Recently, I’ve heard many a wrestling fan (at least two) talking about how Hiroshi Tanahashi is the Japanese John Cena. Hearing this, I had an idea. Why don’t I compare Hiroshi Tanahashi with John Cena and see if there’s really anything to the comparison? Genius, right? Really though, those who compare Tanahashi and Cena do have a valid point. There are many similarities between the two, but there are also differences that are night and day. So is it an appropriate comparison? Does the comparison do a disservice to Tanahashi? Is Tanahashi even worthy of being compared to the biggest star in wrestling today? So many questions. How about some answers? Oops, that was another question. Sorry? Sorry.
To begin, let’s take a look at some of the more coincidental similarities between the two, before getting into the some of the more substantial claims. First of all, Cena and Tanahashi are the same age. Well, almost. Cena was born in April 1977, while Tanahashi was born slightly earlier in November 1976, making them both, at the time of writing, 37 years old. Another coincidental similarity is that they both debuted in the same year, and less than a month apart. Tanahashi debuted in October 1999, and Cena debuted the following month in November 1999. Superficially, both men are similar in height and physique, with Cena being only slightly taller and heavier than Tanahashi. Basically, both guys have got muscles on top of muscles. So at least on a purely coincidental level, there are some similarities between the two, which gives the comparison some merit. Unimportantly, from a linguistic perspective, which as an English teacher is my favourite perspective, their names make a perfect 1-2-3-4 syllabic pattern. John-1. Ce-Na-2. Hi-Ro-Shi-3. Ta-Na-Ha-Shi-4. It’s glorious. There’s something you never needed (or wanted) to know. My degree in Languages and Applied Linguistics has finally made itself useful.
Even on a deeper, less meaningless level, there are still many similarities between Cena and Tanahashi. First, they both had a non-fighting background before getting into wrestling. While that’s not uncommon for American pro-wrestlers, in Japan, having a legitimate fighting background goes a long way with the fans. It gives the wrestlers a higher level of credibility that those without a real fighting background have to work harder to earn. Both Cena and Tanahashi have a sports background, with Cena it was college football, and with Tanahashi it was high school baseball, though Tanahashi did begin grappling at University.
One of the biggest similarities between the two is their success in pro-wrestling. By success, I mean that in the kayfabe sense, in that both men have had their fair share of title reigns. Too fair a share, some might say. John Cena is a 15-time World Champion. He’s held the WWE World Heavyweight Championship 12 times. His combined reign is 1,240 days, they fourth longest in WWE history. Similarly, Tanahashi is a 7-time and current IWGP Heavyweight Champion (the top belt in New Japan, equivalent to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship). He recently overtook Keiji Mutoh with the most combined days as champion. Mutoh’s record was 1,238 days, Tanahashi is at 1,250 days and counting, which also puts him ahead of Cena, though they’re different titles in different companies.
Obviously, with such impressive title reigns, it’s no coincidence both men are considered THE top guys in their respective companies. Cena has been the face of the WWE for basically the entirety of the PG-era. The PG-era is considered by some as, let’s say, not the best era. WWE’s popularity took a drop after the Attitude Era and the death of WCW, and though it’s still the biggest and most well-known wrestling company in the world, there’s no arguing that the product is not as popular as it once was. Tanahashi is in a similar boat. While I’m no historian and don’t know all the details, basically, New Japan was huge in the 90s, but its popularity soon took a huge dive, and has only begun to regain some steam in recent years. In the past, top wrestling stars in Japan were household names, and are still remembered today. Now, if you ask someone who their favourite New Japan wrestler is, most people will respond with, “What’s New Japan?”. It’s during this period that Tanahashi has been on top. So while both guys are the top stars in their respective companies, unfortunately for them, now is not wrestling’s heyday. Nonetheless, both guys are top guys and true company men. Loyal till their last breath. And that brings me to my next point. They are not just loyal to their companies, they are loyal to pro-wrestling. As Cena likes to say, again and again, love him or hate him, he does what he loves, and he loves pro-wrestling. The exact same goes for Hiroshi Tanahashi, who has made it no secret that he loves professional wrestling. Both men have a true passion for the art form that almost none can rival.
Another notable parallel is their storied rivalries. The John Cena-Randy Orton and Hiroshi Tanahashi-Kazuchika Okada rivalries are almost mirror images of each other. Orton and Okada are both the “other” top guys in WWE and New Japan, respectively. The 1Bs. The Cena-Orton rivalry is the rivalry that just won’t quit, no matter how many “final matches to decide once and for all just who is the better man” they have. It’s a rivalry that most fans would be happy to see the end of. While not there just yet, the Tanahashi-Okada rivalry may be heading into similar territory, as they will once again face each other for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in January in New Japan’s yearly Tokyo Dome show. You can learn, and see more about their storied rivalry here. The key difference between the two rivalries is that while Cena and Orton matches are often met with groans and epic eyerolls, Tanahashi and Okada matches are at worst, 4.5-star matches. Twice they’ve had 5-star matches together, and Okada has vowed that their next match at the Dome will be 6-stars! So despite being the safe choice for the Tokyo Dome main event, it’s still a match up that fans are excited to see. The same absolutely cannot be said for Cena-Orton.
Finally, being the top guys also means that they are the guys to beat. Cena and Tanahashi are both extremely important when it comes to putting over talent and making new stars. Okada’s rise to stardom in New Japan was helped with his IWGP Heavyweight championship victory over Hiroshi Tanahashi. Likewise, Daniel Bryan’s epic climb to the top of the WWE mountain would never have been possible had he not defeated John Cena at Summerslam 2013 for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The win pushed Bryan to that next level, as did Okada’s over Tanahashi. Cena and Tanahashi play a major role in elevating performers. As Ric Flair says, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” Cena and Tanahashi are currently that man.
