WWE opened up Night One of WrestleMania 39 with a major upset as Austin Theory defeated arguably the greatest superstar in history John Cena in the show-starting match.
What a turn of events for Theory, and what a welcome change for Cena.
This was Cena’s first lengthy match since SummerSlam in August 2021, and the legendary superstar kept it simple but proved that he is still a capable big match performer. Even though Cena’s WWE appearances have been sporadic in recent years and his long-term future has been unclear, his drawing power has been quite apparent.
Gone is the “Super Cena” of old, and at WrestleMania 39, he passed the torch to Theory, who’s frequently been compared to the man he’s now defeated on pro wrestling’s grandest stage.
Less than a year ago, that would have been unthinkable.
Despite the 25-year-old Theory showing that he has all the tools to be a WWE main eventer for the next decade or two, his 2022 wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. On July 2, 2022, Theory won the Money in the Bank briefcase in what appeared to be a career-defining victory for the up-and-coming star. It didn’t pan out.
Theory was one of the worst-booked MITB briefcase holders in WWE history, and the way he lost that very same briefcase was even worse than his run with it. Last November, he oddly cashed in his guaranteed title shot for the United States Championship, becoming the first star to ever cash in for a midcard title. Of course, he was also the first star to lose a cash-in for a midcard title, which felt like the end of his brief push in WWE.
Theory, after all, was a big favorite of Vince McMahon, who reportedly viewed him as a “young John Cena” for obvious reasons behind simply the physical similarities. So, when WWE’s creative team—under the guidance of new leader Triple H—booked Theory to lose the MITB briefcase, it was all doom and gloom.
But as even Theory himself indicated, that one seemingly head-scratching decision may have been a massive blessing in disguise.
Previously portraying a more comedic, selfie-loving egomaniac, Theory began displaying a more aggressive side, winning more matches, and being established as serious performer. Over the past several months, that has allowed him to be reinvigorated as a much more entertaining character and a possible main event star.
The first step toward cementing him as exactly that was a feud with Cena, a legendary star who Theory has idolized since he was a kid. They had even briefly crossed paths in WWE prior to this rivalry, but Cena’s notoriously busy schedule never left enough time for a legitimate feud.
Now, however, Theory owns a victory over Cena—albeit only after a low blow—and is poised for a push that will wash away the stench of his failed MITB run and position him to be solidified as a bona fide main eventer. Prior to WrestleMania 39, however, there were serious questions about that.
The Theory vs. Cena feud, after all, didn’t get a ton of build, and critics questioned whether Cena’s scathing Raw promo on Theory buried his challenger. At the time, it sure felt that way, but WWE—perhaps preparing for a lengthy absence from Roman Reigns and maybe Brock Lesnar, too—badly needed to elevate new stars at WrestleMania 39 who can carry the company moving forward.
Theory fit that bill perfectly, and on the heels of the biggest victory of his career, he is now in line for a huge push that you would expect to see from a star who is one of the few who can say that he beat the greatest WWE star of all-time.