TJR WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches #23: John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 23

Next up in the countdown of WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches is the main event of WrestleMania 23 from ten years ago. It featured the dominant WWE Champion John Cena against one of the greatest of all time (and the man with the most matches on this list)…Shawn Michaels.

If you’ve missed anything in the countdown so far, the WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches archives are here.

Who: John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 23

When: April 1, 2007

Where: Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan

The Build

The main event of WrestleMania 22 saw John Cena beat Triple H clean in the middle of the ring to retain his title. One year later at WrestleMania 23, there was a plan in place to do that match again, but it didn’t happen. The reason it didn’t happen is because Triple H tore his quad a few months before WrestleMania (his second torn quad injury), so WWE went with an alternative plan.

At the 2007 Royal Rumble, Shawn Michaels battled fellow veteran wrestler The Undertaker in a memorable final two sequence. Michaels ended up finishing second in that match. Even though he finished second in the Royal Rumble, Michaels got to main event WrestleMania by becoming the number one contender for John Cena’s WWE Title. Michaels earned his right for a title shot by beating Edge and Randy Orton in a triple threat match on the February 5, 2007 edition of Raw.

At the PPV event before WrestleMania, which was No Way Out in February 2007, Michaels nailed Cena with a surprising superkick. It wasn’t a heel turn by Michaels. It was more about sending a message that Michaels could knock him out at any time.

They were also the tag team champions going into this match because the tag titles didn’t matter a whole lot in 2007.

What I Thought Back Then

It was one of those matchups where it was really all about putting on the best match possible rather than something with a big storyline. The lack of strong heels was obvious on both Raw and Smackdown since Smackdown’s World Title match at WrestleMania 23 was also face vs. face with Batista defending the gold against The Undertaker.

Why Michaels and not somebody else? They really didn’t have anybody else that could fit in that spot against Cena. He was the best choice. It was about giving Cena the best match possible.

Regarding the outcome of the match, I didn’t think Michaels had any shot of winning. I don’t think many people “smart fans” did even though the poll that was shown before the match had 40% of the fans thinking Michaels would win. Cena was 29 years old at the time, Michaels was 41 and the smart thing to do would be to put the younger guy over even though he was already the champion.

The good thing about this match is it felt fresh. They were both faces on the Raw brand, so they didn’t have a lot of matches together. I was excited about it because I’m a huge Michaels fan that felt that he was the best performer in WWE at this point and he always delivered on the big stage.

Here’s my full review of the match plus the analysis, which was written in 2012.

WWE Championship: John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 23

The video package started up for the main event. Ross pointed out that Cena had been the WWE Champion for 20 of the previous 24 months while Michaels was looking to win the title one more time.

Michaels entered to a big pop. He used the Degeneration X music because in 2006 he and Triple H reunited the DX group. Hunter tore his quad in January, so he was out for this WrestleMania. For John Cena’s entrance, they filmed a Ford Mustang driving along an empty road and it parked right in front of Ford Field. It drove into the arena. It drove through some glass that had the WrestleMania 23 logo. It parked. Then John Cena emerged from the car with the WWE Title. He entered to a good ovation. It was a bit cheesy, but in the Motor City it made sense especially because Cena is a car aficionado.

Prior to the match beginning, a fan jumped the barricade and tried to get into the ring. He was taken out by security. Michaels sat on the top rope to wave “goodbye” to the fan. This is edited out of the WWE Network version (and likely the DVD) of the show.

Michaels wanted a handshake early, Cena said no because Michaels had superkicked him on Raw and he didn’t trust Michaels. The early story was Michaels using his speed to avoid Cena’s power. Eventually Cena was able to slow him down with a clothesline. Michaels came back with an Austin like Thesz Press and then he gave Cena a hip toss over the top rope onto the floor below. Michaels hit an enziguiri out on the floor. Michaels hit the springboard moonsault off the middle rope onto Cena, which sent them both into the table. The table did not break. Great spot. In the ring, Cena went for a kick, Michaels blocked it and punched the left knee of Cena. Michaels attacked the leg and rammed the kneecap right into the post. Michaels continued to attack the left knee of Cena for the next several minutes. When Cena tried to strike, Michaels avoided it and went after the knee some more. The crowd wasn’t too into the match at this point although it was okay because you could tell they were building up to something. Cena finally connected on a right hand to the face, but HBK came back with a corner charge into the stomach. They exchanged blows, which Cena won thanks to a punch to the head. Michaels charged into the corner and Cena moved, so HBK crashed head first into the ring post. Michaels came up bleeding. Cena hit a clothesline. Then he ran on top of him with punches to the head. This was the point of the match where Cena stopped selling the knee. Not sure why. Cena hit his moves of doom with the shoulderblocks and the side spinning suplex. He shook his knee a few times, so I guess that was enough for him to be healed. He should have kept selling it some more. Cena hit the Five Knuckle Shuffle. Michaels avoided the FU (later known as Attitude Adjustment). They had an exchange of counter movies, then Michaels went for the superkick, Cena ducked and ref Mike Chioda took the kick right on the chin. That sent Chioda to the floor. That was really well done.

