(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: John Cena vs. Cesaro – RAW, July 6th, 2015
Everyone loves a redemption arc and fewer wrestlers went through a more notable one than John Cena.
When John Cena moved up from midcard rapper to WWE Champion in 2005, it was a mixed bag. His early days as a main-event experiment were marred by average matches that required him to be carried by more talented wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle. Then as the years went by, John Cena became more unbearable. His importance to the company grew while his wrestling ability stayed more or less static. He became so polarizing that one might as well have put his picture in the dictionary next to that word.
Cena’s controversial status continued well into 2010s, but by 2015, things started to change. He started focusing more on being “big match John” instead of “big mouth John”. He had spent years as a gatekeeper of sorts, but it wasn’t until 2015 that he really started backing up those words. It was around this time that fans really started believing that Cena was as good a wrestler as he said he was. But could be back that up in every case and against any opponent, including one that was actually stronger than he was? Let’s find out.
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.
After winning the US Championship from Rusev at WrestleMania 31, John Cena vowed to be a fighting champion. That title win reignited his sense of patriotism so much that he wanted to elevate the US title into something prestigious. To do that, he created his US Championship Open Challenge, a weekly title defense series that would keep going until he lost the title.
Beginning on the night after WrestleMania, Cena defended his title successfully against the following wresters (not including untelevised shows): Dean Ambrose, Stardust, Bad News Barrett, Kane, Sami Zayn, Neville (ended via DQ), Rusev and Seth Rollins two-on-one, and Zack Ryder.
But as this series progressed, Cena entered into a feud with then-NXT Champion Kevin Owens. Owens beat Cena at Elimination Chamber 2015, and then Cena evened the score a month later at Money in the Bank.
Come mid-June, Cena was stuck between committing to his Open Challenge series and dealing with an aggressive and vengeful Kevin Owens. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, his next challenger, Cesaro, proved to be an even bigger threat.
Cesaro found himself the subject of an infamous statement from Vince McMahon on Stone Cold’s Podcast. Austin thought that Cesaro was getting over and asked Vince why he wasn’t getting pushed. Vince came up with some of the lamest excuses imaginable:
“He doesn’t quite have the charisma, doesn’t quite have the verbal skills, and maybe because he’s Swiss, I don’t know, in terms of European style” – Vince McMahon
Not only did Cesaro think Vince was wrong, but he wanted to prove Vince wrong. So on June 30th, Cesaro challenged Cena for his US title. It looked like he was about to win when Kevin Owens interfered, causing a disqualification. A rematch was scheduled for the following week, leading to this match.
Cena was well into his redemption arc as he was putting on the best matches on RAW on a weekly basis. He was the highlight of RAW during a time when the show was a major mixed bag. But could he beat Cesaro decisively? Cesaro had the biggest challenge ahead of him but he had all the motivation he needed to win. He was determined to make Vince McMahon eat his words in this match. And while no one doubted that Cesaro could have a great match, many people wondered if he could have a great match and win it.
This match originally took place on July 6th, 2015. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and has received tons more praise from fans as well.
Cesaro out-powers Cena on a lock-up and then uppercuts him to the floor. After a commercial break, Cena escapes a side headlock via back suplex. Cena goes for the 5-knuckle Shuffle but Cesaro hits first with a clothesline for a two-count. Cena hits a standing dropkick and charges into a corner but Cesaro sidesteps leading Cena to do the Bret bump. Cesaro follows with a delayed vertical suplex that also includes a squat for another two-count. He goes for another suplex but Cena counters with an electric chair facebuster. A yay/boo punch exchange ensues and then Cesaro counters an AA with a DDT for yet another two-count.
Cena rolls to ringside but Cesaro lands on him with a double stomp to the ribs. In the ring, Cena kicks out at two and Cesaro applies a chinlock. Cena tries powering out but Cesaro lands another kick to the ribs for yet another two-count. Cesaro follows with a neck crank and a cobra clutch and it looks like Cena starts fading as we go to another commercial break.
