“Let’s go Cena—Cena sucks!” can be heard in any arena where WWE megastar John Cena performs.
Yet Cena does not suck. Not even a little. I laugh every time I hear that ridiculous chant, even though I personally like AJ Styles and others more than Cena.
But this isn’t about me. It’s not about my opinion or anyone else’s: No matter how you cut it, John Cena is the greatest pro wrestler of his generation according to the usual measures used to determine such honors.
Let’s start at the top.
Ric Flair is considered the greatest pro wrestler of all time by many fans and wrestlers for three primary reasons.
- He was one of the best in-ring performers.
- He was one of the best talkers.
- He carried the companies he worked for on his back—he was the top guy and main attraction of his promotion—for over three decades.
He also excelled during a time when the pro wrestling business transformed from multiple regional promotions into a national and even global model.
It’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing Flair in all three categories in the modern era.
Using the same calculus most use to declare Flair the greatest of all time, the biggest stars in professional wrestling in the last 30 years have been Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, The Rock and John Cena (some might also include Bill Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels—Michaels in particular is many people’s top overall wrestler—or Randy Savage).
Unlike Flair, Hulk Hogan was never a great in-ring performer, something he admits. His promos were perfect for the 1980s World Wrestling Federation and his New World Order heel turn in World Championship Wrestling lengthened his legend.
Hogan helped carry the WWF/WWE as it’s main attraction, and was the centerpiece of the NWO that helped Ted Turner’s wrestling company beat Vince McMahon’s for 84 weeks straight.
Hogan’s “top guy” run lasted almost 20 years.
Steve Austin along with Hogan and The Rock is arguably the most well-known name associated with professional wrestling. His in-ring work included classic matches with Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, The Rock and others, and of course his promos fleshed out in full his “Stone Cold” character. To this day people argue over whether he or Hogan is the biggest wrestling star.
Austin’s “top guy” run lasted about seven years.
“The Rock” Dwayne Johnson is the biggest star to ever come out of professional wrestling, largely to the degree that his acting fame has surpassed his time in WWE. His in-ring work was good and some might even say he’s one of the best talkers of all time. He also never truly “left” WWE and shows up from time to time, even in the ring.
The Rock’s “top guy” run lasted about six years, give or take.
John Cena is no Ric Flair in the ring, though he’s easily better than Hulk Hogan (Daniel Bryan and others have been outspoken about how underrated Cena’s ring work is). Cena is also one of the greatest talkers in pro wrestling today.
Cena has also been WWE’s “top guy” for about the last 15 years. That’s significantly longer than Steven Austin and The Rock’s main attraction runs. That’s half of Flair’s tenure as the world’s greatest and only five years shy of Hogan’s.
Cena is the current top draw in WWE along with Brock Lesnar, and live event attendance and television ratings go up or down significantly based on whether he is part of the show. Cena is literally money.
For a decade and a half Cena has been the top star in professional wrestling.
This is not simply my opinion. It’s fact.
Furthermore, other major wrestling stars do not understand how anyone could possibly believe Cena “sucks,” as Mick Foley expressed recently on Chris Jericho’s podcast.
“To me, he’s one of the best promo guys out there,” Foley said. “A lot of people don’t want to admit that.”
“I think more people need to recognize his legacy… (To Cena critics) I said, ‘Try to find a bad John Cena pay-per-view.’ And then they all responded with the same pay-per-view. And I said, well that’s the exception that proves the rule. And then it was [from fans], ‘Well, he just had good opponents to carry him.’ I said, ‘So he’s had good opponents every month for eight years?'”
The Big Show had a similar take on Cena on Steve Austin’s podcast last year:
“This business is about opportunity. You’re given opportunity. Everybody has an opportunity. John Cena’s on top for as long as he [has] been on top because, the cat, you can’t catch him. He outworks everybody around. He’s in shape. He has a look. He cuts the best promos. He represents the company well whenever he does it. He’s a tried and true guy who puts asses in seats. I’m sorry, I want John Cena on the show, just like when you were working, I wanted ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin on the show. I wanted [The] Rock on the show because I knew there were going to be asses in the seats and I was going to make a good payday.
John Cena doesn’t hold anybody down. John Cena has made more stars since he has gotten in the ring, made more stars. That’s the thing people don’t understand. Being champion isn’t about winning. When you get that strap, nine times out of 10, everything is on your head. You’ve got to fill asses in seats, keep ratings up, and you’re there to get other guys over. You know, when you’re the champ, that’s the whole deal. You’re trying to get other talent up to your level and get them over.”
Big Show is right. What Cena has done and continues to do is simply what top guys do.
According to the most common measures both fans and wrestlers use to determine greatness—in-ring work, talking and being the top star—there’s not a single performer active in the WWE who comes close to how much John Cena has excelled in each category for as long as he has.
John Cena is the greatest wrestler of his generation. Period.
Jack Hunter is the Editor of Rare Politics and is a lifelong pro wrestling fan.