This weekend, The Cenation Leader, The Face That Runs the Place, The Champ, John Cena, turns 40. For more than a decade, he’s been the biggest name in pro wrestling, but he hasn’t always been the John Cena. There was a time when Cena was just another muscular dude, fumbling his way through the business on luck and determination. Was John Cena destined for greatness? Maybe, but nobody’s life is a straight line.
Here are a few things you might not know about the years before The Champ truly arrived…
John Cena’s battles began during his birth.
John Felix Anthony Cena brappadooed his way into the world on April 23, 1977, although the birth wasn’t without complications. According to comments made by John Cena Sr., little Johnny was born with the umbilical cord wrapped three times around his neck, which was obviously an extremely scary situation. Miraculously, Cena survived his difficult birth unscathed, not suffering any long-term effects. John Cena, overcoming the odds since birth.
12-year-old Cena asked for a weightlifting bench for Christmas.
John was the second-oldest of five kids (all boys) and pro wrestling was the Cena family’s main source of televised entertainment. The Cena boys would set up makeshift rings in the basement out of mattresses, and battle for hand-drawn cardboard belts. John was, of course, the mastermind and perennial champ of the Cena Basement Wrestling Federation.
John also got into body building early on. Like, really early on. Cena was being picked on at school, so when he was 12, he asked Santa for a weightlifting bench. He got it. By the time Cena graduated high school, he was massive and competing in bodybuilding contests. If you’ve ever wanted to know what’s under those jorts, there are more pictures of thong-clad bodybuilder John Cena out there than you might think. Just sayin’.
He attended a fancy private boarding school.
Most fans are well aware that John Cena didn’t actually come from the mean streets. I mean, given the average household income of West Newbury, Massachusetts, Cena might have fit in with the Mean Street Posse, but that’s about it. Just how cushy was John Cena’s upbringing? During his high school years, he went to a private boarding school literally called Cushing Academy. Was Silver Spoon Preparatory all booked up?
Cushing Academy describes itself as a “coeducational boarding school dedicated to educating the mind, shaping the character, and nurturing the character of young men and women.” Sounds pretty rough! Currently tuition for a year is $55,000, but I’m sure it was much cheaper back in Cena’s day. Probably had to pay in HARD KNOCKS. Yeah, that’s it.
Cena was a college football All-American, but quit because he was too small.
After High School, Cena went to Springfield College, where he played Division III football, and no-doubt hassled plenty of nerds. Cena was actually selected as an All-American, but ultimately decided not to push his football career further. Why? Because, in Cena’s words, he was “way too small.” Don’t let Vince McMahon hear that.
He got his start playing a knockoff of The Terminator.
After graduating from college, Cena moved to California and toyed with the idea of becoming a professional bodybuilder. While out west, Cena was introduced to the pro wrestling business by Mike Bell, who today is best-known as the ill-fated “star” of the steroid documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster.
Cena began training with and wrestling for Ultimate Pro Wrestling out of Los Angeles. It was there where he created his first gimmick, The Prototype, who was, in Cena’s words “50% man, 50% machine, and 100% mayhem.” Later, when Cena jumped to WWF development territory OVW, the character got toned down a bit, becoming the prototypical man/wrestler, but originally the dude was supposed to be a straight-up robot. Honestly, Cena being mechanical would explain a lot.
His debut match against Kurt Angle was a last-second replacement.
On June 27, 2002, a brash newcomer named John Cena showed up unannounced on Smackdown, answering an open challenge made by Kurt Angle. Cena wouldn’t win the match, but it was nevertheless an unforgettable, career-defining moment. A moment that wasn’t supposed to happen.
According to Cena’s interview with Michael Kay on Centerstage, the original plan was to have The Undertaker answer Angle’s challenge, but Booger Red came down with a deathly case of the flu. A replacement was needed, and at the last second, Cena’s name was thrown out. Of course, Vince McMahon had to at least give this rookie the once-over before he was put on TV, so Cena was sent to the boss’ office. So, what did Vince say upon meeting his company’s soon-to-be meal ticket for the first time?
“Cut his hair.”
You’ve been able to set your watch to John Cena’s haircut ever since.
During his “Ruthless Aggression” phase, he owned 86 pairs of boots and 128 pairs of trunks.
John Cena’s love affair with jorts didn’t start right off the bat. When he debuted, he instead wore a blinding array of multicolored boots and trunks, a sartorial decision Cena blames on William Regal.
Cena’s first WWF appearance was actually a Smackdown dark match from late 2000. After the match, Cena asked Regal what he thought, and Regal laid on the dry humor, telling him, “Well, lad, if you get a set of boots and tights, at least you’ll look like a wrestler.” Cena misinterpreted Regal’s snark, thinking all he needed were a new pair of boots and trunks and he’d be ready for the WWF. So he bought 86 pairs of boots and 128 pairs of trunks. You can’t fault the guy’s enthusiasm.
Vince McMahon and Triple H wanted to fire him.
Nothing is ever a sure thing in WWE. John Cena may have gone on to become one of the biggest stars in history, but Vince McMahon and Triple H weren’t exactly big Cena fans early on. In fact, according to Cena’s interview with Mix 106.1, both Vince and Hunter wanted to hustle his ass right out of the company in 2002 and 2003. Thankfully for John, a third member of the McMahon Family saw something in him.
Freestyling about a can of tuna was the turning point for Cena’s career.
Ultimately, it was Stephanie McMahon who picked John Cena out of the pack. One fateful day, Steph heard Cena freestyling in the back of the WWE tour bus. She was skeptical he was coming up with this stuff off the top of his head, so Cena decided to prove his skills by rapping about the can of tuna Stephanie happened to be holding. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know what Cena’s tuna-related lyrics were, but apparently they amused Steph. Soon afterward, Cena dropped the rainbow spandex, started calling out his opponents in rhyme, and the rocket was both strapped and lit.
He earned his backstage cred with one of the goriest bladejobs WWE history.
In 2005, John Cena beat JBL at WrestleMania 21 to win his first WWE Championship. Despite the accomplishment, there remained some feeling backstage that Cena hadn’t properly paid his dues. Cena would obliterate that sentiment at Judgment Day 2005.
Cena has spent most of his career wrestling in a PG, no-red stuff environment, so his Judgment Day “I Quit” match has largely been wiped from history, which is a shame, because it’s a goddamn spectacle. Cena does one of the most extreme bladejobs in WWE history. We’re talking, like, a 3 on the Muta Scale. The only WWE bladejob that gives it a run for for its money is Eddie Guerrero’s from Judgment Day 2004. According to Cena, his “I Quit” match permanently ended the questioning of his cred.
His first on-screen appearance was in the WCW bomb Ready to Rumble.
Yup, the quintessential WWE guy actually had his on-screen debut in a WCW movie. Ready to Rumble, the abysmal wrasslin’ comedy that directly led to David Arquette winning the WCW Title, was partially filmed in a gym where a lot of UWF guys worked out. Sure enough, during a confrontation between Goldberg and Oliver Platt (yes, really), you can see a distinctive flat-topped dude working out in the background. Not even John Cena has lived an entirely charmed life.
There you are, a few big facts about Big-Match John. Know any interesting tidbits I missed? Have any favorite memories from Cena’s formative years? The comments are the place to talk about the face that runs the place.