The Transformation Of John Cena From Childhood To 45 Years Old

Many wrestlers have tried and failed to follow the trail blazed by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. And from his days as a WWE Superstar to becoming a global smash-hit box office draw, most people would agree that John Cena has come the closest. The record-breaking wrestling champ has successfully diversified his stardom since his early days in the WWE ring. He's capably built himself a Hollywood empire that has included action flicks like "F9" and "Bumblebee," R-rated comedies like "Blockers" and "Trainwreck," family-friendly films like "Playing with Fire," and TV hosting gigs on multiple game shows. He even released a rap album early in his career. Not only did it chart at #15 on the Billboard 200, it's also a gold record, according to SBNation. Very few wrestlers can say that!

While he was a guest on "The Drew Barrymore Show," Cena turned contemplative when asked about what's next. "I really enjoy my life," he said. "I have been riding a lightning bolt for quite some time now. I have been given opportunities to do and see things that man, I didn't even dream of ... and I had some pretty lofty dreams." Here's a look back at the lightning bolt Cena has ridden for the past two decades, a transformation that took him from bullied kid to superhero, from college football star to WWE legend, from childhood to 45 years old.

He was bullied as a child

John Cena was born in West Newbury, Massachusetts in 1977. Though he is now world-famous as a wrestler, the future WWE Superstar found himself picked on a lot as a kid. He later told People, "My passion for strength was out of self-defense. I used to get picked on a lot because I was different in the way I dressed and expressed myself." He had an idea for how to defend himself. "I got tired of getting beaten up and I asked my dad for a weight set and he got me one at 13," he recalled. "I started working out and I haven't stopped since." 

It helped that he comes from an athletic family. While his grandfather, Tony Lupien, played professional baseball, his father loved wrestling. Cena waxed poetic about growing up in a household where wrestling was celebrated and encouraged on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Describing how he was introduced to WWE by his dad, he explained that he was allowed to roughhouse with his brothers thanks to his dad's interests. He recalled, "My dad was never a sports guy, but he was a pro wrestling guy, and we were allowed to beat the heck out of each other if wrestling was on." Those early experiences were formative, and they would shape the man Cena would soon become. 

Cena was a college football star

John Cena attended Springfield College, where he played football. According to the college's website, the budding superstar was a tri-captain on a team that went all the way to the NCAA Division III Tournament. However, during an appearance on the YES Network, Cena played coy about his collegiate sporting achievements. "That's just a testament to my team," he said. "We had a great group of guys. We accomplished a lot of great stuff, and I still keep in touch with them today." Despite any hopes and dreams he might have had about playing football professionally he says he recognized that he wasn't cut out for the NFL. "I'm six feet, I'm 250lbs ... It's just not NFL DNA," he admitted. "Those guys run at a whole 'nother level."

In 2015, Cena was inducted into his college's Athletic Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech, he recalled an inspiring pep talk from his coach, Mike DeLong. When he was thinking about leaving school, his coach told him, "Nothing in life worth working for is given away for free, and this will be hard. It'll be hard work, and the days will be long and grueling, but at the very end the achievement and satisfaction of accomplishing my goals will be very worthwhile." Cena added that his coach's wise words allowed him to excel in the WWE.

He trained with Ultimate University

John Cena would eventually work his way up from amateur to pro wrestling and on to the WWE, but he had to start somewhere. The part-time bodybuilder enrolled in Ultimate University, a wrestling training school. Evidently, he was so good that he appeared in a training video put out by the academy, helping to demonstrate moves for aspiring wrestlers at home.

A young Cena also appeared in a Discovery Channel documentary about the wrestling school. Sporting a flat-top haircut, Cena told the cameras that he was too small for football and decided to check out Ultimate University because of his love of wrestling. It wasn't long before he'd impressed Rick Bassman, the school's executive director. "John Cena is a star in the making," he said. "In every way, shape, and form. And I know that talking like this puts a lot of pressure on him, but to me he's the kind of guy who thrives on pressure."

Cena also revealed his early workout inspiration, recalling, "You buy a couple muscle magazines and see these guys that look, like, superhuman. I have those pictures of guys on my wall ..." He remembered looking at those photos of muscled bodybuilders when he went to bed and woke up, adding, "I pretty much got that vision in my head and by the time I was a late teenager, I decided I want to try to do my best to see what I can do to look like them." 

