It’s extremely rare for WWE to get everything right when it comes to their big matches. More often than not, the matches they hype up end up missing some key element or has something out of place. Sometimes it’s either a lack of crowd interest or a crowd reacting in the opposite way than what was intended, like the 2015 Royal Rumble match. In others, the in-ring action doesn’t justify the hype, like with Bray Wyatt vs. Randy Orton at WrestleMania 33. And in others still, wrestlers are forced to make the best out of bad booking but end up paying the price for it, like Bray Wyatt vs. Seth Rollins at HIAC 2019.
Then there’s this match.
It’s one of those rare cases where basically everything was done correctly and that yielded the best possible results. This match took advantage of a real-life injury, an unlikely challenger, and a diehard crowd that was desperate to see some change in WWE. And not only did this lead to a fantastic match, but it also created one of the most compelling and emotionally-satisfying long-term storylines in modern WWE history.
Today we revisit the classic WWE title match between John Cena and Daniel Bryan from SummerSlam 2013.
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.
One month earlier, John Cena was given the freedom to choose his opponent for his WWE Championship match at SummerSlam and he chose Daniel Bryan. This decision was met with overwhelming approval from the fans, who adored Bryan and wanted him to reach the top again, especially after how badly he got shafted at WrestleMania XXVIII.
But that approval wasn’t universal, because ‘the office’ didn’t think Bryan was fit to be world champion. Vince McMahon berated Bryan week after week, and the commentators took shots at him for one reason or another to create this notion that Bryan was fighting not just Cena, but the powers-that-be that didn’t want Bryan to represent WWE as its top champion.
By the time SummerSlam rolled around, Bryan had the full support of a vocal and passionate WWE fandom. Many of those fans had followed Bryan’s career from his earlier pre-WWE days, when he kicked ass on the independent scene and in Ring of Honor. (You can find two of my reviews of some of Bryan’s matches here and here). So those fans rallied behind Bryan in the hopes that ‘their guy’ would take the title off the corporate, sanitized and commercialized John Cena, who wasn’t even seen as a wrestler by those same fans or by some of his peers, including Bryan. And while Cena maintained his happy-go-lucky personality to keep his fans optimistic, there was a clear seed of doubt planted in Cena after Bryan refused to acknowledge him as an actual wrestler. So going into the match, Cena actually had something to prove to Bryan, even if he didn’t even want to admit it.
At the same time, there was an additional element added: Who would referee the match? Then-GM Brad Maddox fast-counted Bryan on the final RAW before SummerSlam, getting Bryan the win. Maddox then offered to referee Bryan’s SummerSlam match, but that offer ended when Triple H Pedigreed Maddox and made himself the referee instead, to ‘keep things impartial’ (yeah, sure).
Lastly, there was also Cena’s real-life injury. He had suffered a triceps tear which caused his left elbow to fill with fluid and swell to an unhealthy size. But Cena still vowed to wrestle Bryan at SummerSlam, no matter how much pain or lack of mobility that injury caused him. Say what you want about Cena, but his dedication and toughness cannot be denied.
This match originally took place on August 18th, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. It was originally rated ****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It was also rated ****1/2 by TJRWrestling’s John Canton in his SummerSlam 2013 review. Let’s see how well this match holds up now after so much time has passed.
This is for the WWE Championship. Triple H is the special guest referee. They lock up and Bryan gets an armlock on Cena’s injured/swollen elbow but Cena grapples out quickly. Yes, Cena is actually chain wrestling. Big surprise there. Bryan throws Cena off as the crowd chants back-and-forth between both wrestlers. They tease locking up again and Cena soaks in the crowd as they chant ‘you can’t wrestle’. Cena takes Bryan down on a Greco-Roman knuckle lock and gets a series of one-counts. Bryan shows some tremendous strength by bridging out of a pin and supporting both his own weight and Cena’s as well. Bryan escapes with a monkey flip and tries for the Yes Lock but Cena escapes the ring as the crowd boos.
Cena headlocks Bryan but Bryan sends him into the ropes. Bryan drops down and goes for a monkey flip, Cena counters into a jackknife pin for some quick pins. Bryan escapes them and powers out into a backslide and lands a dragon screw leg whip. The crowd chants ‘Yes’ as Bryan tries to put Cena in the surfboard stretch but Cena powers out. Bryan charges, Cena goes for the AA, Bryan lands on the apron. Cena charges and clotheslines Bryan, sending him off the apron and face-first into the announce table.
The fans continue to give Cena shit until Bryan reverses an Irish whip and sends him into the steel ring steps…left arm-first. Bryan goes to suplex Cena off the steps but Cena counters and suplexes Bryan. Some people still chant ‘you still suck’ at Cena, even as he shows more than he does normally.
