(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar – WWE Extreme Rules 2012

john cena brock lesnar wwe extreme rules 2012

Every fan has their own opinion on the best wrestling matches. Some fans just like to share those opinions online while others go one step further and find places to vote and publish their opinions. And it’s those published votes that bring us to this match.

I have a list of every Wrestling Observer Newsletter Match of the Year result which includes not only the winners but the runners up and the vote tallies as well. So whenever I want to see what the general fan consensus was in a given year, this list helps me find out. Case in point: 2012. I reviewed the 2012 MOTY a long time ago (and now, almost a full decade after it has passed it’s STILL one of the greatest wrestling matches I have ever seen). But the match we’re looking at here isn’t that contest; it’s the one that came in second place. More fans out there voted this contest as MOTY than they did for Undertaker/HHH at WrestleMania XXVIII, Davey Richards vs. Michael Elgin, and the 2nd and 3rd Tanahashi/Okada matches. So clearly a lot of fans thought highly of this particular match when it happened. And now that more than a decade has passed, let’s see if it still holds up.

Today we revisit the Extreme Rules match between John Cena and Brock Lesnar from…Extreme Rules 2012.

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.

The story

In 2012, John Cena was widely considered the most hated wrestler on the internet and in WWE in general. People hated him almost as much as they hated Reigns between 2015 and 2018. The fan hatred for Cena was so incredibly passionate. This was before Twitter and Instagram were so widespread so fans voiced their hatred towards him through videos, Facebook groups, signs, chants, you name it. There were entire websites devoted to hating Cena. In fact, Cena was so hated that he created a trend by accident: he started the ‘Let’s go X/X sucks’ chant. People were more interested in voicing their opposition to Cena than they were in supporting whoever he was facing.

Until in walked a monster.

Even though it was one of the worst-kept secrets in years, Brock Lesnar’s return 2012 return to WWE was a monumental deal. To this day, Lesnar’s return got one of the loudest reactions in RAW history:

If the sound and energy from that reaction could be turned into a fuel source, then it would power that same venue for a whole year. People were ecstatic to see Lesnar back. And the ones that didn’t lose their voices during his walk down the aisle lost them when Lesnar gave Cena a thunderous F-5.

So why all the joy for Lesnar and the animus towards Cena? In many ways, Lesnar was Cena’s antithesis. Cena was a goody-goody child’s hero who was Superman in all but name and attire. He never showed weakness. He always smiled no matter how bad things got for him (and in 2012, he went through a lot). He always wrestled the same, copy-and-paste match move-for-move. So while he was a hero to younger fans who watched his same old dreck over and over and never tired of it, older and more vocal viewers were desperate to see something new and fresh. They wanted some evolution, some change, some progression that would make Cena’s character the slightest bit more compelling or worth watching. But since Cena was both a merchandise-moving machine and a bottomless well of goodwill and great PR, he became an institution. WWE booked him as Hulk Hogan in a time when fans were desperate for a Steve Austin or a Rock.

Lesnar was none of those things. Where Cena cut long promos and spat out catchphrases like he was being paid per word, Lesnar was soft-spoken and let his actions talk for him. Cena was a pure WWE creation and had no outside credentials whereas Lesnar was both a national amateur wrestling champion and then a successful mixed martial artist. Cena was an entertainer. Lesnar was a fighter. Cena was the WWE version of a 1950s comicbook superhero that had no flaws and was always upstanding and righteous. Lesnar was an antihero; he destroyed anyone that got on his way. Lesnar was like the Undertaker but a real person instead of a character. In simpler terms, Lesnar was a badass…while Cena was a kid’s cartoon character brought to life.

So when Lesnar returned, all those jaded fans who felt ignored by WWE had a moment of catharsis. “Finally” they thought all as one, “finally someone that has the credibility and believability to beat this ‘Super-Cena’”. It was as if two demographics that were long pitted against each other were living vicariously through these two wrestlers. Cena – the children’s hero – versus Lesnar – the adult and lapsed fans’ “hero”.

The superstar vs. the ass-kicker.

