The top wrestler in the WWE is crossing over into Hollywood and reality TV — but all he really wants is to make peace with his dad
Posted on | November 20, 2016 | No Comments
WHY JOHN CENA CAN’T LOSE
SOMEWHERE ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF TAMPA, Florida, John Cena isn’t driving as fast as he normally drives in his Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed, 600 horses under its polished black hood. Normally, he’d have it charging way up there into triple digits, and if a cop stopped him, asked him if he knew how fast he was going, he’d say, “Depends on where you radared me. If it was on the on-ramp, it was around 115, and if it was on the high-way, I was going 125,” because that’s just the kind of forth-right, upstanding WWE superstar he is or, at least, has been for the past dozen years, ever since he turned from bad-guy, rap-spewing Doctor of Thuganomics heel into a good-guy, flag-saluting baby face and became WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s Number One guy. He’s Number One in WWE titles conferred, Number One in merchandise sales, Num-ber One in appearance requests, Number One in all ways, up to and maybe even surpassing his two biggest predecessors, the Rock and Hulk Hogan. Plus, Cena’s got crossover talent galore, especially as a commanding, self-deprecating comedic presence in the 2015 movies Trainwreck and Sisters. As well, he’s got his own reality-TV show, American Grit, arriving soon, featuring a bunch of contestants trying to do hard things under the watchful, demanding eyes of some for-mer servicemen, with Cena acting as host. Add it all up and it’s estimated he makes around $10 million a year, so he can afford to go fast if he wants and is more than happy to take his punishment if it’s due.
Today, though, he’s eased off the pedal. It’s early still, not even light out, with no coffee in his system. As his Bentley rolls through the dark, he’s listening to lessons in Mandarin Chinese, repeating aloud the words that he’s hearing, something along the lines of “Y?nwèi n? y?ngg?i y?q? zuò.”
“The company offers a second-language program for free, so I thought I might as well take this,” he says, making it sound like a pretty random undertaking, although Cena knowing Mandarin will undoubtedly come in handy should the WWE’s re-cent efforts to break into the Chinese market succeed. And, in this regard, as in many others, he is nothing if not a company man. For instance, use the word “wrestler” around him and he immediately offers a correction, based on changes McMahon introduced in recent years.
“It was a companywide vocabu-lary-change initiative,” Cena says, sounding like a seasoned PR flack. “So we now call our performers ‘su-perstars,’ because that’s what they are – global, larger-than-life char-acters.” Actually, in WWE circles, even the term “wrestling” is verboten these days; it should be referred to as “sports entertainment” or “action soap opera.” During his tenure, Cena has seen all the changes firsthand, in-cluding the sanitizing of most of his signature moves. His finisher, now called the Attitude Adjustment, used to be known as the FU, while the Step over Toehold Facelock, or STF, was once just the STFU. And while Cena might not like what’s happened, he’s smart enough not to raise his voice.
“I’m a 38-year-old man,” he says. “I’d much rather it be a program geared to-ward me, whether that’s TV-14 or some-times even more graphic than that, which is what I like. For one thing, profanity brought fire out of people with personali-ties that backed the language. It’s very difficult to say, ‘Oh, you’re being poopy,’ es-pecially when they’re meant to be fighting words. And now, if someone starts to bleed, the referee intervenes to stop the bleeding. But before, you’d just let it fly. Blood is one of the things that made fights cool. Like, you knew it had gotten serious. I under-stand why we don’t do it anymore. Vince has been a coach to me, a father figure, a boss and a friend, and his goal and my goal are the same: to make the company be as big as it can be. But, yeah, the blood is one thing I miss.”
As much as he may miss it, however, no current superstar is more connected to to-day’s (relatively) squeaky-clean era than he is and has been since the start. He’s well aware of this. As he likes to say, his Super Cena character – what with all the flag sa-luting and the tossing of free merchandise to the hordes of cheering kids, and the ever-so-humble way of behaving as a match victor – is basically just “Dudley Do-Right personified. A goody-two-shoes dude who looks like fucking John Q. Average.” He’s also well aware that while the under-14 crowd may adore him, older fans either can’t stand him or desperately want him to do something different, like turn heel the way Hulk Hogan did when he became strutting bigmouth Hollywood Hogan to-ward the end of his heyday, in 1996. It isn’t likely. “Look,” Cena says, “your job as a su-perstar is to manipulate the audience and try to tell your story. I like the dynamic of the audience. Every single night it’s different. But what’s weird is that I’m a good guy because of all the kids and parents who like me, and a bad guy because I won’t turn heel, which actually makes me both good guy and bad guy in one person.”
