Few wrestlers in modern times have had as complicated a career as John Cena.
There was a time when Cena was so hated that people paid money to buy merchandise expressing how much they hated him, unaware, perhaps, that he made money off that merchandise. Not only that, but Cena had such passionate detractors that he changed how WWE’s crowds interacted. Their hate for him was so profound that crowds all over the world would rather jeer him than cheer for his opponent.
This fan hatred lasted almost a decade and it wasn’t until around 2015 or so that things really began turning around for Cena. Nowadays he’s a well-respected and admired legend, but to ignore the trials and tribulations he went through to get here would be unfair.
What’s more, it would be equally unfair to presume that Cena was a bad, or at least underwhelming, wrestler for the entirety of his pre-2015 career. In fact, there are said to be some hidden gems from his career that many fans consider to be among WWE’s best matches. With that in mind, let’s revisit one of these alleged gems and see if it still shines bright over fifteen years later.
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.
John Cena’s main-event push began in 2005 after three years of slowly moving up the card. Like most handpicked personal pet projects, the reaction to Cena’s status as new company poster boy was mixed at best. This was especially true when other wrestlers on the roster were fed to him to make him look good. As Cena went through guys like Kurt Angle and Chris Jericho, this hatred towards him started to grow and fester among more vocal parts of the crowd. It got to the point that Triple H – a man with a dubious reputation at the time, to say the least – was cheered over Cena when the two fought at WrestleMania 22 in 2006. But Cena kept fighting and kept winning, to the delight of his biggest fans and to the chagrin of his detractors.
Cena appeared to hit a roadblock of sorts in 2006 in the form of Edge, who remained a thorn in Cena’s side throughout the year. The two traded big wins and held the WWE title at different points throughout the year, but come year’s end Cena emerged victorious. It was at that point that Cena needed a new challenger, especially since plans were being put in place for him to wrestle Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 23. But that was still months away, and WWE felt compelled to give the WWE Champion regular challengers at fixed and rigid intervals.
Umaga was a perfect example of classical wrestling booking that, by and large, has been neglected in more recent years. After being repackaged several times during the earlier part of the decade and being sent to All Japan for seasoning, the man formerly known as Jamal picked up an impressive undefeated streak that spanned almost an entire year. He televised winning streak ended at New Year’s Revolution 2007 when John Cena pinned him with a roll-up. Now, even though Umaga was portrayed as a Samoan savage that did nothing but scream incomprehensively, he still had enough basic comprehension to understand the concept of pride. Umaga lost his s**t over this loss; how could he allow himself to be defeated in such a cheap and pathetic way? As revenge for the embarrassment, Umaga demolished Cena like no one else. He manhandled Cena and left WWE’s resident superhero groaning in pain, looking more vulnerable than he ever had before.
Umaga’s attack left Cena with an injured spleen and WWE’s doctors wanted to do further medical tests to assess the extent of the damage to his body. But Cena refused because he didn’t want to risk losing his title. Even though Umaga may have hurt him far worse than he thought, Cena was willing to fight through the pain and risk everything for his title, what it meant to him, and what he meant to his fans.
At the same time, Umaga’s manager Alejandro Estrada downplayed Cena’s victory, calling it cheap and nothing more than a blemish. He did everything he could to otherwise protect the image of indestructibility that Umaga built for himself, which is why the stipulation chosen for this match was a Last Man Standing match.
That match type would serve two purposes. First, it would allow Cena to show the extent of his damage and how much he had to fight through to win. Second, it put Cena in a much more difficult position as the defending champion since he didn’t have the luxury of a roll-up victory in this setting. He actually had to hurt Umaga to the point that this beast couldn’t answer a ten-count. It seemed next to impossible, especially since no one on the RAW roster managed to make anything more than a dent in Umaga’s armor. If so many older, healthier, and more experienced wrestlers couldn’t stop Umaga, what hope did Cena have, especially since he was going into this match nowhere near 100%?