Back in the ring, Cena gets a two-count, then lands hard punches and hammer throws Bryan into a corner and Bryan goes down hard. The crowd continues to get under Cena’s skin, so he lands a massive Batista Bomb for another two-count, and then applies a chinlock. But Bryan starts fighting back. He gets a second wind and elbows out. Corner kicks to Cena’s chest. The crowd erupts in cheers. But Cena cuts his momentum off with a knee lift. he whips Bryan into a corner, but Bryan Tiger Mask flips and lands on his feet. Big running clothesline by Bryan. Kawada kicks. Bryan winds up for a big one. Cena ducks, charges and begins his ‘Five Moves of Doom’ with the shoulder tackles. Cena gets a torrent of boos as he does his ‘You can’t see me’ taunt, but Bryan kicks him in the face. Both men go for submission holds but counter out. Side suplex and Five Knuckle Shuffle by Cena. AA, no, Bryan lands on his feet and kicks Cena in the face. Diving shotgun dropkick. Cena kicks out.
Bryan kicks Cena’s weakened left arm and lands a standing armbreaker. Cena makes a sudden counter and goes for the STF. Cena tanks some kicks but Bryan rolls through and puts Cena in the STF. Cena crawls towards the ropes. Bryan pulls him back and lands a bridging German suplex. Cena kicks out. Bryan lands another. Cena kicks out again and powers out of a third one. He goes for the Attitude Adjustment. Bryan counters into the Yes Lock. Cena powers out. Bryan counters into a guillotine choke. Cena gets to his feet and charges into a corner. But Bryan refuses to let go. Cena manages to toss Bryan off. Bryan charges. Cena lands the AA. Bryan kicks out at 2.75. the crowd goes nuts with ‘Yes’ chants.
Cena goes to the top rope but Bryan cuts him off. Cena pushes him off but Bryan keeps coming back. He lands a big kick to Cena. Spider superplex. Diving head-butt. Cena kicks out and escapes the ring. Bryan charges for a suicide dive but Cena hits him hard. Top-rope diving leg drop by Cena. Bryan kicks out.
Cena puts Bryan on the top rope for the Avalanche AA. Bryan fights out with his ROH-style collar elbows. He goes for a super Frankensteiner. Cena blocks it and applies the STF. Bryan tries to crawl and roll out but can’t escape the hold. Except he does. Bryan counters into a Yes Lock. The crowd’s going nuts. Cena grabs the ropes and the crowd boos loudly.
Bryan powers up and lands two big running corner dropkicks. He goes for a third but Cena drills him with a big clothesline. They trade strikes in the middle of the ring. Both men charge and both men go down. They lean on each other for leverage to get to their feet. Cena bitchslaps Bryan. Bryan bitchslaps back. Strong style slap exchange. Bryan gets the upper hand. But only briefly. Cena lands another big knee lift and whips Bryan into a corner. Bryan goes for the Tiger Mask flip again, but Cena catches him. He tries to get Bryan in the AA but Bryan counters into a DDT. Bryan goes to the top rope and dives. Cena catches him in midair. AA, no, counter into a small package. Cena kicks out. Cena ducks one kick but can’t doge a second and eats a hard kick to the head. Bryan gets the crowd behind him. Running Knee strike. One, two…THREE! Bryan pins Cena! Bryan pins Cena! Daniel Bryan wins the WWE Championship!
Winner and NEW WWE Champion after 26:53: Daniel Bryan
Post-match, Cena gets to his feet and shakes Bryan’s hand out of respect. Cena leaves and Bryan gets a WrestleMania-level celebration. The crowd’s going wild with ‘Yes’ chants as confetti falls from the ceiling and fireworks go off. Then, someone else’s music starts playing. Randy Orton comes down with his Money in the Bank Briefcase in tow. Bryan stands ready and Orton starts to walk back, saving his cash-in for another day. But then…betrayal. Triple H Pedigrees Bryan. Still in his referee shirt, he grabs Orton’s MITB briefcase and demands the bell be rung. Orton covers Bryan. One, two, three! Bryan’s big moment ends after five minutes.
That was an outstanding match. It was much better and more competitive than what I expected it was going to be. Not only do I think it was easily the match of the night for SummerSlam 2013 and an easy MOTY contender, but I also think it’s one of the best WWE matches of the entire decade.
For starters, the actual wrestling here was fantastic. John Cena brought out his A-game and felt less like his typical robotic, manufactured, corporate-approved self. He and Bryan had awesome chemistry here and pulled off some truly great and dramatic sequences and believable moments, especially those involving submission holds. And Bryan was, well, Bryan. He showcased his grappling know-how and seemed to have a counter for everything Cena tried to dish out. Bryan’s cleverness meshed perfectly with Cena’s power advantage, which created a classic David vs. Goliath underdog story for Bryan trying to overcome Cena, both in terms of in-ring action and physical combat and with what Cena represented in this match.