The match

This match originally took place on April 29th, 2012. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and ****1/4 by TJR’s John Canton. After over a decade, let’s see how well this match holds up.

This is an Extreme Rules match in which anything is legal and the only way to win is via pinfall or submission. As expected, a ‘Let’s go Cena/Cena sucks’ chant breaks out right before Lesnar’s music plays. Also, for what it’s worth, Lesnar somehow gained 23 pounds in the few weeks between his return and this match without looking any different. Clearly, Justin Roberts and Michael Cole do not share notes. Cena comes out to a 40/60 mix of cheers/boos.

The bell rings and Cena rushes Lesnar. But Lesnar takes Cena down and hits stiff elbows and forearms. He’s trying to bust Cena open a second time and he does. Lesnar clotheslines Cena and the ref forces Lesnar to back off to check on Cena’s wound. But Cena shows guts and moves the ref aside. He manages to take Lesnar down from behind and switches to a front headlock but Lesnar takes him down again and lands more punches. Lesnar hammers Cena with punches but the ref has to step in to deal with Cena’s cut (that shouldn’t technically matter because anything goes here, but apparently blood is still taboo so I guess it’s almost anything goes). The match is stopped for all intents and purposes as a doctor cleans Cena up. The tension, excitement and momentum of the match start dissipating as replays of Lesnar’s strikes are shown. After a minute or so Cena rushes Lesnar again but Lesnar mounts him and hits more punches. The ref is trying to break it up pointlessly because, again, anything goes. Lesnar literally kicks Cena out of the ring and taunts him to ‘come at me’ as the crowd cheers wildly for Lesnar.

The doctors attend to Cena again as blood trickles down his cheek. No matter how many times Michael Cole says “it’s gotta be done, folks”, that won’t make it any better. Cena rights to his feet using the ropes and Lesnar rushes him this time. But Cena hits first with an elbow. Cena goes for an AA but Lesnar escapes and lands a German suplex. Lesnar lands a second one but Cena fights out of a third. Cena hits his running shoulderblock but it sends Lesnar into the referee. The referee tumbles out of the ring and Cena charges again. But this time Lesnar knocks Cena down. Lesnar punches Cena’s open wound some more and wipes Cena’s blood on his chest like a badge of honor. Cena reaches for his chain but Lesnar cuts him off with a back club. Lesnar hits some corner shoulder checks to Cena’s gut and then locks in the kimura. Keep in mind that “anything goes” and there’s no referee to enforce anything anyway. Lesnar throws Cena into the corner shoulder-first and Cena falls to ringside. But he finds no safety there as Lesnar reapplies the kimura and then throws him shoulder-first into the barricade.

Lesnar tosses Cena into the ring and teases using Cena’s chain but then changes his mind. He lands a stiff knee to Cena’s gut and wraps the chain around both of Cena’s ankles. He dares Cena to stand up and when Cena does he drops him with another clothesline. Then Lesnar wraps Cena so that he’s hanging outside the ring from the turnbuckle, completely helpless and exposed. Lesnar punches his head wound some more and drives the arm he kimura’d earlier into the edge of the apron. Lesnar goes to check on the still-dead ref when he sees Cena stirring and goes back. Cena tries fighting back but Lesnar quickly overpowers him and sends him crashing into the steel steps shoulder-first.

Cena drags himself into the ring with his chain as Lesnar throws the ref in as well. Lesnar steps on Cena’s hand after seeing the chain. He taunts Cena some more but Cena musters enough strength to lift Lesnar up for the AA. But Lesnar escapes and lands the F-5. But he knocks the ref down in the process. Damn ref bumps, what a stupid crutch of a storytelling device. Lesnar gets a visual three-count when he notices the first ref is dead so he calls for another one. Sure enough, a second referee runs in and counts one…two…thr – Cena kicks out. Lesnar’s astonished that Cena survived. So astonished, in fact, that he clotheslines the second ref for telling him it was a two-count.

