June 27, 2002. Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle throws down an open challenge to the SmackDown locker room. A young kid from West Newbury, Mass. steps up. He’s not yet great — no one is their first time — but he’s poised and fiery with a body like an action figure and more heart than a butcher shop. He surprises Angle, takes him off his feet, almost beats him. The fact that he doesn’t win is important — it keeps him humble, keeps him wanting more.
More than a decade passes. That kid becomes a man. He wins 11 WWE Titles. Main events WrestleManias against Shawn Michaels, Triple H and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Stars in movies. Releases a rap album. Scuffles with Kevin Federline on live television. He becomes a brand, a polarizing figure loved and hated with equal élan. He carries WWE into an uncertain new age. He is John Cena. And these are the 50 matches that have defined him as the most important WWE Superstar of the past 10-plus years.