There was a very clear and obvious story here: Cena was the establishment man and Bryan was the fans’ darling that they hoped would upset the status quo. To the live crowd, Bryan was the ultimate underdog. He was the antithesis to John Cena in virtually every way and they wanted him to beat Cena so bad. That’s why the crowd was so hot and vocal during this match; their passion and investment in this match’s story gave it the atmosphere of a much bigger and historically-significant contest.
The match also told the story of Cena as ‘the entertainer’ vs. Bryan ‘the pure wrestler’, and that seemed to get under Cena’s skin based on his body language and facial expressions. He acknowledged the fans chanting ‘you can’t wrestle’ and responded by trying to grapple with Bryan. And towards the end, Cena brought up something very specific as a great example of subtle storytelling. Cena slapped Bryan hard in the face and Bryan hesitated to slap back. In the build-up to this match, Bryan explained how when training in Japan, a stiff slap to the face was done to fire someone up to the point that they wrestled at their absolute best. And in that promo, Bryan refused to slap Cena because he didn’t acknowledge Cena as an actual wrestler. But he was forced to do so here. He was unable to ignore the fact that Cena had proven that he could in fact wrestle, and thus he found Cena deserving of being treated like a wrestler in the ring. I think subtleties like that go a long way in making wrestling matches better, especially when they incorporate stuff from the past and don’t exist in a vacuum entirely.
And for once I actually found Michael Cole’s commentary insightful and not annoying. He pointed out early in the match that Cena was using his injured left arm to show that it wasn’t actually causing him any problems. In doing so, he played some mind games with Bryan by showing him that that supposed weakness wasn’t as serious as everyone – including Bryan – might’ve thought. But Bryan targeted that arm anyway, because he knew what pro wrestling is. And his work led to many credible and realistic near-finishes, which in turn forced Bryan to forge a new avenue to victory by driving his knee into Cena’s face as hard as possible.
But as great as this match was, it still had some obvious flaws, mostly courtesy of the wrestlers being pigeonholed into the ‘WWE main-event style’ of match. Just like in Cena’s match with CM Punk at SummerSlam 2011 or his match with AJ Styles at the 2017 Royal Rumble, this match had completely unrealistic and non-credible near-fall sequences. And the reason for that is because Cena used moves for potential false finishes (the powerbomb and diving leg drop, for example) that weren’t actually false finishes because they had never finished a match before.
It was nice seeing Cena – a wrestler with a notorious reputation for only using the same small handful of moves over and over again without taking different situations into account – busting out new things either out of desperation or to prove to the world that he could wrestle. But using new moves like that without them ever winning him a match rendered them more useless than useful. Instead of going for multiple quick pins that no one believed would get a three-count, it would’ve made more sense for Cena to spam those new moves and then hit his finisher so that the following pinfall would have more believability behind it. It’s a minor detail, but one that really does impact the overall complexion and flow of the match.
And while I usually review matches themselves without any post-match happenings, I can’t do so in this case because the match and post-match segment are tied together so deeply. Bryan’s big win was cut short after only five minutes. He was betrayed by Triple H and his spot as world champion was usurped by Randy Orton, another establishment man. In doing so, Bryan went from an unlikely challenger, to even more unlikely champion, to the Steve Austin rebel against the authority character. And while I found it a bit tiring that WWE was going to the same well once again with the corrupt authority gimmick, the story was executed perfectly here. Bryan’s organic rise to the top and win brought major catharsis to so many people. With that betrayal, there was a ready-made story that fans could truly invest in emotionally, which in turn led to greater fan interest and more success for the company overall from SummerSlam until WrestleMania XXX.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was pro wrestling done right. It was a match carried by the incredible strength of its story and the chemistry of the combatants. Bryan wrestled Cena incredibly well here and rode a wave of unyielding fan support to the highest achievement possible in WWE. For many of us that watched pro-wrestling, WWE or otherwise, during the 2000s, the idea of Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson defeating JOHN CENA cleanly for the WWE CHAMPIONSHIP seemed like something out of a feverish hallucination. But it happened on this night, plain as day, and it was glorious. Bryan achieved something monumental, only for it to be taken from him by those same powers that be that reluctantly allowed it to happen in the first place. But that act of betrayal only added more fuel to the fire and led Bryan to achieve an even greater crowning achievement eight months later.
This match really does deserve a re-watch, and thankfully it can be viewed for free on WWE’s YouTube channel (I’ve included the link above). Both men should be proud of themselves for what they did here. Very few WWE matches from the 2010s are as good as this.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.