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[2017-01-29-WWE-Royal Rumble] A.J. Styles vs John Cena

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This has a big match feel and atmosphere. I don't think I've seen Cena looking as intense as he did when he was setting AJ up for those lariats.

 

Cena is approaching Kurt Angle levels of exposing and spamming his finish. Even the top rope AA he hits didn't feel like like a match ender, there was no build-up for it. Another Cena trope I don't like is him pulling out a new move every big match, less equals more and all that, but man, I love that variant of Canadian Destroyer that he started using as a result of this trope coming around.

 

Highly entertaining match, mainly as I went in spoiler-free and I cared about who would win, but I doubt this will hold up on repeated viewings. Even when watching live, the submission trade-off segment never felt like the match was in jeopardy. It's two of the best in the world having a showcase match in front of a hot crowd on a big show. Enjoy it for what it is and not the MOTYC you'd be expecting from these two.

 

★★★½

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I seriously hated the first two matches AJ & Cena had against each other, but here in their 3rd match they delivered the classic that I knew they had in them. They built into the crazy finishing stretch w/ the big moves so well - the meat of the match was tremendous this time around & it truly felt like they "earned" the big finishing stretch with that. And they didn't go into overkill with those big moves like they did at SummerSlam. Really just an excellent match all around. ****1/2

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This definitely wasn't a PWG stlye match. The beginning of the match was worked at a very slow pace with them taking bumps for weak strikes. You don't have 50 thousand fans going insane before the match starts at PWG either, so no need for that portion where you calm them down. And once they started with the workrate they did plenty of selling and didn't just move from move to move, and that there were touches like Styles doing so much cool kicking offence and Cena busting out Lariats and his most ridiculous Prototype facial expressions are probably what made me enjoy it more than their Summerslam match. It was a match very much built around the workrate, and they did have some nice build around their signature spots when they started with it (the Frankensteiner counter to the Backdrop Suplex was neat), but after a while I just began to wonder whether all of the Cena matches from 2011-2013 would really hold up. The submission countering can be interesting to see what stuff they come up with, but for a match really aiming at that excitement and flash it's completely devoid of drama, Cena hasn't been nearly as graceful in his finisher becoming less efficient as Choshu, Misawa and many others have where they'd adapt to it by treating it differently, coming up with other moves and so on. IDK, I hardly see greatness in Cena sloppily hitting dumb Electric Chairs and indy spots. Stlyes' offence wasn't any different either, nothing carried the sense of actually being a threat to ending the match. ***

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I thought this was comfortably the best 1-on-1 match in the WWE since Brock/Reigns. Maybe took a second for Cena to get going but Styles was near perfect. Liked it more than their SummerSlam match, and LOVED Cena's definitive finish, playing off the SS ending, and then hitting an extra finisher for good measure. ****3/4

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A wonderful match full of drama, callbacks and execution that had a high barometer to reach. Only the Styles Clash off the Cena dive from the top didn't deliver and they covered up for that really quickly. The other stuff like the Cena hulk up and the figure four were ingenious moves that will really allow a match like this full of big time moves to still have memorable little moments that you can call back to when the match is brought up. My MOTY so far. ****3/4

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Watching this live I thought it was a blast, too. I thought their Summerslam match got a bit long in the tooth, but they never really bothered with any feeling out process here and went into the bomb-throwing early, and they cut a pretty hot pace until the last few minutes when they started to slow it down some. At points it felt like I was watching them work a joshi bombfest sprint, which ordinarily is not my bag at all, but I liked it a bunch here (everybody in the place going apeshit probably helped, tbf). For all of that, though, Cena punctuating the bomb-trading by throwing some plain old huge clotheslines to the face were maybe my favourite moments. Styles is really great right as well, from the offence to the bumping. I really ought to check out those matches with Reigns from last year. I've watched all of about eight matches from 2017, but this is pretty handily my favourite so far.

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I rarely outright dislike a match but I hated, hated this.