A third referee comes down as Lesnar pushes the steel steps into the ring. Lesnar poses like a king atop the stairs but Cena taunts him back from the corner. Cena hits back with more punches but Lesnar traps him in the kimura yet again. Lesnar maintains the hold applies as another ‘Let’s go Cena/Cena sucks’ breaks out. Man they don’t even acknowledge Lesnar anymore. Cena must hear all of them because he somehow lifts Lesnar up and slams him onto the steps, breaking the hold. Cena goes for a Kobashi-style diving leg drop but misses. After more recovery time at ringside, Cena climbs onto the ring apron with one hand. Lesnar charges and knocks him back down but in the process Lesnar tumbles to the floor as well. Cena remains on the floor barely moving but Lesnar gets up and moves around like nothing happened. Cena climbs to the apron again and Lesnar charges once more. but this time Cena punches Lesnar in the head with a steel-chain-wrapped first. Now Lesnar’s bleeding too. Cena lifts Lesnar up and AA’s him onto the steel steps. One, two, and three! Cena beats Lesnar!

Winner after 17:43: John Cena

Post-match, after celebrating for a bit, Cena grabs a microphone. He says something about being sent home for speaking when not spoken to. He says his boss (i.e. Vince) will kick him out the door on-air but he wants to say a few words anyway. He praises Chicago as both a CM Punk town and a wrestling town and says that fans were supposed to see the extreme. He has no left arm and tastes his own blood and is proud that it happened in Chicago. Then he says something about good guy and bad guys and mentions going away for a while, as if this match was his one last ride.

This entire promo ended up being for nothing because it implied Cena was taking time off. But he didn’t take any time off at all so it didn’t accomplish anything positive. All it achieved was it angered Lesnar backstage because it undersold Lesnar’s onslaught in a major way. So way to go Cena, not only did you overcome the odds in a corny and undeserving way, but you created a false departure rumor that only underscored how unhurt you were.


I’m disappointed. This was built up as a titanic clash but once the match began it was hamstrung by a multitude of problems. Structurally and story-wise it was nothing more than just another hero vs. monster dynamic with Lesnar adding a few MMA moves. From an atmosphere perspective the match started off hot, died down big time during the middle and all the ‘stop the bleeding/’think of the children’ spots, and then picked up at the end. And the ending itself was lame with Cena winning in a highly undeserving manner.

The match started off very promising but any sense of uniqueness and special aura dissipated once WWE panicked over Cena’s blood. The doctor getting involved really hurt the match. I’ve said it before, the best matches have spontaneity and take advantage of sudden unexpected occurrences instead of trying to pretend like they didn’t happen or shouldn’t be there. An example I like to bring up is this June 1998 match between Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada from All Japan. Kobashi, like every wrestler, has his own signature moves and spots that he does regularly. One of those is a double Irish whip/kneelift combo. He whips his opponent into the ropes, knees them in the gut, then sends them into the opposite rope and goes the same thing. Well in this match, Kawada cut the sequence in half because Kobashi’s knee hit him so hard (either intentionally or unintentionally, it’s impossible to tell because Kawada’s selling is that amazing) that Kawada sunk down and started making retching noises. And what did Kobashi do in response? Did he drag Kawada to his feet and ‘complete the sequence’ because that’s what was planned? No; Kobashi covered Kawada and started working the ribs like an actual professional wrestler. An unexpected weakness opened up for Kobashi and he exploited it like any sensible wrestler would.

As for this match, Lesnar busted Cena open within seconds and the match suddenly reached a level of realism and excitement not seen from Cena in a long time. It was different, serious and raw. But because it wasn’t planned (and because WWE is still squeamish about blood in general) the match had to be paused in a way that very much harmed its presentation and overall quality. This just reinforces why Lesnar’s so special; he plays by his own rules and lives up to his status as a special attraction. I remember watching Lesnar vs. Undertaker at Hell in a Cell 2015 and Lesnar bled the hard way. But within seconds of the doctor coming in to clean up his wound, Lesnar shoved him aside and went back to fighting. That shove got Lesnar possibly the biggest pop of the match. In the moment, he didn’t care about standards, sponsors, concerned viewers, or his own condition. He was fully transfixed on kicking ‘Taker’s ass and whether he bled or not didn’t matter. He was fully immersed in the match instead of letting ‘reality’ creep in to remind everyone of the ‘controls’ that existed around him.

