The Guide for the Suplexed: John Cena (8/17/2014)

I love suplexes. They may be the best possible of all wrestling moves, something requiring both technical skill and brute force. Many of my favorite wrestlers use suplexes regularly—Bret Hart and his vertical suplex, The Steiner Brothers and their vast array of them, Eddie Guerrero’s Three Amigos, Taz and his varied Tazplexes, Kurt Angle’s, of course, and, yeah, Brock Lesnar and his Germans.

Cute name aside, The Gude for the Suplexed is a space for me to explore the many facets of this move, its physical form and its narrative function. We know that wrestling moves work the way sentences do in novels and scenes do in film—they move a given plot from beginning to conclusion, bell to bell.

The question I find myself asking while watching a wrestling match isn’t “who will win?” but “why a superkick?” I can’t answer for superkicks, but suplexes are another matter entirely. They’re gorgeous. They’re mean. They’re beautiful. They’re (mostly) safe, even if the degree of risk one takes in going over for one is obvious. And, given the circumstance, they’re almost always something a crowd pops for.

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The way this series will work is by focusing on the person taking the suplex. The same way I feel like we don’t ask “why this move?” enough, I feel like there hasn’t been enough critical evaluation of who takes a bump and why. So we’re starting in 2014, when John Cena put his WWE Championship on the line against Brock Lesnar at Summerslam—you know, the birthplace of Suplex City.

I think it’s a perfect match, and I think Cena is the reason why. He takes sixteen suplexes here, most of them Germans, all of them rugged as hell. Below, I will provide a brief profile of the suplexed, go through each suplex individually (well, mostly—the rolling ones I’ll go through together), and get to the why of the suplexes and their number. First, here’s the match:

The Suplexed

    • Name: John Cena
    • Weight: 251 lbs.
    • Height: 6’1″
    • From: West Newbury, MA
    • Age at time of match: 37
    • Achievements at time of match: Most notably, 15 WWE Championship/World Heavyweight Championship reigns.

The Suplexes

    1. Release German (1:32): After a mercy F5 that Cena kicked out of, Lesnar hit his first suplex of the match as a taste of what he was in for.
    2. Release German (2:13): Out on his feet, Cena practically feeds right into a German that Lesnar double clutches on for extra impact.
    3. Vertical Suplex (3:39): The least talked about suplex of this match, like it’s tossed aside or something, but it’s a legitimately interesting variable in this match. For one, it’s the only suplex Cena really throws. For two, it’s as if Lesnar is saying “even if this were a normal wrestling match I’d be fucking you up right now.”
    4. Release German (6:42): If you didn’t notice before, Paul Heyman is on screen, hands cupped, yelling “HERE COMES THE PAIN!” He’s not yelling it at Lesnar to motivate him, but to Cena, to let him know that he’s in trouble, and that there’s more of this in Lesnar’s tank.
    5. Release German (6:50): Cena does a full roll through here. There’s a kid in the crowd who is alone in chanting “LET’S GO CENA” while the crowd falls into a silence not unlike that of Brock’s victory over Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX. Occasionally, the kinds of voices that chant “CENA SUCKS!” join the kid.
    6. Release German (6:58): Fuuuuuuuck.
    7. Release German (7:06): Another double clutched one, at which point the announcers start begging the ref to call it.
    8. Release German (8:30): Lesnar’s set-up for this one is real slow, the time he takes indicative of both how much he’s enjoying this and how easily he’s destroying Cena.
    9. Release German (9:26): At this point he’s just running up the score
    10. Rolling German Set 1 #1
    11. Rolling German Set 1 #2
    12. Rolling German Set 1 #3
    13. Rolling German Set 1 #4 (13:05): At this point Cena has given the fans hope a time or two, so Lesnar switches to extremely close quarters, letting him know that no matter how much the crowd cheers for him, there is no escape.
    14. Rolling German Set 2 #1
    15. Rolling German Set 2 #2
    16. Rolling German Set 2 #3 (14:05): The fact that Lesnar rips off seven suplexes in around three minutes might be one of the most terrifying bits of ephemera in wrestling. That shouldn’t get lost in how this match is remembered.

