RondaRousey.com’s Classic Match series takes a closer look at significant and super cool matches from wrestling history.
For more than a decade, John Cena vs. AJ Styles existed only as a dream match—a pairing between two star-crossed champs of separate worlds. Cena was the undisputed “Face That Runs the Place” in WWE, and Styles was a multi-time champion in Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling and, later, New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW).
But this is pro wrestling we’re talking about, and if you wait long enough, dream matches have a tendency to come true. After nearly 15 years as the biggest wrestling star outside of WWE, Styles debuted at the Royal Rumble 2016 as a surprise entrant (just look how surprised Roman Reigns was) and immediately became one of the company’s focal points. That eventually put him in conflict with Cena, and Styles defeated him at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in June 2016 (thanks to a major assist from Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, sure) and then in a more legitimate fashion at SummerSlam just two months later.
So at the Royal Rumble on January 29, 2017—at the Alamodome in San Antonio—Styles was the cocky WWE Champion and Cena was the comparatively humble challenger, going into the match with a 0-2 record against the self-proclaimed “Champ That Runs The Camp.” The terms “John Cena” and “underdog” feel mutually exclusive, but it rang true—especially with Cena’s increasing Hollywood profile moving him to “
Seemingly feeling that pressure, Cena started their Royal Rumble match as the aggressor, powerfully clotheslining Styles and exciting a raucous, divided crowd who knew they were about to see something special. That advantage was fleeting, as Styles shifted momentum with a back elbow about 90 seconds in, taking control, slowing down the pace, and mocking his opponent’s trademark “You Can’t See Me” taunt. Cena started to mount a comeback with his signature flying shoulder blocks, but Styles again countered his opponent, turning an attempted side slam (#3 in the “Five Moves of Doom,” if you’re keeping track) into a hurricanrana.
Styles continued to stymie Cena’s offense, nailing a German suplex into a wheelbarrow facebuster, and rebounding after a Five Knuckle Shuffle to land a spinning torture rack slam for a two count. Styles called his shot and went for the Phenomenal Forearm, but Cena ducked and hit an Attitude Adjustment—his first of many to come in the match—and only got two from his familiar finishing move.
A surprise Pele kick put Styles back in the game, leading to an expertly executed Phenomenal Forearm that landed this time—though, establishing a pattern for major moves in this match, it only led to a nearfall. As the two exchanged blows, Cena went for another Attitude Adjustment—which Styles reversed into the Calf Crusher submission hold, which Cena powered out of before landing Styles in a couple submission holds of his own; first an STF, then a figure-four leglock. Stick with me here—that got reversed to yet another hold, a cross-arm breaker from Styles, which Cena broke in a patented show of Super Cena strength, deadlifting Styles off the ground while still in the hold, and slamming him down to the mat.
Styles managed to use his eponymous finisher, the Styles Clash, but, you guessed it, that just got two. Styles tried to follow up with a springboard 450, but Cena got his knees up and went for the Code Red, a pinning flip attack made famous by independent wrestler Amazing Red (who, it should be known, is considerably smaller than Cena, making Cena’s occasional use of it all the more impressive). Styles responded with a big move of his own, the Ushigoroshi, which wasn’t enough to end this epic encounter. Things continued to escalate as Cena went to the second rope for a “Super” Attitude Adjustment—Mauro Ranallo called it the “A+ AA”—but even that couldn’t do put Styles away, to the visible shock of the crowd and Cena himself.
In the end, it was hubris that proved to be the undoing of Styles—an egotistical villain at this point in storylines, rather than the generally good dude he is today. He got a second Styles Clash, but rather than going for the pin, he went for another Phenomenal Forearm—which didn’t work, and led to Cena hitting not one but two additional Attitude Adjustments, neatly chained together, for the win and his Ric Flair record-tying 16th world championship; ending Styles’ run at 140 days.
Two years later, both Cena and Styles are in key positions at the annual Royal Rumble, taking place on January 27 in Phoenix. Cena has declared himself an entrant in the 30-man Royal Rumble match for a title shot at WrestleMania, and Styles will again be in the WWE Championship match—this time as
You can go back and revisit this match (and the entirety of the Royal Rumble 2017) on the WWE Network.