In the WWE, a world full of colorful characters like a seven-foot-tall giant, a little person, a king, a former UFC heavyweight champion, a Harvard law graduate, a dead man, and arguably the greatest action movie star of our time, only one man is considered the franchise player: John Cena. As a 10-time WWE champion and two-time World Heavyweight champion, he could easily rest on his reputation. But that’s not John Cena. Instead, Cena takes on the most demanding schedule possible, in and outside of the ring. He made time for us—and this, his most in-depth interview ever published—on his only day off, and met us at his secluded Florida gym. Did we sit down and talk? Not really. We talked before, during, and after his toughest workout to date, during which he set a jaw-dropping personal and in-gym record for the snatch lift (see Cena’s workout on page 62 of the April issue for more about this 297-pound feat). Amidst the bright camera lights, flying white chalk dust, and mammoth iron weights being thrown sky-high, we captured his workout and intensity, and even got Cena to reflect on his life, his career, and his future.
MF: “Hustle, loyalty, and respect.” Is that a catchphrase or your way of life?
JC: Definitely a way of life. I would have been so much more creative with something cooler, like…I can’t even come up with it now. [Laughs] No, much more of a moral code than a cool catchphrase, which is why I really don’t say it that much on TV.
Define it for us.
Work your ass off. Be loyal to those who are loyal to you. And respect everyone, even your enemies and competition.
You got your first weightlifting bench as a Christmas present. How old were you?
Twelve years old.
Why did you ask for it?
Because I was getting beat up and picked on in school. So instead of learning karate, I figured I’d just get bigger.
What eventually led you to get serious about bodybuilding?
Just the gains that I’d made lifting weights. By the time I was 15 and I stepped in the high school gym, I was just stronger than everybody. Keep in mind, I wasn’t in, like, the big city. I was in West Newbury [MA], and to be the strongest person in West Newbury, that’s a very, very average accolade. [Laughs]
You studied exercise physiology at Springfield College. Do you think that gave you any advantages in the gym?
Yes, just to know the basics. A bachelor’s covers only the basics, but if you have a general knowledge about how the body works, you can tell when your body’s worn and when it’s not, what you can take, what the human body is capable of.
Did you ever consider college football as a viable career option?
No, I was way too small.
When did you start watching wrestling?
As a young kid. Most parents were like Little League coaches and all that. My dad was a wrestling fan. Instead of going out and playing home run derby with my old man, we just watched wrestling together.
What does your diet consist of?
A lot of meal replacements just due to time constraint. But I do eat. I eat well. I don’t really, I guess, like, steam my own food and cook my own food in advance. I enjoy food, but I just don’t make bad decisions. I stay away from fried foods [and] desserts, really.
What’s been your toughest injury to rehab from?
Just a basic elbow scope, believe it or not. I had reconstructive pectoral surgery, I had a cervical neck fusion, and a scope, and the scope was the toughest.
Neck fusion wasn’t the toughest?
No, it was the easiest. I walked out of the hospital that day. I went to TV that night. I did SmackDown that night.
What sorts of activities do you enjoy outside of the gym?
Between my schedule of WWE and this, I guess just relaxing. This [gym time] takes up all my time, between this and work.
You work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. How does it make you feel to know you’re giving these children such an uplifting experience when they need it most?
They make me feel just as good as whatever the reciprocating feeling is. I feel it’s the utmost sense of flattery to have somebody with one wish say, ‘I want to hang out with John Cena.’ If I were given one wish, I’d be the last on my list.
You and the WWE raised $1 million for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness group. Where did you get the idea to align those organizations?
It seemed like all other sports were doing something like that. Maybe not necessarily Komen, but recognizing breast cancer awareness month, and I know we might have been last to the party, but we were certainly one of the most effective. Like you said, a million dollars in five weeks is pretty damn good.
You’ve often said the WWE Tribute to the Troops specials are the biggest shows of the year for you. Do you feel a special connection with the troops?