He went by The Prototype

After finishing his time at Ultimate University, John Cena joined the rotation at Ohio Valley Wrestling, performing under the nickname "The Prototype." According to WWE, the nickname came about because his tag-team partner, Rico, considered him "The Perfect Man." In a video introducing the character at the end of a Discovery Channel documentary about Ultimate University, Cena quipped, "I am 50% man, 50% machine. You are 100% fatality."

In a WWE video from his trash-talkin' time on OVW, Cena mockingly suggested his nickname delivered a definitive statement to his and Rico's opponents: "We're bigger than you, we're better than you, and we deserve to be the tag team champions,"  Then, Cena unveiled his gimmick — acting as though he was rewinding the statement before repeating himself. All the while, his tag team partner mugged for the camera next to him. Manager Kenny Bolin praised Cena's witty performance style, recalling, "He just had an unbelievable talent at speaking. It was nothing like I'd ever seen before."

The rapping wrestler

When he first started wrestling as part of the main WWE lineup, John Cena dropped the Prototype gimmick for a nice-guy routine. He told Buzzfeed, "I debuted as John Cena. The most stale, un-entertaining character you can imagine." After floundering with the character for almost two years, he found his niche and his character started rapping. 

He explained the origin of that persona to GQ, recalling that it started when some of his peers were freestyle-rapping on an overseas tour bus. "I usually never joined that peer group but decided to join in," he remembered. "Everybody was impressed, including some decision-makers at the front of the bus." That included Stephanie McMahon, daughter of WWE CEO Vince, who overheard Cena's rapping and suggested he incorporate it into his on-screen persona. The rest was wrestling history.

He recorded a number of songs as the rapping character, including a 17-track album called "You Can't See Me," which helped launch his iconic catchphrase. In an episode of the Buzzfeed series "I Accidentally Became a Meme," Cena recalled that his brother was mimicking G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo, putting his hand in front of his face while he listened to Cena's music. Thus, the wrestler decided to adopt the move. "You Can't See Me is kind of a way to talk smack in hip-hop culture, like, you're not on my level," he explained. To this day, fans online continue to pretend they literally can't see him.

His spinner belt was iconic

With his invisible hip-hop persona finally cemented, John Cena quickly became one of WWE's most prominent stars. In 2005, at WrestleMania 21, the rapping grappler won the WWE title. He would go on to defend it a record 13 times. Overall, he also holds 16 World Championship titles, tied with wrestling legend Ric Flair for the most ever. However, sources told Sportskeeda that Cena isn't interested in going for a 17th, explaining, "There's so much respect. They look at each other and see the generational talent, right? Sometimes records or streaks should be broken. Ric's all for it. John isn't. He doesn't want it."

One of his biggest innovations early in his career was his infamous spinner belt — a gem encrusted Championship title belt featuring a spinning logo in the center. As he told IGN, he was honored to have had it custom-made just for him. Particularly so because, as noted by the outlet, bespoke title belts were once made for legends like The Ultimate Warrior and Stone Cold Steve Austin. In an episode of WWE Untold (via Comic Book), Cena admitted to helping with the design. "I was much more involved and meticulous about the design ... the shape of the spinner, the size of the diamonds on the inside of the spinner, where the colored gems should be, the difference in metal, what the leather should feel like," he said. The belt was finally retired in 2013.

The Marine was an early acting attempt

John Cena made the transition to acting in 2006, starring in "The Marine." The wrestler played the titular Marine, a man fittingly named John who gets discharged from the Iraq War and finds himself battling diamond thieves who have kidnapped his wife at home. He told GQ that "The Marine" was one of the first films put out under WWE Studios. "[It was] a decision ... to try to diversify the abilities of WWE Superstars," he explained. Cena also revealed that the role was originally meant for Stone Cold Steve Austin, who dropped out mere weeks before filming began. Instead, Cena was thrown into the part. "I pretty much left a small meeting in [Vince McMahon's] office and packed my bags and went to be in the movies, which I knew nothing about."

