NEW YORK, NY – Surrounded by the habitual chaos of Times Square, John Cena sat down in an usher’s chair at the Palace Theater only a few yards from the stage where he hosted last night’s Nickelodeon Upfront 2018 event.
Despite a schedule spinning with reckless abandon, hours removed from Raw and a main event to prepare for this Sunday at Fastlane, Cena soaked up his time on Nickelodeon’s orange carpet. He is set to host Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards this month on March 24 for a second consecutive year.
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In a one-on-one with Sports Illustrated, Cena touched on a myriad of topics, including his relationship with Nickelodeon, potential opponents for WrestleMania 34, and whether there is any merit to the rumor that New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski will soon be suiting up for the WWE.
“If Gronkowski wants to come on board, I think he’d be a perfect fit,” said Cena. “He does not lack in the energy department, so I think he’d be just fine.”
The Patriots are Cena’s favorite football team, so he conceded that he would not be devastated if Gronkowski decides to remain on the gridiron.
“I’m a fan of the Patriots, so I hope he keeps catching footballs,” said Cena. “He’s really good at that. Hopefully Gronkowski can have a career as long as Tom Brady.”
Nickelodeon, surprisingly, is the key cog behind Cena’s long-awaited heel turn. But it will not be in a WWE ring, instead for the new CG-animated series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as villain Baron Draxum.
“It finally happened, Nickelodeon offered me my first heel turn,” said Cena. “I have a four-year-old niece who loves the Ninja Turtles more than anything. She does not know or care about what I do, but she will love the fact that I am Baron Draxum.
“When Nickelodeon came to me and said, ‘We have this thing we think you’d be awesome for,’ I had to use my poker face and say I’d think about it before I said yes. I mean, I was around when the turtles hatched, playing the 8-bit game.”
Cena is also executive-producing a new game show, Keep It Spotless, for Nick.
“We really need to form a better relationship,” said Cena, referring to WWE and Nickelodeon. “The two brands do the same thing and reach the same people. We have the same ethos: we just want to make people happy. Nickelodeon does that with young people better than anybody.”
As for WrestleMania 34 and the report that Rey Mysterio is his preferred choice for an opponent after The Undertaker was ruled out of the event, Cena briefly discussed the idea of wrestling the originator of the 6-1-9.
“Rey Mysterio is great,” said Cena. “I’ll say that, and that’s what I can say about Rey.”
Cena promised that he will wrestle whomever McMahon decides at WrestleMania, whether that is The Undertaker, Mysterio, or anyone else on the roster.
“I have never asked for a WrestleMania opponent,” said Cena. “If you look at what I’ve done in my WrestleMania entirety, from coming out at Safeco Field in a sweat suit rapping to two cardboard cutouts, to working with established superstars to working with rookies, to being fortunate enough to use the platform to ask a beautiful young lady to marry me.
“A lot of our performers get frustrated and ask, ‘What can you do for me?’ I just ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ They tell me, and I do it to the best of my ability. Even if it’s no one.”
An integral part of Cena’s success directly correlates to his passion. Vince McMahon has had a handful of other larger-than-life characters as the face of the company, but no one has ever represented WWE with such dedication or devotion as Cena.
Cena is passionate about a new angle that developed after he was pinned by Braun Strowman in February’s Elimination Chamber match. With no clear route to WrestleMania, per the storyline, Cena is begrudgingly admitting that he may not have a place on at this year’s show in New Orleans.
“What a great story it would be for me to miss and have to buy a ticket,” said Cena. “The year doesn’t stop at WrestleMania, we do Raw the next night. Now imagine if this stalwart, this statue of the WWE now has to look inside himself and ask, ‘Do I still have it?’ after being left out of the biggest show of the year.”
This reporter gently reminded Cena that McMahon would likely prefer a more active role for Cena at the upcoming WrestleMania.
“Don’t put this past Vince,” cautioned Cena. “Vince is extremely smart, and the reason he is so successful is his ability to see beyond what is immediately in front of him. A two-year or a three-year play would be smart.”
