How dare you, John? When Cena got cocky against The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII

THROWBACK How dare you, John? When Cena got cocky against The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII

Seye Omidiora 15:33 - 11.05.2023

The highly-anticipated fight was a year in the making, but did the match live up to its ‘Once in a Lifetime’ tagline?

Three fights made WrestleMania XVIII worth watching. CM Punk and Chris Jericho battled for the WWE Championship, The Undertaker and Triple H faced off with Shawn Michaels as the Special Guest referee, and John Cena took on The Rock in the main event at a packed Sun Life Stadium - with a then-record 78,363 fans in attendance.

Punk beating Y2J at The Grandest Stage of Them All ended their feud, in which both wrestlers proclaimed themselves the “best in the world”, with Jericho labelling the then-WWE Champion a copycat and charlatan.

The culmination of Taker’s storyline with Triple H saw both wrestlers compete in a Hell in a Cell match, held a year after the Deadman was carted away on a stretcher after an epic No Holds Barred fight between the icons.

Michaels, beaten by the Phenom at WrestleMania 25 and 26, was the guest referee as the Undertaker defeated the Cerebral Assassin to become 20-0 at the flagship event. 

All three indelibly coming together as one in the aftermath ended four years of hostility among the three.

Shawn Michaels, Triple H and The Undertaker at WrestleMania 28

Those fights could have been the stand-alone main event of that year’s pay-per-view, but Cena v Rock was the top-drawer fight — a battle that was a year in the making.

The Origin of their feud

The Miz was aided by Rock’s intervention at WresleMania XXVII, costing the Cenation Leader his shot at reclaiming the WWE Championship. However, Rocky’s interference was not without cause.

The Brahma Bull had been announced as the host of WM 27 in his first appearance on Raw for nearly seven years on February 14, 2011, and immediately made snide remarks about Cena in an extended promo.

Rock was on the receiving end of an Attitude Adjustment on the Raw before WrestleMania, after he warded off Miz and Alex Riley after a verbal confrontation with Cena.

But the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment had the final say with his subsequent intervention. And that set up Once in a Lifetime a year later.

Setting up the fight

The following night on Raw after the 27th edition of WWE’s flagship event brought both men face to face again.

Rock admitted to respecting Cena’s achievements but not liking the Dr of Thuganomics. The aggrieved Cenation Leader challenged Rocky to a match, telling the People’s Champion to “listen to the people”.

The Brahma Bull went further, wanting both men to make history and proposed a fight at WrestleMania 28. They shook hands on it. It was on.

Never had a fight at the premier PPV been announced a year in advance, adding to the intrigue in the year-long build-up to Rock v Cena in 2012.

The Rock’s return to the ring before WM 28

Rocky surprisingly teamed up with his WrestleMania XXVIII opponent at Survivor Series (November 2011) in a tag team match to take on The Awesome Truth — The Miz and R-Truth.

Both men traded non-verbal barbs throughout the fight before their victory: the Brahma Bull performed the People’s Elbow and pinned Miz after a spinebuster. It was his first match in the WWE since WrestleMania XX in 2004.

Cena held back from any fisticuffs following the victory, only to be on the receiving end of a Rock Bottom after turning his back on Rocky.

The thrash talking

Several Raw segments in the New Year leading up to Once in a Lifetime were fascinating.

Both men cut splendid promos in isolation, so having them make derisive remarks at each other was utterly enjoyable.

In some pre-recorded promos, Rock mocked everything about Cena: from his looks to his dressing and labelled the Cenation Leader a phoney.

On the February 27 edition of Monday Night Raw — just over a month to the hugely-awaited fight — Cena’s launched a tirade at “Dwayne”, accusing him of abandoning the WWE for the lure of Hollywood.

He vowed to fight for everyone “whose dream was to be a WWE superstar and stay a WWE superstar” and beat the People’s Champion in his Miami hometown.

The Rock appeared live on Raw in the following weeks, mocking Cena to the glee of the partisan fans, who were not shy to show their dislike for Rocky’s WrestleMania opponent.

The entrances

Both men made entries after live performances from Machine Gun Kelly’s rendition of Invincible and Flo Rida (Wild Ones).