On the other hand, there are also some marked differences between John Cena and Hiroshi Tanahashi. The first and most pronounced difference is the quality of their matches. Now, I’m not going to bash John Cena here. No “Five Moves of Doom” nonsense or anything like that. Cena may not be the most technically gifted performer, but he’s proven time and time again that he can go, and he can put on top matches with the right opponent and right story. According to the Observer Match Ratings, John Cena has been involved in one 5-star match, which was with CM Punk at the 2011 Money in the Bank PPV. He’s also been involved in 27 matches (and counting) that earned between 4 to 4.5-stars, my favourite being his 2013 Summerslam match against Daniel Bryan, which earned 4.5-stars. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at. Cena has had a huge number of great matches with a variety of opponents such as CM Punk, Edge, Kurt Angle, Bray Wyatt, Brock Lesnar, Cesaro and Daniel Bryan just to name a few. The quality of his opponents certainly doesn’t hurt things. But as good as Cena’s record is, compared to Tanahashi, Cena doesn’t even come close. Tanahashi has had over 40 (and counting) matches which earned 4-stars or higher. Four of those matches were given 5-stars, and five of them earned 4.75-stars. Two of those 5-star matches were against Tanahashi’s greatest rival, Kazuchika Okada. His other top matches have been with guys such as Katsuyori Shibata, Shinsuke Nakamura, Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, Tetsuya Naito, and Karl Anderson among others. Heck, he even managed to get a 4.25-star match out of Yujiro Takahashi, something very few people are able to manage. The difference between the two in match quality is night and day. Both guys are great, but Tanahashi is on another level.
The difference in match quality is a direct result of the in-ring ability and wrestling style of both performers. John Cena is sports entertainment wrestling through and through, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s the era we live in. He, like many others, has his set of moves that the fans excitedly (or not) expect to see, and none of them involve the dangers of the past. No headfirst piledrivers or brainbusters, just simple and safe manoeuvres, but still impressive in their own way. Cena wrestles the WWE style perfectly. Tanahashi, while having a substantially greater repertoire of moves, and great versatility of wrestling styles, is a well-known advocate of “sports entertainment” style wrestling. New Japan, and more specifically, Antonio Inoki, is the company that made Strong Style wrestling famous. Strong Style meaning very stiff punches, strikes and kicks to one’s opponent. Tanahashi has openly spoken out against this style of pro-wrestling, calling it a style of the past, and family unfriendly. Tanahashi believes in bringing back fans of wrestling of all ages and genders (all two of them), and to do that, Strong Style has to go, and family friendly wrestling needs to stay. That being said, Tanahashi seemed to forget about all of that in his recent match in September with Katsuyori Shibata at NJPW Destruction in Kobe.
As stated earlier, Cena can put together a great match with a number of opponents, but technically he is lacking. Tanahashi is the full package. He’s an exceptional worker who can adapt to almost any style or opponent. With the wrong opponent, or storyline, Cena can struggle. For example, in 2012 Cena won the awards for Worst Worked Match with John Laurinaitis, and Worst Feud with Kane. But, he certainly doesn’t deserve all the blame in those cases. A modern-day feud with Kane doesn’t do anyone any favours, just ask Daniel Bryan, who went from his greatest moment in wrestling when he captured the WWE Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Wrestlemania 30, to a horror B-movie-esque feud with Kane. And perhaps even Tanahashi would struggle getting something out of John Laurinaitis in 2012.
Another disparity is the crowd reactions to both men. Cena is famous for the “some of you cheer me, some you boo me…” line, and the “Let’s go Cena – Cena sucks” crowd chant. Nobody splits an audience like John Cena. He’s a fan favourite among kids, but older (male) fans generally cheer for his opponents. Tanahashi is rarely booed. It does happen, but nowhere near the level of John Cena. Tanahashi is in general a widely loved wrestler. A true fan favourite. When he does compete against other top stars like Okada and Nakamura, both men get cheered, rather than one getting cheered and one getting booed.
Finally, one of the most glaring distinctions between the two, is that John Cena has never been stabbed in the back by his girlfriend. Literally. In 2002, Hiroshi Tanahashi was stabbed in his back by then girlfriend, TV Asahi news reporter Hitomi Hara. The incident was widely reported on throughout Japan, and may have helped in rising the star status of Tanahashi. When he returned to wrestling after recovering from his wounds in 2003, he was more popular than ever. Nikki Bella has yet to stab John Cena. Despite not being stabbed, yet, John Cena has also had his fair share of relationship drama, when his 3 year marriage ended in a messy divorce (is there any other kind?) in 2012. Still, there was no stabbing involved.
To conclude, there are many similarities and differences between John Cena and Hiroshi Tanahashi. More similarities than differences, in fact. So, is it fair to call Hiroshi Tanahashi the Japanese John Cena? Sure, you can call him whatever you want. There are some valid (and some invalid) arguments in doing so. A part of being a wrestling fan means having opinions. Whether it’s about who’s the better wrestler, or if a storyline is interesting, if a guy is being used right. Everyone who watches wrestling has an opinion about it. Expressing these opinions, whether or not they are founded, is what wrestling fans do. In my opinion, at the end if his career, nobody is going to remember Hiroshi Tanahashi for being the Japanese John Cena. Tanahashi will be remembered as the extraordinarily talented, passionate and well-loved Hall of Fame wrestler that he is.
And hey, has Cena ever done this?
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