Upon return from the break, Cena hits one of his superstar comeback shoulder tackles but on the next one Cesaro counters with a massive tilt-a-whirl backbreaker for a two-count. Cesaro misses a corner charge which allows Cena to hit his side suplex and try the 5-Knuckle Shuffle again. Cesaro gets up again but this time Cena dodges Cesaro’s attack and lands another side suplex. This time he doesn’t go to the ropes and just drops down for the fist drop, but Cesaro counters with a crossface out of nowhere. Cena powers up and gets to his feet with Cesaro on his shoulders. Cesaro counters into a sunset flip for a two-count. Cena drop toeholds him into an STF but Cesaro gets a quick ropebreak. Cena hits a one-arm back body drop and the 5-Knuckle Shuffle connects. Cena tries another AA but Cesaro counters with triple rolling gutwrench suplexes for still yet another two-count. Cesaro hits three running corner uppercuts and teases the giant swing. Cens sits up and counters into a DDT but only gets a two-count. Cena goes for a top-rope leg drop but Cesaro channels Okada and dropkicks him to the floor.
At ringside, Cesaro hits a running uppercut and tosses Cena back into the ring. he dives off the top rope with a flying crossbody but Cena rolls through and lifts Cesaro onto his shoulders. Cena goes for the AA. Cesaro lands on his feet and ducks a clothesline. He goes for a pop-up powerbomb. Cena counters with a Frankensteiner and hits a sitting facebuster. One, two, Cesaro kicks out. Cena tries another AA but Cesaro escapes and hits a springboard uppercut. One, two, Cena kicks out. Cesaro teases an over-the-rope superplex. Cena counters into an AA attempt on the apron. Cesaro slips out and teases a powerbomb off the apron. Cena goes for a crossbody. Cesaro catches him and hits a fallaway slam into the barricade wall. Cesaro charges for another running uppercut. Cena ducks down and sends Cesaro flying over the barricade and to the floor.
Back in the ring, Cena goes for the diving leg drop again but Cesaro cuts him off with an uppercut. Cena head-butts Cesaro down and lands the diving leg drop for two. Cesaro blocks another AA and hits a pop-up uppercut. One, two, and – Cena kicks out. Cesaro teases the swing. Cena hits first with the AA. One, two, and – Cesaro survives. Cena charges again. Cesaro counters with a 12-revolution giant swing and then locks in the sharpshooter. Cena starts reaching for the ropes. Cesaro blocks with a crossface. Cesaro rolls towards the middle of the ring. Cena uses his strength to break Cesaro’s grip and locks in the STF. Cesaro uses his strength to lift himself and Cena up and land a suplex for a two-count. Cena goes for and botches his springboard Stunner. Cesaro counters with a Neutralizer! One…two…and – no, Cena kicks out again.
Cena hits a back elbow out of a corner and goes for his tornado DDT. Cesaro stops Cena’s momentum with his own strength. Cesaro lands a sort of faceplant/facebuster into another crossface. Cena gets a ropebreak. Cesaro lands the over-the-rope superplex. Cena kicks out. Cesaro picks Cena up but Cena floats over into a Batista Bomb. Cesaro kicks out. Cena tries setting up his Avalanche AA. Cesaro blocks and tries an Avalanche Neutralizer. The two of them trade punches as they fight for control. Cena overpowers Cesaro and lands a second-rope AA. The referee counts one, two, and three! Cena retains!
Winner and STILL WWE United States Champion after 30:05: John Cena
While I don’t think anyone expected a 5-Star match here given its obvious limitations (it was on RAW, it included commercial breaks, and Vince McMahon was still micromanaging the show), this was still an awesome TV match. Cena and Cesaro had phenomenal chemistry together. They mixed trying to out-power each other with trying to out-wrestle each other. Neither man had a clear advantage for long. It was one of the most competitive John Cena matches in a very long time. There wasn’t much more they could’ve done to make this any better. Given what both guys were working with, they both lived up to expectations and then some.