This match originally took place on January 28, 2007. It was rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is a Last Man Standing match for Cena’s WWE Championship. Cena’s ribs and abdomen are still bandaged from an earlier attack by Umaga. They go nose-to-nose and then Umaga shoves Cena. Cena hits back but Umaga hits harder. Cena avoids a scoop slam and hits a kneeling jawbreaker. He hits as hard as he can and charges for a running attack…but Umaga lands a single punch to the ribs. Instantly Cena rolls to the floor and sells like he’s in genuine pain. Yes, contrary to what you may have heard and read on the internet, Cena knew how to sell when necessary.
Cena makes it to the apron but Umaga knocks him back to the floor. Umaga drives Cena shoulder-first into the steel ringsteps. Cena gets up so Umaga punches him up the entrance ramp until Cena tries fighting back. Cena smashes Umaga’s head into the ringside apron but Umaga tanks it, fires up, and chops Cena hard. Umaga follows with more shots to the bandages with a head-butt to the face in between. Cena tries fighting back after blocking a corner charge but Umaga drops him with a clothesline.
Cena gets up at the count of seven and Umaga slams him back down. Umaga throws some steel steps into the ring as Cena gets up at seven again. Cena hotshots Umaga across the top rope and Umaga falls to the floor. Then Cena channels his superhuman strength, lifts the heavy steps up…and launches them back out to the ring and into Umaga’s face.
Umaga gets up at six so Cena gets a sudden rush of adrenaline. He tosses Umaga back into the ring and tries another comebnack but Umaga shuts him down again, this time with a spinning wheel kick. Umaga lands more shots to the abdomen and then locks in a bear hug than ends in a belly-to-belly suplex. Cena gets up again so Umaga brings the steps back into the ring. Then Umaga places the steps in a corner and Cena against them in setup for his corner running hip attack. Umaga charges…and Cena dodges. All of Umaga’s weight hits the steps and then Cena hits him with them once again.
Umaga gets up again so Cena goes to the top rope. He dives…and gets caught in a swinging Rock Bottom of sorts. Cena screams in agony but still musters enough strength to get up at seven. But Umaga’s right there to inflict more torture, which he does by jumping and sitting on Cena’s chest. Twice. He goes for a third one but Cena gets his knees up and they hit Umaga’s jewels. Cena fires up and hits a flip-over facebuster and a spin-out powerbomb, both onto the steel steps. Both men go down but Cena gets up at five and, appropriately, hits a 5-knuckle shuffle. Cena goes for the F-U (that’ll date this match for sure) but his back gives out and he falls face-first onto the steps.
Cena gets up at the ref’s count of nine and he’s bleeding from the forehead. Umaga takes advantage by punching the open wound and choking Cena against the ropes with his foot. Cena gets up at eight as the crowd charts the pro/anti Cena chant. That appears to work wonders because Cena starts firing up. He begins tanking punches to the head and chops to the chest and demands more. Cena lands some punches and runs to the ropes…only to run into a big Samoan drop. Umaga signals the end with his Samoan Spike finisher. He goes for it…but Cena catches his arm. Cena resists with all his might but Umga cuts him off yet again with a head-butt.
Umaga places Cena in the tree of woe and charges to the ropes. Cena sits up to avoid more contact and hits his diving leg drop. Cena follows by throwing Umaga shoulder-first into a ringpost and then stops Armando Estrada from interfering. Cena grabs a portable monitor and smashes it into Umaga’s head. But despite all of that, Umaga gets up at seven. Cena tackles Umaga to the floor and attempts a diving ax handle. But then he gets caught and Umaga drives him spine-first into the same ringpost. But Umaga’s still not done. He places Cena against a commentary table and then goes onto another one. Running splash…misses! Cena dodges at the last possible second. The referee starts counting and makes it to nine but Umaga gets up.
Umaga lands another shot to the injured abdomen as his manager Estrada unties the entire top rope from the ring. Umaga picks up the metal appendage used to hook the rope to the corner and teases using it as a spike. Umaga charges, but Cena ducks and hits an F-U. Then Cena punches Estrada for good measure. But Cena’s still not done. He uses the ring rope to choke Umaga in a modified STF. Umaga looks like the life’s being choked out of him, but then he starts stirring at the count of three. Cena locks in the rope choke STF one more time, and this time it’s enough. Umaga fails to answer the ten-count! Cena wins!
