John Cena's Next Act

John Cena's Next Act

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 highway, I was going 125," because that's just the kind of forthright, 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 babyface and became WWE chairman Vince McMahon's Number One guy. He's Number One in WWE titles conferred, Number One in merchandise sales, Number 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, featuring a bunch of contestants trying to do hard things under the watchful, demanding eyes of some former 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 "Yīnwèi nĭ yīnggāi yīqĭ 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 recent 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 vocabulary-change initiative," Cena says, sounding like a seasoned PR flack. "So we now call our performers 'superstars,' because that's what they are — global, larger-than-life characters." 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, including the sanitizing of most of his signature moves. His finisher, now called the Attitude Adjustment, used to be known as the FU, while the Stepover 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 toward me, whether that's TV-14 or sometimes even more graphic than that, which is what I like. For one thing, profanity brought fire out of people with personalities that backed the language. It's very difficult to say, 'Oh, you're being poopy,' especially 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 understand 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."

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