The match was more about showcasing Cesaro’s maximum potential than anything else. Few people thought Cena would lose here, especially against the backdrop of his feud with Kevin Owens. That said, Cesaro got much closer to winning than most people thought possible. While there was no way he would ever make John Cena tap out (given his gimmick and how much his ‘never give up’ catchphrase means to ailing kids and their families, I don’t think anyone will ever accomplish this), he did come close with some of his pin attempts. Cesaro out-powered Cena more often than Cena out-powered him. He attacked Cena’s ribs and back over and over, and while Cena didn’t show weakness per se, he did have a harder time using his power. It took him longer to set things up and maintain control. It was a subtle way of showing weakness without actually showing weakness.
But while Cesaro lived up to his expectations given his reputation, Cena surpassed his. This was by far one of the best matches he’s ever had. He went the extra mile to make this match come across as competitive and compelling. He sold for Cesaro, took a ton of punishment from Cesaro, and even had to bust out his super-finisher to keep Cesaro down long enough. Aside from straight-up losing, there was nothing else that Cena could’ve done in the match to make Cesaro look good.
I say “in the match” because he could’ve done a bit more after the bell rang to give Cesaro more of a rub. Kevin Owens’ interference at the end was completely meaningless and he was made to look like a chump. Despite struggling so much, Cena had no trouble dispatching Owens, which weakened both Owens as a challenger and, to an extent, weakened the damage Cesaro had done to him. it was a minor gripe, but it was one that undermined Cesaro’s hard work in the match.
As for the match itself, it also had one fatal flaw courtesy of Cena: he did too many unrealistic near-falls. A major flaw in most WWE wrestlers is that they’re shoehorned into “limited finisher syndrome”: most of them have one or two finishers that regularly end matches, and the only other ways matches can end besides those few moves is via interference, disqualification, or with weapons.
If Cena was going to start busting out new moves in this match and other matches going forward, why not actually win with those new moves? Whether it’s his forward facebuster, the Batista Bomb, the Code Red, or the springboard Stunner, why couldn’t Cena win at least one match, even if it was against a total jobber, to get the move over as a near-fall? Without establishing those moves as moves that could end matches, the covers that follow end up meaning nothing. One could make the argument that those big moves require more energy to kick out of, but that’s hard to believe when WWE superstars don’t really slow down after them and in some cases, move faster.
It’s a fatal flaw found in almost every big WWE match, one that largely keeps them out of any best match of all time conversation. If you’re going to try out new moves to show you can do new things, it makes tons more sense from creative, competitive, intrigue, and financial perspectives to change things up over time by adding new FINISHERS to one’s repertoire. Winning new moves leads to more unpredictable matches. More unpredictable matches negate any sense of repetition. Reduced repetition leads to more intrigue. And more intrigue leads to more time and money investment from audiences. I know that WWE struck gold with guys like Steve Austin and The Rock who had one or two moves and got by with just that. But those two were more exceptions to the rule.
Final Rating: ****1/2
For the longest time, my old standard for RAW matches was the match between Shawn Michaels and Shelton Benjamin from 2005. Going forward, I think this match is slightly better. There match had more drama, more competition, and a more sustained payoff. Even with some notable flaws, this match lived up to the hype and still does today. For all of Cena’s poor match output over the years, he more than redeemed himself with this match and the ones that would follow.
In hindsight, though, things didn’t actually improve that much for Cesaro after this. Aside from a shot at Roman Reigns six years later, Cesaro never broke into the main event like many fans felt he deserved to. Maybe he did prove Vince McMahon wrong and maybe he did grab the proverbial brass ring. But for whatever reason, Cesaro never got sustained main-event treatment while in WWE.
One can only hope that, even at 42 years old, there’s still one last big run at the top left for Claudio Castagnoli.
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.