Battle ready: Recapping Cena’s big-match “firsts”

Over the course of his 10 years competing in WWE rings, the frontiers that John Cena has not yet crossed are few and far between. Yet at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view on July 15, the WWE Universe will witness the rarity of a Cenation leader “first.” Stepping into a ring with ladders strewn around it and a championship contract dangling high above, Cena will compete in his first-ever Money in the Bank Ladder Match, taking on fellow former WWE Champions (not to mention Money in the Bank vets) Big Show, Chris Jericho and Kane.

How will Cena’s lack of experience affect his odds of taking home the highly prized guaranteed contract? Though the Money in the Bank Ladder Match is an especially unpredictable contest, can we ascertain anything about the Cenation leader’s chances July 15 by examining past examples of Cena’s maiden voyages into big-game situations, whether it was his first match on The Grandest Stage of Them All, his first Elimination Chamber or some other match type?

First televised match – SmackDown (June 27, 2002)

As  celebrated on last week, Cena’s first televised match happened a decade ago this week. Answering the open challenge of gold medalist wrestler Kurt Angle, a peppery young Cena showed lots of grit and determination in his TV debut. However, what he had in spirit he lacked in experience, and Angle cinched in a pinning maneuver for the win. Though Cena’s night ended in defeat, whatever early damage was done to his win-loss record was more than made up for by the lasting impression he made on the WWE Universe and the WWE locker room. After the match, several roster veterans, including The Undertaker, congratulated Cena on his impressive first outing.

Would Cena improve upon his showing in his first match on pay-per-view?

First pay-per-view match – Vengeance 2002 (July 21, 2002)

Less than a month into his WWE career, Cena had turned enough heads to earn a spot on his first pay-per-view. Embroiled in a spat with experienced Chris Jericho, Cena fought Y2J at Vengeance 2002 and, at times, appeared wholly outmaneuvered by his much more experienced opponent. (Case in point: Cena leaping toward Jericho, only to eat a missile dropkick in the chest.) Yet, Cena’s spit and vinegar paid off, and he shocked Jericho (and the WWE Universe) by countering the Walls of Jericho and scoring the pin.                                                                       

Would Cena’s success carry all the way over to January 2003 and his first experience in the Royal Rumble Match?

First Royal Rumble Match – Royal Rumble 2003 (Jan. 19, 2003)

John Cena freestyles all the way to the ring during his first-ever Royal Rumble appearance in 2003.

In 2003, Cena, decked out in "Thuganomics" gear (including full-length jeans), entered his very first Royal Rumble Match. Joining the 30-Superstar fray at No. 18, the boisterous Cena trash-talked the competition his entire way to the ring: With a mic in hand, the "Dr. of Thuganomics" spat, “The odds were even until you chose me / Now it’s 29 dudes and one ruthless MC." Though Cena’s incendiary remarks did not endear him to the already full ring of Superstars, he managed to last nearly 20 minutes before being eliminated by The Undertaker.

Cena may not have won, but few Superstars prevail in the Royal Rumble Match their first time out. How would the determined Cenation leader fare the following year in his first WrestleMania showing?


First WrestleMania – WrestleMania XX (March 14, 2004)

John Cena takes on Big Show for the United States Championship on March 14, 2004.

WrestleMania is where legends are born, and it might be fair to say the legend of John Cena was born, if not advanced mightily, March 14, 2004. Competing inside the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden on the 20th edition of The Show of Shows, Cena made his WrestleMania debut in a big way, unseating Big Show for the United States Championship in the event’s opening bout. Neither the Big Apple’s reputation as a make-or-break city or WrestleMania’s big-show atmosphere was enough to give Cena the jitters.

Would the same be true for the Hustle-Loyalty-Respect advocate in his very first “I Quit” Match?


First “I Quit” Match – Judgment Day 2005 (May 22, 2005)

John Cena defends the WWE Championship in his first-ever "I Quit" Match against JBL in the main event of Judgment Day 2005.

Grisly though it was, Cena’s “I Quit” Match debut against JBL at Judgment Day 2005 set the standard for the many innovative and treacherous “I Quit” Matches that would eventually come down the pike for Cena. The barbaric encounter, which was for the WWE Championship, saw both Superstars brawl throughout the ringside area before the action spilled toward the aisle, where "The Wrestling God’s" white limo was parked. Taking turns slamming each other onto the hood and roof of the car, Cena and JBL warred for more than 22 minutes before the threat of Cena attacking him with an exhaust pipe prompted JBL to call it quits.

