Ranking John Cena's Greatest in-Ring Rivalries of All Time
For the 13 years he's been in WWE, John Cena has had no shortage of stellar in-ring rivals. Regardless of whether he's been a rookie or a seasoned veteran of the business, he's had quality matchups his entire WWE career, though his opponents deserve an equal amount of credit.
From Triple H to Zack Ryder, he's faced just about everyone who has had notoriety of any kind in WWE. Even The Undertaker, who has seldom crossed paths with Cena, did battle with him during his days as the Chain Gang Commander back in 2003.
While Cena has had his fair share of Match of the Year candidates in the past, he's produced more critically acclaimed matches this year than anyone else on the roster, with his most recent series of matches with Kevin Owens being among the greatest he's ever contested.
Similar to Owens, Superstars such as CM Punk, Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels have all brought the best out of Cena in their respective rivalries with him. In doing so, they've put to rest the notion that he "can't wrestle" and have instead forced fans to give him the credit he has long deserved.
Here, I will attempt to rank Cena's top seven most outstanding opponents from over the course of his career. Criteria will include the matches, feuds and chemistry he has had with all of the following men.
7. Rob Van Dam
Truth be told, Rob Van Dam should have been in the WWE's main event scene far sooner than he was, so it was a long time coming when he finally arrived in 2006. At the helm of the ECW invasion, he was the center of the controversy when he announced in advance he'd be cashing in his Money in the Bank contract at the ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view against then-WWE champion John Cena.
Although the odds were stacked against Cena, he refused to succumb to the pressure of competing in front of the ECW faithful. It was the first time in his career he faced such a raucous crowd that undoubtedly gave an advantage to his opponent, RVD.
Given the circumstances of the night and everything that went into it, they caught lightning in a bottle. It was the first one-on-one encounter between the two, so fans weren't expecting to see an instant classic from the competitors.
Of course, it wouldn't have been an ECW event without some hardcore elements mixed in. While the referee was down and out, Edge interfered and speared Cena through a table in the turnbuckle, allowing RVD to capitalize and capture the WWE title.
Needless to say, it was the grandest win in RVD's career as it solidified him as a main event player at last. It's a shame he got himself suspended soon after, cutting their feud short and costing fans the chance to see them contest in a rematch.
6. Daniel Bryan
Had you told someone 10 years ago that world-renowned independent star Bryan Danielson (aka Daniel Bryan) would one day contend for the WWE Championship against John Cena in the main event of SummerSlam, they never would have believed you.
It was apparent for months in 2013 that Bryan was one of the company's most popular stars gauging by the reactions he received each week from the fans. It wasn't until the night after the Money in the Bank pay-per-view that he got his chance at superstardom when Cena handpicked him to challenge for the prestigious prize at SummerSlam.
The only televised match they had prior to that point was a throwaway match on Raw the year prior, and based off how good that match was, everyone was aware this encounter was going to be nothing short of excellent. The bigger question was how the finish would be handled and if any shenanigans would play a part in it.
Although Triple H being named the special guest referee raised a few eyebrows, he thankfully stayed out of the spotlight and allowed Cena and Bryan to work their magic. With this one outing, Bryan was made to look like Cena's equal, especially after he pinned him for the three-count and the title.
They haven't had many matches against each other, but this specific stellar matchup was among 2013's best bouts in WWE. Here's hoping a rematch between them won't be out of the question upon Bryan's return to the ring.
5. Kevin Owens
Is it too soon to call John Cena's recent rivalry with Kevin Owens one of his career's most iconic? Perhaps, but their three matches are more than deserving of placement on this list.
Dating back to Kevin Steen's days on the independent scene, him and Cena in the same ring had forever been a "dream match" of sorts for fans. Once he signed with WWE as Kevin Owens in 2014, no one thought they'd see it come to fruition as quickly as it did this year.
Answering Cena's United States Championship open challenge on the May 18 edition of Raw and making his main roster debut, he did the unexpected by not going through with the match and instead laying out The Champ. In fact, he didn't even desire the star-spangled prize; he merely wanted to make an impact his first night on the main roster, and that's exactly what he did.
At Elimination Chamber, Owens took Cena to his absolute limit, pulling everything out of his arsenal (and then some) in order to put him away. With a pop-up powerbomb out of nowhere, Owens pinned the shoulders of the downed Cena to score one of the biggest upset victories in recent history.
Some would say their Money in the Bank match was better, but both can be considered classics. The Battleground bout, although the finish was flawed, was also extraordinary. Either way, that surely won't be the last time you see them in the ring together.
4. Shawn Michaels
The original plan going into WrestleMania 23 was to do a rematch between John Cena and Triple H from the year prior. However, an injury sustained by HHH months earlier forced WWE Creative to change directions and go with Shawn Michaels as the WWE Championship challenger instead.
Ironically, Triple H's injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The build mostly consisted of them showing respect for one another, but the match itself was magical. On a rather stacked card, Cena vs. Michaels stood out above the rest as the true main event of the night, stealing the show and showcasing the skills of both icons.
The story was whether Cena could overcome the legend of the Heartbreak Kid, and while the final outcome was never in doubt, it didn't make the ride any less fun. They gave each other everything they had, but in the end, it was Cena who stood tall with his hand held high.
As good of a match as that was, it was their unforgettable encounter weeks later on Raw in England that proved to the masses that Cena could in fact "wrestle." Their war lasted close to an hour, and it was only after one Sweet Chin Music that Michaels was able to put Cena away. Amazing.
3. Kurt Angle
Very few people were more instrumental in John Cena's success as a singles star than Kurt Angle. From Cena's debut match to his rise as the face of the franchise, Angle had always been Cena's biggest adversary along with his greatest mentor.
In his premiere WWE match against Angle, Cena showed signs of one day making it big just based off how he refused to give up when facing the Olympic gold medalist. Over the next few years, they'd go head-to-head in countless matchups, with Angle emerging victorious more often than not.
Angle would have been the first one to tell you years ago that Cena could never be mistaken for being a highly skilled "wrestler." Even still, he managed to get great matches out of him every time they did battle and put him over as the next big thing in the process.
Once both were moved to Raw in the 2005 WWE draft, they rekindled their rivalry in the fall, this time over the WWE Championship. Yet again, they had a strong series of matches on pay-per-view late that year that showed their tremendous chemistry was as good as it had ever been.
Angle's exit from the company in 2006 put an end to their long-running rivalry, but imagine how awesome it would be to see the American hero make his grand WWE return by answering Cena's U.S. open challenge one of these days on Raw.
What Kurt Angle did for John Cena as a rising rookie in WWE was similar to what Edge did for Cena (and vice versa) as a main event player. Simply put, they were the perfect opponents, which is why their 2006 feud was as iconic as it was.
Cena vs. Edge dominated WWE programming almost exclusively that year, starting with Edge cashing in his Money in the Bank contract at January's New Year's Revolution event to win his first WWE Championship. Their first official match at the Royal Rumble, albeit decent for what it was, was far from their best work.
They'd focus on other feuds in the months that followed before rekindling their rivalry in time for the summer. They contested great matches at SummerSlam and on Saturday Night's Main Event, but surely their best bout came at Unforgiven in Edge's native Canada.
Fans were relentless in cheering their hero and making things difficult for The Champ, but he remained resilient and put Edge through the wringer. Even in Edge's own specialty, the TLC match, Cena reigned supreme after delivering an Attitude Adjustment to Edge off the top of a ladder. Hardcore, huh?
Their strong series of matches didn't end there, though. Prior to Edge's 2011 retirement, they crossed paths for a brief time in early 2009, including at Backlash, where they had one of the better Last Man Standing matches in WWE history.
1. CM Punk
It's interesting how many times it took WWE to go back to John Cena vs. CM Punk as a main event for Raw before finally realizing the money that could be made with it as a full-fledged feud. And every match they had prior to the Summer of Punk was well above average, and it just seemed they were destined to work against each other.
Of course, it was their 5-star mat classic at 2011's Money in the Bank pay-per-view that solidified this feud as being among the elites. But it was far from over, and surprisingly enough, the best was yet to come from them.
Their encounter at SummerSlam the subsequent month was equally exceptional, but it'd be another year before they'd clash on pay-per-view again at Night of Champions 2012. Despite Cena having home-field advantage with the event emanating from Boston, it didn't help his chances of winning, as it ultimately ended in a draw when the shoulders of both men were counted to the mat.
On the February 25, 2013 edition of Raw, Cena and Punk faced off one final time in what was perhaps the best wrestled match they ever had. Fans still rave over it today and rightfully so; it was one of the greatest matches to ever occur on Raw in its 20-year history.
The chemistry these two had both inside and outside the ring was undeniably incredible. Whether Punk will ever be unseated as Cena's greatest in-ring rival remains to be seen, but with many more years left in the 15-time world champion's career, it's an entirely possible feat.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is a journalism major at Endicott College. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.