(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: John Cena vs. Kevin Owens 2015 Trilogy
John Cena and Kevin Owens had one of the best rivalries of 2015.
That rivalry led to three highly-praised and fondly remembered matches of the year and countless other house shows that drew packed houses. It was said that all three of their matches in 2015 were MOTYC-level. But were they really? 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.
In 2015 there was a sustained effort to really elevate Triple H’s NXT into more than just the developmental brand. That brand’s roster was slowly growing into something special as HHH signed one big name after another: Kevin Steen, El Generico, Prince Devitt, PAC, KENTA, and many others all called NXT their new home. Triple H had big plans to make them all into stars, and to hammer that point home, he put one of his top projects in the biggest feud of his life.
During John Cena’s weekly US Championship Open Challenge, Steen – now known as Kevin Owens – confronted Cena. But instead of wrestling him, he attacked Cena and stomped on his title. It was the ultimate sign of disrespect for the super-patriotic John Cena. What’s more, Owens held his NXT Championship up high as he did this, signaling that his prize was worth more than Cena’s. This was all the reason Cena needed to tear Owens a new one.
This was a monumental challenge for Owens. When he was Kevin Steen, he was an indy guy that dreamed of sharing the ring with the WWE’s biggest stars and learned to speak English by watching Steve Austin promos. Then he got signed after years of working his ass off in everything from spot-fests to the most violent of brawls. But in NXT, he became the hottest prospect within a few short months. And now, suddenly, he was in the ring with John Cena, WWE’s golden boy and biggest meal ticket.
There was an undeniable dream factor with Kevin Owens here. He was treated like a big star in NXT, but the main roster was a completely different environment. Would Cena expose Owens as being unworthy of the biggest wrestling stage on the planet? Or would Owens break the status quo and beat John Cena without shenanigans at least once and ideally more than that?
Match #1: Elimination Chamber 2015
This match originally took place on May 31st, 2015. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
They do a basic headlock/drop-down/leapfrog/tackle spot to begin the match. They soak in the split crowd chants until Owens kicks Cena’s gut. The crowd boos as Owens takes over with punches and kicks. Cena counters a corner whip and follows with a running bulldog. Owens kicks Cena to block a back body drop and pushes his fingers into Cena’s face. He hits some stiff elbows and hammer throws Cena into a corner and Cena goes down hard. Owens lands more shots to the head and covers for a two-count.
Owens puts Cena in a chinlock for a long time but Cena eventually powers out. Cena goes for an AA but Owens counters with a DDT but only gets two. Owens taunts Cena and then gloats as Cena sells a big boot to the face. Suddenly Cena goes for a roll-up but Owens kicks out and hits a clothesline. Owens lands some mounted punches for another two-count. He gloats some more but then Cena starts firing back with punches. Cena tries his comeback with shoulder tackles but Owens catches him on the second one and hits a swinging Air Raid Crash for a two-count. A corner cannonball splash gets Owens another two-count and Owens takes more time taunting and mocking Cena. A short punch exchange ensues and Owens sets up his pop-up powerbomb. Cena avoids it and lands his full superstar comeback sequence. Cena goes for the AA. Owens blocks and lands his pop-up powerbomb. The referee counts one, two, and – Cena kicks out.
Owens goes to the top rope but Cena hits the ropes which makes Owens crotch himself. The two trade strikes in the corner until Owens head-butts Cena down. Owens follows with a moonsault but it misses. Cena hits an AA but Owens kicks out. Yay/boo punch exchange. Owens hits a superkick and then tries Cena’s 5-Knuckle Shuffle. Cena counters with a drop toehold into an STF. He pulls Owens from the ropes but Owens uses that to kick Cena away. Owens hits Cena with an AA but only gets a two-count. Owens rushes into a corner but Cena blocks and hits a tornado DDT for a two-count. Diving leg drop by Cena. Another two-count. Cena tries another AA. Owens counters with a package piledriver into a sidebuster for yet another two-count.
Another yay/boo punch ensues but then Owens sends Cena into the ropes. Cena ducks a clothesline and hits a springboard Stunner but Owens kicks out. Cena tries a superplex but Owens counters with an avalanche Fisherman buster. One, two, Cena survives. Senton bomb. Cena kicks out and then hits a massive clothesline. Owens ducks another clothesline and lands another pop-up powerbomb. One, two…and three! Owens beats Cena!
