John Cena might have found his fame through wrestling, but at heart, he’s a Renaissance man. As a 16-time WWE world champion, who channels as much energy from ringside cheers as boos, he’s established himself as much outside of the arena.
On the silver screen, he’s taken on leading roles in comedies—like 2010’s Fred: The Movie, 2015’s Trainwreck and 2018’s Blockers—and action films including 2018’s Bumblebee and 2021’s Fast & Furious 9 (also known as F9) and DC Comics’ The Suicide Squad. Meanwhile, on the small screen, he’s charmed as much hosting Saturday Night Live as he has playing himself on Hannah Montana and Parks and Recreation—and even hosting American Grit, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and Wipeout.
Add to that surprising—and successful!—turns as a children’s book author and chart-topping rapper, and it’s a patchwork of projects that only Cena could master so well. It’s no wonder he’s so obsessed with his own career and everything it’s spawned. “I play fight with people for a living—that shouldn’t be a job, so I really enjoy it and I love what I do,” he told Ellen DeGeneres. “I just know it’s going to end at some point, so I kind of want to enjoy it all.”
Here are 10 surprising facts about the multi-talented performer:
He started weightlifting to combat bullies
Cena has made a career out of his strong physique, but it actually started as self-defense since he was “really skinny and scrawny, like 100 pounds” and teased for his “choices of dress and music that I listened to,” he said on The Tonight Show. So he decided to take action. “I was getting beat up and picked on in school. So instead of learning karate, I figured I’d just get bigger,” he told Men’s Journal. When he was 12, he asked for a weightlifting bench for Christmas.
He kept at it and eventually ventured out of his home gym. “By the time I was 15 and I stepped in the high school gym, I was just stronger than everybody,” he said. “Keep in mind, I wasn’t in, like, the big city. I was in West Newbury [Massachusetts], and to be the strongest person in West Newbury, that’s a very, very average accolade.” That said, he was named “Best Body” in his senior yearbook.
He played college football
During his time at Massachusetts’ Springfield College, Cena was a football star on the offensive line. In 1998, as the team’s captain, he led the Division III school to its first NCAA postseason game. He was also named Hewlett-Packard Division III First-Team All-America and Eastern College Athletic Conference New England/Northeast Division III All-Star.
Although he told Men’s Journal that he was “way too small” to consider a football career, Cena related to his character in the audio series 64th Man about a college player with NFL dreams. “The project really resonated with me because I played college football and didn’t know what I was going to do after my career ended,” Cena told AP. “When I read the script, I wanted to do it right away.”
He lived out of the back of his Lincoln Continental
After college, Cena moved out to California with his eyes set on a bodybuilding career. With only $500, his dad warned him that he wouldn’t make it more than two weeks. But he quickly hustled, moving fitness equipment for one company and then working in the store of the Venice Beach’s Gold’s Gym for $6 an hour. “If you wanted to know about nutrition, protein or apparel, I was your guy,” he said.
He did everything he could to make ends meet. “In the beginning, I was living out of the back of my Lincoln Continental,” Cena told ESPN. “I was struggling, but I wasn’t ever sad. I was in the place where fitness had become famous, and I actually loved what I did.” Soon thereafter, he got his start wrestling at a flea market.
He loves his rivalry with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
In an industry all about pitting players against one another, Cena’s favorite rival is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “He tends to bring out the best in everyone,” Cena told Men’s Journal. “That’s why I admire him so much. Whether I personally like him or not is irrelevant. He brings out the best in everyone.”
The two most famously faced off a WrestleMania XXVII in 2012, when The Rock beat Cena, but the following year, the two had a rematch when Cena—also called the Cenation—emerged victorious.
He eats Tic Tacs to calm his nerves
Cena has had some tried and true superstitions before his matches, including literally knocking on wood, as well as shaking his opponent’s hand and saying, “Good luck. Be safe. Have fun.” But the sweetest tradition is a bit of a surprise: “I always eat Tic Tacs before the match, starting about three hours [before the match]. I consume probably five boxes of Tic Tacs on a daily basis before a performance.”
