(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: AJ Styles vs. John Cena – WWE Royal Rumble 2017
This great wrestling match had the weight of history weighing heavy on it when it took place. Not only was John Cena vying to tie Ric Flair’s record of sixteen world titles, but both he and Styles wanted to have the best match they possibly could.
You see, this match occurred only a few short weeks after NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event and the famous main event that had the whole world talking. That match’s 6-star rating cast a shadow over the entire wrestling landscape. Everyone wondered if WWE could pull off a wrestling match that could achieve similar acclaim.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches (or nearly five-star 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. Meltzer rated this match ****3/4 while TJRWrestling’s John Canton rated this match ***** out of five.
And so we’ve arrived at the 2017 Royal Rumble event. This was a rematch from SummerSlam 2016, and Styles had won that match. Styles was undefeated in singles competition going into this match, and Cena wanted to tie Flair’s record and make history. During their entrances, Styles gets a huge positive reaction while Cena gets a mixed reaction and a lot of people sing ‘John Cena suuuucks’.
They do ring introductions and both get solid reactions and they’re making plenty of noise as the match starts. Most of them are chanting for Styles as the bell rings.
This match took place on January 29, 2017 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
They circle each other and Cena does some fake out jabs. Styles kicks Cena’s leg and Cena hits a big clothesline to start the match. Cena whips Styles hard into the turnbuckle and Styles goes down. Cena hits hard punches and whips Styles again, but Styles elbows Cena, sending Cena down. Styles hits an elbow followed by a running knee drop to Cena’s head. He kicks Cena and drops the knee a second time before taunting the crowd. Styles does the ‘you can’t see me’ gesture and tries the knee drop again but Cena dodges and hits a huge standing back body drop. Cena goes for the AA but Styles lands on his feet, kicks the leg again followed by an enzuigiri.
Styles looks frustrated as the crowd chants for both guys equally. He continues elbowing Cena in the face and Cena keeps dropping after each strike. Cena ducks one elbow and begins his comeback, but as he tries his version of the blue thunder bomb, Styles reverses that into a frankensteiner. That was cool.
Styles hits a corner clothesline followed by a basement forearm for a two-count. Styles goes for the Styles Clash but Cena reverses that into a free fall drop and hits his blue thunder bomb. The crowd boos as he goes for his signature taunt. Styles looks like he was going to kick Cena, so Cena pushes him away, and when Cena gets up Styles kicks Cena in the hand and hits a nice German suplex/Jushin Liger Crash Thunder Buster combo for two.
Phenomenal Blitz by Styles, but Cena answers with a huge running clothesline. Cena hits the 5-knuckle shuffle and tries the AA again, but Styles locks himself in the ropes, so Cena punches him onto the top turnbuckle. Cena attempts a superplex, but Styles escapes and a gorgeous torture rack powerbomb for a two-count. That move always looks amazing when Styles does it.
Styles prepares to hit the Phenomenal Forearm, but Cena ducks and hits the AA but Styles kicks out at 2.5. Great nearfall. As Cena gets up Styles grabs his foot, but Cena kicks him away and looks furious. Cena waits for Styles to get up and hits another running clothesline for 2.5 again. Cena looks pissed at this point as he waits for Styles to get up. He charges again, but this time Styles ducks and hits a Pélé kick to the shoulder.
Styles charges and lands on the apron and hits the phenomenal forearm, but Cena kicks out at 2.5 this time. The crowd is chanting for A.J. Styles at this point, and I can totally see why. He’s doing a great job of going toe-to-toe with WWE’s franchise player.
Styles is up first and kicks Cena as Cena appears to be struggling to catch his breath. Cena dodges a kick and hits an electric chair facebuster and both of them are down in the middle of the ring. They start brawling as the fans chant ‘yay/boo’ for Styles/Cena. We get a great sequence were Cena reverses the Styles Clash into another AA attempt but Styles rolls through into the calf crusher as the crowd cheers. After a few seconds, Cena reverses and rolls into the STF, and just as Styles gets close to the rope Cena pulls him back to the centre of the ring. Then Styles reverses the hold into a roll-up which gets two, and then Styles locks in an STF of his own.
Cena looks like he might tap for a moment, but then gets to his feet with Styles on his back. Styles tries to switch into another frankensteiner, but Cena reverses into the figure-4 leglock (in reference to Ric Flair and his 16 world title reigns). Styles powers out and locks in a cross armbreaker, but Cena uses his super strength to deadlift Styles and toss him off. Cena ascends the top rope and attempts the diving leg drop but Styles drops him powerbomb-style and hits the Styles Clash. It’s over. The ref counts one…two…thr-no, he kicks out at 2.9. This has been fantastic thus far.
