Q&A: WWE superstar John Cena 'honored' to host ESPYS

May 19, 2016, 11:55 AM

— -- LOS ANGELES -- John Cena takes a deep breath and laughs when he is asked what he plans to do as the host of the ESPYS in July.

"I'm still trying to conceptualize it," he said. "This all just happened a couple days ago. I really don't know yet."

Cena has some time to figure it out before he hosts the 24th annual ESPYS, which will air live on ABC on July 13 (8 p.m. ET) from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

The 15-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion will be the first professional wrestler to host the annual sports awards show and just the third athlete, joining LeBron James, who co-hosted in 2007 with Jimmy Kimmel, and Lance Armstrong in 2006.

While Cena has never attended the ESPYS or hosted an awards show, it didn't stop him from jumping at the chance when he was contacted last week.

"They asked, and of course I said yes," Cena said. "It goes without saying it's a tremendous honor. The prestige of the show grows every year. It's unbelievable. I obviously accepted, but it doesn't go without its share of nerves. I just want to do the show justice. I'm going to do my due diligence and hopefully we can have a great show."

Few professional wrestlers outside of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson have enjoyed the kind of recent crossover fame as Cena. He is currently hosting "American Grit" on Fox, has a featured role on E!'s reality show "Total Divas" (and the upcoming spinoff "Total Bellas"), and has shown his comedic chops in films like "Trainwreck" and "Sisters." Cena, who is recovering from shoulder surgery performed in January, will return to WWE's "Monday Night Raw" on May 30 after co-hosting NBC's "Today Show" that morning, and he has no plans of hanging up his iconic shorts and sneakers anytime soon.

"I'm going to be wrestling for as long as I can," Cena said. "It's something I'm very passionate about and something that I love."

Cena took time to chat with ESPN.com about hosting the ESPYS, being at a crossroads in his career, and the newfound acceptance of pro wrestling by mainstream media outlets.

You've never hosted an awards show before, but you do perform regularly in front of 15,000 fans at arenas around the country. How is that going to prepare you for an opening monologue where you might be joking about, for example, LeBron James and Cam Newton while they're sitting in front of you?

It's going to be different. It's not really my style to go into this and just trash everybody. That's not the way I do business. I hope that's not the way it works out. I appreciate these athletes and I know they are heroes to many people, including myself, and it's not like I'm going to go in there trying to be too cool for school and try to be way smarter than the room. I'm going in there as appreciative of the athletes as everyone watching the show. I'm sure you'll see good times and humor done as good as it can be, but most of it will be bouncing off of me.

You were nominated for the Sports Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2015 after granting over 500 Make-A-Wish requests, more than anyone else. What is your relationship like with the foundation?

The relationship is fantastic and it's something I will do for as long as I can be involved. The number to me is just something that can raise awareness. When other people hear the number of wishes and talk about it, that raises awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. That's why the number matters. I'd like to do something more, and hopefully in the future I'll do so much more, but with milestones and accolades come more exposure for the charity and foundation -- and that's a good thing.

You were also at the Invictus Games, which aired on ESPN, earlier this month in Orlando. What was that experience like?

The experience was phenomenal. It was unbelievably inspirational. ... I'm having trouble describing it because I was so moved by it. I was a guest coach for a wheelchair rugby match, and within the first five minutes of the first practice I immediately said I want to be involved for as long as they will have me. I think the Invictus Games is something the world needs to know more about. What it does for the competitors and what it does for the families and what it does for the wounded warriors and their support system is nothing short of phenomenal. More people need to know about it. I cannot wait to go back next year.

It seems like mainstream outlets are more open to covering WWE than ever before. What is the significance of a WWE superstar hosting the ESPYS?

It's greatly significant. I've worked my entire career to try to broaden the perception of the WWE. A lot of folks think because we're so entertaining and oftentimes have such wild and well-defined characters that it's all we are. It has kind of been my life's work to tell the public that's not true. To be able to host an event like the ESPYS and be able to do all the things I've been fortunate enough to do outside of the WWE, and all the while still return to the WWE, hopefully it's a step in the right direction.

It's no longer taboo for pro wrestlers to talk openly about character development and storylines, just like actors talk about roles they play in movies or on television. How has that helped break the walls down in terms of getting mainstream coverage?

We could have that conversation all day. I'm kind of a unique example in that I use my real name. I don't have an overly crazy look to me. It's something that fits everywhere rather than, like, The Undertaker, for example. He doesn't use his real name and he is characterized as a dead man walking. It's not something you can see in everyday places. It's great for promotion and success within our realm but very difficult to promote and succeed outside our realm. I just want to be a vehicle to let everyone know we're doing some good things over here. I think a lot of those opportunities are now coming to fruition for the other WWE superstars, as well.

