Hogan defeating Andre at WrestleMania III. Austin beating the Michaels at WrestleMania XIV. Batista and Cena winning their first world titles at WrestleMania XXI.
These are the three defining “passing-of-the-torch” moments in WWE history.
Last night was the fourth.
An electric crowd in Chicago was treated to an exciting and compelling wrestling show that delivered nearly from start to finish.
The payoff was the much-hyped John Cena vs. CM Punk WWE Championship match, a contest that packed as much drama and uncertainty into a half hour as anything the company has done in a decade.
By now everyone knows that Punk came out victorious, that he literally kissed Vince McMahon and the WWE goodbye, and that he left Chicago with the WWE Championship.
Where the company goes from here now that its champion is no longer under contract is anybody’s guess. Fans will tune in to Monday Night Raw tonight and—for the first time in what seems like ages—will have no idea what’s going to happen.
What in the storyline is a black day for the WWE is a beautiful day for wrestling fans, particularly those who label themselves members of the Internet Wrestling Community.
Right now, the IWC has everything it’s ever wanted: The major titles are on CM Punk and Christian; Raw will be unpredictable at a level not seen since the late 1990’s; and even internet darling Daniel Bryan is on his way to a main event push after pulling off a massive upset in the Smackdown MITB ladder match.
All that aside, the WWE universe revolves around CM Punk right now.
In just a few short weeks, Punk has transformed himself from an also-ran with a year-long pay-per-view losing streak into the hottest wrestling star on the planet.
Not since Stone Cold Steve Austin has someone captivated audiences as Punk has.
More importantly, not since Austin has anyone leapt out of the arena and into the mainstream consciousness as Punk has.
If this is the storyline that puts the WWE back on the map and leads to a boom in popularity like those seen in the mid-80’s and late-90’s, Punk will deserve and receive the lion’s share of the credit.
Yet, CM Punk’s success has hinged on one factor that has been surprisingly overlooked.
This factor is a man who deserves as much credit for understanding the landscape, hearing the voice of the fans, and grasping the moment as Punk is getting.
Without this man, Punk’s message would have fallen on deaf ears, and his victory would have lacked significance.
This man is former WWE champion John Cena.
Five years ago, the fans’ turn on Cena began at WrestleMania XXII in—where else—Chicago. In the main event, Cena was soundly booed as fans cheered on the heel challenger, Triple H.
Yet the WWE booked Cena to win not only that match, but countless other matches over the next five years.
In that time Cena has amassed 10 world championships, including one reign that lasted more than a year. Punk’s description of Cena as underdog to dynasty during that span was dead on.
And yet it was this much-maligned dynastic run by “Super Cena” that made last night’s main event so special.
It was the past five years of Cena as the face of the company and the man who never gives up that had the crowd at the Allstate Arena so completely behind the challenger. It was the idea that Cena always wins, despite the odds, despite the clamoring of the fans for something different, which made the match with Punk so dramatic and unforgettable.
The fans needed Cena to lose as much as they needed Punk to win.
Let’s use the New York Yankees analogy, which has become a popular one to describe Cena lately.
In 1996, the Yankees were a franchise that had not won a championship in 18 years, and for all its success, had only claimed two World Series titles since 1963.
The team was composed of scrappy, competitive role players who were easy to root for.
That October, they took on an Atlanta Braves team that had won the previous Fall Classic and had appeared in three of the previous four World Series. Many casual fans sided with the Yanks as New York clawed back from a 2-0 series deficit to win it all in six games.
Then in 1998, the Yankees won 114 games during the regular season and won another World Series title.
Within a few years, the role players had become household names and superstars, and other positions were filled with big-name acquisitions like Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina.
The 2001 World Series pitted the mighty Yankees dynasty against the scrappy Arizona Diamondbacks.
The D-Backs boasted the 57-home run season of Luis Gonzalez and the 1-2 punch of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, but few thought they were any match for the Bronx Bombers, who had won four championships in five years.
The series went to a thrilling seventh game and ended with Arizona scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth off the invincible Mariano Rivera to win the series and dethrone the Yankees.
This game is one of the greatest in baseball history, not just because of the victors, but because of the losers.
For it to reach the next level, it had to be the Yankees in the other dugout.
Last night’s main event would have been fantastic with Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio, or even the Undertaker fighting to keep the WWE Championship away from Punk.
But for the match to reach a place reserved for only the select few, it had to be John Cena in the other corner.
Because of Cena, his character, and the way he’s been booked for the last five years, last night’s title match was one of the most significant in WWE history.
With everyone against him, Cena didn’t overcome the odds.
He succumbed to them.
Never again can he be looked upon as the invincible “Super Cena,” the guy never gives up, who hurdles all obstacles, and who always rides gloriously into the sunset behind his mantra of hustle, loyalty, and respect.
In defeat, Cena had a hand in changing the face of professional wrestling in a profound and lasting way, the implications of which we still do not know.
What the WWE does next is anyone’s guess at this point, but there is an undeniable sense that something big is happening.
The ironic thing about Cena getting booed at WrestleMania XXII was that his opponent, Triple H, had been criticized for years for being pushed too hard and holding the strap too often.
Last night, Cena was booed again in Chicago, though this time he was playing the role of Triple H.
Cena’s victory in 2006 signaled the start of a new era of dominance, and his year-long title reign which followed soon after was like the 1998-99 portion of the Yankees dynasty.
If the past two years have been the WWE’s “PG Era,” everything from 2006 until last night was part of a larger period that could and should be called the “Cena Era.”
When people look back on these past five years, Cena will be the first thing they think about.
Last night, the Allstate Arena served as the backdrop for another classic Game 7 showdown. And just as the Diamondbacks victory 10 years ago revealed the true greatness of that Yankees team, Punk’s victory told us everything we’d known but had never acknowledged about John Cena.
Forget the childish catchphrases. Forget the Five Moves of Doom. Forget the rainbow-like assortment of T-shirts.
For the past five years, John Cena has been front and center for most of the biggest moments and matches the WWE has put forth.
He has risen to the occasion each and every time, and he has delivered.
Time will tell whether CM Punk’s victory at Money in the Bank will usher in a new era in professional wrestling.
The only thing we know for sure is that July 17, 2011, saw the end of the old one.
John Cena will still be around, and he will still win his fair share of matches and championships. But his victories will never again carry the same aura and mystique of the past five years.
Will wrestling be different after last night? We don’t know.
But it will never be the same.