Winner after 19:57: Kevin Owens
The match was great but not all the way through. The first half was bland without anything special aside from the more pro-Owens crowd. But inside the ring, it was another main-event style Cena match without much in the way of drama. But after Owens landed his first big moves and then Cena kicked out of his finisher, then the match got exciting. Owens’ slow and cocky demeanor was replaced with a sense of urgency and desperation. From then on the match was exciting, though still a bit unevenly paced. The big move-sell-replay-big move-sell-replay pattern got repetitive. It felt like these guys spent about a quarter of the match recovering, even though it didn’t really look like they were hurting each other that badly. As for the final few minutes, it still made Owens look strong as a new top-level guy, but it was still lacking in some way. There was more of a surprise factor in Owens victory than a sense that he truly defeated Cena.
While the finishing stretch was solid and exciting, it could’ve done with one minor change: eliminate the near-falls. Owens looked strong and impressive in his first match with Cena, but a slight tweak in the move order would’ve made him look even stronger. Instead of everything after Owens’ top-rope fisherman buster being followed by a cover, Owens would’ve looked even stronger if he hit every move thereafter in order without interruption and then hit his finish for a decisive three-count. Cena’s last-moment clotheslines added nothing to the match. They didn’t turn things around for him and they didn’t hurt Owens that much since, you know, Owens won. Making the slightest alteration in move sequence towards the end would’ve changed the story’s conclusion in a major way. it would’ve transformed Owens’ win into an unexpected surprise into an undeniable and dominant performance.
This might be nitpicking, but it seemed like WWE were going for what I proposed, but then Cena had to get one last move in that didn’t matter all that much. All that said, this was a solid match, but the novelty factor in Owens beating Cena by itself isn’t really the level of praise this match got when it first took place.
Match #2: Money in the Bank 2015
This match originally took place on June 14th, 2015. It was also was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Owens escapes a headlock but Cena tackles him down. They reverse the same spot and this time Owens tackles Cena. The crowd is overwhelmingly behind Owens as Cena goes for a wristlock but Owens punches him down. Owens applies another headlock which leads to another dropdown/leapfrog spot and a clothesline by Cena. Owens hits back with a standing dropkick and a standing senton for a two-count. He follows with a chinlock but Cena powers out. Owens lands a gut kick just like in their first match but this time Cena retaliates with a standing dropkick of his own. Cena begins his comeback sequence with two shoulderblocks but this time Owens counters the side suplex with a headlock takeover. Then Owens copies Cena’s entire superstar comeback sequence move-for-move, much to the crowd’s delight. Owens goes for Cena’s AA. Cena rolls out and into the STF. Owens gets close to the ropes so Cena pulls him back. Owens kicks him away and goes for an AA. Cena escapes and lands an inverted vertical suplex. Cena lifts Owens up but Owens hits a Codebreaker for a two-count. Owens goes for the pop-up powerbomb but Cena avoids it and lands his side suplex and the 5-Knuckle Shuffle. Owens escapes an AA and lands a German suplex and a corner cannonball. One, two, Cena kicks out.
They have a quick punch exchange which ends with another swinging Air Raid Crash from Owens for a two-count. Owens goes for a senton bomb and connects with Cena’s knees. Cena follows with an electric chair facebuster for a two-count of his own. AA connects. One, two, and – Owens kicks out. Cena’s so shocked he argues with the referee, which is so out of character for him. Cena goes for the Avalanche AA and gets Owens onto his shoulders. Owens escapes, gets Cena onto his shoulders and spins him into a Ligerbomb! One, two, and – no, Cena kicks out. Owens tries the pop-up powerbomb. Cena counters with a Frankensteiner but then walks into a superkick. One, two, Cena survives again.
Cena blocks a charge and hits a tornado DDT for yet another two-count. Owens dodges Cena’s diving leg drop and hits his package lift sidebuster for a two-count of his own. Owens misses a moonsault. Cena lands another AA. Owens kicks out at 2.8! Cena tries a superplex. Owens counters with the avalanche fisherman buster! One, two, and – Cena survives yet again! Cena traps Owens in the STF. Owens crawls to the ropes for a break. Cena tries pulling Owens back as Owens keeps holding the ropes. Owens shoves Cena back but Cena manages to land a standing Yoshi Tonic/Code Red. One, two, Owens kicks out. Cena rushes Owens but runs into a pop-up powerbomb. Cena survives once more.
