The day before WWE SummerSlam 2017, John Cena stopped by the Barclays Center to speak to kids about cyberbullying.
The meet and greet, which also featured the Hardy Boyz and Sasha Banks, was sponsored by Cricket Wireless, whose new initiative educates kids about the dangers of cyberbullying and how to counteract them. Bleacher Report spoke to Cena shortly before he busted through a life-sized poster of himself, viral video style, surprising all the kids.
Bleacher Report: As the public face for Cricket's anti-bullying initiative, what personal connection do you have to this issue?
John Cena: It's something I deal with every day. The WWE has a massive outreach on social media, and our fanbase is very vocal. So many young people watch the WWE, and I can turn around and say: "This also happens to me. Daily." I've been regarded as a very "controversial" figure, but in a setting like this, where I talk to young people, it helps.
BR: Do you get your feelings hurt by the way the fans react?
JC: Every day. And I can only imagine being a young person who's bullied. I remember back to my days as a teenager. When you get your feelings hurt, you feel that moment of embarrassment. You think: "No one wants to talk to me ever again. It's all over." I reassure people that's totally not the case. These [bullies] are just hateful people doing hateful things. Sometimes, it's a lesson in tough love, but you keep positive, smile in the face of hateful adversity and move on. It makes you a stronger person.
BR: When you first became "controversial" and the fanbase became divided, was that hard for you to deal with at first?
JC: It was backwards! Because normally in our industry, when you hear a certain noise, you become a bad guy. My job wasn't to do that, which was a bit of wandering into no man's land.
At the WWE, it's our job to tell stories. I'm one of the few characters who can be in the WWE and can then take that experience and spin it out to real-life lessons. When you can clock into work and make a difference in someone else's life, that's a good way to make a living.
So, it was different at first. But I'm so glad it happened because now I can stand at events like this one.
JC: I've always taken any sort of audible response as a compliment, and I always understand it is our consumers' right and privilege to say whatever they want at our events. So as long as there's no silence, I'll keep being excited.
But that stuff in the arenas is one thing. The comments on the internet—the obnoxious, visceral comments—are baffling to me. I just don't know why that's the way it is.
BR: Have you ever helped other WWE superstars deal with their own "controversial" reactions? Roman Reigns comes to mind.
JC: I haven't [helped Roman], and that's not because I don't want to. And I think that's a testament to Roman Reigns' ability to handle the audience. You need pretty broad shoulders. That he hasn't had to come to anyone else for advice shows exactly how strong he is.
BR: You're not working as many dates as you used to. Have you taken anyone under your wing backstage, especially as your career changes?
JC: I think every year, my role changes. And I am an open house for advice, for anyone to use. It's just a matter of asking questions.
BR: Who was a younger person who recently came to you for advice?
JC: Well, younger—I mean, he's just a few weeks from me—but I can remember when AJ Styles came in, and he was just familiar with presenting himself a different way. And we sat down and had many a lengthy conversation about the differences and similarities between other spots and here. And from that, I think he took a lot of material away to present himself better.
BR: What was he frustrated about?
JC: Not necessarily frustrated. But you tie your shoe one way for 15 to 18 years, and then you come into a place that says to tie your shoe differently. Sometimes you don't understand all of that. So it was great to be able to sit down and have an open, intelligent conversation with someone without anyone taking things personally—just talking about the environment and making oneself relevant in that environment.
BR: If young people in the wrestling business came up to you and said: "I want to stand out. I want to get recognized. I want to get over." What advice would you give?
JC: My advice would be to repeat those questions to yourself: "How am I standing out? How am I getting recognized? How am I getting over?" And if you don't have definitive answers for doing those things, you are doing it wrong. It is, essentially, on them. There is no right way to do it, and that's one of the great things about this business because you can be creative. People who say they have it figured out are wrong.
BR: I was listening to a shoot interview with Jim Cornette, where he said that he always saw you as a Ric Flair-type villain character. Have you ever stopped to think about how your career could have been if you hadn't gone in the direction you did?
JC: No. And I think that any sort of hindsight, especially in this industry, is a waste of time, and time is extremely valuable.
I don't control that. People ask me to do something, and it is our job, as entertainers, to do the best that we can to accomplish that goal. What I get upset about in this business is that so many people talk about the "what if," instead of the "what is." The "what is" is more important.
If someone were to go back 15 years and say, "You should have done this," it's too late. I was told to do "X," and I was trying to do "X" the best way that I could.