He scaled back on the volume when he told the story on The Kelly Clarkson Show saying that “I was up to like three boxes a day, and it’s right in the 20 minutes before broadcast,” adding that he’s weaned himself off them. “It’s a nervous superstition that I always have before we go on a broadcast,” he told Clarkson. But there’s the added benefit of the freshness factor. “The ring is 20 by 20 feet, and you’re with a group of guys, so you always want to try to smell your best.”
He’s authored several children’s books
When Cena set out to create a book series for kids, he was committed to the message, “It's okay to be different. And it’s okay to be you.” So he created the character of a monster truck named Elbow Grease who isn’t the best in any competition, but remains true to himself and always finishes what he sets out to do. “Elbow Grease’s strength is gumption and the ability to just focus and work hard on the task ahead,” he said.
After all, that was key to his own upbringing, growing up with four brothers. “These concepts have been transformative in my life, from my childhood up to now, and it’s so important to me to pass the positivity on and help our youngest generation see that right mindset is key to achievement,” he said in a press release. The New York Times best-selling author also wrote Be a Work in Progress and Do Your Best Every Day to Do Your Best, both out in April 2021.
He released a hit rap album
After releasing the song “Basic Thuganomics” on a 2004 WWE Originals album, Cena teamed up with his cousin Marc Predka, known as Tha Trademarc, for a rap album You Can’t See Me—which debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the Billboard U.S. rap albums chart in 2005, eventually going gold.
“Making music is something I love doing,” he told WWE.com at the time. “Don’t get me wrong, I love this business like nobody else, and this is my thing I live, eat, sleep, and breathe this—but whenever I have some time away from the ring, you'll find me in the studio.”
He’s granted more Make-a-Wish dreams than any other star
The multi-hyphenated superstar has made giving back a part of his reputation, especially by fulfilling the dreams of critically ill children between the ages of 2 ½ and 18 through the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation. To date, he’s logged in at least 650 wishes—the most of any celebrity—according to Sports Illustrated. It’s a good thing he’s so dedicated since he’s also the foundation’s most requested celebrity.
The work truly puts things in perspective for Cena. “I think about when I just get a basic sickness and how grumpy, tired and fatigued I am,” he told the Today show. “Now, you are looking at a young person… every day is a challenge that I have no idea how they face.” So he’s more than willing to do his part, adding, “When you give them happiness, they get an escape. You don’t know the power of hope. Hope can equate to time and that’s absolutely priceless.”
He was nervous for his first on-screen kiss
In his acting debut, Cena had the comfort of the WWE being behind the production of 2006’s The Marine—allowing him the unprecedented opportunity to be truly involved. “You never get a second chance to do your first movie,” he told MTV. “I really wanted to be as active as I could in the movie.”
He did just that, doing all his own stunts. But there was one stunt he wasn’t exactly prepared for. “Believe it or not, the thing I had the most trouble with is making out with Kelly Carlson,” he said of the Nip/Tuck actress playing his wife. “I was as nervous as a kid going to junior prom... I’m meeting this girl for the first time, and the next day we walk into work, and I’m making out with her.”
He speaks Mandarin
Ever the advocate for WWE, Cena poured his all into expanding wrestling’s reach into the Asian market by learning Mandarin—and has now impressed fans around the world with his ability to speak at press conferences in the difficult dialect. He told The Straits Times that he had become “fascinated with the language and has become obsessed with trying to learn it,” even studying with a tutor.
The dedicated student keeps his skills up with “a Ziploc bag with two huge stacks of flashcards,” as well as listening to podcasts. “I just try to immerse myself in the culture as much as I can,” he has said. Back in 2017, he called his skill level “remedial” and told the publication, “I’ve been studying Mandarin for five years, and I still speak like a third-grader.”