John Cena is the indisputable face of WWE. Since he won his first world championship at WrestleMania 21, he’s been a constant presence in the promotion’s main event scene, fending off a wide range of villains, cracking jokes, and generally appealing to the family friendly style of programming the company has come to favor.
Cena has walked an interesting line—a favorite of children and female fans for over a decade now, while he’s often blasted by the adult male contingent of live crowds. For all of his controversial reception among the fans, though, he’s been a steady company man. Cena has rarely been hurt, moves merchandise, avoids scandals and quibbles with management, and works the media nicely. As such he’s WWE’s go-to star and has earned himself the favor of the powers that be in WWE.
Part of how Cena has earned his clout has been through heroic efforts—helping colleagues, helping management, and helping the wrestling business at large in key moments on and off screen. For all of his moments as a real-life good guy, Cena has also had those times when he was no saint. Whether it was hurting another wrestler’s career, getting into a pointless confrontation, or engaging in less than noble behavior in his personal life, Cena has made some well-justified enemies.
This column looks back at eight times when Cena was a bona fide hero, and eight times when he was a downright jerk. While I could easily generate a list based on Cena’s character work, this one focuses on real-world developments instead, though some of them did play out on screen.
16 Hero: Granting Wishes
It’s hard to argue against John Cena when you look at his track record with the Make A Wish Foundation. As the face of WWE, it’s not unusual to take the lead on visiting children on behalf of this great organization. On account of Cena’s longevity as a star, and his selflessness, the Foundation and WWE have each lauded him as the guy when it comes to granting wishes. He’s visited more sick children than any other celebrity. In 2015, ESPN lauded him for being the first celebrity to grant 500 wishes, and rest assured the number has grown since then.
While older fans sometimes knock Cena’s juvenile on-screen persona, it’s a part of what makes him so appealing to young fans, and the perfect fit to make kids’ dreams come true.
15 Jerk: Burying Kenny Dykstra
According to multiple accounts, the lower card heel and Spirit Squad alum was in a serious relationship with female star Mickie James. Then he found out that she was cheating on him with John Cena.
The exact fall out is murky, but the consensus opinion is that Cena had way more clout than Dykstra. So, when a real life grudge developed between the two, Cena used his influence to have Dykstra shown the door. He took a leave of absence through the fall of 2008 before WWE announced his release that November. In the aftermath, Dykstra tweeted aggressively against Cena.
In 2016, Dykstra got another chance in WWE, purportedly working on a match-by-match basis without a contract. Word is that he and Cena ran in different circles and thus didn’t need to interact at all on this second pass.
14 Hero: Bailing Out Chris Jericho
In Chris Jericho’s third book, The Best in the World: At What I Have No Idea, he cited a particular instance of John Cena saving the day. The two were out at a bar, and by the end of the night, Jericho was black out drunk. He writes that he doesn’t remember a large swath of time—only that when he woke, he was under the covers in his hotel room bed, while Cena sat in a chair the dark. The Champ was not only awake, but scrolling through Jericho’s iPod and drinking yet another beer.
Who knows what trouble Jericho—a multi-time world champion and star—might have gotten into were Cena not there to get him home. And who knows how much alcohol it would take to ever bring down John Cena.
13 Jerk: Not Putting Over The Nexus
In the summer of 2010, WWE ran a hot angle with seven new talents forming The Nexus—an invading stable that introduced itself by beating up John Cena and tearing apart the ringside area at the end of an episode of RAW. The story had a lot of buzz and gathered steam over the weeks to follow, all to culminate in big elimination tag match at SummerSlam. The popular theory was that The Nexus would win that match. The victory would follow in the tradition of the nWo winning its six-man tag against WCW’s team, or The Alliance beating WWE’s team in the inaugural brawl at the start of the Invasion angle.
Both Chris Jericho and Edge have spoken out about the outcome of the match. Each championed The Nexus going over to establish them as credible threats, and each were particularly against Cena quickly recovering from a DDT on the floor at ringside. Cena felt strongly about overcoming the odds, though, and aligned with the bookers on how the match would end. So, his character got up from the DDT and quickly overcame a two-on-one disadvantage, defeating Justin Gabriel and Wade Barrett in quick succession. The Nexus fizzled by degrees over the months to follow and none of its members would realize the potential they demonstrated early in this storyline.
According to Jericho, even Cena himself admitted he’d done the wrong thing after the match, and that he should have put over The Nexus.
12 Hero: Letting RVD Play The Hero
By 2006, the crowds had largely turned on John Cena, and nowhere was this more true than in New York City for the One Night Stand ECW reunion/relaunch show. There, Cena defended his world title against ECW golden boy Rob Van Dam.
In this hostile environment—including signs claiming “If Cena wins, we riot”—Cena embraced his role. He worked hard to put on a good match, and he sold like a champ for RVD. Sometimes, the most heroic thing a wrestler can do for the audience is to play the villain effectively. In this case, Cena embraced his white bread style to the fullest to allow himself to be eaten alive by the ECW crowd. RVD won the match and the title. The crowd was ecstatic and the new ECW was off and running.
11 Jerk: Cheating On His Wife
There was a small scandal around Cena getting involved with Mickie James while she was dating Kenny Dykstra. Then there was the other side of the coin: Cena, himself, was in a serious relationship with his high school sweetheart, whom he would go on to marry.
Dykstra took Cena’s infidelity public in a Twitter rant, and at least one developmental talent, Kris Katera, backed the story on social media, confirming that Cena was unfaithful. When Cena and his now ex-wife divorced in 2012, TMZ reported that she was making an effort to prove Cena’s infidelity in court, which would have an impact on the couple’s prenuptial agreement.
While Cena hasn’t spoken openly about the allegations, his reservations about marrying new partner Nikki Bella—reiterated time and again on Total Divas—seem to suggest The Champ doesn’t want to be tied down.
10 Hero: Impersonating Vanilla Ice
For John Cena’s first year on WWE’s main roster, he didn’t stand out. Yes, he was famously introduced to the television audience by answering an open challenge on Kurt Angle. However, he went on to lose that rivalry, and then trade wins and losses with Billy Kidman at the lower end of the card.
The 2002 Halloween episode of SmackDown proved to be an unlikely turning point in Cena’s career. He came dressed as Vanilla Ice and proceeded to cut an alarmingly competent free-style rap. In a time when WWE was visibly rebuilding and needed new stars, Cena suddenly shot toward the front of the pack as a rapping heel. In doing so, he gave WWE exactly the new star it needed at a key time. A year and a half later, he’d pin The Big Show to win his first title in Madison Square Garden at WrestleMania XX, and a year after that he’d win his first world title at WrestleMania 21. Cena hasn’t looked back since, carrying WWE for most of his in-ring career.
9 Jerk: Burying Alex Riley
There was a brief period when Alex Riley looked like a star of the future. First, he played The Miz’s sidekick for his world title run. Then, Riley turned face and actually beat The Miz in their first PPV confrontation. Suddenly, however, Riley was out of the spotlight—losing more than he won, before he was posted at the NXT broadcast table despite repeated pleas—broadcasted over social media—that he wanted to be back in the ring.
The details are murky because, notably, no one seems to want to talk about them. Just the same, between comments from Riley and from Ryback on social media and, for the latter, on his podcast, we can gather the basics. It seems that Cena pulled a prank on young Riley backstage, and Riley didn’t respond kindly. Cena didn’t appreciate the rookie’s attitude, and thus used his influence to make Riley all but obsolete on the WWE landscape.
Again, it’s tough to make a judgment call without all the details, but if Ryback claims, “when people hear what really happened with that, they’re going to lose their [expletive].”
8 Hero: Making Daniel Bryan
In 2013, Daniel Bryan’s in-ring talents and likeable persona earned him a huge opportunity to become a main event star for WWE. One of the key players in Bryan’s success? None other than John Cena.
Cena has spoken positively about Bryan - who sort of his unofficial brother-in-law - on Total Divas and in a variety of interviews, particularly lauding him for his work ethic. Indeed, Cena backed up his words with actions when he put him over cleanly in their main event match at SummerSlam in 2013. Few guys have gotten that level of push off of Cena since he became the guy. The SummerSlam victory not only put the WWE Championship around Bryan’s waist, but functioned as Cena unofficially endorsing him as the top face in the company for a period of months to follow.
7 Jerk: Jilting Mickie James
John Cena and Mickie James engaged in a brief relationship that ended James’s coupling with Kenny Dykstra, and put a ding in Cena’s long-term relationship and eventual marriage with his high school sweetheart. But what about the relationship between Cena and James themselves?
According to Dykstra, Cena broke it off with James and she did not take it well. Dykstra claims the fall out from the relationship was the reason for James getting moved to the Smackdown brand, where she got plugged into the humiliating “Piggy James” angle in which Michelle McCool made fun of her weight, after which James left the company altogether. Whether Dykstra’s story is altogether accurate or not, the timeline does match his story. Moreover, the outcome would fit a pattern of Cena’s influence negatively impacting careers of wrestlers he had personal issues with.
6 Hero: Returning Early From Injury In 2008
For his first extended run as a main eventer, Cena was among the very, very few top wrestlers to avoid any kind of serious injury from 2002 to 2007. Cena went down with the first serious injury of his career in the fall of 2007, suffering from a torn pectoral muscle. Most prognoses estimated he wouldn’t be back in action until the following summer, or spring at the very best.
Lo and behold, Cena made his return months early, in a legitimately shocking appearance as the 30th entry in the 2008 Royal Rumble. It was one of those rare surprises in wrestling that legitimately surprised even the most hardcore fans. Moreover, the moment was representative of why Cena has been so valuable to WWE over the last 15 years. The guy rarely needs time off, and when he does, he’s demonstrated almost super-human recovery powers so he never leaves the company hanging.
5 Jerk: Talking Behind Mr. Kennedy’s Back
It’s been well documented that there was a rift between Mr. Kennedy and Randy Orton, and widely rumored that Orton played a key role in Kennedy’s demotion and eventual dismissal from WWE. The story goes that Orton called Kennedy unsafe in the ring, and that led to his fall from grace.
In more recent shoot interviews, Kennedy has implicated not only Orton but John Cena in his claims. Kennedy notes that he didn’t get along with Cena, and that he has his suspicions Cena either put Orton up to complaining about him, or joined in lodging the complaints. While Kennedy was well-regarded—a Money in the Bank briefcase winner who most agree WWE had big plans for—there was no way he could stand up to both Orton and Cena as political rivals.
The story checks out to the extent that Cena experienced his first major injury in a 2007 match with Kennedy. Whether Kennedy was actually to blame is open to debate, but the incident does offer some justification why Cena would have an axe to grind with the safety of Kennedy’s wrestling.
4 Hero: Going The Distance With Shawn Michaels On RAW
For all of John Cena’s popularity and success, in 2007, he was still a largely unproven commodity as an actual wrestler. Sure, he’d had a handful of very good matches opposite guys like Triple H, Rob Van Dam, and Umaga. Just the same, Cena was still known to be more sizzle than steak—a great talker with a great look, who wasn’t necessarily capable of putting on great in-ring performances.
While Cena’s WrestleMania 23 main event with Shawn Michaels was good, it was still the kind of performance that could be credited more to Michaels’s talents than Cena’s contributions. Less than a month later, the two had a rematch in front of a lively UK crowd. The match was not only great, but uncharacteristically stretched to just shy of an hour—completely unheard of for WWE programming at the time.
Cena had started to earn credibility himself before this match, and would continue to do so over the years. This particular RAW match was a proving ground for Cena as the real deal. Most competent professional wrestlers can be carried to very good matches. It takes someone special to go for over 50 minutes straight of non-stop, excellent in-ring action. In 2007, Cena had arrived.
3 Jerk: Pulling Rank On Tyler Reks
In 2010, Tyler Reks looked like a budding monster heel. However, he slipped down the card quite quickly, only to wind up in a forgettable lower card tag team with Curt Hawkins. By fall 2012, he’d left WWE altogether.
In the aftermath of his WWE career, Reks gave multiple shoot interviews in which he cited John Cena as the reason for his fall. In particular, he cites a pair of incidents. First, Cena gave him a warning when he thought the big man’s finisher looked a little bit too much like Cena’s signature move, The Attitude Adjustment. Then, months later, he came at Reks again, this time yelling at him in front of the whole locker room for the same issue.
Reks reflects on feeling humiliated and that he considered quitting after Cena publicly scolded him. He stayed on, only to slide down the card and, by all accounts, ultimately ask for his release, and soon after retiring from pro wrestling altogether.
2 Hero: Putting Over CM Punk
John Cena and CM Punk are about as opposite as can be in the eyes of WWE management. Cena is the ultimately company man—reliable, avoiding scandal, and a steady presence for nearly 15 years. Punk, while undeniably talented, could be a loose cannon in terms of speaking his mind to his supervisors and disrespecting colleagues.
In 2011, WWE saw an opportunity. When the outspoken Punk’s contract ran out, they ran a complex worked shoot angle. Punk was given the opportunity to legitimately speak his mind in the build to one final showdown with Cena in front of Punk’s hometown crowd in Chicago. Punk’s initial interview—afterward, called The Pipe Bomb—caught fire, electrifying not only the live and TV audiences, but breaking through to ESPN and other mainstream media.
Punk’s success led to WWE working out a new contract with him, and Cena was integral to making things work. The Champ put over Punk in an excellent match in Chicago, and then did so again at the SummerSlam PPV a month later to shore up The Straight Edge Superstar’s main event credentials.
1 Jerk: Getting Into An Altercation With R-Truth At The Airport
In 2007, John Cena and R-Truth got into a confrontation at the Charlotte International Airport. The details are sketchy, but R-Truth—who, at the time, worked for TNA—confirmed some level of a dispute on his MySpace page at the time, implying Cena had disrespected him. The popular theory at the time was that R-Truth was upset because Cena had gotten over based on his rapping gimmick, very close to the gimmick Truth had been working for years.
It appears that the two let bygones be bygones, as Truth resurfaced in WWE just a couple years later and went on to a successful mid-card career, including working a brief program with Cena over the WWE Championship. Some suggest that this might have been a case of Truth and TNA trying to get attention out of a shoot incident with a WWE star.
Nonetheless, Cena doesn’t emerge looking very good, as he seemed to, at minimum, show some level of disrespect to a guy who had a lot less star power or career momentum at that point. You’d think Cena would have been the bigger man and not engaged at all.