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How WWE Icon Kurt Angle Knew John Cena Would Be 'A Huge Star' Right From Their Very First Match

John Cena and Kurt Angle in the WWE
(Image credit: WWE)

It might be hard to imagine now, but 20 years ago, John Cena was a relatively unknown talent in the WWE. That all changed rather quickly as he ascended the ranks of the main roster, and part of that rapid rise came thanks to the early matches between Cena and wrestling legend and former Olympic athlete Kurt Angle. The world might not have known Cena as a star during his main roster debut, but as part of the athlete's 20-year-anniversary, Angle reflected on their history together, and explained how he could tell from their very first match there was something special about Cena.  

Kurt Angle spoke at length about his first match with John Cena to TV Insider ahead of the latter's return for the 20th anniversary celebration on Monday Night Raw. While looking back, he recalled some of the details of that now-historic night that would ultimately propel Cena to becoming a household name and movie star. Now, two decades later, Angle said the following when asked about what he remembered most about facing off with Cena, who'd responded to an open challenge on the June 27, 2002 episode of SmackDown

I liked what they had him do. I thought his response to me and the whole 'Ruthless Aggression' response was perfect. He had that written all over him. It was a good idea for them to basically start that whole era with John Cena. I remember him saying those two words and slapping me in the face like he wasn’t scared of anybody. I think that gave him a lot of traction to become a bigger superstar.

John Cena’s “Ruthless aggression” response to Angle's question and punch led to a full twelve-minute match, which ultimately ended in Kurt Angle scoring the victory over the then-newcomer. But even if Cena didn’t come out on top, the fact he managed to hang with the Olympian was a clear sign of his potential as a talent. 

Of course, the WWE booked John Cena’s first match with Kurt Angle because of the latter’s reputation. Angle noted he was known amongst the company creatives for putting on good matches that elevated other wrestlers, boasting that he could have a match with a broomstick and still win over a crowd. Angle hinted that the WWE did book the match because of Angle’s knack for making wrestlers look good, but also mentioned he put Cena to the test:

I guess they knew Cena would have a guaranteed great match with me because it was me. Cena did step up. There was a point in time in that match where I kept on him. I stayed with him. I wanted to test him to see if he had the conditioning to stay with me. And he did. He kept up with me the whole time. We went hard for 12 minutes. We didn’t have any pause. It was high throttle the whole time. He proved to me he was a very well-conditioned athlete.

Kurt Angle’s compliment about John Cena’s conditioning should speak volumes, considering he’s a former Olympian. I’m sure not anyone who sees Cena would assume he's in bad shape at all, but it’s good compliment all the same. 

After the match finished, Kurt Angle and John Cena were apparently congratulated by Vince McMahon. Angle shared the brief exchange he had with Cena after the match, and how impressed he was overall by the experience: 

All I said was, ‘You stepped up tonight. It was a great match.’ He said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Angle, for working with me. I really do appreciate it.’ He was very respectful. I knew this kid was very special from the first time I got in the ring and after I got done wrestling him, I knew he would be a huge star down the road.

Twenty years later, Kurt Angle referred to John Cena as the WWE’s “most successful” superstar and pointed specifically to Cena’s 16 world championships as evidence. Angle did note he doesn't necessarily consider Cena the greatest wrestler of all time, saying there are plenty of talented wrestlers out there, but he does consider Cena to be the most successful. 

John Cena has a chance to further cement his legacy before hanging up his boots, as one more world championship win would make him the record holder for most championships and surpass the long-held record set by Ric Flair (who still isn’t done wrestling). There’s no word on when Cena might a chance to get that mythical final championship, but I’m sure many wrestling fans hope to see it eventually before he decides to retire

John Cena is expected, though not confirmed, to appear at SummerSlam 2022, which Peacock Premium subscribers can stream on Saturday, July 30th. Some of the WWE’s most exciting pay-per-views are approaching so be sure to keep track of what’s coming and what else is on the way going forward. 

Mick Joest
Mick Joest

Mick likes good television, but also reality television. He grew up on Star Wars, DC, Marvel, and pro wrestling and loves to discuss and dissect most of it. He’s been writing online for over a decade and never dreamed he’d be in the position he is today.