Many years ago, John Cena and CM Punk were said to have had one of the best matches in RAW history.
It’s interesting how time can change how someone is perceived. Ten years ago Cena was loathed by legions of vocal fans that were sick and tired of his repetitive child-friendly shtick and wanted to see something a bit more dynamic and fresh. At the same time, Punk was seen as this almost godlike figure that could do and say no wrong and, for the most part, backed up his words with his actions.
Yet here we are in 2023 and, my how things have changed. Punk still has his pockets of unyielding fans but much of his reputation has been tarnished by scandals and controversies, with blame landing on different people, depending on whom you ask. Conversely, Cena had one of the biggest redemption arcs as he is now considered something of a legend that rarely gets any of the same hatred he got when he was in his prime.
Both of these men could stake a claim to the title of best wrestler in WWE over the past two decades, and they’ve already had at least one famous match that is still revered by many longtime wrestling fans. But could they capture lightning in a bottle a second time under different circumstances? Read on to 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.
At the 2013 Royal Rumble PPV, The Rock ended CM Punk’s 434-day reign as WWE Champion thanks to a ton of overbooking involving interference, match restarting, and so on. Punk invoked his rematch clause at Elimination Chamber but lost again due to even more shenanigans. Frustrated, Punk still felt that, if things had gone cleanly, by all rights he should’ve still been WWE Champion. Determined to force his way into the WrestleMania main-event spot, Punk challenged 2013 Royal Rumble winner John Cena to a singles match with said position on the line. Cena didn’t have to accept Punk’s terms; from his point of view Punk was a sore loser who was blaming everything around him for his failures. But Cena accepted because he was a righteous do-gooder who couldn’t risk being seen as a coward for turning down a fight.
And so, Cena found himself putting his main-event match opposite The Rock on the line on an episode of RAW. This was odd for the time as RAW had a reputation for being more about angles and marketing than competitive matches. Some wrestlers had in the past noted that the televised shows were built that way on purpose: make the TV shows more about teasers, samplers, and promotion while having the wrestlers save their actual skills for PPVs and non-televised events.
With that in mind, most people came to expect little of any matches that took place on RAW. And yet, as history had shown, there were some truly great matches that had taken place on WWE’s flagship weekly program. Said great matches were few and far between, but could Cena and Punk match some of those prior greats?
This match originally took place on February 25, 2013. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
The winner of this match gets to face The Rock for his WWE Championship at WrestleMania XXIX. The crowd begins with the typical “let’s go Cena/Cena sucks” chant, which proves that he gets more hate than Punk gets love. The match begins with a chain grappling sequence which ends in a stalemate. A second such a sequence ensues and this time Cena ends it with a hiptoss that sends Punk to the floor, which leads to a commercial break.
We come back and Cena hits Punk with a back body drop and a fisherman suplex. Cena misses a corner charge and he hits the turnbuckle so hard Punk covers him for a two-count. Punk hits some elbows to the back of Cena’s neck and then lands a swinging neckbreaker for another two-count. Punk locks in a Figure-4 neck lock but Cena powers up and gets to his feet with Punk now sitting on his shoulders. Cena lands an electric chair, blocks a corner charge, and lands a one-hand running bulldog for yet another two-count. Cena applies a front chancery followed by a grounded headlock. Punk fights to his feet, escapes, leapfrogs, and hits a dropkick for still yet another two-count. Punk applies a chinlock but Cena fights out. Punk kicks Cena to block another back body drop but Cena hits back with one flying shoulder tackle. But instead of starting his superstar comeback, Punk ducks and Cena goes flying to the floor. Punk follows with a suicide dive, which leads to another commercial.
After this second commercial break Punk has Cena in an abdominal stretch but Cena powers out with a hiptoss. We get a clip of the action during commercial that saw Punk counter an AA attempt with a DDT. Back in the present, Cena lands two flying shoulders but Punk counters the follow-up spin-out suplex with a headlock takeover into an Anaconda Vise. Cena rolls over into a pinning position but only gets a two-count. Cena swings for a clothesline but Punk counters with an armtrap swinging neckbreaker for another two-count. Punk signals the GTS but Cena cuts him off with an STF attempt. Punk hits a shoulder to Cena’s gut and hits a springboard clothesline for a two-count. Punk tries another springboard move but this time he gets caught in the STF. Punk counters into an Anaconda Vise. Cena counters that with a crossface. Punk rolls over into a cover. One, two, Cena kicks out.
Punk wins a yay/boo strike exchange with a spinkick but Cena counters a second kick and lands his spin-out suplex. Punk kicks Cena as he tries the Five-Knuckle Shuffle and then he tries the GTS. Cena slides out but Punk gets a quick cover for another two-count. Punk hits a corner kneelift and goes for a bulldog but Cena blocks and hits another spin-out suplex. Cena lands his Five-Knuckle Shuffle and goes for the AA. Both men trade fireman’s carries until Cena lands a Batista Bomb. One, two, Punk kicks out.
