By Mike Mooneyham

April 2, 2006

You don’t have to remind John Cena that tonight is the biggest night of his professional career.

He’s in the main event of pro wrestling’s biggest show of the year. It’s a spot reserved for only the elite in the business, one which all performers aspire to but only an elite few achieve.

If you had told the 28-year-old Cena five years ago that he’d be headlining Wrestlemania, he most likely would have laughed. But that doesn’t mean he would have ever stopped trying to reach that elusive goal.

“I didn’t think I would have been doing much of anything four or five years ago,” says Cena, taking in all the excitement surrounding wrestling’s showcase event. “Five years ago I was just happy to find a school that I could train to be a professional wrestler.”

John Cena

John Cena

It’s not like Cena is a greenhorn wet behind the ears. He won the Smackdown version of the world title at last year’s Wrestlemania from John Bradshaw Layfield. The match, however, was somewhat of a disappointment and took a back seat to the other world title bout on the show featuring Triple H and Batista.

This time Cena’s the champ and Triple H is chasing the crown. It’s the Raw version of the title and the company’s flagship brand. There’s a lot of pressure on Cena to deliver the goods.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last year, it’s a lot easier to chase a championship than it is to have a championship,” says Cena. “When you have a championship, you have to worry about so many things. There’s so much pressure on you and there’s so much on your mind, that it’s very time-consuming and it truly is a 24/7 job. When you’re chasing that championship, you focus on one thing. And that’s that one championship match.

“Being the champion and knowing the statistics of past Wrestlemanias that not many champions walk in with the title and walk out with the title, knowing that this is my first time really at the top of the card, this is the match that all of those fans on the fence will put their stamp on. This is a very important one for me, and I knew right when the match was made how important it was. From my standpoint, I feel I’ve done everything I can to be in the best shape of my life and I’m ready to put on the best match I can.”

As for the mixed reaction of the crowd, Cena says not only is he unfazed by the response, but he feeds off the raw emotion.

“I think it’s now to the point where I’m at that upper echelon of the other WWE superstars. Trust me it’s a blessing. Kurt Angle has been around for a long time, and he’s got his fan base. Triple H has been around for a long time, and he’s got his fan base. So it’s not necessarily the fact that I’m something they don’t want to see, it’s just that they support their particular superstar.”

“Anytime you can get a mixed reaction like that that you don’t expect,” he adds, “it’s real. It allows me to have fun. I like it being off the cuff. I don’t really have a style or a strategy. I just react to what happens. It’s fantastic.”

While Cena has remained popular among the majority of children and female fans, the young male demographic – the company’s biggest constituency – has turned on him in recent months.

“It truly is different every night,” says Cena. “It’s not just me who doesn’t know what’s going to happen. It’s everybody. And that’s what makes it great. The fact that you’ve got two big-name superstars fighting for the biggest prize in sports entertainment on the biggest day in sports entertainment is energy enough. If I get to Chicago and they want to parade me on the front page, then fine. If I get there and they want to run me out of town and burn me at the stake like a witch, that’s also fine. Either way it’s going to be an exciting event and an exciting match. That’s all I care about.”

Cena remains one of the leaders in WWE merchandise sales, and he believes the reason it does so well is because he truly believes in his character.

“I create all my own merchandise, and I try to get across the concept of what I am going through at that point and time. My latest T-shirt says ‘Hustle, Loyalty, Respect.’ That’s telling those people who hate me that I don’t care if you buy the shirt, because the people who buy it and are going to wear it with pride are the people who knew me as Prototype and knew me from way back when. As long as you have something that you can hold on to, people will attach themselves to that.”

Cena was a bodybuilder and a 1999 Associated Press All-American offensive lineman at Division III Springfield College in Massachusetts before turning to wrestling. He began his mat career working as The Prototype for the Ultimate Pro Wrestling promotion in California. WWE signed the rookie to a developmental contract in 2001 and assigned him to its Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory. He was called up to the Smackdown roster a year later.

“I was brought up very old-school with tough love and everything like that,” says Cena. “I was taught at a very early age that you are given absolutely nothing in this lifetime, and you have to work for everything you have. That’s just what I do. Are my ways of doing that as orthodox as any other wrestler? No. I am myself, and I’m not afraid to be myself. But at the same time, you cannot work me. I’ll be the guy who goes on the road for 60, 120 days in a row from Manila to Italy to the Philippines to wherever I have to and do whatever I have to do to let people know about our product. Even if you don’t like me, I’m trying to let you know that we have the best show on the planet.”

His character already has transcended the wrestling business. Despite his mixed response, WWE has put its lucrative merchandising arm solidly behind Cena, positioning him as the future of the company and putting him in the lead role of a film produced by its movie division.

