The Lord of the Ring

Toro Magazine, October 2006

When pro wrestling decided to make its first big-budget movie, it was only natural that golden-boy grappler John Cena would play the hero. But does the new king of fake fighting have what it takes to follow The Rock to the top of Hollywood?

On a crisp evening in January, John Cena, professional wrestler and would-be movie star, arrived in Albany, New York, to defend his title as World Wrestling Entertainment champion. At his fight that night, which was a steel cage–style Elimination Chamber match against Kane, Kurt Angle, Carlito, Chris Masters, and Shawn Michaels, Cena was greeted with profanity-laced chants, a chorus of boos, and a sea of disparaging handmade signs. Billed as a thugged-out throwback jersey–wearing rapper, the 6’1″, 240-pound Cena was accustomed to getting jeered – he’d had a rough couple of months – but it’s unlikely that he was prepared for the sea of outrage he waded into that night. It is considered by many fans to be the most surprisingly hostile audience reception in the history of professional wrestling.

Fortunately for John Cena, the storyline, the scripted narrative the wrestlers always follow, took a favourable turn that night. In wrestling’s eternal battle of good versus evil, the WWE had for months been trying, unsuccessfully, to position Cena as a good guy, and for the Chamber match gave it one more college try by pitting him against five opponents positioned that night as “heels” (bad guys). After Cena had defeated all of them, his long-time rival Edge forced an impromptu one-on-one match. Exhausted from the Elimination Chamber, Cena was unable to defend himself. Edge pinned the WWE champ with ease. That night, Cena not only lost the title, but he also began a personal transformation.

Soon after, he lost the throwback jerseys, abandoning his gimmicky rapper image, which so many fans resented, and resumed the role of underdog, a “blue-collar son of a gun,” according to WWE commentators. He also stopped trash-talking in rhyme, one thing that some fans may actually miss. (Cena once rapped about how Chris Masters “has a body that makes people say, ‘Oh my God’ / but his Masterpiece is smaller than the Nano iPod.”) His popularity resurged. Within weeks, he was enjoying overwhelming crowd approval, which he carried through the summer.

And it was a good thing, too. Cena’s ability to elicit an impassioned fan response, positive or negative, has cemented his role as the new golden boy of the WWE. The twenty-nine-year-old is not only their biggest draw by far; he’s also the great hope of WWE Films, the star of their first independently produced mainstream feature, The Marine, a high-octane action film due out this month. The stakes are high. If the movie flops, it could send WWE Films the way of the XFL, the WWE’s failed football venture; if it succeeds, it will allow the WWE to gain a foothold in a very lucrative industry, and will make John Cena a star.

The ne plus ultra of wrestlers-turned–movie stars is The Rock, a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson. When The Rock entered wrestling, in the late 1990s, the WWE (then the WWF) was evolving into a more theatrical affair; many female characters were introduced, and plot lines became more sophisticated. The Rock’s arrogant and flamboyant persona lent itself perfectly to compelling interviews and storylines. Before long, the wrestler was offered opportunities in other areas of entertainment, appearing in a Wyclef Jean music video, and hosting Saturday Night Live to great acclaim. From there, the movie offers began to roll in, and The Rock left wrestling for Hollywood in short order. The lesson? Wrestling and showbiz are not all that different: Both are character-driven entertainment vehicles in which charisma, good looks, and a sense of the dramatic go a long way.

It was Vincent K. McMahon, current chairman of the WWE, who first laid bare wrestling’s secrets, acknowledging in the early 1980s that match outcomes are predetermined, and that wrestling is closer to a soap opera written to appeal to men. In doing so, he converted wrestling from an amateurish regional phenomenon to a sophisticated, multi-dimensional production, developing the WWE into the world’s leading sports entertainment company, last year boasting gross revenues of US$400-million. Monday Night RAW, one of three major weekly WWE events, and the one on which Cena currently appears, attracts more than 500,000 viewers in Canada. In the U.S., in excess of 14 million people tune in to a wrestling event each week (that number sits at around a million in Canada). It’s a long way from the days of Jess McMahon, Vince’s grandfather, who was promoting boxing matches in New York three-quarters of a century ago. Today’s WWE is less like a travelling sports club than a travelling group of Elizabethan players, bringing their stage show to a different city every night.

Like the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, wrestling fans are both notoriously raucous and notoriously fickle. John Cena handles the swings in approval with grace; it’s because he understands the WWE’s positioning as theatre first, where personal admiration is irrelevant and ratings are king. “My main goal is not winning the popularity of fans,” he says to me over coffee, on a rare Saturday morning off in Boston. “My main goal is for that fan who pays money to get in, to say, ‘Dude, I’m going to come back.’ ” In the WWE, where the singular objective is to entertain, popularity is almost a neutral term: fans either care about a wrestler – and boo or cheer him – or they don’t. To be hated is to be loved.