Cena went for the FU. Michaels countered it into a DDT. JR called it a brilliant counter. That was right. Both guys were down. Michaels felt the blood on his head, so he went outside the ring and took off the top half of the steel steps. He dragged Cena out to the floor. Michaels gave Cena a piledriver on the steel steps. People weren’t doing piledrivers anymore, so the move meant that much more. Michaels rolled Cena back in. Ref Jack Doan came sprinting down the aisle. Michaels covered for the one…two…no. Very good nearfall. Michaels hit a flying forearm to the face as JR busted out a “vintage Shawn Michaels” for the move. Michaels kipped up. Michaels went to the top rope and hit the Flying Elbow to the chest of Cena. Michaels went for the superkick. Cena was able to hit a clothesline out of nowhere. Great selling job by Michaels on that one. They did another slugfest. Cena went for a FU, but Michaels was able to counter with a rollup for two. Great nearfall there too. I forgot to mention that Cena was bleeding on the top of the head. They ran the ropes, Michaels went for a leap frog, Cena caught him and gave him the FU right in the middle of the ring. Cena was too hurt to cover right away. He crawled over and covered for a count of two. Crowd cheered. Cena put Michaels on the top rope and he wanted to give Michaels the FU off the top rope. Michaels knocked him off. Michaels hit a cross body, Cena caught him and went for the FU again. Michaels landed on his feet, went for superkick, Cena ducked, grabbed his foot for the STFU and Michaels kicked away multiple times. He turned it into a rollup for two. That was a really good sequence there. Back to their feet, Michaels missed with an enziguiri, which led to Cena putting him in the STFU. Michaels made it to the ropes. The crowd cheered. They weren’t really anti-Cena, but they liked Michaels too. The ref told Cena to break the hold when he reaches the ropes. That allowed Michaels to get to his feet and he connected with the Sweet Chin Music. Michaels was slow in covering. He made it over for the one…two…no! Cena got his shoulder up. Each man kicked out of the finishing move of the other guy. Both guys struggled to get to their feet. Cena went for the FU. Michaels countered. Cena tripped him up and put him in the STFU. Michaels was in the hold for about 30 seconds. He was right in the middle of the ring. Michaels tapped out at 28:22.

Winner by submission: John Cena

Post match, Michaels was selling the pain. Cena had a look of satisfaction on his face and he also had a lot of emotion on his face, dedicating the win to his father John Cena Sr. After celebrating in the ring, Cena went up to Michaels in the aisle. Cena wanted a handshake. Michaels refused it.

Analysis: ****1/4 I think everybody expected Cena to retain the title because he was the current and future star while Michaels was there to give him a great match. I didn’t expect Michaels to win. He was about having great matches. Not necessarily winning them. Still, the HBK fan in me would have loved to see him win the WWE Title one more time in the WrestleMania event. It was a different kind of long match for Cena because it was more about technical wrestling. Cena’s strength was brawling. When the pace picked up they really delivered a main event worthy performance with a lot of back and forth drama ensuing. I liked the way they built to the finishers with Michaels hitting the superkick only for Cena to kick out because Shawn was too slow on the cover. This came after Shawn kicked out of the FU, so it made it even. The last 7 minutes of the match were especially great. It’s interesting to note that Cena beat both DX guys in back to back years with the STFU, which really established that move as a deadly finisher.

Following the match, there were rumors of Michaels being angry at Cena because he didn’t sell the knee for long enough after Michaels worked it over so much. Apparently he was mad about it backstage. The handshake at the end was supposed to happen, but Michaels refused it because of Cena’s poor job of selling the knee injury. I don’t think it mattered that much.

You can read my full recap of WrestleMania 23 right here.

What They Said

Here are some thoughts from Michaels talking about Cena in a feature that aired on WWE Network about this match. Thanks to Cageside Seats for the transcript.

“It was a building block. I personally feel the foundation had been set at that point. Yeah, there’s some sort of right of passage with my match and John but that has more to do with I’m a guy that’s been here, in the eyes of the people, forever. But it’s still, again, as much as you want to put yourself over as some big deal, you’re still a building block.

“We were, as a company, making a decision to make the guy the face, and everybody knew that, everybody that watched, everybody… Sometimes when that happens, especially in our line of work, it leads people to naturally rebel against you. And then they chant things like ‘You can’t wrestle’ and John obviously can. We’ve had guys in the past who couldn’t and they never chanted that. So that’s just something the folks do. John’s wise to not let that bother him.

