Most recently, the Cenation leader has taken his talents to Hollywood (although he hasn’t made the full leap like his predecessor, The Rock), appearing in movies like Trainwreck and Sisters, as well as the Fox series American Grit. He even hosted Saturday Night Live last month and will reportedly star in the 2018 comedy film The Pact.
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The 39-year-old Cena has enjoyed an incredibly successful career—much to the displeasure of a large portion of the WWE Universe—but something he doesn’t receive enough credit for is his influence on style and sneaker culture in the world of sports-entertainment. Cena was one of the first wrestlers to ditch traditional wrestling boots and compete in a pair of fresh sneakers. (Don't forget his Reebok Pumps.)
We recently caught up with the most polarizing figure the wrestling industry has ever seen to discuss his evolving ring style, how outfits help define WWE’s larger-than-life characters, and how one of the toughest guys in the world has a new partnership with some of the world's softest footwear: Crocs. Cena also dished on whether or not heels and faces still exist in the WWE, his desire to surpass Ric Flair in world championship title reigns, and what the future holds for him.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Why don’t we start with your partnership with Crocs. How did that come about? They’re launching a fantastic campaign called “Come As You Are,” and it’s centered around a person’s ability to deal with adversity and still remain true to oneself. I really don’t pat myself on the back too often, but man, I’ve made a living doing that. So I was really happy to be chosen to be a part of it. I think that the messaging of what they’re trying to say and what I do on a daily basis is exactly identical.
That’s great. And you’ve also got a sneaker line with K-Mart called Never Give Up. Tell me a little bit about that, and how that came to fruition. The Never Give Up sneaker line is youth only, and it’s part of the entire Never Give Up Line at K-Mart. We’ve been tremendously successful these last few years kind of stretching the brand out, and I truly believe it’s because of the positive message we’re sending. The mantra behind Never Give Up is: No matter what you’re going through, you basically just give it your best and do the best you can.
"JORDANS SEEMED TO BE THE GO-TO THING, BUT THE PUMPS ALSO HAD A PUMP IN THEM, AND I THOUGHT THAT WAS A REALLY COOL THING."
This gets me into wrestling and the WWE. You were really one of the first people to wear sneakers in the ring, or at least that I can remember. I recall you wearing those awesome Reebok Pumps back in the day. How did you decide on those? Was there a story behind them? There was. I was influenced by hip-hop culture growing up as a young man. And me being a Celtics fan, it was a real defining moment when Dee Brown used the pumps to pump himself up and do the blindfold dunk. So I really mixed hip-hop’s affinity for sneakers with my experience as a young man, and it was impressionable to me at the time. Jordans seemed to be the go-to thing, but the Pumps also had a Pump in them, and I thought that was a really cool thing. The Dee Brown Pump was a different design than the original. The original Pump sneaker was enormous, and the Dee Brown Pumps, I thought they did a really good job on the design. So I took a chance and wore them in the ring. You remember it, so at least we reached one person.
I notice more guys nowadays like Enzo Amore and Kofi Kingston have been wearing fresh sneakers in the ring. I know Enzo wears a lot of Jordans. Do you think your sneaker style and even just general style influenced any of the newer guys? That’s very nice of you to say. I honestly think it’s just an evolution of our industry. We’re so forward thinking in so many things. I guess I’m, I hate to use an industry term, but “out of the box” when I think about stuff like this. The traditional wrestling uniform I think is a bit outdated, and as all sports evolve, uniforms change. The NFL will embrace new helmet design, the NBA will embrace the uniform material. It changes all the time. WWE is on the forefront of that, but it’s also not. So I think it’s just us catching up from a development standpoint. We’re in an industry of definable characters, and I’m looking at four pictures of myself and one of them looks like everyone else. And then the other three are extremely definable. So that’s always been kind of my philosophy. I think you don’t necessarily have to go by the costume as long as there’s a costume.
That’s really interesting. Speaking of those photos, I would like to talk about each of them for a little while, if you don’t mind. Maybe you can just tell me a bit about each outfit.
The first one is from my debut in Chicago, and this goes to show… I got to be on television, but it was very unsuccessful and you can see why. I’m wearing spandex and taped wrists and calf-high leather boots. I looked like everyone else. So without the ability to speak, you fall in a category with anyone else. Nothing I really did could have defined me differently.
