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31 Days of Wrestling (12/19/17): The 16-Time Champ Is Here


Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2017 produced for us.

Today, we're taking you back to this past January, when John Cena and AJ Styles added yet another Match of the Year candidate that early in the year.

By now, we all know the narrative and meta-narrative between John Cena and AJ Styles. Both of them existed in separate universes prior to 2016, so when they finally came face-to-face that May, the wrestling world exploded in glee and anticipation. It kicked off the rivalry of the summer, in which AJ scored two singles wins over John Cena—basically legitimizing AJ Styles to WWE management, something many fans weren't sure would ever happen.

Fast forward to 2017 and AJ Styles was well into his first reign as a heel WWE Champion. By then, Cena had come back from another hiatus, something which had become increasingly frequent over the last couple of years. Cena demanded another shot at Styles, this time for the WWE Championship, which is something Cena has been wont to do over his career. Only this time, the match had more gravitas because if Cena were to win, he'd be world champion for a 16th time, tying Ric Flair's legendary record in the process.

The match itself lived up to the hype, with Cena and Styles squaring off in front of over 52,000 fans in San Antonio. From the moment AJ's music hit, the crowd was just hot, willingly eating off the palms of both men. Cena carried himself with the swagger of a man who didn't just want to be champion again—he believed he was destined to tie the record, and maybe even eventually surpass it. Meanwhile, Styles oozed with the defiance of somebody who'd worked too damn hard for too damn long to get to where he was, so he wasn't going to make it easy for anybody, let alone John fucking Cena.


They told a compelling story in the ring—notably never leaving the ring at all throughout the entire match—which showed both men going tit-for-tat in a battle of wits and skill. They started with the mind games, with each trying to punk the other out, and eventually moved on to trying to get the other to submit. Finally, they started whipping out the signatures and finishers, taking all of us on one hell of a rollercoaster ride in the process.

What stands out the most to me in this match is how a noticeably loud portion of the crowd booed Cena—which has become the norm at live events—only to eventually be won over by him towards the end. It's not that the crowd turned on AJ Styles. Fans everywhere respect him too much to do so, only booing him out of the respect the same way Kevin Owens gets booed. In Cena's case, however, it's as if the fans finally realized something which should have been clear long ago: John Cena is one of the greatest of all-time, and we're not sure how much longer we'll see these classics out of him.

It's not like Cena was incapable of having these five-star classics. In fact, over the last six years, he'd shown a willingness to change his game to add an indy flavor to it. It's something we witnessed in his matches with the likes of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Cesaro, and now, AJ Styles. But for whatever reason, the realization of Cena's mortality—at least, that of his in-ring career—gave fans a sense of wistfulness, a willingness to appreciate Cena in the moment before he hangs up his sneakers for good.


By the end, it didn't matter that Cena won LOL. It's not like he had the Super Cena comeback, the type we eviscerate Roman Reigns for these days. The way Cena won made sense to us given the story he and AJ built up to in the ring. That Cena won his record-tying 16th world championship gave us a moment of satisfaction to truly appreciate the body of work he'd built up over the last fifteen years. In many ways, #16 was more of a thank-you win for all that Cena's done for the business—especially given how he'd eventually just be a transitional champion to usher in the Bray Wyatt championship and his subsequent feud with Randy Orton over the title.

Inasmuch as 2017 was the year that your heroes died, it was also the year when you realized that it was time to embrace the hero you had once spurned. John Cena had always been the WWE's Dark Knight, after all. He was the hero we always deserved, but not the hero we needed then. Right now, he might very well be.

Photos from WWE

*****

31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2017.

Read our previous entries:

1. The Okada/Omega Trilogy
2. Roman Reigns vs. The Undertaker (WrestleMania 33)
3. The Mae Young Classic Finals
4. Billy Suede vs. Jake De Leon (Wrevolution X 2017)
5. WarGames
6. Prince Puma vs. Pentagon Dark (Ultima Lucha Tres)
7. Fatal Four Way for the WWE Universal Championship (SummerSlam)
8. Manami Toyota's Retirement
9. Jinder Mahal Wins the WWE Championship
10. Roman Reigns Tries To Take The Torch (No Mercy 2017)
11. Hanzello Shilva vs. Aldrin Richards (MWF Balikbayan 2017)
12. Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega (G1 Climax 27 Finals)
13. The Implosion of #DIY
14. Ubusan ng Lahi (PWR Vendetta 2017)
15. The First (and Second) Women's Money in the Bank
16. Cody Rhodes Wins the Ring of Honor World Championship
17. The Beginning of the Zo Train Era

18. Killshot vs. Dante Fox, Hell Of War (Ultima Lucha Tres)

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