Owens yells at Cena to stay down and hits some punches. He sends Cena into the ropes. Cena counters with a springboard stunner. That’s followed by another AA. One, two, and three! Cena wins!
Winner after 19:15: John Cena
Much, much, MUCH better than their first match. The match was much crisper, flowed better, and had more action for its timeframe. Even with a lot of the same moves and sequences, this match was superior to the first one in every way. It was as if Cena and Owens knew where the gaps were in their first match and plugged most of them here to create a much more airtight and dramatic match. There was also more of a story here. Instead of just standing around and taunting Cena, Owens stole Cena’s moves and made it personal. This was a great example of showing over telling: Owens’ moves had more impact (both literally and metaphorically) than simple smack talk. Owens had all the confidence in the world and seemed to have Cena’s number, only for Cena to make a remarkable comeback.
Not only that, but Cena actually showed more dynamism than before. I know some fans consider move variety an important factor because it shows what a wrestler can do, and here it was a mixed bag. On one hand, Cena hit a lot of different and new moves to show that he wasn’t a repetitive one-or-two-trick pony that played the hits whenever he showed up. On the other hand, all those new moves he hit – and for that matter, all the non-finishers that Owens hit for near-falls – lacked the dramatic impact to really put this match at that elite level.
The match suffered from “unrealistic near-fall syndrome” because neither Cena nor Owens had ever won with the big moves they hit aside from their main finishers. The moves look impressive and kicking out of them was definitely exhausting. But because none of them have the same believability factor as both wrestlers’ established finishers, they didn’t mean as much as they could’ve.
I can’t help but compare this to something from a much better, bygone era. In the lead-up to his big title challenge against Mitsuharu Misawa in October 1998, Kenta Kobashi announced the debut of a new move, something being saved just for Misawa. A week before that match, Kobashi debuted that move in a tag match and used it to pin Misawa clean. That move is now known as The Burning Hammer. And while it’s unrealistic to expect Cena of all people to come up with something so vicious and dangerous in WWE, this match would’ve really been elevated into that upper level of historic greatness if Cena at least used similar logic.
It would’ve been very easy for Cena to do this: two weeks before this match, Cena realizes that he needs something special to beat Owens. Then a week later, he lands that move – whatever it is – on a big star and wins with it. Owens how has to worry about a new threat and so he can’t afford to rest on his laurels after beating Cena once.
While this match was a significant improvement from their first match, it was still hamstrung to an extent by how WWE books matches. Unpredictability and believability are big factors in whether a match is truly historically great or not. This match had unpredictability in terms of match flow and the moves that were done, but not in terms of creating proper near-falls. As Al Snow once said in a training session for aspiring wrestlers,
“For a false finish to be a proper false finish, the fans have to believe that it’s the finish. Just because they make noise doesn’t make it false.”
And neither Cena nor Owens managed to sell that with anything but the AA or the pop-up powerbomb, which in turn weakened the believability factor for almost all the pin attempts during the match.
All of that said, this was still a tremendous match and quite possibly the best match in WWE up to that point in 2015.
Match #3: Battleground 2015
This match originally took place on July 19th, 2015. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is for John Cena’s WWE United States Championship. The two trade headlocks until they do a dropdown/leapfrog sequence that ends with Owens hitting punch to the face. Owens lands more strikes and then hits a standing dropkick to end a punch exchange. he whips Cena hard into two different corners an then hits a beautiful torture rack neckbreaker for a two-count. Owens mocks Cena and hits more punches but then Cena starts rallying back. He hits one shoulderblock but Owens catches him, drops him down, and lands on him with a senton. Moments later Cena hits back with a dropkick followed by a facebuster for a two-count. Cena connects with his diving leg drop but that also gets only two. Owens escapes an AA and gets a two-count off a DDT. Cena rallies back with back with his comeback sequence but then Owens rolls out of the way before Cena can do the 5-Knuckle Shuffle. Owens knocks Cena down with a punch from the apron and goes for a senton. He connects…with Cena’s knees. Owens hits Cena’s full superstar comeback (including 5-Knuckle Shuffle) and goes for the AA but Cena counters with the electric chair facebuster. You’d think Owens would have come up with a counter for that move by now but I guess not. Cena locks in the STF. Owens escapes as Cena pulls him away from the ropes. Cena blocks a corner charge but Owens catches his leg and hits a back suplex lift into a backbreaker for a two-count.