As for the match’s pacing and structure, it was like a bad rollercoaster. Lesnar dominated Cena so badly that the doctors had to get involved, albeit unnecessarily (in my opinion). The match slowed to a crawl during those moments with some desperation replays being shown to keep any semblance of tension and heat in place. that unnecessary stalling took place not once but twice. And after that second moment, no amount of fightback from Cena could bring the match back to the same level. the tension disappeared and the match never really recovered. Of course, it was worsened by how the action was laid out. Lesnar manhandled Cena, Cena landed some weak shots here and there, and then Lesnar regained control easily. Lesnar busted Cena open and then nearly tore his left arm off. But instead of making this a decisive victory, Lesnar gloated and taunted in a way that seemed completely unnecessary. Sure, Lesnar was full of himself and confident in his abilities. But if he was so good, why didn’t he go for pins to really try and put Cena away? So many of Lesnar’s small movements and actions made it clear he was stalling or ‘following a script’ throughout the match. even when Lesnar kept taunting Cena, it was impractical for him to do so. He was making it painfully obvious that he was building for Cena to make his comeback, effectively making it more and more obvious that Lesnar was going to lose. For whatever reason, any notion of Lesnar actually winning the match disappeared by the match’s halfway point. Once the ref bumps began and the shenanigans started, it seemed obvious that WWE booked this match in a way that would give Lesnar a chance to maul people and Cena a much-needed-but-still-undeserved win.

But that win did Lesnar a disservice because there would’ve been a much better story to tell with Cena continuing his losing streak and being down on his luck. Even the tackiest and most white-meat superheroes have arcs in which they have some semblance of a struggle to overcome. But Cena? He got beaten up for a few weeks and just when the story approached its most interesting point, the bookers rushed to create a sudden and underwhelming conclusion. Cena won in a way that didn’t do him any favors. He took a beating but didn’t really execute a strong and valiant comeback. in fact, he got more of a victory by taking advantage of Lesnar’s fall to the floor (which Lesnar no-sold like a boss) and using weapons than he did actually showing how hard it is to keep Lesnar down. Cena made beating Lesnar look relatively easy, effectively tarnishing the special aura that surrounded him upon his return.

I know that has a different meaning now after ten years of Lesnar murdering people. But in 2012 Lesnar really was special. He was ‘the one that got away’, the one that left WWE with his reputation intact and somehow managed to achieve more outside WWE, as if that were somehow possible given his major accomplishments during his first run. Normally I dislike the idea of outsiders coming in to WWE and beating the established guys. But Lesnar was an exception. He was a success story in his first run and he was just as big a star if not a bigger one upon his return. but by losing here, he was effectively ‘put in his place’ which was beneath Cena. Though this loss didn’t really harm him long-term, I get the impression that WWE left money on the table by not booking Lesnar to win to really give Cena an actually compelling story to carry him throughout the rest of the year.

Final Rating: ***1/2

I’ll give this match credit where it’s due. The match had a great premise, a great story, and a great start. But as soon as the match “had to be stopped”, then things fell apart. They tried to salvage the match but it seemed like Lesnar didn’t know what to do during Cena’s downtime. He stalled unnecessarily and his gloating did nothing. He tried different strategies but Cena overcame everything he had with a sudden and uninspiring comeback. I know some fans out there likened Lesnar to the ultimate video game boss and Cena winning was akin to beating that boss. Well there’s a problem with that comparison. While the idea of Lesnar as a boss dropping tour HP down to 1% makes sense, he stayed at that same level and basically waited for Cena to get up instead of keeping the pressure on and trying to land that killing blow. Furthermore, it took Lesnar so much effort to get Cena down to 1% but Cena got Lesnar down to 1% and beat him in fewer moves and in less time. it was such an imbalanced dynamic that it killed the idea of Lesnar as the ultimate boss…at least for a while.

If you’re interested in revisiting that time period, your time is better spent watching Lesnar’s actual return encounter with Cena and his promo leading up to this match. All of that build stuff was great; the match that it all led to was not.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.