Cena is down in the centre of the ring as Styles attempts the springboard 450 Splash but Cena gets his knees up and Cena hits a Yoshi Tonic for 2.8. Cena charges but Styles hits the Ushigoroshi for another 2.8 count. Cena tries the AA again but Cena catapults him into the turnbuckle and hits a scoop lift cutter for another 2.5-count. Cena hoists Styles onto the top rope and lands the avalanche AA but Styles kicks out at 2.9. The crowd jumps to their feet and is cheering loudly and start chanting ‘Yes’ for them.
Cena hoists Styles up again, but Styles goes for another Styles Clash but can’t capitalize right away. He goes to the rope and prepares for the Phenomenal Forearm, but Cena catches him as soon as he jumps onto the top rope and hits another AA, and then rolls through and hits a second AA immediately afterwards. The referee counts one…two…thee. Cena wins (LOL).
Winner and NEW WWE Champion after 24:10: John Cena
That was a fantastic wrestling match that both Cena and Styles should be very proud of. They fought tooth and nail with each other, busting out big move after big move to try and keep the other down. They kept the crowd on their feet with a plethora of exciting big moves and close pins.
The fact that it took so much offense from Cena to keep Styles down for the three-count made Styles look great in defeat; he wasn’t ‘buried’ by any stretch of the imagination. In winning, Cena made him look like an incredible challenger to overcome, a massive mountain to climb. It proved that Styles did deserve to be in the main event conversation in WWE.
With that said, there were some flaws in how this match was structured. The final ten minutes, while exciting, could’ve been better. While they did bust out some rare moves (the Rack Bomb for Styles, the Yoshi Tonic and the diving leg drop for Cena), none of those moves had ever won a match. That hurt the drama of this match because it was more like they were thinking ‘hit another big move out of nowhere’ without it really meaning anything.
That’s why the only falls that really mattered were when they kicked out of each other’s main finishers, the AA, the Styles Clash, and the Phenomenal Forearm.
The match also suffered from a glaring lack of psychology regarding the submission holds. The closest either man was to using psychology was Styles locking in the Calf Crusher after having kicked Cena’s leg a few times earlier in the match. Other than that, it felt like they were just ‘playing the hits’, hitting their most famous moves just to pop the crowd. Cena went for the STF but didn’t hit any big moves to target the head or neck.
Worse, Cena did the Figure-4 leglock but there wasn’t even a single instance of Cena attacking Styles’ legs beforehand to weaken Styles or to make this submission hold more realistic. It came off as more of a ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ surprise to the fans than an actually logical move to use in the match.
Even if Cena had done something basic like smash Styles knees first into the steel ring steps and THEN locked in the Figure-4, that would’ve made much more sense in the grand narrative of the story and would’ve made that submission hold a far more credible moment than just locking it in out of nowhere for a cheap pop.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This is a great match and serves as a perfect showcase for two of the best wrestlers of the past decade. It has incredible in-ring action, great near-falls and a big fight atmosphere. I consider this to be the single greatest match of John Cena’s career. This match silenced any naysayers that might’ve still believed that Cena couldn’t wrestle. Big Match John brought his working boots (sneakers?) and put on an instant classic with Styles.
Styles came off looking like he belonged in WWE’s main event and had effectively shaken off his ‘indy wrestler’ aura. Despite losing in this match, Styles would end the 2017 calendar year as WWE Champion and eventually became the longest-reigning WWE Champion in WWE history, surpassing a reign previously held by JBL and John Cena.
Now for the question on everyone’s mind: Is this match on the same level as Omega versus Okada I? Unfortunately, no, it isn’t. That’s because, while this is a great match, it lacks several key elements of the Omega-Okada match that made that one so legendary. One of those elements comes down to match structuring. WWE’s style is notorious for its predictability and ‘telegraphability’. You can see a specific wrestler’s signature moves coming a mile away, and in most matches, the wrestlers don’t of out of their way to dodge/escape/reverse those signature moves.
I watched this match side-by-side with the Omega/Okada match and saw the opposite in that one. Omega and Okada had clear answers for each other’s big moves, and they kept reversing out of whatever they could to keep the fans guessing when and how the match would end.
This match didn’t really have that, outside of a few key sequences. Cena and Styles would hit each of their moves fully with barely any resistance out of each other when one or the other was in control. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to find a certain rarely-seen-before move believable in a match of this magnitude when said move hadn’t won any matches beforehand.
So while this match is outstanding, the simple fact is that Omega and Okada was more so.
Thanks for reading. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.