Not unlike Don Cherry, Cena has a distinct knack for this schizophrenic brand of stardom. The Monday before we meet over coffee, for instance, at a RAW event in Cleveland, the audience roars as soon as it hears the first few chords of “The Time is Now,” Cena’s self-penned entrance song, but the frenzy as Cena swaggers down the aisle is hard to identify as either adoration or disdain. (In fact, fans will flip allegiances during Cena’s match this night, a tag-team bout in which he and Ric Flair take on Edge and Johnny Nitro.) The din reaches a fever pitch as Cena, wearing baggy shorts and basketball shoes, slides under the ropes to enter the ring. He briskly salutes the decidedly patriotic crowd (when the “Star Spangled Banner” was played earlier in the evening, the crowd began chanting “USA! USA!” as soon as it ended). Cena equates himself with America; his mantra – “Hustle, loyalty, respect” – is a hip-hop spin on the American dream.

As a wrestler, he’s hyperkinetic, the most energetic man in the ring, bouncing around frenetically, limbs waving in a kind of chaotic adrenaline rush. On the mic, he is ruthless, mocking Lita, the trashy girlfriend of the self-proclaimed Rated R Superstar, Edge, as “NC-17 – no cold sores for seventeen days.” Then he adds, “Might I remind you folks, there is no cure for genital herpes.” After the bout, which Cena wins, there is only one name I can hear being chanted by the fans. Cena.

Still, Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and the author of three books about wrestling, is amazed at the anti-Cena sentiment from earlier this year. “He got it worse than anyone I’ve seen,” says Meltzer. According to Meltzer, Cena is also a weak technical wrestler. “He’s kind of awkward and his stuff doesn’t look very real. He’s distinctly below average.” Like Hulk Hogan before him, Cena relies on charisma and simple moves.

The fact is, wrestling is increasingly not really about wrestling. It’s only a small group of fanatics more interested in quality wrestling than storylines, who are truly uninterested in Cena. (Tellingly, Cena’s pay-per-view numbers are weak, a reflection of the hard-core fan base that spends $40 to see a single event.) On the whole, says Meltzer, “Cena’s got more emotion behind him than any other character in the business.”

Being a character is nothing new for John Cena. It’s how he describes himself as a teenager in high school. “In West Newbury [the small town north of Boston where he grew up], they listen to rock music. I listened to rap music. Those guys were wearing T-shirts that were ripped and stained; I got a rayon Kwamé polka-dot shirt on,” he says. “I would show up in a jail jumpsuit with an afro wig. I was different.” Hip-hop’s flamboyant style and its message of rebellion and individualism captured Cena. “I knew there was something about hip-hop that I could find my identity with.”

After high school, Cena left for Springfield College, a Division III NCAA school where he was an all-American offensive lineman. He graduated with a degree in exercise physiology and went to California, where he started wrestling in 2000. He enjoyed moderate success initially, even landing a role in a reality program called Manhunt, in which he played Big Tim Kingman, hunting down contestants with a paintball gun. The show ended in controversy after participants alleged the series had been partially scripted and its outcome predetermined. (Fittingly, it was produced in association with the WWE.)

After grinding it out for a couple of years on California’s Ultimate Pro Wrestling circuit, Cena’s fortunes changed. WWE brass overheard Cena rapping to himself on a tour bus, and soon after, the small-town white boy appeared on live television in a gaudy Vanilla Ice–style costume on Halloween in 2002, performing an outlandish rap mocking his opponents. He’d found his gimmick, and it was a phenomenal success: The fans hated it. Cena carried the shtick further, releasing an album, You Can’t See Me – a favourite taunt he mimes to semi-conscious players in the ring – a passable debut released by Columbia Records. Cena insists that his character “is me, with the volume and the excitement turned up.”

He’s not the first wrestler to make this claim, and not the first to inspire doubt. Meltzer, who interviewed Cena multiple times in his early days, says that five or six years ago, “his dialect was completely different. He talked like a California surfer guy.” It’s possible Cena may have picked up his surfer-dude affectation on the Pacific coast during his first years on the wrestling scene; and the split-personality act may simply prove he’s just an adaptable guy. Ultimately, the point is moot.

The question of what’s fake and what’s real is fundamentally irrelevant in the wrestling world. Wrestling is premised on the suspension of disbelief, and Cena knows this.

