John Cena Grants a Wish Before His Wrestling Match


The do-gooder shtick may explain his wide appeal to preteen boys and their parents alike. But now he is expanding his reach, starring in more adult-minded comedies like “Blockers,” in which he stuffs a pair of panties in his mouth in the opening scene. (The movie opens April 6.)

“I’m a 40-year-old man,” he said with a brutish laugh, pausing to look up from signing autographs. “I have an adult sense of humor, O.K.?”

After finishing up the autographs, he popped out of his seat and made his way deeper backstage, past giant forklifts that were prepping the Garden for the big wrestling night. A jittery talent wrangler in a dark suit finally appeared to escort him to the Make-a-Wish meeting on the other side of the arena.

But he kept getting interrupted. Cesaro, a wrestler from Switzerland wearing a too-small gray tank top and tight black shorts, stopped him outside the stage entrance to inquire about dinner plans. “No matter how hard-pressed you are or how early your flight is, every time after the Garden we go out and get dinner,” Mr. Cena said. “Come hungry and leave satisfied.”

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Michael Hayes, a W.W.E executive, went over the night’s match backstage with Mr. Cena.

Credit
Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

A few minutes later, Michael Hayes, a W.W.E. executive in a white trench coat and black bowler hat with bleached blond hair spilling out, came up to discuss Mr. Cena’s debut match that evening with Ms. Bella. They talked in hushed tones, as if conspiring on a top-secret plan.

“You’re cool with that?” Mr. Hayes said, after they apparently reached an agreement.

“Yessir! And there ya go!” Mr. Cena said.

His own journey was not so neatly choreographed. Raised in the suburb of West Newbury, Mass., Mr. Cena began weight lifting at age 12. After graduating from Springfield College, he moved to Los Angeles, toyed with becoming a professional bodybuilder, but switched his focus to wrestling after striking up a friendship with the wrestler Mike Bell, who died in 2008.

Mr. Cena briefly wrestled for Ultimate Pro Wrestling, an independent outfit based in California, before signing with W.W.E. in 2001. He made his television debut a year later when Vince McMahon, the chairman of W.W.E., agreed to let him replace a wrestler who had come down with the flu.

He lost the fight but won over fans when he began trash-talking opponents using freestyle rap. As his fame grew, Mr. Cena evolved his character and, in an effort to appeal to younger fans, became a brute with a bleeding heart. He was now one of the good guys.

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Mr. Cena autographed a stack of photographs before the match.

Credit
Jessica Lehrman for The New York Times

The family-friendly wrestler was soon in demand outside the ring. In 2010, he guest starred as himself on Miley Cyrus’s Nickelodeon show, “Hannah Montana,” and in 2015 he began making guest-host appearances on “Today.”

But it’s the more outré comedy roles, most notably as Amy Schumer’s sexually confused boyfriend in the 2015 comedy “Trainwreck,” and the cameos in “Sisters” and “Daddy’s Home,” that proved his acting bona fides. In late 2016, he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” the first professional wrestler to do so since Dwayne Johnson (known as The Rock).

Wrestling has prepared Mr. Cena well for Hollywood, in part, he said, because it has taught him to sell himself. “It’s the main difference between me being a trained actor and coming from the promotions business,” he said.

Back at the Garden, Mr. Cena finally made it to the Make-a-Wish meet-up, which took place in a classroom outfitted with rows of chairs and a W.W.E. backdrop. He greeted Garrett Richardson, a 15-year-old in a wheelchair who wore a baseball cap that read “Never Give Up,” another one of Mr. Cena’s catchphrases. Mr. Richardson and his family had flown in from Charlotte, N.C., to meet Mr. Cena and see the match.

Mr. Cena has granted more than 500 Make-a-Wish requests over the years, so when Mr. Richardson was left speechless by the larger-than-life celebrity in the room, Mr. Cena knew just how to respond.

“Ah, I see your strategy,” Mr. Cena said with a wink. “You’re saving all your energy for tonight’s show. If you get too excited now, you’ll have no voice by the third match.”

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