I like to think we stand for the same principles. Like you asked me what “Hustle, loyalty, respect” is: It’s just taking their principle and putting it into my own words. I admire the military. I guess in a world of villains and heroes, they’re my heroes. Their dedication, their commitment, their discipline, their code of ethics. So, I try to tip my cap to that as much as I can.
As a wrestler, how many days a week are you touring?
Many. Anywhere between four and six or seven, depending on the week. I’ve often publicized the busyness of our schedule, but that’s just to familiarize ignorant people with, Hey, we don’t just travel once a week. Or when people condescendingly talk about what we do. It would be like an NFL player having 300 games a year instead of 16. You know, they tried to expand the schedule to 18, and the union was up in arms. So, by advertising our schedule, it’s pretty much saying, Hey, I know we’re entertainment, that’s for sure, but to sell us short is just being ignorant.
Describe the pressure you feel being the industry’s franchise player.
I love it. I love it. Like I said, this is not a job to me—it’s my life. I’ve given up a normal life to live this life. It never gets to be too much. Even with the literally instant criticism of the Internet, I still welcome it all. It’s fantastic.
What’s kept you going strong for more than 10 years?
It’s obvious, I love the business. It’s not a matter of financial gain or loss. It’s a matter of passion, and everyone keeps asking me, “Well, when’s the transition coming?” There is no transition. If there’s a transition, it’s a lateral transition within this company to help mold the future of the company. I’ve been enamored of the business, and that’s not just in the ring. I love everything about it. Just the spontaneity of it all—I love it and I don’t want to be anywhere else.
Have you started having those conversations?
I still got a little gas in the tank. So, no. No, I ain’t there yet, I ain’t even close. I’m stronger now at 35 than I’ve ever been in my life, and healthier as well. It’s been proven that guys who want it as bad as you do can keep on going. It’s a matter of lifestyle choice. When I tell you I’ve literally sacrificed a normal life, I have. This is my focus: How do I stay as healthy as I can for this? As I’m getting older, I know that injuries will be more prevalent.
So how do you alter your lifestyle to prevent injury?
It’s not like I’m living as I did when I was 26. I want to do this, this is my main priority, so, in doing so, different workout, different rest, different pace.
I know a lot of guys play video games. I’m wondering what you do to unwind?
It’s on that table right over there.
And your greatest stress reliever?
Right here. [Points to the weights] If I’m angry, if anything is bothering me—you just saw [my workout]—it’s not a sculpting deal.
Are you looking forward to facing the Rock once more?
I’ve openly said it. I want a second shot. After losing at WrestleMania , I had a pretty much garbage 2012. That one really stung. I spent a year telling everybody I had to win that thing, and finishing second was…it was what it was.
Are there any adrenaline rushes you’d like to experience?
I don’t need to chase the thrill. I don’t need to chase adrenaline. I get it every single week. That is absolutely it.
Have you ever feared for your safety?
No. Not once. This is a public-eye business, and it’s almost like, the contact that’s involved, it’s a physical business. You’re going to get hurt. Your body is going to be more worn than someone who sits in a cubicle all day long. When I’m 55, I’ll be much more worn than John Q. Public, but I’ll have so many great memories. I get it. I get the end product of all this, and I’m not going to blame anyone. I know what I’m signing up for. I know the risks of travel complications, accidents, someone in the live audience.
But, I just figured, performing in front of the troops…
Performing in a war zone. No, you are briefed on the fact that it is a war zone. Things can go wrong. I’m still happy to be there, to go out there. I think if safety were an issue I just wouldn’t do it.
What motivates you?
This. Like I said, this doesn’t stop.
You’re only 35, and WWE tends to shift the focus away from guys at around the age of 40. How do you react to that?
My goal is to do the best I can for this company—no matter what the circumstance. That’s it. And I’ve made a pact to myself that—you can tell when you’re a step behind somebody—when I become a step behind, it’s time to go.
Any idea how many more years?
No, it’s when I’m just not as good as everyone.
Are you targeting Ric Flair’s record of 16 world titles?
