I don’t know if you guys know it or not, but John Cena loves to lose at SummerSlam. In fact, it has kind of become his thing over the latter half of his career (assuming he is closer to the end than the beginning now. Maybe you have realized it before, or maybe you haven’t, but John Cena loves to lose at SummerSlam as much as he loves winning every other match. A quick review of Cena’s history along with some writing on the Wrestlemania 34 wall and you will see why John Cena was destined to lose either to Shinsuke Nakamura last night (as has happened) or to Jinder Mahal at this year’s SummerSlam.
In all fairness, I originally wrote this article based around the idea that Cena would beat Nakamura last night and then lose at SummerSlam (whether directly to Jinder Mahal or via cash-in by Corbin after a record-breaking win). I completely missed the writing on the wall (and the whole point of this very article). That’s how sure I was that Cena was going to beat Nakamura and face Jinder Mahal at SummerSlam. But with clarity (and yes, hindsight) it makes even more sense that Cena loss last night instead.
For as much heat as John Cena has gotten over the years for being “SuperCena” and burying young talent, there is one pay-per-view that he seems to lose at more often than any other, and that is SummerSlam. Do you know John Cena’s record at SummerSlam? I do. It’s a grand total of four wins and nine losses. You heard that right, SuperCena is 4-9 at the biggest party of the summer. Want to hear something else? He has lost 6 consecutive matches at SS. There are a couple of reasons why this makes sense.
What SummerSlam Represents
“Smart Fan” Wrestlemania
If you’ve heard us talk on the OTTB pod about WWE’s Big Four ppvs then you would know that we refer to SummerSlam as the Wrestlemania for “smart fans”. Whereas Wrestlemania is usually this spectacle that is meant to draw in casual fans and distant fans, Summerslam appears to be geared towards satiating the “smart fans” wishes. Look at some of the world championship matches from recent history (basically all of the SummerSlam events since WWE has only used LA or Brooklyn for the event):
2009 – CM Punk defeats Jeff Hardy in a TLC match for the World Heavyweight Championship
2011 – CM Punk defeats John Cena for the Unified WWE Championship
2012 – CM Punk defeats John Cena and Big Show for the WWE Championship
2013 – Daniel Bryan defeats John Cena for the WWE Championship
2014 – Brock Lesnar ABSOLUTELY DESTROYS John Cena for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
2015 – Seth Rollins defeats John Cena to retain the WWE Championship and become United States Champion
2016 – Finn Bálor defeats Seth Rollins to become first Universal Champion
Random aside – including this year, Brock Lesnar has been in the main event of five of the last six SummerSlams, whether for a world championship or not. That also means, perusing the list of the above matches, that a title match has not been the main event of SummerSlam since 2014. That does not negate the importance of Cena’s losses however.
When you look at that list above, it becomes clear that SummerSlam, at least from its title matches, has been a fan service event for almost 10 years now. Excluding 2010 where Kane fought Rey Mysterio Jr. and Sheamus fought Randy Orton, most of the title matches have featured a “smart fan” favorite. CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, pre-repetitive match Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins and Finn Bálor. That shows me two things, by gawd was WWE behind CM Punk and two look at who most of these guys beat – John Felix Anthony Cena. So clearly SummerSlam is more geared towards the “smart fan”.
Time for Experimentation
The post SummerSlam landscape in WWE tends to be a time of experimentation. While Wrestlemania, and the build to it, is usually a time for cementing near-legit stars or boosting the resumes of existing superstars, SummerSlam and the four to five months after is usually a time to test out having different guys run with the world championships to see what happens. Last year we saw the attempt at establishing Finn, which was cut short by injury, and the establishment of Kevin Owens and AJ Styles as legit world champions in the months following SummerSlam. Within just about two weeks AJ and KO became WWE and Universal Champions respectively. They held onto their titles until January and March respectively. WWE used those fall and early winter months to solidify that these two men were stars that could be counted on to carry a main event program and potentially headline a Wrestelmania somewhere down the line.
In 2015 it was the continuation of Seth Rollins months-long reign as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. In 2014, well this was no experiment, we knew Brock Lesnar was the beast, this is the exception that proves the rule. In 2013, Daniel Bryan began his story of chasing the WWE championship up to Wrestlemania 30. In 2009, 2011 and 2012, WWE used SummerSlam to test CM Punk, then begin his superstar push, then fully establish him as one of the most credible WWE champions in the last 20 years – cue longest-running WWE champion of the modern era catchphrase (this is slowly turning into a CM Punk reminiscing session). This idea applies this year whether Nakamura wins and walks out champion or if Nakamura wins and is cashed in on by Corbin as both would represent an experiment as WWE champion. Anyways, let’s move on.