You look at the next two photos that are very urban-centered, hip-hop-centered. That was when I began to establish identity with the WWE Universe. If you look at the first photo compared to the next two, the difference in the first impression that you get if you don’t know who I am—if there was not a name, and you just dropped those two pictures in front of someone—they would have much more to say about the second picture and be able to identify and relate to the second picture. And that’s certainly what happened with our audience.
Then the final picture is kind of an evolution of what happens once you establish identity. A lot of times in our industry, people will form an identity with the audience, but fail to evolve as characters. And it’s amazing that one of the biggest critical knocks against me is inability to evolve. But when you look at all these pictures spread out, the evolution has been slow and steady and deliberate. Now, I’m at a point where before I was just a wrestler in boots and tights, and then I was the white rapping kid. And now, literally, I can stand out in the WWE ring and be John Cena, and that’s a very, very small group of folks who can be someone who is very closely related to their actual selves.
Right. The image where you’re wearing the Brian Urlacher jersey, I believe that was during a street fight you had with Eddie Guerrero.It was. Yes.
That’s one of the first WWE matches I ever watched, and I remember thinking it was so cool. And that really helped draw me in.Thanks, man. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Once again, I think the match itself, if I asked you for specific details, you may be able to give me a few. But we’re in the business of introducing and defining characters, and if I asked you who Eddie Guerrero was, you could give me a great explanation. If I asked you then, who the hip-hop John Cena character was, you could give me a great explanation. I think that’s what’s memorable about the moments we have. So many people who watch our product get caught up in movement. I am much more in the school of character building and storytelling. Every one of our performers is extremely athletically gifted, but the ones who stand out from the ones who don’t find a way to connect with the audience on an emotional level.
And outfits seem to be a big part, or at least a significant part.The thing about outfit is that it’s something that can immediately define who you are. It’s a very good vehicle to immediately define who you are, and I think as a whole, we can probably do better in choosing the way that some of the guys look.
You’ve accomplished pretty much everything in WWE, it feels like. You’ve been the WWE Champion, the World Heavyweight Champ, Tag Champ, U.S. Champ, headlined Wrestlemania multiple times. You’re a Royal Rumble and Money in the Bank winner. What else do you want to accomplish in WWE?You know man, I’ve always looked at things a little different. All those accolades are great because they provide you with an outlet to just know that your performance is making a difference. I’m not gonna say that championships are irrelevant. I’ll stick to my guns having won 15 championships. It sure as hell is in my eyesight to try to win 16 just because that puts you in a pretty elite conversation with one other guy
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How about this though: Let’s say to make it the biggest WrestleMania ever, you have you vs. The Undertaker. I feel like wrestling The Undertaker at WrestleMania is almost equivalent to a championship match or something even greater. How do you feel about that prospect? Is that something you ever think about?I can’t think about it because it’s out of my hands. The only thing that I can do is do the best I can, and hope that my performance resonates. That’s the best I can do. And you’ll hear a lot of disdain and complaints within our industry about people speculating on certain things and it not happening. I don’t waste my time with it because it’s quite frankly out of my hands.
You’ve been in Parks and Rec, Trainwreck, Daddy’s Home, Sisters, American Grit, Total Divas, Total Bellas. I saw you were a voice in an Avengers video game. And this has all come in the last two or three years, during a lot of which you’ve worked a pretty full schedule in the WWE. So I’m curious, what are you gonna do with all that time once you’re not wrestling full time or not wrestling anymore? Maybe be an NXT trainer or a GM? Or are there things in the entertainment world that you also still want to accomplish?I’m very fortunate, and I know everyday exactly how lucky I am to be on this journey. I’ve reached a point where it’s just such a fortunate situation to be able to align myself with stuff I want to be involved in. A great example is this campaign. I’m literally new to the Crocs product, but the messaging is something that resonated with me so strongly that I was all in. I said: “I want to be part of this, I think the Come As You Are campaign is something that needs to happen. I think I’m the perfect person to tell this message. Let’s go. Let’s do this.” Just opportunities like that. There’s a lot more stuff that comes across my plate that I pass on because it’s just not the right fit. So what will I do after it’s all done? I’ll build that bridge when I get to the water, man. Right now, I’m firing on all cylinders. You had mentioned all the extracurricular activities, but if you ask folks that do watch the program—especially like yourself—and have watched for so long, I think 2014, 2015, and 2016 have been some of my best years. Certainly, the new talent has been a plus on that side, but with new talent comes new competition, and it’s one of those step up or step aside types of things, so I love that type of environment. And it’s really raised my game I think for the better. At 39, I’m not sure when the end is, but I can tell you it ain’t tomorrow. So I’m still in my friend.