“I make my living through believability,” he says, acknowledging that matches are predetermined. “But between the time that bell rings and when it rings again, that’s my time, and that’s impromptu.” Wrestling mats provide little protection, and there’s no way to fake a fifteen-foot fall off a ladder. Injuries are common. (Cena, who doesn’t warm up before matches, or stretch afterward, damaged his neck recently but will not require surgery.) The bottom line is entertainment, and behind the entertainment is always the script.

Movies, ergo, are a perfectly logical extension for WWE. The characters already exist, and, more importantly, so does the fan base. Besides, all wrestlers are actors, to some degree. The Marine is Cena’s formal acting debut, but according to the film’s director, John Bonito, Cena’s a natural. “He’s got the chops,” says Bonito. “He’s got a long career in movies if he wants it.”

That career begins this way: In The Marine, Cena plays John Triton, a recently discharged marine officer who must rescue his wife, played by Kelly Carlson (CSI, Nip/Tuck), from the murderous criminals who’ve taken her hostage. Joel Simon, president of WWE Films, is thrilled with Cena’s performance. “We’d like John Cena to become another Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson,” he says.

Plans are in the works for at least two more Cena films, but The Marine is the sink-or-swim opportunity, for both Cena and the WWE. It’s one of the league’s biggest gambles yet. Though WWE Films has been around since 2002, The Marine is just their second independent release. Its first outing was See No Evil, a low-budget horror picture starring fellow wrestler Kane, released in May. See No Evil turned a modest profit – no mean feat in Hollywood – but it’s unclear if the film attracted many non-wrestling fans. The Marine’s budget is closer to $20-million, and in order to be successful, it will need to reach beyond what Simon calls the WWE’s “built-in audience.”

The gamble is even more precarious than that. Although The Marine was originally intended to be a straight-ahead action film, the first time Bonito read the script he realized it was so over the top, he had only one recourse. Wrestling was in the air, which meant winking was, too: he turned it into a comedy.

The winking approach is a good fit for the WWE, a league that never takes itself too seriously. In this sense, Cena is perfect for a starring role. “The way you play comedy off of John Cena,” says Bonito, “is you ask him to play it straight.”

For three-and-a-half months, Cena commuted almost weekly between the set in Australia and various RAW events in the U.S. Bonito says he was indefatigable. “He’d get off an eighteen-hour flight and do chase scenes in a car without a roof on it, getting smashed up at seventy miles an hour. John is a director’s dream. The guy will do anything it takes.” In the wrestling world too, Cena has a reputation as a hard worker. He hasn’t taken time off in years, and though he is often driven around by limo and flies first class, he is known in the WWE as a low-maintenance character.

Cena insists that he hopes the film succeeds “not for personal reasons, but for company reasons.” In an unconventional business, Cena is a classic company man. He views his extra-curricular activities – filmic or musical – as vehicles to drive more people to wrestling; what’s good for the WWE is good for John Cena.

Is The Marine good? Only the fans will tell. An early preview received a positive response online, but Dave Meltzer, for one, is not optimistic. “The WWE’s track record at going into new things is pretty horrible,” he says, referring not only to the XFL but to other failed ventures in reality television (2001’s Tough Enough) and nightclubs (The World, a WWE-themed restaurant-club combo in Times Square, shut down in 2003 after four years). “I don’t see John Cena having much appeal outside of the wrestling audience.”

Though Cena resists the comparison, the name that continues to loom large for any wrestler crossing over into film is Dwayne Johnson. Cena claims his ambitions are exclusively focused on wrestling – fans felt abandoned by The Rock when he started acting, and Cena knows better than to incur their wrath if he can avoid it – but the promise of earning US$5- to US$10-million for three months’ work is appealing, especially compared to the alternative, enduring chokeholds four nights a week for US$1.7-million, Cena’s estimated annual salary.

Cena’s unlikely, however, to be confronted with the choice. As a wrestler, The Rock inhabited a “completely different echelon” of popularity than Cena, says Meltzer. The Rock has an appealing, mixed-race face, and, more importantly, he quit wrestling, and studied under top acting coaches to make the transition. Cena wrestles more than 200 days a year, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for acting lessons.

Besides, the wrestling lifestyle is taking its toll on Cena even before you add the Hollywood extracurriculars. “I feel old,” he says, sounding it. “I’ve stopped listening to rap music. I guess it’s because I’ve been on the road. You learn a lot, you see a lot. I started listening to a lot of older country.” In spite of his weariness, though, Cena is determined to carry on in the ring for many years to come. “This gig is cake forever,” he says. “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Nothing.” Except, maybe, accepting an Oscar. He might make time in his schedule for that.