In a universe that features multiple hours of live TV a week and at minimum one monthly PPV event, it’s rare that anything has a chance to breathe. Years of programming is often crammed into months and months into weeks. However, whilst that trend continues in whirlwind fashion across all WWE programming there has been one exception to the current rule. This past Sunday at the Royal Rumble, AJ Styles and John Cena completed the third chapter of their incredible rivalry. Just like its two predecessors it was dramatic, enthralling and spectacular but this isn’t just another memorable main event John Cena feud, far from it.
When ‘The Phenomenal’ AJ Styles finally made the jump to the WWE in January 2016, fans immediately began to fantasize about all of the matches now possible after years of waiting. At the absolute top of that list of course was John Cena. The long-time company center piece had almost been a spiritual opposite to Styles for their whole careers, seemingly different in every way and for some time the faces of their respective promotions. The wrestling world anxiously anticipated this long awaited clash of greats. There would be some waiting time though, as Cena was in the middle of recovering from shoulder surgery when AJ arrived. The date with destiny was inevitable but first Styles had to find his feet in his new home.
After a solid feud with Chris Jericho that culminated at Wrestlemania, AJ would be inserted into the title picture, feuding with the polarizing champion Roman Reigns. Though Styles would be the loser of their two match series, the quality of his performance signified the direction his WWE run was headed. The high octane PPV main event thrillers had elevated Styles to the top of the company and an intriguing angle involving his former Bullet Club stablemates Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows had given him a relatable and sympathetic babyface character. Then on May 30th, whether people knew it then or not, everything would change in a very big way.
It was on that night that Cena made his full return, entering the ring to address the fledgling ‘new era’. To great fanfare, he would be confronted by AJ Styles and the crowd immediately began to exchange opposing chants of ‘AJ Styles’ and ‘Let’s Go Cena’. It was a surreal moment, seeing the two industry titans face to face for the first time. For over a decade they had been two of the world’s greatest in their own unique way and now their paths finally had crossed. The moment would be quickly interrupted though by the seemingly disgruntled Gallows and Anderson, angered at Styles’ disapproval of their actions.
However, it would soon be all revealed as a ruse. Just when it seemed that an alliance between Styles and Cena was on the cards, AJ would shockingly drop the then 15 time champion with a right hand as the crowd erupted in excitement. The whole picture was suddenly clear as Gallows and Anderson joined AJ in battering Cena as the split between the raucous crowd only grew. At the time the decision to turn Styles into a cowardly villain seemed somewhat questionable, his place as one of the few universally popular babyfaces was a valuable one. Eight months later though and it’s clear that the decision was undoubtedly a great one.
Paired with his friends, AJ showed a cocky attitude and natural charisma to immediately establish himself as one of the company’s best heels. On the other hand, Cena was unchanged but more motivated than ever and the match was made for Money in the Bank 2016. To the surprise of no one, the match was excellent and told a fascinating story throughout. Styles was represented as the far greater technician and seemed a step ahead at every turn but was unable to put his foe away, playing into Cena’s claims that Styles couldn’t win the big one. As the match approached its natural climax, Gallows and Anderson would intervene, helping Styles to win and laying the groundwork for the rest of this just emerging rivalry.
Though Styles had come out the victor, Cena’s critical claims were still at the heart of the feud and the returning draft would play a pivotal role in furthering the intrigue. Styles would be split from Gallows and Anderson in the draft as he was sent to Smackdown Live, along with him was John Cena. Now all alone, Styles laid down the challenge to Cena for a Summerslam rematch, desperate to prove his superiority. In quite uncommon fashion, though he was a heel Styles’ intentions were pure. He simply wanted to show Cena and the world that he was the better man and the opposing proud hero was desperate to not just prove him wrong but also to dispel the doubts surrounding his future in the ‘new era’.
In a match very different from its Money in the Bank counterpart, Styles and Cena went back and forth in a throwback Summerslam classic. In the end, Cena simply couldn’t pin ‘The Phenomenal’ and Styles spectacularly came out the clean victor. In that moment, Styles was solidified as a one of the most important people on the WWE roster and an iconic moment had just occurred. AJ Styles had beaten the WWE’s center piece in New York and the characters involved had just been altered. Styles had now proven himself as much more than the ‘flop’ Cena had suggested but Cena was left unsure of himself, even symbolically leaving his famous ‘Never Give Up’ armband lonesome in the ring.
Just weeks later, Styles would claim the WWE title, fully legitimising his spot at the top of the company he had joined only nine months earlier. Cena soon briefly returned but would once again be pinned by Styles, coming up short in a triple threat also involving Dean Ambrose. The story thread of Cena’s struggle with the ‘new era’ was continuing as Cena was even pinned on Smackdown by Ambrose after being regularly called out and criticized by him. After a two month hiatus, Cena would eventually return and throw down the gauntlet for a shot at Styles at the Royal Rumble event. Almost brash with his undeserved title shot, the already split crowd was torn apart even further as Cena almost arrogantly discredited Styles’ hot streak by citing his own undeniable longevity.
Styles was a confident counterpart though and had his prior wins as a route to heighten Cena’s mental doubts. Babyface and heel wasn’t a part of this rivalry anymore. It was two champions with clearly defined characters that had their own beliefs and motives. Personally, I’m a big believer in traditional storytelling in pro wrestling but there’s always an exception to the rule and this was it. The audience had already decided who they were cheering and for once the WWE leant into it, even featuring the opposing fan chants in their ad promoting the match. The result was an atmosphere almost never seen in the modern era. The crowd was passionate, engaged and desperate for their man to come out the victor.
What followed was simply magic. Two wrestling geniuses put together a classic match in which neither one once left the ring. It was exciting and thrilling, the drama palpable. Cena was more aggressive than ever, the desperation pouring out through his facial expressions and overall attitude. There was a real sense of doubt in Cena and that only made the moment of his victory all the more special. The definitive winner after stopping one final AJ flurry, John Cena was the 16 time world champion and seem genuinely touched by the achievement. This wasn’t just the completion of a sublime wrestling trilogy though, it represented much more.
Though they are different in so, so many ways, AJ Styles and John Cena will be forever linked together not just due to these matches but also their shared absolute pro wrestling greatness. Their journey to this point may have been different but that’s what made this so special. It was a clash of one of the greatest in-ring performers the industry has ever seen and arguably the most prolific top guy of all time. Regardless of what side of the fence you was on or whether you were chanting ‘AJ Styles’ or ‘Let’s Go Cena’, it’s imperative that we embrace how truly great this trilogy and rivalry was. It wasn’t rushed or contrived but rather engrossing and believable. To put it simply, it was absolute pro wrestling magic.