Owens lands more punches and goes for the pop-up powerbomb. Cena holds onto the ropes, ducks a clothesline, and goes for his springboard stunner. Owens catches him and lands a German suplex. Owens follows with a corner cannonball for a two-count. Another punch exchange ends in a Yoshi Tonic/Code Red from Cena for yet another two-count. Cena goes for another diving leg drop. Owens catches him with a Ligerbomb for a two-count. After some recovery time, Owens goes after Cena but Cena hits an AA first out of nowhere but only gets two. Cena goes for a superplex. Owens counters with the avalanche fisherman buster for yet another two-count. Cena counters the pop-up powerbomb with a Frankensteiner. Owens blocks an AA and hits a superkick. Then Owens hits both Cena’s AA and locks in Cena’s STF. Cena drags himself to the ropes, which leads to a chorus of boos.
Cena blocks a corner charge and lands his tornado DDT for a two-count. Another punch exchange ends with a successful springboard stunner but Owens retaliates with a clothesline. Owens follows with his Steen Breaker pumphandle neckbreaker to the knee for yet another two-count. Cena escapes another pop-up powerbomb and hits an AA but Owens kicks out. big clothesline by Cena. Owens ducks a second one and hits the pop-up powerbomb but Cena kicks out.
Owens goes for a dive but Cena cuts him off. Cena lands his Avalanche AA. The referee counts one, two, and – NO, Owens kicks out of Cena’s super-finisher! STF by Cena. Owens crawls to the ropes. Cena pulls him back. Owens taps out. Cena retains his title!
Winner and STILL WWE United States Champion after 22:11: John Cena
Solid but by far the weakest match of the trilogy. Their first match had the novelty factor so that wouldn’t be replicated here. They could’ve at least matched their second encounter by replicating it as much as possible but they didn’t. Instead, this match came across as a slightly-tweaked version of their first match but less dramatic. And while Owens did get ridiculously over by kicking out of everything Cena threw at him – including his super-ultimate Avalanche AA – there were too many repeated spots and a lack of escalation that made this match inferior to what these two did before.
While it would make complete sense for me to repeat my earlier comments about unrealistic near-falls here since that was once again a big problem with this match, I want to focus on something else. There a certain expectation of adaptation and anticipation that comes when two wrestlers have so many big matches so close together. That expectation wasn’t met here. Despite having some hard-hitting moves and somewhat impressive near-falls, Cena and Owens failed to up the ante and capitalize on what they did in the past. As I said earlier, given how the stakes were much higher here – especially for Owens – one would think that both men would enter this match fully prepared for everything the other had. And the best way to show that is for moves that worked in the past to be countered or avoided here.
Cena and Owens tried and teased going down that road here, but they didn’t go far enough to make this match into something truly special. Moves like Cena’s tornado DDT, Owens fisherman buster, Cena’s Code Red, Owen’s cannonball, and Cena’s electric chair facebuster, all landed effortlessly but they shouldn’t have. There should’ve been more of a struggle to land everything. These two already knew each other so deeply; they proved that in their second match which had more and better counters than their first one. This match was built as the rubber match, the final chapter between these two. Three huge matches between them took place within a span of less than two months. And in this match there was a marked drop in tension, build and unpredictability. Both guys could’ve done a lot more to live up to the high standard they reached with their second match.
That’s not to say this match was bad, just disappointing compared to what they were capable of. There were some obvious and simple fixes to the flaws both men had in how they wrestled here. By ignoring minor details like they did, these two treated this match like a standalone contest instead of as the next step in their feud. As a result, this was less a meaningful new chapter and more of a greatest hits collection. They didn’t tread on any new ground; they just went down an old path with a few slight detours.
Final Rating for Match #1: ****
Final Rating for Match #2: ****1/2
Final Rating for Match #3: ***3/4
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.