Although the mere idea of Cena not appearing seems outlandish, the story arc of missing this year’s ‘Mania is a story that could be told on WWE programming in a realistic, authentic manner.
“I’ve got a ton of outside stuff going on,” reminded Cena. “And I am proudly waving the banner of the WWE. Everybody always asks, on movie sets and even at the Kids’ Choice Awards, ‘When are you leaving?’ I’m not. As long as my body holds up, I am WWE-proud all the time. With my schedule, it does mean I have to take breaks, because they don’t allow you to do both.
“I’m fortunate enough to be in this spot right now, but it’s not like, ‘Thanks, WWE, for what you’ve done for me but deuces, I’m out and I’m never speaking to you again.’ All things considered, with everything coming out, I wouldn’t mind my contribution to WrestleMania this year being an absence. If that’s my role in the story, I’ll play it.”
The 40-year-old, who grew up in a testosterone-filled house with three brothers in West Newbury, Massachusetts, dreamed of a career in pro football, and later bodybuilding, before realizing that he could be wear a modern-day Superman cape.
Connecting to children across the world is a responsibility Cena does not take lightly.
“I enjoy thinking like a young person,” said Cena. “I’m a kid. I’m a big kid. The psychology is so pure, and you don’t have to take yourself so seriously.”
Philosophically, some fans still ask, who is John Cena? Is he a movie star that works house shows? Someone on the precipice of even greater stardom? Or a WWE superstar?
The answer, as it turns out, is all of the above.
“Who I am and who I’m becoming hopefully stays the same, and that’s a dude who enjoys life,” said Cena. “I am blessed to cash in on a lotto ticket to be where I’m at, and I have great perspective of that.
“I enjoy life every single day, I’m still having fun, and I’m grateful for anybody that pays attention.”
Relating to a favorite athletes and celebrities can often be problematic, as working women and men do not always share much in common with multi-millionaires. Yet Cena knows how it feels to be disliked, which he has, remarkably, transformed into a positive. Nearly everyone in the world has detractors, and part of Cena’s message is to stay rooted and remain true to yourself.
“You’ll see me out there every once in a while poke the bear and have fun with those people in the crowd who hate my character,” explained Cena. “They know who I am and what I represent, and they don’t like it. And that’s OK. It would be ignorant for me not to acknowledge that.
“You want to talk about using your platform to send a great message? Hey kids out there, not everyone is going to like you. As a matter of fact, through this crazy journey we call life, more people aren’t going to like you than are going to like you. And, by the way, that’s OK.
“But never, ever sacrifice being yourself. If you become a carbon copy of what the people who don’t like you want you to be, they’ll just find another reason not to like you. Then you’re not yourself. That’s a life lesson I wish I learned a long time ago.”
Before the end of the interview, the discussion, naturally, returned to wrestling.
Cena’s obligations with Nickelodeon prevented him from appearing on last night’s SmackDown, but the 16-time WWE world champion is the master of his domain. He made a guest appearance at Monday’s Raw to highlight the upcoming six-pack challenge WWE title match at this Sunday’s Fastlane pay per view, where he has the chance to surpass Ric Flair and win the world title for a record 17th time.
“Fastlane will be a special day if all goes well,” said Cena. “I know I’m not supposed to speak about this, but going from two names to one name would be a pretty cool piece of conversation. I have all the respect in the world for Ric. We have a great rapport with each other, he was the first one to congratulate me when I won against AJ at the Rumble. It’s looming, but this is the time where it may indeed happen.”
As Cena was hurried off to his dressing room for more pre-show responsibilities, he reminded those within ear shot why he loves his line of work.
“The honesty of a young person’s reactions and their unbiased emotions is magical,” said Cena. “People have asked me, ‘What stars are you excited to see at the Kids’ Choice Awards?’ I’m excited to see the kids.
“This is awesome. I get to be put in a setting where they’re always happy. It’s the best and literally fuels me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.