MGK was roundly booed after naming Cena as “one of the biggest underdogs”, who was going up against “one of the biggest egos”.

The WWE Universe had taken exception to the company’s attempts to play down the multiple-time WWE Champion in the lead-up to the fight. This was not some David v Goliath fight; but a battle between two iconic superstars.

The Fight

There was a din inside Sun Life Stadium before the start of the brawl, with both megastars soaking it all in.

Rock surprisingly started the fight strongly, to Cena’s utmost astonishment. Within two minutes, the Brahma Bull displayed his enduring agility and pinned his opponent after a couple of arm drags.

The Rock’s intense dominance in his first WrestleMania fight since 2004 and second in-ring WWE match since the early 2000s forced Cena to seek a breather outside the ring. The boos rang out.

The Rock dominated John Cena early doors

That undoubtedly helped, with the Dr of Thuganomics seizing control from Rocky soon after. Cena targeted his opponent’s ribs, dropping him off the ring-side barricade and the announce table, locking the People’s Champion in a bear hug and pinning him after a belly-to-belly suplex.

The Rock had lost all that early momentum, and Cena swiftly fended off his attempts to seek respite. The Cenation Leader even wore a wry smile at some point, demonstrating the command he held mid-way through the fight.

Both men traded near-falls after performing their power moves: Rocky kicked out of the Attitude Adjustment, and Cena frustrated the Brahma Bull, who pulled the Rock Bottom out of nowhere.

The People’s Champion survived two near-falls inside a minute: the first came after a side slam and a leg drop from the top rope into the neck of his rusty opponent. 

John Cena in mid-air as he leaves the rope

Cena said the match was a must-not-lose and appeared determined to seal arguably the biggest win of his career.

Despite locking the Sharpshooter submission manoeuvre twice and flinging the Dr of Thuganomics into the ring steps, The Rock’s command was ephemeral, and Cena locked in the STF for nearly three minutes.

The Rock intermittently found ways to come at the dominant John Cena

The Brahma Bull appeared to have passed out at some point, but he survived…just before making it to the ropes. He bought himself some critical time with a Samoan Drop.

Soon after, the Rock pulled off the People’s Elbow, but Cena kicked out at two, refusing to surrender to the most electrifying move in sports entertainment.

Two quick roll-ups brought about near-falls. However, Rocky did not succumb. The match was nearing the half-hour mark.

Cena took the People’s Champion to the turnbuckle, but his attempt to pull off a top-rope suplex was fended off.

Rock attempted a cross-body, yet the dominant Cena rolled through and reversed the move, showing incredible strength to hit another Attitude Adjustment on the Brahma Bull. This had to be the end.

John Cena looked primed to beat The Rock after an astounding Attitude Adjustment

However, the Great One did not yield, frustrating his rival, whose disbelief was palpable.

Shock soon turned to impudence, with the Cenation Leader mocking The Rock by attempting the People’s Elbow, but Rocky took advantage of his foe’s cockiness and hit an unexpected Rock Bottom.

One…Two…Three — the Rock, from nowhere, had beaten John Cena.

The Rock emerged victorious against John Cena at WrestleMania 28

The atmosphere was rip-roaring in celebration of the winner. A deflated Cena sat in disbelief outside the ring.

A stunned Cena wondered how he lost arguably the biggest match of his career

The aftermath

Even though WrestleMania 28’s main event was dubbed ‘Once in a Lifetime’, both men faced off again at WrestleMania XXIX, with Cena seeking redemption against the WWE Champion (The Rock defeated title holder CM Punk at the 2013 Royal Rumble and Cena won the 30-man Rumble).

The Brahma Bull vowed to crush his challenger’s ambition to right the wrongs of the previous year.

“At WrestleMania, I will beat you…again.”

The Rock did not fulfil that promise as Cena got retribution by defeating Rocky after pulling off the Attitude Adjustment for a record 11th WWE Championship, thus ending their feud.

The rematch unsurprisingly did not have the same hype as its predecessor: because it had lost its novelty and the feeling Cena would get payback for his loss at WM 28.

However, the previous year’s tussle was extraordinary. The Rock was undoubtedly rusty and could not live with his foe’s superior in-ring sharpness.

But he pounced on one mistake that cost Cena everything, ergo solidifying himself as The Great One.