“I’ve been fortunate in that whatever approach it is I take, and I’ve never really been able to clearly define that other than saying I’m just trying to have the best match possible, I have somehow been able to accomplish the desired things for both myself and my opponent. Nine times out of 10, and I’d like to say 10 times out of 10 but I’m just a… better safe to hedge your bets… Nine times out of 10, everybody does come out of it better and I think that’s what happened in this match.

“I’ve always not had a problem giving John a ton of credit. He’s a smart kid, he’s a hard worker. That’s always going to be his greatest quality to me, is that he’s an incredibly hard worker. We have a lot in common in that there are a lot of things both of us can’t do, I’ve just done a much better job covering it up over the last whatever it’s been now, 30 years. I am one of those guys that thinks John gets a raw deal, obviously. He’s earned whatever he’s got. Yeah, somebody has to, whatever, make the decision to pick you but I’ve seen a lot of guys get picked over the years, myself included, and not everybody’s done as well as John, so you’ve gotta be able to give him some credit for that.”

If you want more of Michaels’ comments on the match, check out the “Mr. WrestleMania Shawn Michaels” section on WWE Network about this match as well.

What I Think Now

It was a long a match that they worked at a very slow pace. Michaels working over the leg of Cena in the first part of the match was a veteran move that was done to slow down the bigger guy in Cena. I can also understand why Michaels had a problem with Cena not selling the left knee injury enough because there were a lot of times in the match where Cena was on offense where he wouldn’t sell anything. Cena sold it at other times, but not all the time. Selling a move shouldn’t be a sometimes thing. It’s part of the story and if you don’t sell it when you should you are hurting the quality of the match.

Michaels didn’t bleed that much in his career at this point. He did it more often when he was younger. He probably felt like they needed some “juice” to make the crowd more invested in what they were doing in the ring. A year later, WWE became a PG company and banned their talent from blading.

The spot with the piledriver on the steel steps leading to the second ref counting a nearfall was well done. It showed how close Michaels was to winning the match and helped put the match into another gear in terms of the excitement level.

The last ten minutes were outstanding with the majority of the crowd standing up for a lot of it. I liked that they went with a submission win for Cena instead of the FU (later known as the Attitude Adjustment). By having Cena win by submission, it really put him over as having earned it because he beat Michaels up so much he was forced to tap out. Plus, Cena made Triple H tap out in the main event of WrestleMania one year earlier, so it was a fitting way to end his second straight WrestleMania main event.

What Happened Next

Cena continued his run as the man in WWE over the next decade as he entered his 30s. As I noted at the start of the match review, Cena held the WWE Title for 20 out of 24 months going into this match, so that shows how much faith WWE had in him to “carry the ball” so to speak.

Michaels retired three years after this match. During that period, he came close to winning other titles in feuds with other guys, but he wasn’t able to get it done. Michaels’ last World Title win was at Survivor Series 2002, which was just a one month title reign.

They had an even better match later that month in England the April 23, 2007 edition of Raw. Michaels beat Cena in a non-title match that went about 56 minutes. That was my 2007 match of the year. I haven’t written a review of it before, but it was a near five-star match.

I also recommend the Backlash 2007 main event as Cena battled Michaels, Edge and Orton in a four-way match for the WWE Title. Cena won to retain the title. It was outstanding. Another match that I’d rate at over four stars that involved these guys.

Final Thoughts

The match didn’t have the advantage of a strong storyline going into the show. The story that WWE tried to tell going into it was pretty basic, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was really going to captivate viewers. It was about seeing if the younger champion could beat the veteran challenger that wanted to see if he could become a champion again.

I was never a Cena hater like some people. Matches like this are why. The fans that thought Cena was terrible in the ring forget about how he was able to go nearly 30 minutes with the best worker ever Shawn Michaels in a WrestleMania main event. It’s not like Michaels completely carried him. There are much worse wrestlers out there that wouldn’t have had a good match in the same situation. Cena deserves credit for being such a hard worker on his rise up the ranks in WWE. He could have gotten lazy, but he never did and it’s why he was so good for so long. I’m writing this less than two months after nearly 40 year old Cena had a five star match with AJ Styles at the Royal Rumble. It shows that Cena has worked hard to improve his craft.

This isn’t their best match as I mentioned earlier, but it’s their only WrestleMania match and it holds up well ten years later.

Rankings So Far

  1. John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels @ WrestleMania 23
  2. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H @ WrestleMania 30
  3. Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit @ WrestleMania 17
  4. The Rock vs. Steve Austin @ WrestleMania 19
  5. Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns (vs. Seth Rollins) @ WrestleMania 31
  6. Eddie Guerrero vs. Kurt Angle @ WrestleMania 20
  7. The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan @ WrestleMania 18
  8. Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair @ WrestleMania 24
  9. Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch @ WrestleMania 32
  10. Bret Hart vs. Roddy Piper @ WrestleMania 8
  11. Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan @ WrestleMania 6

WrestleMania’s Greatest Matches archives are here.

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