Imagine being John Cena entering the April 23, 2007, episode of WWE Raw.
You are the WWE champion, fresh off a victory over Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 23. You are the face of Vince McMahon's sports-entertainment empire. You have conquered every mountain, cleared every hurdle put before you, yet no matter how much blood and sweat, not to mention tears, you have spilled, it simply has no been enough to win over the crowd.
They still boo you, raining down on you with chants of "you can't wrestle" as you come through the curtain every night. No matter how many classic matches you have had early in your career or how many legendary figures you have defeated, you are still seen as undeserving of the spot you are in.
Then you are told that, on the final night of a weeklong tour through Europe, you are going to go some 45 minutes with Michaels in a lengthy television match, the likes of which fans have not seen in decades.
That was the reality facing John Cena on his 30th birthday.
Little could he have known that the contest with Michaels would not only go down in the annals of WWE as one of the most unforgettable moments in Raw history, but it would also finally provide him the credibility he needed in order to change the fans' perception of him.
Now, on his 43rd birthday, relive the match that changed his Hall of Fame career forever.
A WrestleMania Rematch
Cena and Michaels were no strangers when they entered Earls Court in London for their epic Raw encounter. They were fresh off a WrestleMania 23 classic, a match that saw Cena absorb everything Michaels threw at him before tapping out the Superstar most synonymous with the Grandest Stage of Them All.
They were also the former tag team champions as part of the tired storyline trope of partners who hate each other banding together for the better good. Their reign came to an end when tensions boiled over the night after WrestleMania.
Moments before their bout in London, Cena approached Michaels, the dislike for each other evident in their body language. Cena, the top dog in McMahonland, said it was apparent to him that a lot of guys had fancy nicknames and taglines but that he was, simply, John Cena: Champ.
The stage was set for the colossal encounter, a match that would test Cena's worthiness of being the face of the company two years into his tumultuous run at the top.
Cena played mind games early, trying to tap into Michaels' consciousness with reminders of his WrestleMania victory by going after his opponent's ankle, looking for the STF. Frustration painted Michaels' face and a slap earned HBK a massive right hand heading into the break.
The champion slowed the pace, looking to negate the speed advantage the smaller Michaels held. Sticking with the early story of the match, Cena again cut off an attempt by HBK to get anything started, countering a hip toss with a big clothesline for a count of two. He continued to stick to his power-based offense and sent Michaels scurrying to the sanctuary of the floor.
Every time Michaels found something that worked, Cena came back with another powerful answer that cut off the Showstopper's offensive. A neckbreaker by Michaels, though, reversed his fortunes and gave him his first upper hand of the contest. A flying forearm allowed him to build more momentum. The flying elbow followed and Michaels set up for Sweet Chin Music, only for Cena to evade and attempt a flying shoulder block that missed.
At ringside, Michaels sent Cena into the steel steps and turned the tide, injuring the champ's left arm and proceeding to target it like a shark that had zeroed in on blood in the water.
The crowd remained invested as Michaels worked a submission, looking for a tapout.
Cena mounted a comeback, dodged Sweet Chin Music and dropped Michaels with the Attitude Adjustment, but could only net a two-count as the crowd popped for the first of many near-falls. Now returning the favor, the champion targeted his challenger's surgically repaired back.
Commentator Jim Ross added to the urgency of the moment, suggesting this was the first time Cena had ever utilized a bear hug.
Michaels escaped an STF attempt and sent Cena to the floor. From there, he revisited their WrestleMania bout, looking for a piledriver on the steel stairs. Cena countered, delivering a back body drop that left HBK's body writhing in pain.
"He won't stay down!" Cena exclaimed to referee Mike Chioda, who attempted to pull him off his opponent. Back inside, Cena finally applied the STF, seeking to win this encounter in the same manner he did their last.
A valiant Michaels fought to the ropes, necessitating the break.
Cena tried for another Attitude Adjustment, only to be downed by Michaels as he scored Sweet Chin Music from out of nowhere. An alert Cena grabbed hold of the bottom rope to break the count.
Michaels escaped another Attitude Adjustment, landing on his feet and blasting Cena with yet another Sweet Chin Music for the win.
Cena's greatest detractors wasted no time chalking up the strength of the match to Michaels' greatness, perhaps rightly so. How many times has Michaels been in a match with a less talented wrestler, only to will the thing to "classic" status?
According to Michaels in a January 2018 interview with NBC Sports' Scott Dargis, the epic bout from London should be attributed to both men:
"When you hear that the match is going an hour, it seems like a long time, but when you're working with someone like John so much...I've had the opportunity to go back and watch that match and it just flows right by. That's obviously a testament to John and heck I'll even pat myself on the back a little for that one (laughs)."
He continued: "It's amazing how trying to do that hour-long match didn't seem like such a big mountain to climb. It really helps when you have a history with someone. John and I were coming off of the WrestleMania match and because of that, we had a decent amount of story points to work around, so it was easy."
In that same interview, Michaels called the match one of his favorites.
For Cena, the bout would rank head and shoulders above all others in terms of establishing his in-ring presence. A guy who had excelled in violent brawls against John Bradshaw Layfield and Umaga, he needed that one mat classic to go some way to silencing some of those critics who suggested he was not good enough between the ropes to be the long-term answer as champion.
He got it on that night.
Delivering the reversals, false finishes and near-falls that would make his matches among the most dramatic on any card over the course of his career, Cena laid the groundwork for every other classic match he would have thereafter.
He would utilize those tools in contests with Edge and Randy Orton later in the year while using what he learned from Michaels in terms of timing in a championship program with the oversized Great Khali. His matches with the massive heavyweight would not have been nearly as good as they were without it.
The fact of the matter is that the boos were getting louder, the critics more vocal. Had Cena failed to live up to lofty expectations against an in-ring genius like Michaels, there is a strong likelihood that the decade of dominance we saw out of him may not have been half of that.
Had social media existed to the extent that it does today, it would have lambasted and roasted him for his failure on the grand stage.
Instead, Cena's storytelling between the ropes and his ability to put over the emotion of the match helped to fuel his defining match with Michaels and became, like the other elements already discussed, a trademark of his in-ring style.
Rarely can one look back at a wrestler's body of work and point to the moment that they established themselves as a credible performer among the other legendary figures that surrounded them. This match in London, a rare hourlong showdown between the past and present of professional wrestling, was that moment for WWE's franchise star of the next 10 years.