Winner and STILL WWE Champion via Last Man Standing after 23:03: John Cena
That was an amazing match. It was WAY better than I remember if from when it first happened. It was one of the best story-driven matches I’ve seen from WWE in a long time and one of the biggest hidden gems from what many people consider a lost or forgotten decade. This felt like a more recent interpretation of the classic wrestling angle of babyface champion versus the outside monster challenger. But this wasn’t the live-action cartoon that most people associate with in-his-prime John Cena. Cena was out of his element here and actually had to fight from underneath like never before. He actually sold, struggled, and generally came across as vulnerable and in peril. There was genuine tension, at least up to the somewhat deflating ending. While few people believed that Umaga would win, there was still this enormous curiosity factor in how Cena would be booked to retain his title. Somehow, Cena needed to win and Umaga needed to not lose. It was a daunting effort, but these two pulled it off in spectacular fashion. If there was ever a match that really showed that Cena could wrestle – or at least, put on a convincing performance that made him look less cartoonish and more realistic – it was this one.
This wasn’t a match built on move variety or the strength of its in-ring action but on the depth of its story and the psychology built on Cena’s struggle. His usual copy-and-paste match formula was all but useless here. He was a fish out of water here as he couldn’t do any of his usual shtick. Umaga was the living definition of the immovable object, the monster the likes of which Hulk Hogan fought and vanquished in his prime. And since he was fighting while injured, Cena had no surefire way of protecting himself, much less making a comeback and winning.
Umaga controlled most of the match by targeting Cena’s injured ribs. Imagine that: common sense psychology is so obvious that even an alleged simpleton like the Umaga character could grasp it and make it work. Umaga mopped the floor with Cena with everything he did, to the point that every little thing Cena did to stay in the match made him look like an underdog. There was no Super-Cena here; he was fighting from beneath and it was refreshing to see.
What’s more, Cena could only make progress in small doses and in short bursts. He was able to create some distance and catch his breath several times, but in most if not all of those cases all he was doing was slowing or stopping Umaga’s push forward and not pushing him back. Cena managed to get a few shots in here and there but whenever he did so Umaga shut him back down with either some big, heaving slam or a perfectly-times strike.
Because Umaga dominated the match and generally did better than Cena at almost everything, Cena’s only avenue to victory was to his quickly and as hard as possible. In this case, given how hurt he was, the only surefire way to achieve that goal was to use weapons and come up with creative and in some ways vicious means of using them. Since Umaga hit like a freight train Cena used his momentum against him. Once Umaga got dazed, Cena hit him with steep steps, a heavy monitor, and what few big moves of his own he could land. Then there was the finish, which was creative and protective of Umaga’s status. While some fans might bemoan the result, especially since Umaga was seen to have earned the win more than Cena, the conclusion still protected Umaga and benefited Cena. Umaga wasn’t beaten by traditional means; it took Cena choking him out with the thick and heavy ring ropes to finally put this monster down long enough for the ten-count. Umaga was such a monster that conventional weaponry was all but useless against him. So even though he lost, he was put over as a truly monstrous threat. For all intents and purposes, Cena didn’t beat Umaga; he survived Umaga, and those are two very distinct things.
Final Rating: ****3/4
You don’t need an exhaustive catalogue of different moves, an excessively-long backstory, or a ton of callbacks to previous encounters to have an awesome match. In some cases, a match can be understood in a vacuum and still be great, as was the case here. Cena and Umaga went down a well-worn path and told a similar story that’s been around in pro-wrestling many times. Yet sometimes a re-telling of the same story while using slightly different language or steps can be just as good if not better than something new.
This was definitely one of the best matches of Cena’s career and the best match in Umaga’s. It’s because of matches like this that it’s unfortunate that a) Umaga passed away so soon and b) he doesn’t get the recognition he earned. The closest he gets to any sort of memory is that guys like Solo Sikoa and the Usos use his trademark running corner ass attack in their matches. That’s all well and good, but I doubt that any of them will ever match Umaga at being as wild and genuinely intimidating in the ring.