RondaRousey.com’s Real Shooters feature explores the good, the bad, and the weird of pro wrestling-MMA crossover moments in history.
The main event of WWE Extreme Rules 2012 pit John Cena at the height of his powers against the fresh-out-of-UFC Brock Lesnar, in a battle both for legitimacy and to be considered the face of WWE. The clash of the professional wrestling and MMA worlds made for an engaging story and one of the most viscerally violent WWE matches of the decade.
In April 2012, John Cena had yet to become a record-breaking WWE Champion but was well on his way. He was “Super Cena,” an unstoppable, family-friendly force that kids loved, but many fans were tired of seeing at the top of the company. Despite his loss to The Rock at WrestleMania XXVIII, he still seemed untouchable to any wrestler who wasn’t also a movie star.
Enter Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar had started his WWE career around the same time as Cena at the turn of the century. With his impressive amateur wrestling background, he was always presented—like his WrestleMania XIX opponent Kurt Angle—as one of the company’s top “legitimate” athletes. Lesnar had quickly risen to the top of WWE but left in 2004 to initially pursue an NFL career, before racking up more pro wrestling accomplishments in Japan and then transitioning to MMA. After signing with UFC in 2007, Lesnar became UFC Heavyweight Champion twice, struggled with bouts of diverticulitis in between, and retired from MMA (for a while) after his loss to Alistair Overeem at UFC 141 in December 2011.
When he returned to WWE on the episode of RAW after WrestleMania a few months later, his expanded resume made him a scarier threat than ever before. He entered the arena in a moment when everyone was expecting The Rock and the crowd freaked out.
Lesnar’s F5 to Cena that night reestablished his power as a pro wrestler. His strike that left Cena with a bloody mouth the next week reminded everyone that he was, to use his choice of word, an ass-kicker. The week before the Extreme Rules pay-per-view, Lesnar was meaner and more confident than ever, making over-the-top contractual demands of management, while Cena was shaken speechless.
While this was a classic hero vs. villain story going into Extreme Rules, it felt different and more exciting than so much else in WWE at the time, a violent breath of fresh air. A big reason for this was because, though Lesnar was a former WWE Champion, he felt like an outsider after his eight-year absence.
The story of his return played to wrestling fans’ irritations with hearing the type of entertainment they loved mocked for not being a “real sport.” Both Lesnar and then-General Manager John Laurinaitis said this man who had headlined combat sports pay-per-view said he was there to “legitimize” the company. When Cena fought Lesnar at Extreme Rules, he would not only be defending his position as the face of WWE but defending the honor of pro wrestling itself against a man who, it was implied, looked down on it after his success in MMA.
Though Cena was clearly the hero of this story, the dueling “Let’s go, Cena!” and “Cena sucks!” chants began at full volume before the wrestlers entered for the show’s main event. Whoever people were rooting for, the hype in the arena was real.
Cena entered the ring in his usual gear (merch, jorts) plus the chain from his “Doctor of Thuganomics” days, a reminder of his less kid-friendly past. (Many fans definitely clocked this as a potential legal weapon to be used in this no-holds-barred Extreme Rules match as well.) Lesnar, with his MMA gear—gloves included—made it clear that he wasn’t just his old wrestling character returned, but a shoot badass. In the octagon, Cena wouldn’t stand a chance. In the squared circle, he just might, but it wasn’t a given as it would be against so many other wrestlers.
Cena’s victory was even less of a given once the match started. “Big Match John” was hot out of the gate but immediately floored by Lesnar with a double leg takedown. Soon he was bleeding from the head so much that the referee stopped the match multiple times. With Cena’s blood smeared across Lesnar’s back as he rained down strikes, this was exceptionally violent WWE wrestling.
The match became even more violent after the ref was bumped out of the ring. Again, Lesnar stopped Cena’s momentum, and now with no official around, he was able to deliver strikes directly to his opponent’s open wound. Fans started a sing-song “Brock is gonna kill you” chant, and as he applied a Kimura Lock that wouldn’t be stopped even if Cena tapped out, it seemed like that might be an accurate prediction of the future.
But Lesnar wasn’t just winning because he was the more “legitimate” fighter. When he taunted Cena and hung him from the ring post with his chain, it was an act of cruelty rather than sport. Even for Cena’s haters, Lesnar as the face of WWE was a dark alternative.
After Lesnar decided he wanted the fight to be over, picking up the ref by the back of his shirt in a way reminiscent of a mother cat carrying a kitten to toss him in the ring, the match raced towards its climax. The ref was further abused, the ring steps—now inside the ring—came into play, and both men tumbled out to the mat.
Finally, Cena able to grab his chain to block an attack by Lesnar. Though his arm was still in pain, he still managed to pick up Lesnar for an Attitude Adjustment on the steps to win the match.
Even after surviving a brutal beatdown, Cena gave a speech to the Chicago crowd about how wrestlers do what they do for the fans. Meanwhile, Lesnar looked like he might punch one who touched his back as he started up the ramp. Clear, while Brock was a badass, Cena was the better guy to represent sports entertainment.
At Extreme Rules 2012, the pro wrestling and MMA worlds were presented in opposition to one another, However, their collision told a dramatic story that culminated in an exciting, unforgettable match with Cena vs. Lesnar.
You can watch this match and WWE Extreme Rules 2012 in its entirety on the WWE Network here.