Cena becomes 'a superstar in one night'
by Phil Speer
Starting at age 4, John Cena would hold mock wrestling tournaments at his West Newbury, Mass., home. He and his friends would rip three sheets of computer paper off his dot-matrix printer and draw wrestling belts.
"To this day, I still have one of those belts in my apartment," Cena told WWE.com just a few moments after making his World Wrestling Entertainment debut this week on SmackDown!
While his first WWE appearance may have seemed abrupt to some fans, it was an accomplishment that Cena had dreamed about for more than 20 years.
"This is easily the greatest moment of my life," said Cena, who turned 25 on April 23. "I don't even have the words to describe how happy I am now."
Although Cena has loved the business since he was a small child and grew up "dangerously close" to Killer Kowalski's wrestling school (the place that bred Triple H, Albert and Perry Saturn), he never imagined that he would eventually have a career in sports entertainment. How does one go about getting in the business? He jokes that he "thought there was a secret code" he needed to know.
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Cena attended Springfield (Mass.) College, obtaining a degree in exercise physiology. He was an offensive lineman for the school's Division III football team, earning All-American honors as a senior. Upon graduating, he moved to Venice, Calif., "just for the good weather," and accepted a job moving exercise equipment. It turned out that one of his co-workers was training at Ultimate Pro Wrestling, a Southern California-based academy. Cena went to the school one day and was hooked. He continued working 75-80 hours a week at his job, while training in the ring in his "spare time." He got just two to four hours of sleep a night, but eventually all the hard work paid off.
"UPW was just the right place at the right time for me," he said. "I didn't really learn much, but it was an opportunity to be seen."
Indeed, WWE agent Bruce Prichard attended a UPW show in January 2000. Six months later, Cena -- who had taken on the nickname "Prototype" because of his physique, his commitment to physical fitness and his healthy eating habits -- signed a developmental contract with WWE. Cena remained at UPW until May 2001, when he relocated to Louisville, Ky., to continue his training at Ohio Valley Wrestling.
"The territory in Louisville is absolutely the best
place for anyone who wants to become a professional wrestler," Cena said.
He said trainees at OVW have the opportunity to wrestle all the time, to get instruction from "the greatest minds in the business," and to step in the ring against competitors who "all have a gift."
Cena has competed in front of WWE crowds on a small handful of occasions. He wrestled in his first non-televised "dark match" in March 2001. He also had a string of dark matches that July.
"But if you ever dig up those tapes, I suggest you burn them," Cena said with a smile. "Because I try to get better every day, I look back at those tapes and have to smile."
In the last few weeks, he has competed at WWE "house shows," wrestling mostly against fellow OVW competitors. On Tuesday, he arrived in Chicago for the SmackDown! taping thinking that maybe he'd be involved in another dark match. At about 5 p.m., he was told he'd be making his WWE television debut, stepping in the ring against a certain Olympic gold medalist.
"I don't know if you can print my reaction," Cena said. "Let's just say I was nervous."
But Cena put his emotions aside and went out and had a fantastic match with Angle, nearly pinning the former WWE Champion on a number of occasions. Angle had nothing but praise after the match.
"He did awesome -- four stars," Angle said. "He's ready. He's probably been ready for a little while. We need to get guys in the business and build them up right away. I think tonight we made a superstar in one night."
It also helped that the match took place in Chicago, which has arguably the most boisterous WWE fans. They were behind Cena from the get-go. After the match, the Allstate Arena crowd gave Cena a raucous ovation as he returned to the locker room.
"For being pretty much an unknown enhancement talent, I'm surprised they didn't boo me out of the place," Cena said. "It was a good contest. I'm just glad (fans) got behind me."
Cena's night wasn't over after the match. He headed backstage for a live vignette with the Undertaker, and Cena pulled that off as well. He seems to be a natural, so why was he so nervous?
"I was more or less nervous about letting the company down," he said. "I told Bruce Prichard the day he signed me that I wouldn't let him down. Everybody has their expression. Al Davis: 'Just win baby.' The Rock: 'Just bring it.' Mine is 'I won't you let down.' That and 'There's no substitute for hard work.'"