John Cena on AJ Styles, the Nintendo Switch, and ending his feud with The Rock

1:33 | More Sports
These athletes are only getting richer after leaving the field
Monday February 27th, 2017

John Cena is the biggest box office attraction in professional wrestling, and he is just starting to make a dent in the entertainment world. Cena has already filmed two seasons of American Grit for NBC, guest hosted the iconic Saturday Night Live show in December, and is now a spokesman for the global brand of Nintendo.

The sixteen-time WWE world champion is appointment viewing whenever he appears on WWE programming, but all is not perfect for Cena. His sixteenth title reign, for instance, only lasted two weeks.

“To rebut the two-week, 16th title reign, if I’m correct, Ric Flair’s 16th title reign was only 24 hours,” said Cena, who believed his reign was momentous despite only fourteen days as champ. “They can’t all be these massive statements in the annals of history.”

Critics and casual fans alike were enamored with the Royal Rumble match between Cena and AJ Styles. Cena, who was originally nicknamed “The Prototype” in WWE developmental for sporting a look that was bound to connect with wrestling fans, has a far different story in pro wrestling from Styles. The 39-year-old Styles finally began wrestling in the WWE this past year, although a great deal of his peers already considered Styles to be the best technical wrestler in the business.

“I’m really happy that people were interested in everything we did,” said Cena. “I think it was a really good opportunity for AJ Styles to show exactly how gifted he is, and, in my mind, he is tremendously gifted.”

Follow Extra Mustard on Facebook

Cena also touched on the rumors surrounding his upcoming WrestleMania 33 match, which appears to be a mixed tag team match featuring himself and real-life girlfriend Nikki Bella against The Miz and Maryse. Cena stated that he does not decide who is he is going to fight at WrestleMania, pointing to last year’s ‘Mania, when he did not have a match, as a prime example.

“I know people have a perception of who I am,” said Cena. “There is nothing I can say in this interview that changes that perception, but I’ll say this: I don’t pitch ideas, I don’t go and say, ‘This is what I would like to do.’ I’ve had tremendous success in being a versatile poker player, if that’s a good analogy. I get my hand told to me, and I play it the best I possibly can.

“As far as WrestleMania is concerned, whatever I’m supposed to do I’m going to do to the best of my ability. I can reference last year as a great example. I was ready, healthy, and one-hundred percent activated by early March, and I was told that I would be assisting The Rock in WrestleMania. Quite honestly, if it weren’t for The Rock’s involvement in WrestleMania, I would have been told that I would have been sitting out WrestleMania. [People ask] why don’t I just go in there and say, ‘I want to do this’? Last year, I should have said, ‘I want to do this,’ but that’s just not what I do. This is why I love what I do. You sometimes get an off-the-beaten path request, and it’s your job, as a professional, to make it interesting and make it the best you can. To be quite honest, way, way, way back, AJ Styles was an off-the-beaten path request, and I loved that. It brought out the best in AJ Styles and it brought out the best in me. I’ll always try to do the best with what I’ve got.”

Cena is extremely proud to be connected with the Nintendo Switch, which is a brand new gaming console that can be played both at home and on-the-go, particularly since he is so connected to the brand after dedicating a portion of his childhood to playing video games on his Nintendo.

“I am a certainly a child of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, as the gamer Hall of Famers attribute it,” said Cena. “That eight-bit graphical interface has truly stood the test of time, and now you see so many vintage designs and content available in eight-bit. I grew up with the start of the original eight games licensed from Nintendo—Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., which was before Super Mario Bros., then Super Mario Bros., Ice Climber, Urban Champion, Gyromite with the robot. You name it, I had it. I grew up through all that.”

Growing up in a house with three brothers and only two controllers, Cena loved the challenge of competing with his brothers. It should come as little surprise that Cena, who played football at Springfield College, was enamored with the NFL on Nintendo.

“I love Super Tecmo Bowl, that was definitely my favorite game,” said Cena. “I loved Baseball Stars, which is a title by a now obsolete company called SNK. That was my wheelhouse. The thing that attracted me most was you could go as far into the games as you wanted. You could sit down and read the instructions, and this is how geeky I get, you could subscribe to Nintendo Power, which was before the internet cheat sheet. Famous games, like Punch Out, even without the code, Contra, the Metal Gears of the world, even Kung Fu, one of the original eight-bit titles, you’d get to a certain level but you couldn’t get past it without buckling down and putting some hours into the game. That’s what I find has been recreated with the Switch.”

The Nintendo Switch will be released amid much fanfare on March 3, and Cena spent a portion of last week playing games on the new console in Santa Clarita, California.

“I’m floored by the technology of the Switch, and the versatility of the console is second to none,” said Cena. “It really is a home console that you can take anywhere. I’ve seen situations where home consoles can be transported, and it’s like a big over-the-shoulder carry-on bag, but the versatility of this thing is groundbreaking. When you undock the Switch from its home console and go into handheld, the controller feels the same, it is the same, and it reacts the same. The screen on the undocked handheld system is big enough to be its own world, but small enough to carry anywhere.”

The capability to play the Switch anywhere, Cena noted, is what is so groundbreaking about the console.

“I was in this confined living room space where you got lost in the game ‘cause I’m playing on this 60-inch TV, and then you undock and continue to play the game,” said Cena. “They had this molecular glass, which dropped and revealed I was in the middle of the desert. I never once knew the change in environment. It’s truly, truly tremendous. In typical Nintendo fashion, I was playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Now I haven’t played Legend of Zelda since the gold cartridge eight-bit versions, so I just needed to pick up and start going, and I did. The go-anywhere aspect of the game is incredible, and I know for fans of the Zelda franchise, they’re going to flip. I know for fans of Nintendo, they’re going to go crazy. Everyone is speculating about how good the game actually is—it’s going to exceed expectations and, for a dude like me, a 40-year-old [in April] who hasn’t played Zelda since the gold cartridge, I sat down and was hooked. In a matter of 30-minutes, I didn’t want to put it down.”

