Love him or hate him — and a lot of you love him and hate him — John Cena’s run as United States Champion has provided Raw with one of its indisputable highlights: The U.S. Open Challenge. Seeking to shine more light on the star-spangled title by defending against anyone who thinks themselves worthy, Cena has raised his championship to a higher level of visibility and given several Superstars a bigger stage on which to apply their craft. The results, to a T, have been outstanding. These are the five contests that elevated to transcendence.
Here are the top 5 matches of John Cena’s U.S. title challenge so far:
#5 Dean Ambrose
For all his fielded insults of “lunatic” and “maniac,” Dean Ambrose would have really been crazy to pass up the first-ever U.S. Open Challenge Match, which occurred the night after Cena defeated Rusev for the title at WrestleMania. Already a former U.S. Champion, Ambrose unleashed the full-extent of his barroom-brawl offense against The Champ in the hopes of getting his name on WWE’s wall of champions again. In what would become a trend, Cena prevailed by a thin margin, but Ambrose’s efforts deserve a spot in their own personal hall of fame all the same.
For his second open defense of the U.S. Title, Cena fielded no less of a challenger than WWE’s resident man from the stars. Stardust, fresh off a failed bid for the Intercontinental Title at WrestleMania, locked up with the Cenation leader for the first time under his new identity (never mind that other guy), and the results were appropriately divine. By the match’s end, Stardust’s signature paint had chipped away to reveal the hunger within, while Cena dug deep into his own hard-wired will to win. After a long, grueling brawl, The Champ did just that.
#3 Sami Zayn
In what would become something of a fateful trend for the Cenation leader, his fifth open challenge in Montreal was the first time he would go face-to-face with an NXT Superstar. In this case, it was hometown hero Sami Zayn. The Underdog from the Underground gave Cena his toughest fight to date, and — despite a tweaked shoulder — nearly skanked back to Full Sail with the stars and bars when he unleashed his signature Blue Thunder Bomb and tornado DDT through the ring ropes to put Cena on his heels. In fact, The Champ had almost no answer for Zayn’s variety of innovative moves. Almost … except for the same springboard stunner-Attitude Adjustment one-two combination that beat Rusev, employed here to knock off Zayn and retain his title. However, once the fight had concluded, Cena gave due respect and ceded the ring to the former NXT Champion when all was said and done.
Whenever John Cena and Cesaro meet on television, Raw is elevated to another level of appointment viewing. That held doubly true for their third all-time clash and Cena’s eighth open challenge, which was the first time they’d locked horns one-on-one with a title at stake. The Swiss Superman not only clawed tooth and nail in pursuit of his second U.S. Title, he added several more wrinkles to his already complex offense in tribute to his injured tag team partner, Tyson Kidd. By the time Cena had been hit with the Cesaro Swing and trapped in the Sharpshooter, one after the other, he had almost no choice but to submit. Thankfully, the interference of NXT Champion Kevin Owens took that choice away from him.
Unique among Cena’s U.S. Title challengers for a number of reasons, Neville is also the only Superstar who can honestly say he had Cena stone-cold pinned before interference ruined his chance at U.S. Title glory. The Man That Gravity Forgot is the one Superstar in the Open Challenge who truly left Cena confounded; his agility gave him ample skill to escape The Champ’s power maneuvers, while Neville’s kicks provided a wallop of their own against the Cenation leader’s haymakers. When Neville swooped in with the Red Arrow, the WWE Universe was sure it had a new champion … until Rusev bum-rushed the challenger and got the match thrown out. A disappointing ending to a minted modern classic, but rest assured in this: The rematch is going to be sweet.