Turns out, sometimes you do get second chances.
During the year leading up to 2012’s “WrestleMania 28,” the World Wrestling Entertainment’s crowning event, the hype machine was on overdrive touting a “once in a lifetime” match that pitted two icons against each other: John Cena and the Rock.
In front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 79,000 in Sun Life Stadium, the Rock defeated Cena with the Rock Bottom, a move that ended the match and started what would be a tough year for Cena. He would later fail to beat another nemesis, the arrogant CM Punk. And Cena was facing as many boos as cheers.
But instead of really hitting rock bottom, as it would have been so easy to do, Cena took control. He made a very public resolution on New Year’s Eve, vowing that 2013 would be his year.
Cena’s road to redemption – and ultimately the road to “WrestleMania” – comes through Buffalo on Monday when the WWE’s “Monday Night Raw” live televised event is held in the First Niagara Center. The 10-time WWE champ says he made his vow to prove himself to his fans.
“I wanted everybody to know that it’s been an unfortunate year, an unfortunate set of circumstances starting with the loss at ‘WrestleMania’ to the Rock that put me on a little bit of a slide for the year,” Cena said on the phone, just hours before competing in a “Raw” live event.
“I have legions of folks who stay loyal to me every week. And every time I go out there and disappoint them, it’s tough to keep their loyalty. And at the end of 2012, I wanted to remind them that we’re still in business and business is about to be good.”
Cena’s business plan is straightforward: “Stop dwelling on that one big loss that happened at the last ‘WrestleMania’ and focus on the next ‘WrestleMania,’ ” he says.
The first step was a victory at the “Royal Rumble” in January, where Cena earned the chance for a “second” once-in-a-lifetime event: a rematch with the Rock at “WrestleMania 29” on April 7 in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (About 90,000 fans are expected for the event, which set a first-day record with more than 52,000 tickets sold.)
“That is pretty much the wild card team being able to go to the Super Bowl,” Cena says about his “Royal Rumble” victory. “A team not on the brink of being in the playoff hunt, maybe they get there and win. That was a really big thing for me to solidify a position to be at ‘WrestleMania.’ ”
This time, the match is about more than beating the Rock: It will be for the WWE championship. And Cena is going all out to get back on top. In a daring move, he used that coveted “WrestleMania” slot as the prize in a match against CM Punk earlier this week. If Cena lost, he sacrificed his shot at the belt. Cena won, cementing the “WrestleMania” bout with the Rock and continuing his road to redemption.
Area fans will see a precursor of “WrestleMania” on Monday. Though the matches aren’t announced in advance of these live TV events, we know some of the names include the Rock – making his first Buffalo appearance in 12 years – Randy Orton, Sheamus, the Miz, Kane and Alberto Del Rio. (The WWE is teasing it as “Old School,” which tempts the possibility of appearances by some old favorites.) And just the idea that Cena, the Rock and CM Punk will be in Buffalo together sets the scene for possible ramifications for “WrestleMania.”
“It will be one month to ‘WrestleMania,’ ” Cena says of the Buffalo date. “This is the final length on the road to the [WWE] Super Bowl. I will be there. The Rock will be there. CM Punk will be there. All of the regular favorites from ‘Monday Night Raw.’ These are the last televised events before the greatest event in our company’s history. These are the events that are always the most remembered, always the most impactful because they are the final footprint right into MetLife Stadium for ‘WrestleMania.’ ”
Cena is a cordial and well-spoken man, who liberally douses his conversation with football references. He was a Division III All-American center for Springfield (Mass.) College, where he was a teammate of the new Bills strength and conditioning coach Eric Ciano.
He may be universally known for his “U can’t c me” catchphrase – complete with a gesture copied around the world by kids and adults alike who wave their hands in front of their face as if they’ve magically disappeared – but there are other Cena trademarks equally well known that speak as much to the man as the entertainer.
When Cena enters an arena to his catchy hip-hop theme, he takes a moment to salute the troops. Once in the ring, he kisses the dog tags around his neck that are engraved with the names of his family and others who are important to him. “It’s a nod to them that they are always around even though I’m always traveling,” Cena says.
And the slogans plastered on the colorful Cenation merchandise – T-shirts, wristbands, hats – tout positive messages: “Rise Above Hate,” “Never Give Up,” “Hustle, Loyalty and Respect.”
“I’m not sending any false messages. There are fans that like me and fans that don’t,” Cena says about those slogans. “I’m one of those guys who is the most criticized, most scrutinized performers in our business and I continued to show up every day and do my thing. That’s where the ‘Rise Above Hate’ mantra came from. It’s a genuine, real place.
“In doing this 10 years, I’ve been through ups and downs, but I’ve always prided myself on always showing up and always being one of the hardest workers out there. That’s where ‘Never Give Up’ came from. And I wanted three words to describe my code of conduct, ‘hustle, loyalty and respect.’ ”
And those boos he’s been hearing with frequency despite his popularity?
“Usually when you get a negative response you chastise the audience for being negative or you change to their reaction,” Cena said. “I’ve often said I’m not gonna tell anyone how to think. I’m never gonna do that. I’m not gonna change who I am to change your opinion. What I try to do every time I go out there is represent the best I can for those who are cheering. That’s basically the people who I’m looking out for. If there comes a time when your boos change to cheers that’s 100 percent fine for me. But what I’m trying to do is stop those cheers from changing to boos.”
Cena’s positive values can be traced to his upbringing in West Newbury, Mass. “I certainly have to tip my cap to my parents. In raising five children, they had their hands full. They did a more than an excellent job and they gave us quite a value system,” he says.
It’s a value system that includes giving back. Cena was honored in October by the Make-A-Wish Foundation with its first “300th Wish Award,” celebrating 300 wishes Cena helped come true for sick children. (“If I’ve got the time, I’ll spend the time,” he says with modesty.)
Cena’s role models are athletes like Don Mattingly, Bo Jackson and Barry Sanders. “Guys who were above and beyond better than everyone else but never flaunted it,” Cena says. “They were better than everyone else and were just happy to be involved and play the game.”
And if that sounds like Cena, it’s by design.
“We have a program that is very entertaining to all ages, but we also have a lot of kids,” Cena says. “The WWE is just that – sports entertainment. You can mold your persona how you want. I remembered what I admired about those athletes and I try to be like that.”
Outside the ring, Cena has enjoyed success as a hip-hop artist and actor (“The Marine,” “Legendary”).
“Years ago, when I got my first taste of a personality with the WWE, it was as a hip-hop performer and I began to make my own music. I never would have gotten to do that if it wasn’t for the WWE. Right after that time ended, I had the opportunity to do movies, again through the WWE,” Cena says.
Because he credits those opportunities to the WWE, he has always been protective of the company. He bristles at anyone who thinks of it as a springboard to “bigger things” and chastises those who have turned their back on the company, including a highly publicized feud with the Rock who left to act.
“When I did get the opportunity to do music and movies, the first question was ‘When am I getting out of WWE to do movies or music?’ My answer was I could do both. If I had to make the choice tomorrow, it would be to stay in the WWE. I know virtually every facet of this company. It has a global reach and it’s a monster machine of entertainment. I truly don’t think there’s anything bigger or better on the face of the earth.
“I trained to do this. I trained to be a WWE superstar.” Cena says. “I’m where I belong.”