 

The structure was a complete mess, everything was aimless and disjointed. The counters and submission stuff in the middle were boring. The finishing stretch was beyond terrible with nonsensical finisher spamming and absolutely zero selling. DUD

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This match starts in typical WWE main event fashion with the combatants mindlessly and immediately getting into trading control segments. How about building some drama or tension like one would expect from a championship match? They then transition for no real rhyme or reason into the typical "trade big moves for poorly built near-falls" section of your standard big WWE match. It's like I'm watching Zero-One circa 2002. Where are the dramatic swings? The interesting counters? The actual tension? For all of the whining about NJPW main events, they are much better put together than this crap, and while the excessive violence is certainly an issue, at least the moves are part of a much more interesting structure and actually built to. Matches like this are the ultimate "play acting" in pro-wrestling. Get to the stretch run as fast as possible and then start banging out isolated near falls. **3/4 because despite it's utter failure as a "big match" these are still two (somewhat in Cena's case) component pro-wrestlers.

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As well as the blowoff to the rivalry with Styles, this match is like the culmination of John Cena's career. Ever since he became The Guy in WWE he's been criticised for his bad offense, his "unconventional" style as JR would put it. Triple H slammed him as 'uncoordinated' in the build to their title match 10 years previously, and it all has some basis in reality. He's sloppy and a clunky wrestler. But it's never really mattered. Cena's big calling card is his "Never Give Up" attitude and his lack of technical precision is just an obstacle for him to overcome. Through sheer heart and willpower he always seems to find a way to win. Dylan Hales sums this up very well in this clip here.

Everything was going pretty wonderfully for Cena as the Ace of WWE, until AJ Styles arrives. Before their Money In The Bank 2016 match AJ does a promo on Cena saying if WWE had signed him 15 years ago there would never have been a John Cena, but "the powers that be" have protected Cena and kept him away. He's effectively saying the last decade of WWE has been a sham and Cena's a paper Ace. They have their 1st match, and it was AJ dominating Cena through technical skill. The whole match Cena could barely string 3 moves together before AJ cut him off. It took him absolutely ages to get a comeback together and even then it was on one leg as it'd been worked over so badly. The best bit is when Cena pulls off a five-knuckle shuffle on the one leg and it looks pitiful, he even has this dejected look on his face afterwards like he knows that was useless. He loses. The 2nd match at Summerslam isn't as good as a stand-alone, but what it is in the full story was Cena deploying his tried and tested "Never Give Up" strategy of just powering through every big move he gets hit with until he survives the war of attrition and hits the last big move to win That always won him the second match of a feud after losing the first. But this time it didn't work either, AJ was on another level to all his previous opponents. He's proven Cena was a false Ace all along.

Or has he? On Talking Smack a few days before the Royal Rumble AJ assures viewers that Cena doesn't stand a chance against him because all Cena has is "John Cena, he's strong he's going that going for him, but there's a lot more to it than that" and says he can wrestle any style but Cena cannot. Then we get this match in front of 52,000 for the WWE Championship, and it's all an answer to that first encounter. Cena learns throughout the match that if he's going to beat AJ, strength and willpower isn't going to cut the mustard anymore (failed him twice already), he's going to have to finally outdo someone on technical execution, his historic weakness. His initial attempts at countering AJ's offence by just hammering with lariats doesn't get him very far as AJ still dominates the opening. In fact, every time Cena goes for one of his power routines  it fails as AJ has a brilliant counter-offence up his sleeve. Cena's backbody drop into an AA attempt but AJ flying kicks him in the head. Later Cena goes for a protoslam only for AJ to turn it into a hurricanrana and takes back control. This isn't going well again, you see the cogs going in Cena's brain as he gives us these Hamlet facial expressions.
 
But then right from when Cena ducks a headkick from AJ and hoists him up into an electric chair slam, this is now ON. Cena is now going to put on the most clinical performance he's ever delivered, it's the only way to win. AJ has pushed and challenged him into becoming the best version of Cena ever. And he totally does it. Later in the match where he hits a Code Red totally perfectly is the moment that best sells this, didn't look like anything like the sloppy John Cena of old. And then Cena and AJ are both on the mat towards the end of the match exhausted, AJ goes for calf-killer but Cena has outwrestles him on the match, this happens multiple times, every trick AJ tries Cena manages to reverse it into something else we don't usually see from him, including Cena managing to slip on a figure four leg lock at one point! (If Cena wins he ties Ric Flair's record for 16 World Title wins). Still think all Cena's got is strength AJ? Cena finally dodges AJ's attempt at a flying forearm (how he lost last time) and beats AJ with a cool-looking rolling double AA he innovated for that match. And in winning he vindicates himself and his legacy, showing that he still would have been the Top Guy of WWE had AJ been there the whole time, it just would have been an even bigger challenge for him.

***** and one of my top matches of the decade.

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