He’s no Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair. He’s John Cena and he is professional wrestling in 2013. And if you don’t see why that matters, you’ve missed more than you think.

By James de Medeiros, photographs by Peter Yang.

In the WWE, a world full of colourful characters such as a seven-foot giant, a dwarf, a king, a former UFC heavyweight champion, a Harvard law graduate, a dead man and arguably the greatest action movie star of our time (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), only one man is considered the franchise player: 11-time WWE champion and two-time World Heavyweight champion John Cena. Although it’s easy to look down your nose at the WWE’s brand of sports entertainment, MF has always acknowledged the connection between pro wrestling and guys who like to lift weights for health and fitness, and recognised that many pro wrestlers are fine athletes with great physiques. Cena’s dedication to his training after so many years at the top should provide plenty of inspiration. When we met the man at his secluded Florida gym, did we sit down and talk? Not really. We talked before, during and after a mega-tough workout, during which he set a jaw-dropping personal best for the snatch (see Cena’s workout over the page for more about this 135kg feat). Amid the bright camera lights, flying chalk dust and big weights being thrown about, we got Cena to reflect on his life, his career and his future.

MF: You got your first weightlifting bench as a Christmas present. How old were you?

JC: Twelve years old.

Why did you ask for it?

Because I was getting beat up and picked on in school. So instead of learning karate, I figured I would just get bigger.

What eventually led you to get serious about bodybuilding?

Just the gains that I’d made lifting weights. By the time I was 15 and I stepped in the high school gym, I was just stronger than everybody.

295x198 John Cena AYou studied exercise physiology. Do you think that gave you any advantages in the gym?

Yes, just to know the basics. A bachelor’s degree covers only the basics, but if you have a general knowledge of how the body works, you can tell when your body’s worn and when it’s not, what you can take, what the human body is capable of.

What does your diet consist of?

A lot of meal replacements just due to time constraint. I stay away from fried foods [and] desserts, really.

What’s been your toughest injury to recover from?

Just a basic elbow scope [arthroscopy or key-hole surgery] believe it or not. I had reconstructive pectoral surgery, I had a cervical neck fusion, and a scope, and the scope was the toughest.

What sorts of activities do you enjoy outside of the gym?

Between my schedule of WWE and this, I guess just relaxing. This [gym time] takes up all my time, between this and work.

Describe the pressure you feel being the industry’s major franchise player.

I love it. Like I said, this is not a job to me — it’s my life. I’ve given up a normal life to live this life. It never gets to be too much. Even with the literally instant criticism of the internet, I still welcome it all. It’s fantastic.

What’s kept you going strong for more than 10 years?

It’s obvious, I love the business… It’s not a matter of financial gain or loss. It’s a matter of passion, and everyone keeps asking me, “Well, when’s the transition coming?” There is no transition. If there’s a transition, it’s a lateral transition within this company to help mould its future.

It’s been proven that guys who want it as bad as you do can keep on going.

It’s a matter of lifestyle choice. When I tell you I’ve literally sacrificed a normal life, I have. This is my focus: how do I stay as healthy as I can for this? As I’m getting older I know that injuries will be more prevalent.

So how do you alter your lifestyle to prevent injury?

It’s not like I’m living as I did when I was 26. I want to do this, this is my main priority, so in doing so, [I need] different workouts, different rest, different pace.

A lot of guys play video games. What do you do to unwind?

Chess. It’s on that table over there.

And your greatest stress reliever?

Right here [points to the weights]. If I’m angry, if anything is bothering me — you just saw [my workout] — it’s not a sculpting deal.

What words of advice would the 2013 John Cena give to the 2002 John Cena?

Start training for the future earlier [laughs]. I went through a phase where I just thought I was bulletproof and didn’t take proper care of myself… But I absolutely regret nothing. I’m glad everything has ­happened the way it’s happened. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, then they become regrets.

You’re only 35, and WWE tends to shift the focus away from guys at around the age of 40. How do you react to that?

My goal is to do the best I can for this company — no matter what the circumstance. That’s it. And I’ve made a pact to myself that — you can tell when you’re a step behind somebody — when I become a step behind, it’s time to go.

295x198 John Cena BIf you could face anyone in their prime, past or present, who would it be?

Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Thank God he’s in his prime. I think he looks much better this year than he ever has. He truly seems focused.

What’s been your favourite career rivalry?

My all-time favourite is the Rock. Absolutely. He tends to bring out the best in everyone, that’s why I admire him so much. Whether I personally like him or not is irrelevant.

Are you looking forward to facing the Rock once more?

I’ve openly said it. I want a second shot. After losing at WrestleMania [2012], I had a pretty-much garbage 2012. That one really stung. I spent a year telling everybody I had to win that thing.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Show up to work on time. Outwork the other guy.

What final thoughts or advice would you like to share with the Men’s Fitness readers?

Fitness is goal-oriented. Stay committed to your goals. I often ­commercialise the phrase “never give up”. If you want to achieve a certain level of fitness, whether it be ­endurance, strength or appearance, you have to be committed and truly never give up.

Click here to get John Cena’s workout!