HE PULLS INTO A STARBUCKS, rambles inside to get a me-dium-dark roast with two shots of espresso, does not skimp on the Splenda, drives a short distance to grab break-fast, ends up at a sports-rehab place, with a physical therapist la-boring over his right shoulder. He tore the rotator cuff late last year, had to undergo corrective surgery, and has been out of action ever since. He comes here twice on most days, determined to get back to the world of sports entertainment as fast as he can. “It’s been two and a half months since the surgery and 107 rehab visits so far, and I’m already doing things they said would take nine months,” he says. “I was antsy on Day Four. Being away from the product just makes me want it even more. Sure, OK, it’s very easy to get too caught up. And not to mention the blur between real and not. I mean, anyone who brings up the word ‘fake’ with me is truly ignorant of what we do. We entertain. We’re TV that develops right in front of you as it happens. People think we are who they see. That’s kind of true, but not. I mean, we’re as real as fake can get. Like, I’m Superman, but I’m not. Although a lot of people in the business don’t know when to turn the switch off, I do, and I’m John.”
That being the case, forget for a moment the corporate-stooge-like “product” talk and anything having to do with “vocabulary-change ini-tiatives.” Instead, let’s ponder John, who is now leaving rehab and driving 45 minutes back to his house to join the filming of a new wrestling reality show starring his girlfriend, Nicole Garcia, and her sister, Brianna, called Total Bellas, which is a spinoff of the Total Divas show, in which they go by their WWE wrestler names Nikki and Brie Bella.
His jaw is square, his eyes blue, his smile wide, his teeth white, his cheeks almost dimpled, his hair short, his attitude friend-ly, his mood mellow, his voice softer than you can imagine, given how fiercely he can bellow when holding a mic in front of a camera. He is known to be kind, as ev-idenced by the many Make-A-Wish vis-its he has made, more than 500. It’s true that he sucked terribly when he first started appearing in movies, in 2006, playing just what you’d expect, a forgettable action hero in forgettable action movies like Ma-rine and 12 Rounds. But the moment he started going against type, as a comic fig-ure, he took off, much to his own surprise. In fact, when he first auditioned for Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, he didn’t even bother to tell his girlfriend about it, and espe-cially not about the part where he’d have to lay on top of Amy Schumer and have pre-tend sex with her past the point of loud, pretend orgasm. When he finally did get the part, however, he broke the news to Garcia by saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to do this movie, and I’m going to be in a sex scene, and I’m going to—” which was about as far as he got before it all went to hell, in the only way it can when you find out your man is about to go Hollywood. Even two years later, Garcia seems a little miffed. “You don’t like to look at your man in the act up on the screen, even though he says, ‘It’s just acting,’” she says. “I mean, my man has the most beautiful body in the world, but now everyone’s seen it … and bringing it up. I was in a business meeting and someone said, ‘Yeah, you’re lucky. I saw how big his butt was.’ And I was like, ‘… What?’”
Also, as an actor, he brings much more to the table than his bulk and his butt. The nature of the mixed-up, maybe-man-loving musclehead in Trainwreck was his idea. “The lines in the script were funny but they were just jokes, so I took the jokes and was like, ‘Oh, maybe the guy is sexually con-fused, maybe this guy’s fucked up a little bit,’” Cena says. “The guideline was, just be as weird as you want. And I went with that.” The gargantuan list of drugs for sale that he reels off as a tattooed-to-the-gills pusherman in Sisters? He came up with it, too, and his deadpan delivery of it just kills, leading to much speculation that he might soon leave wrestling to go the way of the Rock.
“Nah,” he says. “I really, really, really love my job, so it’s not like I’m trying to quit wrestling to do movies. They just all seemed like cool things to do. I mean, I’d love to be the bad guy in an action movie, because then people would get to see an-other side of me they don’t get to see. But action hero again? I’d be playing who I al-ready play on TV, only in a shittier setting, with no crowd to tell you you did good.”