John Cena, Starmaker
As David Shoemaker over at The Ringer loves to say, John Cena is the guy who makes the guys smart fans care about matter. Peruse that list of championship matches again. Cena was in five of the last seven world championship bouts at SummerSlam. Not counting the Brock Lesnar match, in all of these matches Cena was used to give credibility to the guy who was either about to start a lengthy run as champion with Punk, or the guy who was about to have the best Wrestlemania build in years with Daniel Bryan, or the guy who was about to set the record for the longest running WWE champion in two decades in Punk again, or the guy who needed legitimacy added to a title run that most fans were not supportive of at that stage with Seth Rollins. In fact, even when you count the Brock match, Cena being willing to lose to Brock in such decisive fashion is also necessary as a part of the plan to build Brock up to be put down by Roman Reigns in WWE’s quest to get Roman over. Even though the plan failed, Cena’s willingness to play his part is critical.
In each instance, John Cena, either because he is the quintessential company man or just because he really doesn’t have the sway most fans think he does, was willing to lay down for either a former-Indie guy who was on the cusp of stardom – Punk, Bryan, Seth and AJ – or for a part-time monster who up to that point had wrestled three or four matches in two years – Brock Lesnar.
Let’s talk about Cena’s last SummerSlam loss, in 2016 to AJ Styles. AJ had just returned to WWE, making his main roster debut for the first time, in January 2016 at the Royal Rumble. Between January and August he had feuds with Chris Jericho – which ranged from ok to good – and with Roman Reigns – which ranged from great to outstanding – and then with Cena. Having traded wins with Cena on the two previous ppvs – Money in The Bank and Battleground – SummerSlam represented the culmination to their three month feud. Now, I don’t have to tell any of you here that nine times out of ten, the third match in a three ppv feud with John Cena that is tied at 1 usually goes to Cena. It is rare that Cena loses a feud. This was one of those rare instances. At SummerSlam 2016, AJ Styles, former TNA and NJPW standout, beat John Cena, SuperCena if you will, clean in the middle of a WWE ring. That sentence bears repeating: At SummerSlam 2016, AJ Styles, former TNA and NJPW standout, beat John Cena, SuperCena if you will, clean in the middle of a WWE ring. I imagine that the aftermath of this match and the series of matches with Jericho and Roman combined with Dean Ambrose’s tepid reaction as WWE champion were the specific reasons that WWE pulled the trigger on the AJ title run.
But just remember, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles and even Finn Bálor owe, if only a small part, a part of their biggest career moments to none other than the man that everyone loves to hate, John Cena. (Finn’s win over Seth matters so much more because of John Cena helping to establish Seth at SummerSlam the year prior.)
What does this matter?
I’m glad you asked. Smackdown Live at this very moment has a supremely uninspiring WWE champion in Jinder Mahal. Don’t get me wrong, I fully supported the idea of “what the hell let’s just give the belt to Jinder” on an OTTB podcast a few months ago. I am not ashamed. However, I expected more to come from his reign. Nonetheless, SDL now has the most legitimate number one contender imaginable in Shinsuke Nakamura. Do you know why? John Cena. Just like he has in years past, Cena took an important loss that affects a rising independent star – Nakamura – and the title picture at SummerSlam. This time instead of losing to the independent star at SummerSlam, Cena lost a few weeks early giving that independent star the number one contender spot for the title and a shot of legitimacy that otherwise might have been lacking for fans unfamiliar with Nak’s work.
Not only is this loss important in the short run – setting up an expected Nakamura title win – but it is also important in the long run. Firstly, it allows WWE to get the title of Mahal. Secondly, if they pull the trigger on a Corbin cash-in, it allows the continuation of the Nakamura-Corbin feud now with the WWE title in the middle. We get the instant gratification of the Nakamura win followed by the climb to reclaim the title lost. Think Daniel Bryan in the aftermath of the SummerSlam prior to WrestleMania 30 (just not as long and frustrating). The other long run implication matters only if Cena’s rumored opponent at SummerSlam (Corbin) takes a loss to Cena prior to cashing in. If that plays out, Cena would then have a claim to a shot at Corbin’s title as being the last man to beat him. Likewise, he could challenge Nakamura, if and when he reclaims his title from Corbin, on the basis of respect at an event like Survivor Series or (gasp!) WrestleMania 34 – that is of course only if the expected Cena match at WrestleMania has room to change.
Oh, yall thought I forgot that little nugget about next year’s Wrestlemania huh? In a nutshell:
At this stage, it seems like WWE is beginning a potential build to a Cena vs Roman torch-passing match at Wrestlemania 34. What does that have to do with SummerSlam? Well, having Cena lose to Nakamura now allows “free agent” John Cena to move to Raw in the aftermath of SummerSlam without any major narrative dissonance. This would then allow a (hopefully slow) build towards Roman-Cena at next year’s WrestleMania. The alternative is that this match happens at Survivor Series which would help to boost that event and also may be necessary given how much time Cena could be missing in the near future due to non-WWE commitments.
All in all, I think it’s time we “smart fans” start appreciating John Cena more because in a few years we may not have someone of his caliber or resume around to make the guys we care about matter.