"The Marine" received terrible reviews, holding a mere 17% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, as of 2022. Still, that hasn't stopped the star from looking fondly on his time filming the action flick and feeling grateful for the opportunity. "The Marine was a wonderful experience, and it's one I'll never forget, because you can't have a journey without the first step," he admitted to GQ. "... They say timing is everything, and I was not ready for the opportunity I was given."

He's a Make-a-Wish legend

Over the course of his career, John Cena has granted more wishes for the Make-a-Wish Foundation than any other celebrity. David Williams, President and CEO of Make-a-Wish, told WWE, "He's just an incredible individual. You can see that with the amount of time that he spends with each child."

Apparently, the first wish he granted was accidental. According to an interview with People, he wasn't even supposed to be the wrestler that his first Make-a-Wish kid met. "It wasn't for me, I think the person wanted to meet another superstar," Cena recalled. "But the WWE does a great job of like, 'Hey, there's a Make-A-Wish kid in this room. Can you come say hello?' So, a bunch of people are shuttled in to say hello to a young fan of WWE." That was all it took. Cena realized the potential of the organization and was touched by how many children they help. He remembers telling them, "If you ever need me for this ever, I don't care what I'm doing, I will drop what I'm doing and be involved because I think that's the coolest thing." 

According to Sports Illustrated, he has gone on to grant over an extraordinary 650 wishes, as of 2020. Considering how prolific Cena is in helping the organization, that figure is likely to continue to rise.

His feud with The Rock broke records

In 2011, John Cena was one of WWE's biggest stars. He was also in the midst of a feud with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who had already transitioned to worldwide movie stardom. The "Jungle Cruise" star insulted the wrestler's "You Can't See Me" catchphrase on an installment of RAW. Cena responded by insulting The Rock via the medium of rap the following week. He lobbed insults at Johnson's film career and his masculinity, spitting bars like, "The Rock's new movie? Well, it's nothing like 'Walking Tall.' / He spends the movie in a bowling alley, polishing my b*lls."

The two fought at WrestleMania 28 the following year, in a match billed as "Once in a Lifetime." While Cena put up a valiant fight, The Rock emerged victorious. According to Bleacher Report, the match broke Pay Per View records with 1.3 million purchases made for the live event. The year of buildup between the two likely helped.

Years later, Johnson looked back on the grudge matches during an interview on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He confessed, "In the world of wrestling, it's fictionalized, it's a TV show." However, he insisted that behind the scenes, things were not much better than they were in the ring. "We had our rivalry, now we can look back on it ... It was so real. Like, we had real problems with each other. We really did." Still, the "Moana" star admits the two are very close friends nowadays.

Cena teamed up with Scoob and the Gang

John Cena got animated in 2014, voicing himself in that year's feature-length cartoon movie "Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery." The comedy saw Scoob and the gang headed to a WrestleMania event in "WWE City" where they are set upon by a frightening ghost. Various wrestlers help them solve the mystery of the frightful apparition, including cameos from Kane, The Miz, and Triple H. It is Cena, though, who becomes the most valuable asset to the Mystery Machine-riding friends as he battles a mystifying ghost bear (where else?) in the ring. In other words, the villain would have gotten away with it ... if it weren't for that meddling WWE champ!

Cena talked about voicing himself in a behind-the-scenes clip, where he admitted to having been a fan of the show back when he was a kid. "It's almost like, when you get animated in Scooby-Doo, it's the [feeling of], 'Alright. You made it,'" he said, adding, "It's a very feel-good thing, both for myself and the WWE."  Fans continue to appreciate the movie, and for good reason. As YouTuber Garrett Watts wrote on Twitter in 2018, the film is basically a foolproof recipe for a good time. They wrote, "If anyone's having a rough day I'd just like to remind you that a feature film exists about Scooby Doo & John Cena teaming up to defeat a ghost-bear."

Comedy came calling with Trainwreck

Like several of his wrestling forefathers, John Cena took a stab at starring in comedies when he acted as Amy Schumer's lunkheaded hookup in "Trainwreck." While promoting the movie, there was one man he credited as having helped the industry to legitimize the potential of wrestling stars like himself: His former WWE sparring partner. "As far as Dwayne Johnson's trajectory is concerned, he's broke down so many stereotypes, shattered so many barriers," he told GQ. "He allowed the outside public to be like, yeah, these WWE guys, they might be on to something. None of those opportunities happen without him." The star added that he talked to Johnson before auditioning for the Judd Apatow film, and received some valuable advice. "Deadpan, Dwayne was just like, 'Be yourself, man. They called you in for a reason,'" he recalled.