Up comes the garage door at his mansion-size home, in slides the Bentley, off Cena goes to find Garcia, passing a Gatsby-like aquarium built into a column along one wall (“The fish are mostly saltwater tangs”) and a gigantic painting of soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima that Garcia one day would like to swap out for some-thing a little warmer.
Oddly, there’s no wrestling memora bilia anywhere – the reason being, none of it re-ally means anything. “It’s fiction,” Cena says, which of course it is. All the belts, all the titles, all the moments bloody and not, all of it is vapor, none of it real except to the degree that it makes money and provides him with an outlet for his various talents.
He finds Garcia in the kitchen, slender and buxom in tight black everything, brief-ly presses his lips to hers. They then angle off from the reality-TV camera crew to have a few words in private. She maybe looks like she’s frowning, he maybe looks like he’s not, and later she will say that, for better or worse, he is not one for venting. “Like, I can’t talk crap about anything having to do with wrestling, just venting, without him saying, ‘If you’re not happy here, go some-where else,’” she says. “He never complains about it, never needs to vent. My sister and I used to joke about him being a robot.” She also says that “Oven” was an early nickname for him, “be-cause sleeping with him is like sleeping with an oven: He just lets off so much body heat!”
Soon, the couple film their stuff, then he is out the door again, this time headed to the gym to work out. Along the way, he mentions that he was once married and it didn’t end well. “A lot of that was because of my inability to be a good husband, but then Nicole strolled into my life, and that did it,” he says. He and his latest love do have issues, however, mainly revolving around marriage, kids, their dog Winston, and his love of his job. “Look,” he says, “I know I can-not handle raising a child. It’s like with the dog. My biggest thing to Nicole about the dog was: Love dogs, but I can’t con-tribute to taking care of one. I don’t have the time. And just because everyone else is happy with children doesn’t mean that’s how I have to live. I’ve been upfront about this. I just have things I need to get done. It’s not negotiable. We’ve been to thera-py over it. I don’t think it will ever be over with. I’m stubborn as fuck and extremely selfish as well. I don’t want kids, I don’t want marriage. That’s me just saying, ‘Hey, this is my life and this is how I’m going to live.’” And why should he not?
He first got into pro wrestling back around 2000. He had moved from his hometown of West Newbury, Massachu-setts (population: small), to Venice Beach, California (population: all muscles), pestered his way into a low-level job at Gold’s Gym, failed the exam to become a CHP cop, momentarily thought of joining the Marines, but instead took a buddy’s suggestion to give wrestling a go. He tried various personality gimmicks on for size, but none worked out until 2001, after he’d earned a developmental deal at WWE and evolved into a white-bread, rapping heel who went by the name Doctor of Thuganomics, wore a lock and chain around his neck and thought he came from Compton. He got heat from it, but when McMahon announced the move from blood-and-guts TV-14-type antics to family-friendly PG, he turned into a baby-face ultrapatriot, which almost immediately won him the adoration of the important kiddie demographic, with WWE’s creative team making sure that its new superstar rose to the top and became a super-duper merchandise cash cow. Soon enough, you could buy John Cena hats, T-shirts, action figures, wristbands, videos, sunglasses, dog collars and leashes, gym bags, plush monkeys and boatloads more.
He arrives at the gym, where stapled to a wall are the results of all of Cena’s many drug tests. “There’s 60 or 70 of them,” he says. “I’ve passed them all.” He spends an hour or so pushing a bunch of iron around, and then is back in the Bentley, little by little telling the somewhat crazy story of how he grew up. His father, John Cena Sr., was a real-estate appraiser who mostly left it to his wife, Carol, to deal with their kids – five boys who ran through the Massachu-setts countryside blowing stuff up with fireworks and constantly getting in brawls and fights with one another and all their friends. There was blood on their faces and trips to the emergency room. “We were a pack of wolves, and anything went,” Cena says. “And then when my dad came home from work, he’d get the report from our poor mom. It was a typical American household before political correctness. Four of us would make it away free, but one of us would get fucked, and we knew that getting fucked meant our dad saying our first name out loud and then asking us to get the belt down from on top of the refrigerator. It once belonged to my grandfather. We called it the Strap. He would make us get the weapon and hand it to him. And then we would get beaten.” And then the next day, rinse and repeat.