No, and I know the group of folks you speak of, who don’t necessarily think so kindly of me, are certainly going to want to find the tallest tree in the land if that ever happens. I’d like to stop at 13, but hold on to it longer than Bruno [Sammartino]. How’s that?
What’s been your favorite career rivalry?
My all-time favorite is the Rock. Absolutely. He tends to bring out the best in everyone. And that’s, I guess, thinking about it in retrospect, that’s why I admire him so much. Whether I personally like him or not is irrelevant. He brings out the best in everyone.
If you could face anyone in their prime, past or present, who would it be?
Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Thank God he’s in his prime. I think he looks much better this year than he ever has. He truly seems focused.
What words of advice would the 2013 John Cena give to the 2002 John Cena?
Start training for the future earlier. [Laughs] Had I only taken care of myself a little bit better. I went through a phase where I just thought I was bulletproof and didn’t take proper care of myself. But, I absolutely regret nothing. I’m glad everything has happened the way it’s happened. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, then they become regrets. But, I’m glad I make them because I can learn from them all.
Did you ever envision becoming such a mainstream star, and do you think it’s changed you in any way?
No and no. I think it’s something that I enjoy doing so much, and that’s apparent. I may be a little smarter in a business sense, but I’d like to think I’m the same person. I hang out with a lot of the people I did when I was in high school, when I was in college, and I have a strong unit of people around me, whether it be friends or family, and if my head gets too big, they will definitely check me immediately.
What’s the hardest thing you do every day of your life?
Find time to accomplish everything.
What is your greatest career accomplishment thus far?
Just being as involved as I am in all of this. Like I said, I’m one of the many guys who will go out there and say that they love it, but I genuinely do love it. And, I think that’s apparent in how I live my life.
You’ve always been a leader. Have you ever thought about politics?
No, not at all. Not at all. Not once.
What would you do if you weren’t a wrestler?
I would be teaching somewhere—most likely either U.S. History or physical education, and I would be coaching football. Either that or I’d be a Marine. I’d be involved somehow in the armed services.
Any more movies planned?
No. Things come and they go, but I’ve been close in a lot of stuff and, to be quite honest, it comes down to, well, would you be willing to take time off to shoot the movie? And my answer is always no—it really has to be an unbelievably inviting scenario, because they’re asking me to take time off from what I love. And, the great thing about doing all the WWE Films stuff , or even the little stuff I did with, like, Fred: The Movie, is that they accommodated my schedule so I could film lm and still perform. I just don’t want to be away from this.
How about another CD?
I’ve been thinking of somehow doing like a 10th anniversary remastering of You Can’t See Me, ’cause I still have about 70 tracks that have never seen the light of day.
What are some of the differences between working with a guy like the Rock or CM Punk?
To me, it’s all the same. I think the one thing that Dwayne carries with him is that aura of being the best, so you need to be on your game at all times. But, you certainly do with Punk, as well, because he’ll cut you up in many diff event ways. [Laughs]
What’s going to make WrestleMania 29 stand out for you?
For me, personally, I love the fact that it’s in New York and New Jersey. That is literally home field for the WWE. And, to be quite honest, when you get close to that Times Square location, it becomes the center of the world. I’m really happy about that—just to be, if you trace the lineage of the company, literally in the backyard of the WWE. They used to talk about Madison Square Garden or maybe Shea Stadium. And now it’s MetLife Stadium. And it’s bigger, it’s better, it’s more entertaining. That holds a lot of weight with me, personally. Like I said, I’m obsessed with the performance side as well as the business side, and to see the business thriving after all these years is really, really cool.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Show up to work on time. Outwork the other guy.
What final thoughts or advice would you like to share with the Men’s Fitness readers?
Fitness is goal oriented. Stay committed to your goals. I often commercialize the phrase, “Never give up.” If you want to achieve a certain level of fitness, whether it be endurance, strength, or appearance, you have to be committed and truly never give up.
For more on this powerhouse professional wrestler, check out: