Love him or hate him, John Cena is one of the biggest figures in professional wrestling today, if not the absolute biggest. Among the 24 championships he's won, Cena has thus far had 15 reigns as a world champion, five reigns as United States Champion, and four reigns as world tag team champion. Additionally, he is a 2012 Money in the Bank ladder match winner, a two-time Royal Rumble winner, and a three-time Superstar of the Year Slammy Award winner. Cena also has the fourth-highest number of combined days as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, trailing only Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, and Hulk Hogan. He has also headlined WrestleMania on five different occasions over the course of his 17-year career.
But life wasn’t always rosy for The Champ. From a difficult birth and getting bullied as a kid, to unemployment and temporary homelessness, Cena has worked extremely hard his whole life to achieve the fame and success he now owns as both a wrestler and actor, as well as the physique that lands him among the most in-shape wrestlers in the biz.
With all its ups and downs, one thing is certain about the life of John Cena: it’s been one weird and interesting ride. Here are 15 of the most fascinating aspects, all of which happened prior to Cena’s official televised WWE debut.
John Cena has worked hard for everything in his life, including life itself. John Felix Anthony Cena Jr. was born April 23, 1977 in West Newbury, Massachusetts to Carol and John Cena Sr. as the second-oldest of five brothers (Dan, Matt, Steve, and Sean), but the birth came with some complications. According to Cena in the documentary DVD, WWE: John Cena: My Life (as well as later comments made by his father), little John was born with the umbilical cord wrapped three times around his neck. Obviously this was a serious and scary situation that could have spelled a whole host of birth defects and other abnormalities, but thankfully Cena made it out unscathed and did not suffer any lasting effects. He eventually went on to attend Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts as a teen (more on his high school days in a bit), but eventually transferred to Cushing Academy, a private prep boarding school.
Though the elder Cena has found a bit of the spotlight through his son’s current wrestling career, the family actually already had some athletic fame in their ancestry. The Champ’s maternal grandfather was Tony Lupien, a first baseman who played in the MLB for six seasons. He managed a career batting average of .268 with 18 home runs and 230 RBI while splitting his time between the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and Chicago White Sox. Prior to that, Lupien was captain of the Harvard University baseball team his junior year and captain of the basketball team as a senior. He even played quarterback for his freshman football team. After retiring from playing, Lupien took a job as coach of the Dartmouth Big Green baseball team, a title he held for 21 years. Although he would never reach the level of fame that his grandson would eventually achieve, it’s easy to see where John Jr. got his athletic abilities.
John Cena started watching wrestling, like many fans, at a very early age. His dad would have it on, and little Johnny would watch and admire his favorite wrestlers: Hulk Hogan, The Iron Sheik, and Rowdy Roddy Piper. “I grew up a fan of Hulk Hogan and I think I bring some of his best values to the ring,” Cena once said. “The values of a superhero: Always do your best, never give up. I think kids want to believe in that, and they should believe in that.” As for a favorite childhood wrestling moment, that would be when Hogan won the title for the first time in 1984.
But the younger Cena didn’t just watch wrestling as a kid; he lived it. John and his four brothers would set up their own makeshift ring in their backyard as kids and act out their favorite moves while impersonating the biggest names at the time. Even in college, Cena said he would still find time in his busy school schedule to watch WWE Raw with his buddies.
Since becoming a wrestling superstar, John Cena has repeatedly spoken out against bullying in an effort to set a good example for today’s youth. Although it’s a noble cause in general, Cena actually has a good reason for this endeavor: he was bullied as a kid. Believe it or not, Cena was once scrawny, and it got him beat up and picked on in school. Young John decided he had two options, either learn karate or bulk up. He chose the latter and asked for a weightlifting bench as a Christmas gift at only age 12. Santa delivered, and by 15, Cena had made huge gains and was larger than anyone else in his high school. This encouraged him to not only continue his weight training, but also to consider pursuing bodybuilding as a career option after competing in numerous contests while still in his teens, as well as his early 20s.
It’s generally no surprise to learn a wrestler was formerly a football player, since this is a path numerous folks have followed before. The list includes guys like Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, Superstar Billy Graham, Monty Brown, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Roman Reigns, Lex Luger, Vader, Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, and The Rock, to name a few. John Cena (who we already mentioned was a bodybuilder), to his credit, was not only a center at Springfield College, but an NCAA Division III All-American center. However, he eventually realized that football wasn’t a good fit for him.
Believe it or not, Cena left football behind because he wasn’t big enough. Imagine that. John Cena - one of the largest, most muscular guys in the wrestling biz - was deemed too small to be a football player. I, on the other hand, was deemed to be too small to be my high school football team’s waterboy.
Something John Cena did that separated him from a lot of college athletes? He actually stayed long enough to receive a degree. Cena received a bachelor’s in exercise physiology and movement studies from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1998, which probably helped a great deal in both his career as a bodybuilder, as well as later on in wrestling. “A bachelor’s covers only the basics,” Cena said in a 2013 interview with Men’s Fitness when asked if his education gave him any advantages in the gym. “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.” I think it’s fair to say that for Cena, personally, his body is capable of taking quite the beating. And it’s even better when it comes to dishing out the abuse.
Prior to getting his big break in wrestling, John Cena, like numerous wrestlers before him, had to get a normal job to support himself. Or two normal jobs at once, to be exact. (For instance, were you aware that Paul Levesque, a.k.a. Triple H, worked at Wendy’s in his early years?) After realizing that the West Coast offered more opportunities for bodybuilders than the in the east, where he was from, Cena packed up all of his belongings and moved to Venice Beach, California with only $500 in his pocket. Work was hard to come by at first, and John was forced to live out of his car for a short period of time.
When he finally did get a job, it coincidentally also involved a car. Cena was employed as a limo driver and hired to work during the night shift, and later described himself as being terrible at it. He also had a day job…
While Cena was driving limos in the evenings, he also had a second job working at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach. (Coincidentally, Triple H also worked at a Gold’s Gym before his big break.) In fact, one of the main reasons Cena moved to Southern California was to be near the famous Mecca of muscle - and both working out and getting employed there is about as near as one can get. The job wasn’t glamorous; Cena spent most of his time setting up equipment and cleaning up after the gym rats. He apparently even had to clean toilets from time to time. However, without this job, he might not have found his true calling. While employed at Gold’s in 1999, a work friend convinced Cena to go to wrestling school at Ultimate Pro Wrestling’s California-based “Ultimate University” operated by Rick Bassman. Sixteen years later, Cena tweeted out his appreciation for the old job at Gold’s Gym, crediting the opportunity for leading him down a path to fame and fortune.
Although it wasn’t especially glamorous, Gold’s did afford John Cena a small opportunity to get in the spotlight. He was selected to star in a commercial for the gym, and it was actually pretty entertaining. The 30-second spot (which thankfully still lives on YouTube) featured a super-swole Cena repeatedly flexing in the gym’s mirrors, oiling himself up, and admiring his own physique while also working out his ego. He rattled off humorous lines like, “Is there snow on the top of that mountain?” while dusting off his bicep, before eventually emerging from a room marked “Posing Room.” When he walked out, he immediately saw two ladies running on treadmills and nodded at them, before slipping on the floor and completely wiping out. The women shook their heads in response and called him a poser.
Although corny, this was the first hint that Cena might have a future in both acting and wrestling, as his physique and cocky charm were clearly perfect for the entertainment biz.
Cena’s next foray in the entertainment industry was a jump to the big screen, and this was way before his breakout role in 2006’s The Marine, or his later credits for Legendary, Trainwreck, and the Fred films, among others. In 2000, Cena appeared in the wrestling film Ready to Rumble, which starred David Arquette, Scott Caan, Oliver Platt, and Goldberg. But don’t blink or you’ll miss him! Cena’s role was limited to a couple of very brief background appearances while Arquette, Caan, Platt, and Goldberg were chatting at a gym. You’d probably never notice Cena unless you were looking for him, but once you do it’s easy to pick out the distinctive blonde flattop haircut he sported back in the day. In the end, this probably didn’t do anything for Cena’s acting career, but it goes to show one thing: If you look buff and hang out in the right gym for long enough, people will throw acting opportunities at you left and right!
Even though John Cena has almost always wrestled under his real name with the WWE (unless you count his “Doctor of Thuganomics” moniker), he went by the name “The Prototype” prior to his signing with the promotion, back when he was still with Ultimate Pro Wrestling. The character was described as being “50% man, 50% machine, and 100% mayhem” and the cyborg gimmick included the use of the short, bleach-blonde, flat-top haircut Cena rocked back in the day. Interestingly, in addition to the TV commerical and big screen extra roles Cena already had under his belt (his metaphorical belt, not his numerous future wrestling title belts), the camera and spotlight managed to find him yet again while with UPW.
Some parts of this period in Cena’s life were documented for the Discovery Channel show Inside Pro Wrestling School. If Cena didn’t already think he was destined for superstardom one day, these three events had to have been a pretty big clue.
Following John Cena’s 1999 debut with Ultimate Pro Wrestling, it didn’t take long for him to find success. He held the UPW Heavyweight Championship for 27 days in April of 2000, which caught the attention of legendary WWE commentator (and talent scout) Jim Ross, who personally visited California to watch Cena in action. Ross signed Cena to a WWE contract and assigned him to Ohio Valley Wrestling, where he was praised by manager Kenny Bolin for his physique, talent, and work ethic. Cena made his professional debut (as The Prototype) in a SmackDown dark match on October 10, 2000 against Mikey Richardson, which the latter won. He also appeared in SmackDown dark matches on January 9 and March 13, 2001, followed by additional tryouts in various dark and house matches.
Cena held the OVW Heavyweight Championship title for three months and OVW Southern Tag Team Championship (with Rico Constantino) title for two months prior to his official televised WWE debut.
Even though Jerry Lawler is “The King,” it’s safe to say that he and John Cena are both wrestling royalty at this point. Although there’s a 28-year difference in age between the two, their careers had a bit of an overlap, and thus it’s no surprise that they’ve faced each other. Interestingly, however, is the fact that out of the three times the duo squared off, two of them were in Ohio Valley Wrestling - prior to Cena’s official WWE debut, and during Lawler’s brief hiatus from the big time. The two OVW matches were both tag team events, including one gem that saw Lawler and Nova facing Sean O’Haire and Cena (as The Prototype) in 2002. The other was a battle royal on Raw back in 2010. Lawler won all three times, which was no great shock considering the fame differential between the two, especially during the first two bouts.
John Cena has since become one of the greatest wrestlers currently in the WWE (and is working his way up on the all-time rankings), but that’s not what Vince McMahon saw the first time he met Cena. In fact, the boss was absolutely disgusted the first time he was introduced to the future champ, which was just prior to Cena’s television debut against Kurt Angle on SmackDown. “"They literally dragged me by the arm to Vince's office, threw me in and asked him, ‘What do you think?'” Cena later recalled in an interview with WWE.com. “I had ridiculously ugly, long, super-dyed blond hair that was shaved bald on the sides. He turned around and with a disgusted look on his face, he said, ‘Cut his hair,' and I was whisked away from Vince like an assembly line. That was the first time I met Vince McMahon and he was disgusted to look at me. They shipped me out and I immediately got a haircut, which was not dyed blond, but equally as horrible."
The haircut story might seem a little hasty on the part of Vince McMahon, but it’s important to remember that the boss had no way of knowing he was meeting a future star at the time. While in baseball, football, basketball, and hockey the coaches are always aware of the biggest up-and-coming prospects in the game, wrestling isn’t quite as clear-cut, since their eventual success is determined mostly by how they’re received by the fans. In fact, Vince was probably more concerned that night with the fact that one of his big-name wrestlers dropped out at the last minute. Cena was selected to make his aforementioned television debut on SmackDown that night (June 27, 2002) in Chicago because Kurt Angle made an open challenge, and The Undertaker, who was supposed to accept it, had suddenly fallen ill with the flu. Cena was selected instead and gave Angle a hard fight, which eventually led to the latter’s victory via a pinning combination.