the same spots day in and day out. Cena lands the Five Knuckle Shuffle and goes for an AA but Styles lands on his feet and hits a Pélé kick. That’s followed by a successful Styles Clash out of nowhere. The referee counts one, two, and Cena kicks out.
Styles rushes Cena but Cena lifts him up and hits the AA. One, two, Styles kicks out. Cena hoists Styles up for the Avalanche AA but Styles rolls out and puts Cena in the torture rack. Rack Bomb by Styles. Cena kicks out. Styles tries another Styles Clash. Cena catapults him into a corner and hits a Big Ending-type move for another two-count. Cena tries the AA again. Styles escapes and rolls Cena up for another two-count. Styles misses another basement forearm and Cena tries the STF. But Styles kicks him off and hits an ushigoroshi, driving Cena’s neck into his knee. One, two, Cena survives.
Styles hits some forearms and goes to the apron. Springboard 450 splash…misses. Cena hits a Code Red/Yoshi Tonic for another two-count. Cena tries another AA but Styles escapes and lands a German suplex into a wheelbarrow facebuster and gets a close two-count of his own. Styles springboards again but he misses his Phenomenal Forearm. Cena takes advantage and locks in the STF. But it doesn’t last long as Styles counters into a crossface. Cena answers by showing off his power and lifting himself (and Styles) up. Styles blocks another AA and rolls into a Calf Slicer submission hold. Cena tries reaching for the ropes but Styles turns them both around. That forces Cena to roll out and back into the STF. Styles rolls out of that and into a pinning position for yet another two-count. Enzuigiri by Styles. Cena hits a back elbow from the corner and a tornado DDT for still yet another two-count. Cena follows with a Kobashi-style diving guillotine leg drop to the back of Styles’ neck. He pins but once again only manages a two-count.
Cena tries the AAA again. Styles elbows out and hits a springboard Frankensteiner. That’s followed by a successful Phenomenal Forearm. One, two, Cena kicks out.
Styles goes for another Styles Clash but Cena powers into an AA attempt instead. Styles elbows out and kicks Cena’s calf but runs into a big clothesline. Then Cena hoists Styles up on the top turnbuckle again. Avalanche AA finally connects. Cena covers Styles. One, two, and thr – no, Styles kicks out at 2.8! Cena can’t believe it. He has this look of complete shock on his face. He attempts yet another AA. Styles counters into another Styles Clash. But he’s not done. He goes to the apron again and springboards. Phenomenal Forearm connects! One, two, and three! Styles beats Cena!
Winner after 23:10: AJ Styles
This was a great match by WWE standards but it falls short by wider pro wrestling standards. I think much of the love for this match comes from its novelty and the fact that so many people were amazed it was even happening. The very idea that John Cena was wrestling AJ Styles one-on-one in a straight singles match enraptured so many people that it was as if they were all hypnotized into adoring the match regardless of what happened. But in my opinion, just because a match finally happens after years of hoping and dreaming doesn’t automatically mean that said match will automatically be some kind of historic, must-see encounter.
Even though the match had a great crowd and included some decent drama and a decent and logical escalation in moves and intensity, it had a fatal flaw. It suffered from that one element common to every so-called ‘WWE main-event-style match’: the drawback of one finisher syndrome. Most if not all WWE superstars have this same formula: they have one finisher for pin-falls and, if they’re lucky, one for submission situations. Anything else is just filler, which is what happened in this match. Cena and Styles both spammed random moves throughout the match and it was incredibly hard to believe any of those near-falls. After all, neither Cena nor Styles had ever won a match with those ‘special’ moves, so why would that change here? There was no reason for Styles to pin Cena after hitting the Rack Bomb and there was no reason for Cena to pin styles following his Yoshi Tonic/Code Red. The match would’ve been much better had both Cena and Styles made the slightest change to their strategies. Instead of following the same overused ‘move-pin-move-pin-move-pin’ pattern, both should’ve gone with a pattern of ‘move-move-move-move-believable pin’ instead.
One can argue that those near-falls ‘exhausted’ both men and caused them to run out of energy. But that argument only makes sense when the wrestlers actually show that exhaustion. That didn’t happen here. Both Cena and Styles moved with the same speed and recovered quickly in ways that seemed to negate all the work that came beforehand. They were just as quick and smooth twenty minutes into the match as they were two minutes in. Even though the commentators did their best to sell this as a war of attrition that saw Styles and Cena chip away at each other, it didn’t come across that way. Almost every single key move was forgotten moments after it was landed. Neither wrestler really sold pain or exhaustion to create the illusion that they were struggling to move forward. That gave this match a sense of style over substance, a match filled with big moves that didn’t really mean anything in the larger scheme of things. Styles’ apron suplex was the perfect example. The commentators mentioned how hard that part of the ring was and the crowd reacted like it was a critical move on Styles’ part. And what was Cena’s response to this? To use his power game and rely on his back to throw Styles around…as if no damage had been done to him in the first place.
It’s hard to get into a match like this when viewers are conditioned to only believe that one or two moves will ever lead to anything more than a two-count. Why react and chant ‘this is awesome’ when a move is landed but doesn’t lead to anything of substance? Sure, Styles is a great wrestler with a deep arsenal of moves that has made him – in many fans’ eyes – a much better wrestler than Cena. BUT, Styles, and to a lesser extent, Cena, going further than normal by busting out rare moves doesn’t automatically make a match better. Doing stuff like that only makes sense when said new moves are established, which is done by winning matches with them. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve praised matches from Japan or even other American matches that have unexpected endings. If you can see a finish coming or if you can ‘telegraph’ that a specific sequence will land without deviation, that isn’t compelling wrestling; that leads to boredom. Cena hit all his biggest moves here without Styles interrupting anything except for the AA, which was spammed over and over and over.
And yet, there were some interesting moments in this match. Cena did a tremendous job selling his frustration at Styles’ tenacity and when the match was over, Styles came across as, at the very least, Cena’s equal. Some of the near-falls were okay, especially from Styles once he realized his Clash wouldn’t do the trick and he needed to hit Cena with something else.
But again, it’s too bad that all those clever/cool moves he used were followed with senseless pins that no one believed would keep Cena down. Styles never weakened Cena’s leg before locking in the Calf Slicer, either. And since Cena’s entire gimmick was that he – like the millions of sick kids that look up to him – never gives up, the idea that he would tap out to anything, especially a new guys’ finisher that wasn’t setup and the limb not weakened beforehand, was simply ludicrous. And only Cena’s emotional selling was good; his physical selling was, well, poor. He took two Styles Clashes in this match and on the second one he was up within seconds, completely undervaluing that move as something supposedly lethal. Styles was similar, though he was a bit better than Cena at conveying that he was a) in pain; b) frustrated; and c) desperate.
Final Rating: ***3/4
This was simply a WWE version of the modern ‘MOVEZ’ spot-fest match with lots of maneuver spam and little substance. It was another example of eye candy instead of eye protein. Even with something of a story taking place, it was threadbare at best. Both wrestlers deserve credit for milking the crowd and trying their best to tell the right story. But the avenue they chose to take was a poor one. This was like the pro-wrestling version of a Pokémon game: a my-turn-your-turn exchange with only a handful of truly exciting moments.
I liked this match when it first came out, but on second viewing I genuinely think it doesn’t hold up that well. The good news is that these two went on to have a MUCH better match at the 2017 Royal Rumble. And one of the reasons that one is superior is because these two fixed most of the problems found in this one. I say most, not all, because not even these two wrestlers can escape the confines imposed on them by WWE’s notorious match style.