Some athletes like playing on the road because the negative reaction fuels them. There are a lot of arenas you go to where you get booed and hear "Cena sucks" chants. How do those crowds affect what you do?

It completely dictates what I do. It's not in a negative way at all. Excitement is excitement, whether it's excitement in appreciation or excitement in hostility. It's all noise and it's all excitement and it's all anticipation and it's all things that we strive off of. It completely makes me handle situations differently and I owe my career to it. It's what allows me to think on my feet. It's what keeps me sharp and keeps me listening to those that paid their hard-earned money to watch me. Some performers can't adapt to an ever-changing audience and an ever-changing crowd, but I thank our fans, our WWE Universe, every day. They've given me such a crash course for having a fine-tuned sense of what's going on and how to respond to it so I can do the best I can to give people who actually paid to see me the best show possible.

You're kind of like the Drake of professional wrestlers in that you've worn basically every jersey in sports at some point during your 14-year WWE career. Do you have any teams that you are a die-hard fan of?

No, and I think that's a great thing. I think that's what is going to help me as an ESPYS host. I'm not geographically nailed down to rooting for one team, therefore alienating 99.9 percent of the audience. I appreciate sport for the story of sport. There is nothing that captures emotions like pure sport. It really is fascinating and, of course, what I do for a living, I look at pure sport and I look at the confrontations and the stories behind it and it helps fuel what I do. It's actually a good thing for me to be a nonpartisan presenter, I guess. That way I won't have any angst towards the athletes. The ESPYS are about appreciating moments in sports and not looking down on it because it's maybe not your favorite athlete or your favorite team. I'll be with most every fan and appreciating those moments.

Fair enough, but that probably wasn't always the case when you were growing up in Massachusetts. What are some of your favorite memories growing up around sports in New England?

I remember as a young child the first time I went to Fenway Park. The Red Sox, geographically I guess growing up, were my team. I just love being in any ballpark. I remember being at Wrigley Field, and just being in the ballpark is a fantastic experience, and Fenway is the same way. I got to attend one of the final games at the old Yankee Stadium. Those types of events, even if it's a regular-season game, feel like so much more than that when you're at one of those old ballparks. Just the tradition behind the stadium and the teams make every game feel like something more than just a regular-season game. It feels like you're a part of history.

With movie roles in "Trainwreck" and "Sisters," you surprised a lot of people who weren't familiar with your wrestling career. What has the reception been like, and have you received similar roles for other movies?

Yeah, so far, I've been seeing similar roles. We do some really good work every week in the WWE, but oftentimes it takes you going out of your comfort zone, and "Trainwreck" was certainly that. It was a great opportunity and I'm glad people thought it was funny. It has   led to some other cool opportunities that I hope will be just as successful down the road.

Your relationship with fellow WWE superstar Nikki Bella has been chronicled on "Total Divas." What has that been like for you, to have cameras following you for the past three years?

That's a bit difficult for me, but I love Nicole to death. She has a drive and a work ethic that is inspirational to me. She had a wonderful opportunity and was brave enough when the WWE came to the cast of ladies with the idea for a show that makes their private lives public. A lot of them said no, but she was one of the very few who said yes and has now created a brand that is six seasons strong and has been fortunate enough to get other opportunities. It's not something I would have pursued, but because it can help Nicole out and I love Nicole very much, I do what I can for her and her show.

You became fluent in Mandarin during your time with the WWE. How did that happen?

The WWE actually offers a second language program that is free to talent, and the first day that they offered it was the very first day that I signed up, and that was almost four years ago. I figured if it was offered to the talent for free, as one of the top performing talents I should lead by example and try to learn a language.

You've been able to do so much outside of wrestling over the past few years. You turn 40 next year. Have your goals changed given your mainstream success?

My goals don't change. It's the same thing when I started in 2002, it's to get the mainstream audience a better perception of what WWE does. I am so passionate about what we do and I'm so quick to promote the WWE as a brand because I'm so loyal and passionate about it and I want everybody else to feel the same way. There are so many people that don't watch our product at all and have preconceived notions about who our performers are and what they do, and my goal next month or five years from now is to change that perception. There are some very talented individuals that perform for our brand. I think our brand of entertainment is up there with anything as far as live experience. I want people to know that. It's not uncool to do what we do.