Why all of those suplexes?

Brock Lesnar didn’t need to go over this strong, but he did. I have a theory about that, but I want to stay with Lesnar for a moment. I was there when he beat The Undertaker, and while I think later-day Taker (a lot of Taker, actually) is cornball nonsense, one cannot deny the disbelief, the hurt of the crowd that night. This match is, in a lot of ways, Brock/Taker with a guy who can actually take Brock’s offense. It’s an incredibly unexpected format for a match against someone on the level of Undertaker or Cena to go, one that reestablished him after an exceptionally ponderous feud with Triple H that existed largely to put over how tough Vince McMahon’s son-in-law was as compared to a shootfighting badass.

This is the start of something new for Lesnar, and for Cena. It’s the start of Cena’s transition from face of the company to roleplayer, from guy who can’t be beat to the guy who can and will lose when the situation’s right. For Lesnar, it established the pattern that most of his matches would take from here on out. I think there’s been a critical misread of those matches, for what it’s worth. With rare exception (Kofi Kingston, for example), the point of this format is that surviving Brock, who legitimately is a crazy monster whose prowess goes beyond WWE, is as impressive as beating him. That introductory F5? Lesnar immediately says that Cena made a mistake kicking out at two. Lesnar is a wrestler who will put you down, obviously, but he’s looking to see if his opponents will test him, or quit.

Which is where Cena’s performance comes in. In the song “Spent Gladiator 2” by the Mountain Goats, which is about defeated people going on despite being defeated, John Darnielle sings “Like a fighter whose been told it’s finally time for him to quit / show up in shining colors and then stand there and get hit.” This song came out in 2012, two years before this match and three before Beat the Champ, his album about professional wrestling, but I think about it a lot when it comes to this match (there’s also a line about a gladiator who has lost a lot of limbs in the ring) because that’s what Cena does. He wears red and yellow (the colors of a previous face of the company), he stands there, he gets hit.


The phrase that repeats itself in both “Spent Gladiator” songs on Transcendental Youth is “Stay alive.” That’s all John Cena can do. Lesnar wants him to quit, but he won’t give him the satisfaction. Lesnar sees those suplexes as punishment and Cena does too, but what they really are is something to be endured. There is no embarrassment, no shame—he is taking an ass whooping, but just look at who it’s coming from.

This is a purposefully ugly match, but it’s beautiful to me. It doesn’t break down John Cena’s character—it reifies it. When Lesnar returned to WWE to fight John Cena in 2012, fans wanted Lesnar to destroy him. People were upset when Lesnar lost. The problem with being the face of a wrestling promotion is that people get tired of you winning, and that’s what happened to John Cena. But here, two years later, on the wrong end of 16 suplexes, the fans are reminded of the fact that Cena is an extremely sympathetic character. He gets a couple of hope spots here that make me lose my mind seven years later because they’re effective on an audience conditioned to boo him.

There are echoes of this match in Cena’s recent main event against Roman Reigns, made different by Cena’s status as a part-timer. Reigns throws Cena around a ton in that match, preferring the overhead belly-to-belly to Lesnar’s Germans. Cena’s stated objective being to survive Reigns long enough to score a pin, he endures this, like he did against Lesnar, doing his best to just stay alive.

He nearly does, but winning is not John Cena’s role anymore. He’s an attraction, and unlike an attraction like Lesnar, he does not need the mystique afforded by victory to stay effective. Given that Cena evoked the most giving performance of his year, it made a certain amount of sense that Brock Lesnar returned after the fact. He threw around Cena some more that night, but it was after Summerslam went off the air, the ghost of something great, not meant for the world. Even through all of that, John Cena stayed alive.