Punk cuts Cena off before Cena can hit hid diving leg drop and then he tries a superplex. Cena out-powers Punk and drops him to the mat with head-butts. Cena connects with a Kobashi-style diving guillotine leg drop but Punk kicks out at 2.8. Both men are exhausted but Punk hits first with a roundhouse kick. He lands another corner kneelift and goes for a lariat but Cena ducks and hits an Attitude Adjustment. One, two, and th – Punk kicks out.
Punk rolls to the floor and when Cena goes to pick him up he shoves Cena into a ringpost. Punk gets into the ring with plenty of time but Cena still makes it in at the count of nine. Punk follows with a GTS…but only manages a two-count. Punk tries a second one. Cena counters into an STF but Punk gets a ropebreak. Cena goes to capitalize but Punk hits first with a piledriver. Yes, an actual Jerry Lawler-style piledriver in WWE. One, two, Cena kicks out yet again. And again, and again. Punk tries a Macho Man-style diving elbow but misses the mark. Cena capitalizes with a standing Frankensteiner followed by a second successful AA. One, two, and three! Cena beats Punk. Cena gets his WrestleMania match with The Rock!
Winner after 26:35: John Cena
Excellent match that lives up to its reputation as one of the best in RAW history. This was a PPV-quality competition given away for free on TV, and while one can question the business decision to do that and not put this on PPV like the company would’ve done in a bygone era, it was almost like a gift to the fans. Cena and Punk had solid chemistry here and wrestled more cohesively than in their far more story-driven and dramatic MITB 2011 match. But while that match had much higher stakes relatively-speaking and a MUCH hotter crowd, this one had better wrestling. Even with Cena still throwing his mandatory copy-and-paste sequencing, Punk worked around that and gave the match some much-needed twists and turns. It was a fun match that, at least for a short time, made RAW a bit more must-watch since there was a newfound albeit remote possibility that more matches like this could happen.
Story-wise it was as straightforward as it came: Punk had a win-by-any-means-necessary mentality since he was facing Cena with a WrestleMania main-event slot on the line. Punk winning was unlikely; it was a widespread and foregone conclusion that Cena would face The Rock because there was too much money in that storyline compared to Rock versus Punk. So Punk had to go farther than usual to sell the idea that he could beat Cena. This meant outfoxing Cena whenever possible and doing things like diving through the ropes, breaking Cena’s superstar comeback at different points, and of course, hitting a piledriver. Most people consider that the most iconic part of this match; the piledriver was banned in WWE for years and so seeing that move in WWE was a genuine shock to many. It played to the story perfectly: Punk was so determined to win that he was willing to risk his career and breaking his opponent’s neck if it meant getting that coveted main-event spot.
But as fun and out-of-left-field as this was, it wasn’t a classic or an S-tier classic for one simple reason: it was still too predictable from bell to bell. All of CM Punk’s surprises didn’t slow Cena down. Cena hit new moves like a Batista Bomb but no one believed it would lead to a three-count. Anything that wasn’t the GTS, the AA, the Anaconda Vise, or the STF was just a crowd-popping surprise. When you condition your audience to only believe in a small handful of moves as match-enders and fail to build up new moves in the same way, then there’s no point for the fans to show interest aside from the surprise factor. But surprise alone just creates noise, and noise isn’t the same as heat. Cena, for his part, showed that he could. In fact, work like a more classical wrestler, but in this case his more technically-sound effort meant nothing because he was always going to win.
Final Rating: ****1/4
While this was an impressive effort for a free TV match, by no means was this any sort of out-of-this-world classic. It was solid and technically impressive but all the great work was largely redundant since this match’s conclusion was never in doubt. Even though most people considered CM Punk a far superior wrestler, everyone from the biggest of casual fan to the most jaded of diehard to the most idealistic and imaginative of child all saw the writing on the wall. Punk was Cena’s equal in terms of in-ring skill here but not in terms of story or credibility. He was, for all intents and purposes, a speedbump in Cena’s road to WrestleMania.
Given that both men clearly saw what the finish line looked like here, what they did here was take the long, windy, and bumpy road instead of the straight line. They could’ve had the wrestling equivalent of a street race with two viable winners side-by-side from the start that had to end with a photo finish. Instead, they tried to create a wilder match with some artificial challenges that no one believed would turn the match in Punk’s favor.
The biggest and most important rule of storytelling is to always know your ending. Since this one was a foregone conclusion, these two tried to obscure that ending but failed to do so in a meaningful and believable way.