In the movie, Cena appears in the buff, and he told Today that he felt very awkward on set. "It was the most uncomfortable thing I've ever been a part of," he insisted. His scene partner Schumer, however, had no complaints. On Opie Radio, she complimented her co-star's ample assets, noting, "It's a whole universe, that butt. That Cena a**." Remarking on his massive frame, she added, "It felt like having a refrigerator on top of me." 

"Trainwreck" would ultimately jump-start Cena's flagging film career, kicking off a successful string of comedic appearances. He would go on to receive praise for his roles in films like "Blockers" and "Vacation Friends."

He proposed to his longtime girlfriend on TV

John Cena began dating fellow wrestler Nikki Bella, one half of the Bella Twins wrestling duo, in 2012, according to Life & Style. After several years of dating, including the "Fast & Furious 9" star making regular appearances on Bella's reality show "Total Bellas," he made it official when he got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend at "Wrestlemania 33." This meant asking her to marry him in front of an audience of thousands. "I have been waiting so long to ask you this," he said before proposing. Thankfully, his girlfriend immediately said yes. 

Later that night, he tweeted, "I want to thank my always expressive 'family' the @WWEUniverse for allowing me to have a #WrestleMania moment that I will NEVER forget!" Appraising Bella's engagement ring, a jewelry CEO told Life & Style that it was likely worth around $75k.

Sadly, they ultimately wouldn't make it down the aisle. Per Us Weekly, the duo split the following year. Shortly after the breakup, Cena co-hosted Today alongside Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford and was open about how much he was hurting. "It's very difficult," he said. "I had my heart broken out of nowhere." Cena's heart healed quickly, though. According to People, he began dating Shay Shariatzadeh in March 2019, and the two were married by October the following year.

Is John Cena smarter than a fifth grader?

In 2019, John Cena became the host of a revival of the hit game show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" which was previously hosted by Jeff Foxworthy. Airing on Nickelodeon, the game show was incredibly well received and in 2020, it even picked up a Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Game Show (per IMDb). The premise revolved around Cena asking adult contestants trivia questions, with their answers being compared to those of actual fifth graders who are learning that stuff in school.

He told The Wrap that he tried to make the set a positive place, both for the fifth-grade experts and the adults competing against them. "Every time we hit a precipice of someone doing badly or getting a wrong answer, I stress that the show is not about right answers," he said. Instead, he offered words of wisdom to anyone who looked like they were struggling. He said that he would reassure contestants, "It is about learning and a lot of our learning is done through our failure; that is where a lot of our growth comes from."

His game show gig led to other opportunities with Cena co-hosting a rebooted "Wipeout" alongside comedian Nicole Byer. Though he put people through their paces on the show, the former athlete told TV Insider he would never try the course himself. "There's no way. I would like to say I'm too wise, but maybe I'm too old," he laughed.

The Peacemaker got his own TV show

In 2021, John Cena depicted Peacemaker, the larger-than-life ultra-patriotic killer of the rebooted DC movie, "The Suicide Squad." The film's director, James Gunn, was so impressed with the actor's work on the film that he wrote the wrestler an eight-episode series based on the character. The filmmaker told GQ, "I love John Cena. I just really love the guy. I love working with people who are incredibly talented, and I saw something in John while we were working on 'The Suicide Squad' that I thought I could help bring out of him, which was this more vulnerable side of his personality and his performance."

Cena told Esquire Middle East that while he never anticipated a spinoff when he signed on to the film, he was happy to take his character to the next level and thankful for the chance to do so. "I'm grateful that James had some time alone with his thoughts, because he was able to use his twisted brain and come up with a narrative for Peacemaker, but it all happened after the fact," he insisted. 

The show premiered on HBO Max to rave reviews, earning a 94% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as of writing. The show even broke records. According to a tweet from Gunn, the finale had the streamer's biggest single-day viewership numbers ever, proving that Cena's transformation from wrestler to bonafide action star was officially complete.