Cena is extremely personable and has a wide acting range, which was apparent even twelve years ago when he played the role of Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee in WWE’s spoof of A Few Good Men before WrestleMania 21. His appearance guest-hosting Saturday Night Live this past December was also memorable, despite the fact that he was placed in a number of muscleman/athlete/Fabio type skits, which completely underestimated his comedic range.

“I was more than happy with the show,” said Cena. “Saturday Night Live has been a tremendous success over the years because it’s not about putting one person at the forefront, it’s just about making funny skits and doing funny live material that the audience digests and has a good laugh at. My hat is off to Lorne Michaels and his whole team. Everyone involved with that show busts their ass to a level that people do not comprehend. It runs parallel to WWE. They just grind and do the best they can to make the best live funny show that they can. Of course you want to do some stuff that you think is funny, but these guys know their business. That would be like them wandering into a Monday Night Raw or a Smackdown Live and saying, ‘No, no, this is good for WWE.’ I took a step back and realized, ‘I’m around the funniest live entertainment in the world, I’m just going to soak this up and do the best I can with what I got.’

“I had so, so much fun, and looking back at the experience, every single decision they made was right. I thought the show was great, I thought the show went by like a blink of an eye, I got to be involved in a whole lot of skits, so I thought that was really important, and that’s the age-old model for success – go in, do the best you can, and leave them wanting more. If you’re saying, ‘Man, you could have done more!’, then hopefully that means I’ll get to host again.”

There is undeniable connective tissue between Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and The Rock’s appearance hosting SNL in 2000 helped catapult his acting career. Cena was extremely vocal for years about The Rock’s decision to pursue Hollywood and leave WWE behind, yet he has followed a similar path in his own career. Looking back, Cena admitted that he now has a different perspective on The Rock’s success and his decision to leave WWE.

“It was stupid of me,” admitted Cena. “It genuinely was. That was my perspective at the time. When you’re involved in the daily grind of WWE, and that’s something I never will let go of—I promise you that. I just love it, and I don’t think I need to say that, ever again, or have somebody question my allegiance to a brand, not the sport of professional wrestling, so to say, but a brand. I love the WWE. For me to not be able to see Dwayne’s vision on what he wanted to do personally, and how his personal success could affect a growing global brand, that was just ignorant on my part.

“We have our blinders on, sometimes, in these daily situations of life, and, to me, my thing was, ‘Hey man, as a fan, I loved you performing in this venue all the time, you left us high and dry, why aren’t you back here? It’s obvious you’re still healthy and obvious you’re still capable.’ On the other side of the fence, I didn’t see the man who is so driven to crush the stereotype of ‘pro wrestlers are just pro wrestlers, and they can do nothing more, period.’ Here we are, when Rock left in 2002, it didn’t happen overnight for him, and through fifteen years of hard work, he is the number one box office draw in the world. There is not more of a foot in the ground that you can stake your claim in and say, ‘WWE superstars are so much more than WWE superstars, and here’s proof.’ I was foolish and ignorant to not see that, because I just wanted him, selfishly, on Monday Night Raw and on Smackdown Live.”

Cena and The Rock headlined both WrestleMania 28 and 29, and both men have put a ceasefire on their once-pointed criticisms toward the other, replaced by their mutual respect and admiration for each other’s success.

“I like the fact that I talked enough trash that he eventually came back, and he hasn’t really left,” said Cena. “He periodically shows up, and the fans love him now, and they always have—it’s just that he’s around a little bit more. At the same time, I’ve apologized to him in person, I’ve apologized to him publicly. I was completely wrong in the approach that I took. It was one-sided and selfish, and I’m glad the way it worked out, but I apologize for not being able to see his side of the fence.”

The Rock continues to make headlines, as he called CM Punk from inside a WWE ring last week after Raw during the filming of his new movie.

“That’s what’s made him so successful,” said Cena. “His instincts, his ability to do an about-face to the establishment, that’s what allows him to connect as ‘The People’s Champion’. Once again, I think his biggest accomplishment is to be one of the bricks that break the wall of the stereotype that we have.

“I don’t blame anyone for thinking the way that they do, and I’m sure they would classify a football player as a football player and nothing more, but nowadays, especially with athletics, and sports entertainment certainly falling under that umbrella under certain circumstances, it’s just about creating and managing brands. When you have a very versatile brand, like the WWE, its performers are gifted with a lot more than just what you see on television.

“I’m very thankful to Dwayne Johnson. His success has gotten me a lot of opportunities that I’m extremely thankful for, and certainly wouldn’t have without him. I don’t think it will happen in my generation—but hopefully a generation removed, people will view WWE superstars as much more than they are. That’s my ultimate goal. It’s not, ‘I want to be Dwayne Johnson and I’d like to do this.’ Dwayne’s success really helps WWE in letting everyone know that we are more than just WWE superstars.”

Cena was also asked his opinion of who is more presidential: the sometimes-controversial Vince McMahon or the seemingly always controversial Donald Trump?

“Donald Trump is the president of the United States, so by definition of title, Commander-in-Chief would make Donald Trump more presidential,” said Cena. “That’s how you can print my answer.”

As Cena builds toward WrestleMania 33 in April, and is also set to host the Nickelodeon’s 2017 Kids’ Choice Awards on March 11, he looks forward to introducing the world to Nintendo’s newest feature.

“The great thing about the Switch is you don’t have to put it down,” said Cena. “When you think your gaming time is up, you just undock into handheld and keep going. It’s indescribable until you see it—I believe it’s the future of gaming.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.