In the ensuing years, Cena would go on to defeat Randy Orton, Batista and The Miz in “I Quit” Matches, all but cementing the match format as one of Cena’s specialties. Would Cena’s first experience in a Tables Match prove as fruitful?

First Tables Match – Raw (Sept. 26, 2005)

For his first-ever Tables Match, Cena had the seemingly good fortune of teaming with battle-tested ring general Shawn Michaels against the considerably less experienced Carlito and Chris Masters. While the Cenation leader and The Showstopper shared great chemistry as a team – at one point hitting the Five-Knuckle Shuffle in unison – they were unable to beat the odds once Kurt Angle interfered and pushed HBK through a table, behind the referee’s back.

Would Cena’s luck change in time for his maiden voyage inside the Elimination Chamber?

First Elimination Chamber – New Year’s Revolution (Jan. 8, 2006)

John Cena had his work cut out for him at New Year’s Revolution 2006. Not only was the then-WWE Champion slated to put his title on the line against five challengers, but he was to do in the most inhospitable of places: the Elimination Chamber. Facing off against Kurt Angle, Carlito, Chris Masters and Elimination Chamber veterans Shawn Michaels and Kane, Cena accomplished the unthinkable that night. Undaunted, Cena started out the match against Shawn Michaels and lasted all the way to the conclusion, where he rolled up Carlito for the win.

After the contest, Cena fell victim to a surprise Money in the Bank championship contract cash-in by Edge. Even though he didn’t leave New Year’s Revolution as champion, Cena might have found some solace in the fact his hand was raised after competing in one of the most dangerous battlegrounds in all of WWE. Would he be able to maintain the edge in his Tables, Ladders & Chairs Match debut?

First Tables, Ladders & Chairs Match – Unforgiven 2006 (Sept. 17, 2006)

John Cena shows his extreme side -- and then some -- when he gives Edge an Attitude Adjustment off a 16-foot ladder during their TLC Match at Unforgiven on September 17, 2006.

As of September 2006, no Superstar had as much experience warring in Tables, Ladders & Chairs Matches as The Rated-R Superstar, Edge. For that very reason, Cena’s chances of escaping Unforgiven 2006 with Edge’s WWE Championship seemed slim, at best. On top of that, Cena was competing under the weight of a stipulation that would have required Cena to jump to SmackDown if he lost. As it turns out, the stipulation may have provided a bit of extra motivation. True to near-superhero form, Cena bested Edge when he delivered a towering Attitude Adjustment off the top of a ladder through two tables.

With his debuts in most of WWE’s unorthodox match formats behind him, would the Cenation leader be able to attain victory stepping into Hell in a Cell?


First Hell in a Cell Match – Hell in a Cell 2009 (Oct. 4, 2009)

There's nothing to hold back Randy Orton's fury inside Hell in a Cell as The Viper picks apart a helpless John Cena while he's tied up by the ring ropes on October 4, 2009.

Unlike his first Royal Rumble, where 29 other Superstars were involved, or his first Tables Match, in which his teammate’s rival led to his team’s downfall, Cena battled one-on-one with Randy Orton in his initial Hell in a Cell Match. Serving as a particularly brutal chapter in the story of Orton vs. Cena, the Hell in a Cell Match knew no limits, and Cena survived all The Viper could dish out before locking in his STF. Though Orton tapped frantically, the ref was nowhere to be found, and the match continued. Cena managed to kick out of a subsequent RKO, but after suffering a vicious kick to the head, Cena could hang on no more, and he was pinned.

What, if anything, does Cena’s track record of “firsts” tell us about his odds heading into his debut Money in the Bank Ladder Match? As his bout against JBL proved, Cena absolutely refuses to quit, which will only help him come Sunday, July 15. His first TLC Match against Edge showed that the Cenation leader can hold his own against a Superstar who is much more experienced in a specific match format. Further, his epic finale to that match displayed a creative flair that Cena rarely has a chance to let shine. (And innovation, if nothing else, is beneficial in the chaotic Money in the Bank Ladder Match.)

On the flip side, Cena is not unbeatable, as his track record makes clear. Yet, the Money in the Bank Ladder Match is an animal unlike any other, and it seems misleading to compare it to other matches that don’t necessarily share the most unpredictable elements (e.g., multiple participants, a non-elimination-style process to determine the winner).

Perhaps a review of Cena’s “firsts” tells us less about his odds for victory July 15 and more about Cena, the never-say-die competitor. Regardless, when Cena steps into the ring against four fellow former WWE Champions at Money in the Bank, his objective will be clear: to return to the top echelon of title contenders.

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