Hall of Famer Kurt Angle Calls John Cena ‘Most Successful WWE Superstar of All Time’
Kurt Angle issued an “Open Challenge” on the June 27, 2002 episode of WWE SmackDown. A relative unknown, looking carved out of granite, in red and black tights would answer the call. That newcomer’s name was John Cena. The defiant newcomer stood face-to-face with an Olympic gold medalist.
Even though the upstart didn’t win his debut match, he gained something perhaps far greater long-term. The future 16-time world champ and Hollywood heavyweight turned heads and gained the respect of a respected veteran. Cena would induct Angle into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017. Fast forward to today and the leader of the Cenation will celebrate his 20th anniversary appearing on the June 27 episode of Raw. Here Angle reflects on that first meeting with Cena, their future encounters, and his legacy in the business.
When did you find out you were working with a debuting John Cena?
Kurt Angle: It was that day. Last second. No pre-planning. I think Vince McMahon just wanted to see what he had and wanted him to go up against a formidable opponent. That’s how he started his career and never looked back.
Did you know much about him?
I knew he was a good-looking kid with a great build. His wrestling name was “The Prototype.” I didn’t know much about him aside from that he worked in OVW (Ohio Valley Wrestling) at the time. The WWE developmental where I think he was even training with Brock Lesnar.
What do you remember most about working with him that first night?
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.
You were the go-to when it came to making opponents look good or even better than they may be.
I could have a match with a broomstick. That was what a lot of the wrestlers would say about me. 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.
Did Vince say anything to you after?
He said, “Great stuff. You guys had a great match. This was a great debut for John.” He patted me on the back.
Did you have any interaction after the match with John?
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.
How was it getting to know him over the years?
He caught on very well. He was really good with the merchandise. This kid could sell anything, and he did — hats, wristbands. He was a very marketable athlete. He came in well prepared. He knew once he got on TV, he was going to sell merch, and he did. He is one of the top merchandise sellers of all time.
You two not only wrestled but worked some pretty entertaining segments including a rap battle.
John was really cool about it. He could have said no and that he didn’t want to do it. But he played along with it. We did the rap battle and other stuff together. He was always agreeable. He played along with it, which is really cool. Because he was a heel at the time and I was a babyface, he had to make me look good and he was doing that by making an ass out of himself. He understood the business and got how it was supposed to be. He knew the babyfaces need to be cheered and the heels need to be booed. That’s one thing about John that is cut and dry.
Do you have a favorite match between the two of you?
I would say probably where I made him tap. I believe it may have been No Mercy 2003. We had a really good match. John stayed with me and worked really hard. He hit all his moves. The match was magic and one of my favorite matches. All my favorite matches though are when I make someone tap out. [Laughs] John and I also had a great match in No Way Out 2005 where he beat me. It was right before WrestleMania before he won the WWE championship for the first time. That match might have been a little better. That was when they were really pushing John to be the champion.
You helped set the stage for building momentum for him to go into facing John “Bradshaw” Layfield at WrestleMania 21.
I was always that guy. Vince relied on me to help bring up another talent. Not that Rey Mysterio needed it, but Vince put me with him for his first match. There are a lot of people Vince put me with that were first matches. I think he knew he could trust me.
What do you think John Cena’s legacy will be?
The most successful WWE superstar of all time. He has won 16 world titles, and they are all WWE world titles. Nobody else has done that. John was able to accomplish that. I wouldn’t say he is the greatest wrestler of all time. There are a lot of great technicians. John was the most successful.
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