According to Joe Reedy of the Associated Press, the award is given annually to the athlete who "embodies the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy while using sports as a platform."
Cena was tabbed for the prize due to his philanthropic endeavors, including his long-time commitment to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which has seen him grant nearly 600 wishes to sick children.
Per SI.com's Jenna West, Cena said the following regarding his selection as the award winner: "I am truly thrilled to receive Sports Illustrated's Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Ali's commitment to helping others, his dedication to the sport and his generous spirit are incomparable, and he was a role model to us all. To be linked with him in any way is an honor that means so much to me."
Sports Illustrated executive editor Stephen Cannella also discussed the reasoning behind Cena's selection:
"From his unparalleled work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to his support for a wide range of causes ranging from activism for military families to cancer research, John has made personal outreach and generosity of time and spirit his calling cards. He might just be the most charitable person in sports, and his dedication to philanthropy richly reflects the spirit of the Ali Legacy Award."
Cena follows former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was honored with the award last year.
The Legacy Award was created by Sports Illustrated in 2008, and it has been synonymous with Ali since his named was added in 2015.
Cena is the first professional wrestler to win the award, but according to Reedy, he considers it a group accomplishment rather than individual: "I kind of see this as both WWE and I accepting this. Every accolade like this WWE has been receiving more attention and respect for what we do. WWE is my family."
The 41-year-old is a part-time performer for WWE due to his commitments as a Hollywood actor.
During his career, Cena has won the world title a record-tying 16 times, and he is considered one of the biggest stars in the history of the industry.
Cena's status as a Muhammad Ali Legacy Award winner will be celebrated Dec. 11 when he receives the honor at the SI Sportsperson of the Year event in Los Angeles.