2005 was a strange year for WWE; as proof, look no further than the WWE title scene featuring John Cena and JBL.
The company was trying to market a new generation of wrestlers and move the so-called “old guard” to dream matches and lesser feuds. As part of that decision, the company put most of its eggs in the John Cena basket and he was pegged as the company’s next big thing. It was a hard sell at first, but here we are over twenty years after Cena’s WWE debut and most people regard him as a legend and talk about him in a positive light.
But it wasn’t always that way. Cena was thrown into the deep waters of the world title picture while still being relatively inexperienced and was seen as being a major cut below much better wrestlers in the company. These concerns were largely proven true at WrestleMania 21 when Cena won the title in a horrifically underwhelming match. But was that match just a case of chemistry failing on a given night, or was it a sign of things to come? 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 WrestleMania 21, Cena defeated HBL to become the new WWE Champion. However, it wasn’t a completely clean victory because Cena hit JBL in the face with his chain behind the ref’s back before finishing him off. In the following weeks, Cena really started amping up the “new versus old” dynamic between himself and JBL, to the point that he went so far as to create a new championship belt for himself. Like Steve Austin many years earlier with the Smoking Skull title belt, Cena created a ‘spinner belt’ to help him stand out as a champion.
And while the belt fit Cena’s gimmick, it was also a bit on the tacky side, to the point that JBL felt that Cena was disrespecting the title and what it stood for. As a result, JBL brought out the old WWE Championship belt and the only way he would recognize Cena as a deserving champion would be if Cena beat him again. But this time, Cena would have to make JBL say the words “I Quit”, which
This match originally took place on May 22, 2005. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and TJR’s John Canton.
JBL enters the arena like he usually does with his bullhorn limo and he comes in carrying the old WWE Championship belt. Cena, meanwhile, comes in on a tricked-out semi with a DJ and turntables on the bed and the new spinner WWE title belt in hand. As they do ring intros, JBL forces the ref to acknowledge both belts prior to ringing the bell.
The match started off simply with tackles, headlocks, punches, and takedowns. JBL counters with a headlock of his own but Cena counters with an armdrag. JBL realizes there’s no ropebreaks and leaves the ring to escape an armlock. Cena hits a suplex over the rope into the ring and chokes JBL for a bit. JBL hits back with forearm clubs and hits a DDT, but then frorgets for a second that there are no covers in this match. Cena reverses an Irish whip and hits a back body drop followed by a clothesline to the floor. Cena smashes JBL into various hard surfaces but then JBL reverses another Irish whip and sends Cena over the barricade and into the fans.
JBL hits a swinging neckbreaker onto the concrete floor and then the brawling continues. JBL asks Cena to say “I Quit” but Cena punches back instead. Cena fires up but JBL uses his power advantage to counter yet another Irish whip and send Cena into the steel ringsteps. JBL rips off some ringside guy’s belt and uses it to both whip and choke Cena. JBL tries another quit spot but Cena just coughs and rushes forward to send JBL face-first into a ringpost. Undeterred, JBL drags Cena onto the announce table and taunts him some more. JBL teases a powerbomb or piledirver onto the table but Cena responds “kiss my ass” and back body drops JBL into the adjacent table instead.
Cena hits JBL’s face with a monitor and launches him over the remaining commentary table, but JBL comes back with a vicious chair-shit to Cena’s head. Cena’s bleeding profusely and JBL follows with a steps-shot to Cena’s head as well. JBL mocks Cena and kicks his wound as the crowd rallies behind the champion. JBL follows with a Clothesline From Hell and two proto-Rainmakers. JBL chokes Cena with Cena’s own chain necklace and demands he quit, but Cena fires up once more, only to suffer a low blow. JBL grabs the mic once more and says, among other things, “quit, you punk ass bitch”, but Cena fires up again and begins his comeback. He lands a chain of moves that includes a successful 5-Knuckle Shuffle and an F-U/AA. JBL gets up seconds later, flips Cena off, and bails. But Cena pursues him and slams him onto the hood of his limo. Cena goes to capitalize but JBL counters with another swinging neckbreaker, this time onto the car hood.
The brawling continues into an unlit technical area and JBL starts choking Cena with an extension cord. But instead of quitting, Cena powers through again and sends HBL face-first through an old box TV monitor. Now JBL’s bleeding too. Cena smashes JBL face-first into one of his limo windows and tosses him onto the car roof. JBL pokes Cena’s eye and goes for a suplex but Cena counters into one of his own. JBL tries crawling into his limo but Cena drives him into one of the car doors. JBL continues trying to crawl away but Cena stays close behind. He smashes JBL into some portable tank that was on the bed of his truck but JBL hits back with another DDT. Cena refuses to quit once again so JBL tries choking him with another cable, this time from an elevated position. But Cena hits back with a microphone and tosses HBL through a table.
JBL staggers away once more so Cena pulls off one of the truck’s exhaust cylinders. He’s about to use it as a weapon when JBL takes one look at him and says “I Quit”. There’s the match!
Winner and STILL WWE Champion after 22:40: John Cena
Post-match, Cena uses that cylinder to drive JBL through a glass presentation wall and then poses in the ring to celebrate with the crowd.
Going back in time can be refreshing because you can see matches that you won’t find in today’s environment, at least in WWE. This was one of the bloodiest matches in modern WWE history. Both men hit each other incredibly hard. JBL came across as an absolute menace that had no scruples and would do anything to win. For 80% of the match he just demolished Cena and cut Cena off at every turn, only for Cena to make a magical babyface comeback. Even though the story was told in more violent language – both literally and metaphorically – it was still the same story underneath: monster heel spends most of the match on offense and then gets beat by the superhero babyface in the end. It was the Hogan formula brought to an I Quit match, and it was…alright.
Maybe I’ve gotten used to seeing more competitive and unpredictable matches, but this match had a seriously underwhelming finish. It was creative, sure, but creative doesn’t always mean good. After spending over twenty minutes of just wrecking Cena and coming across as Cena’s equal or his superior, he took one look at Cena holding an exhaust pipe and gave up like a coward. I think that sort of fit the JBL character: he was a loudmouthed bully that dished out a lot on offense but crumpled when the tables got turned on him.
And yet, it was such a sudden shift that the abruptness killed the excitement. Cena was finally turning the match around and was about to get his hands on the guy that had been berating him verbally for weeks and who had left him a bloody mess, only for JBL to use the match’s stipulation to weasel his way out of what he had coming to him. Even with Cena’s short attack after the bell was rung, there was no catharsis or satisfaction to the match’s conclusion. It was a sort of golf clap victory, one cheered for with subdued emotion, instead of being treated as a big and emotional win.
Final Rating: ***3/4
This match was going in the right direction until the finish. It was an exciting and violent brawl that fit the story perfectly and fit both characters in the match as well. But then Cena had this unrealistic comeback that was further hampered by JBL escaping via cowardice. It was booked in a way that suggested that the feud would continue but it never did since Cena ended up on RAW shortly afterwards.
This might be one of JBL’s best matches and it was a significant improvement from the underwhelming fiasco that was their WrestleMania 21 match. But there are better John Cena matches out there, there are better I Quit matches out there, and there are bloodier matches out there as well. I can’t call this an absolute must-watch since it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well.
In some ways it’s a disappointing match as well because so much effort went into making Cena into a new main-eventer, only for this to be his first outing. At least he would get better as a top-level guy…eventually.