The only calm came when they settled down with John Sr. on the living-room couch to watch pro wrestling. The boys loved it, as most boys will, but no one loved it more than their dad, so much so that when he lost his appraiser’s job and Hamburger Helper became a family dinnertime staple, one expense he did not cut was the cable bill. He had to have his wrestling. “My dad is not a sports guy,” Cena says, “but was drawn to the theatrics of wrestling.” The old man also liked to share R-rated comedies (Porky’s, Used Cars) with his sons, allowed them to use the f-word when they were still single-digits in age, and peppered them with a constant barrage of dick jokes. “Yeah,” Cena says, “he dug dick jokes.” Everything was OK, except for showing emotion. “You don’t do that,” he says. “You don’t cry. Everything like that is swept under the table. Combine that with a bunch of dick jokes, a bunch of nudity, and you begin saying, ‘OK, this is the way it is.’ It was a man’s-man house and macho as fuck.”
At first, young Cena wanted to be a pro wrestler, then a heavy-metal rock star, then a baseball player. His bedroom walls were plastered with pictures of cars and bodybuilders, as well as motivational sayings clipped from magazines (“Balls to the wall,” “Stop at nothing,” “Achieve”), which would later morph into the tag lines he uses as Super Cena (“Never give up,” “You can’t see me,” “Set the bar, now raise it”).
For a long time, he was just a typical longhaired, beanpole kid who dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and crappy sneakers, but at the age of 11, he came under the influence of an older cousin. Soon, he was dressing to match him, in the hip-hop style – high-top fade, wingtips, baggy rayon MC Hammer pants – which made him a standout in his small town and a target for high school bullies who picked on him constantly. Finally, he got tired of being pushed around and persuaded his dad to buy him a set of weights. He started off weighing 115 pounds, and left high school at 215 pounds.
Oddly, neither he nor his brothers ever got into any kind of serious trouble. Cena, for one, was early into everything. Besides hip-hop, there was sex, with him losing his virginity at the age of 13 to a 15-year-old girl. But he’s never done drugs, never shoplifted or smoked cigarettes, and didn’t take his first drink until he was 26, in the WWE and wanting to bond with his fellow wrestlers. “I was handed a drink and went from social outcast to sitting with the guys and learning about the business,” he says. “I was like, ‘OK, down the hatch, I can do this. If they can do this, I can do it’ … and, yes, that led to many more.”
He’s back at home now, showering, slipping into a fresh pair of underwear (“I would like, if Nicole and I have an intimate moment, to be as presentable for her as possible”), then gliding back to rehab for session number 108, always trying to cut down on the time it will take for him to get back to work. Obviously, when he leaves the WWE, it’ll be extremely difficult for Vince McMahon to find a replacement. For instance, he’s very good with the long view. At one point, he says that, like his dad, his “life is just one big continuous dick joke,” but ask him to provide a sample and he demurs. “When I’m allowed to unleash me,” he says, “my humor would be grossly inappropriate to 99 percent of the WWE audience. So, it is very protected. And you’re not going to see it. See, I think about every decision I make. I don’t just knee-jerk.”
The WWE has tried positioning new superstars over the years, but so far none of them has passed muster. And yet changes are no doubt on the way. As Cena himself says, “I’ve already overstayed my welcome.”
After rehab, goosing the Bentley along into the fading light, he returns to talking about his pop.
“My dad is a showman who always thinks he needs to be on camera,” Cena says. “These days he’s involved in independent wrestling, which, I mean, at the age of 70-plus, he can do whatever the fuck he wants. But there are moments when I genuinely wish I could sit down with him and talk father to son, maybe about work, like, ‘Hey, work is weird,’ but I can’t ever, because then it becomes a conversation about wrestling, not about work in general. Even when I was a kid, he had this need. During Christmas, he’d take us to Toys R Us, push the cart down the aisles and be like, ‘I hate Christmas. It’s just a bunch of bullshit!’ Later, we’d get presents as far as the eye could see, but he wanted the attention of everybody looking at him. I don’t know why, he just wants to take the stage – which is something I get from him, and directly from him. But it’s tough. It’s tough, because you know how we talked earlier about the off switch? His is broken.”
He turns left, turns right, thinks he’s lost somewhere on the outskirts of Tampa, makes a call, turns around, gets the Bentley headed in the right direction and is once again on the way toward where he needs to go next.