WWE Films and 20th Century Fox will release “The Marine,” a feature film starring Cena, on Sept. 29. The movie, in which Cena plays an ex-Marine trying to put his life back together, is scheduled to be shown on more than 2,000 screens and will be accompanied by a WWE soundtrack through a label partner yet to be determined.

“The project went very well,” says Cena. “It was my first time in front of a camera, and making a movie is a lot different than doing live Monday night TV. There’s only one take on Monday night. In a movie they make sure everything is right and it’s very well thought out. It’s just a different type of atmosphere. It was a challenge, and I welcomed it with open arms. I think the movie is going to be very exciting and very entertaining, and that people are going to get their money’s worth. I think it’s a step forward for not only me, but for WWE as a whole, because it is a WWE Films production.”

Cena says there’s more in the works. And, unlike former WWE superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, he wants to stick with wrestling no matter how much success he achieves on the silver screen.

“We’re just being picky about choosing projects. I don’t want to use wrestling to go to movies. That’s just not my agenda. I would really like to stay in the ring. I just feel that’s where I belong, so I’m trying to pick opportunities as they come up that will cater to me making every Monday night.”

Last spring, Cena scored a hit with his hip-hop debut, “You Can’t See Me,” for which he wrote all 17 tracks. The WWE/Columbia album debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200, No. 10 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 3 on Top Rap Albums. It has sold 292,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

It also solidly reinforced his hip-hop gimmick, although Cena maintains he has been deliberately trying to downplay that side of his ring character over the past several months.

“I specifically wanted to stop rapping every week on TV. I wanted to stop wearing the jersey every week and start wearing my own merchandise. The only real hip-hop, real urban feel that I have about my swagger is the fact that I wear Reebok sneakers and baggy jean shorts. The rest of what you see is John Cena. I’m a ballcap, T-shirt-wearing type of dude who tells it like it is. I’ve had my (butt) kicked before, but I’ve never said no to a fight. Through the long way, and that’s just the way WWE works, I had to really go heavy hip hop and heavy urban. Don’t get me wrong. I love hip-hop music. But it’s not 100 percent of my focus. I love sports entertainment just as much as hip hop. But first and foremost, I want to be remembered as a professional wrestler, not a rapper.”

Cena says the entire locker room has been supportive and lists, in no particular order, his most influential mentors as being Jim Cornette, Danny Davis, Vince McMahon, Arn Anderson and Dusty Rhodes. Cena says Rhodes, who joined WWE as a creative consultant, last September, has been especially helpful.

“When the crowd got kind of shaky, Dusty told me to just be myself out there. Dusty is one of those guys that I like. My dad was a huge Dusty fan because Dusty was just a regular dude with a truckload of energy. I fell into that, and I have a lot of respect for what he says. I know he’s been down a similar road, so I appreciate what he has to offer.”

Cena’s backstage demeanor, clean-cut look and charismatic personality have placed him in high regard among the locker-room crowd. That wasn’t exactly the case a year and a half ago when veterans were still trying to figure out if the youngster had passion for the business.

“I’m really kind of coming into my own. It’s one of those deals where it takes a long time for people in this business to get this business. I still have so much to learn, and I feel I’m just beginning to come into my own of what I describe as my style. But you always have to keep making moves toward becoming better.

“In the beginning I know people were trying to feel me out to see if I really did love this business. I’ve gotten advice from everybody. They all had valuable information to give. But nothing in life comes free. You’ve got to work for it. Everybody here knows that I am here for this business, and I’m here to try to let everybody who doesn’t know about this business that we’ve got the best show in town. I love going to work every day. For me, it’s something that I’d never change.”

Cena says he sees an abundance of young, hungry talent on the WWE roster, but thinks Carlito Colon is the most underutilized and has the strongest upside.

“Carlito is somebody I’m banking on as the future of this business. He just fits in very well. I look for Calito to do very big things if you’re asking the crystal ball of John Cena.”

Where does Cena see himself in 10 years?

“Hopefully in 10 years I would see myself at Wrestlemania 32. I really can’t say enough. It sounds clichéd, but I love this business. I’m not going anywhere. I cross my fingers and pray every day that I can have even a fraction of the career a guy like Ric Flair’s had.”

For now, though, the only thing on Cena’s mind is his match tonight on the grandest stage of them all.

“I know exactly what’s at stake. I know how big it is. I’m not going to take that for granted. I’m going to go out and try to blow the doors off.”

– George’s Sports Bar, 1300 Savannah Hwy., will air the Wrestlemania PPV tonight at 7 p.m. Cover charge is $10. Only valid ticket-holders will be allowed after 6:30 p.m.