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WWE Superstar John Cena's Best Performances Onscreen And In The Ring

John Cena has been bringing his mantra with him — "Hustle, Loyalty, Respect" — into the ring and onto the screen for 20 years.

By Benjamin Bullard
Wrestler John Cena in a green shirt and hat holding a mic

From the day he stepped into the WWE ring to answer Kurt Angle's open challenge 20 years ago, John Cena has been an entertainer at heart. Since then, the WWE Superstar has inspired millions with his mantra — "Hustle, Loyalty, Respect" — leading the charge. His storied career in the ring has given way to a small- and silver-screen career that rivals those of even the biggest stars, and his penchant for well-timed wisecracks and a charming lack of self-consciousness has made him one of the funniest, most beloved character actors working today.

With his 20-year anniversary in the WWE fast approaching, we felt it appropriate – no, necessary to look at Cena's career thus far and celebrate his many accomplishments. The below list of his best onscreen roles and moments in the ring is far from comprehensive, but we've done our best to pick the best of the best.

Peacemaker

It’s a no-brainer to start with the series that’s got Cena on everyone’s mind right now. Just as with some of his biggest WWE moments, the artist formerly known as The Prototype catches lightning in a bottle (plus a few alien butterflies) as the over-the-top antihero of HBO’s Peacemaker. Spawned from James Gunn’s 2021 movie take on DC’s do-or-die, dirty-business comic book cleanup crew, Gunn and Cena team up to crank to eleven the sleazy, cheesy laughs that shot out the barrel in The Suicide Squad, and things promise to get even wilder as the series heads into production for an already-ordered second season.

Peacemaker’s uncompromising commitment to kill for peace, illustrated to such devastating effect with Rick Flagg’s death in The Suicide Squad, makes way on the TV series for our testosterone-soaked hero to show a surprisingly big heart — though he still can’t string two words together without hilariously putting his foot in his mouth. Gunn’s bonkers Peacemaker premise works because of Cena’s likable charisma, which somehow wins you over even when he’s being creepy. Plus, how can you say no to those dance moves?!

Winning Over The WWE With 'Ruthless Aggression'

Cena had already risen through the ranks of a legendary class of Ohio Valley Wrestling crew alumni in the early 2000s, earning his up-and-comer stripes alongside icons like Brock Lesnar and Dave Bautista. But his next step into the WWE mainstream rates as one of the most memorable in the burgeoning sport’s big-ticket history. Vetted as a potential star by Vince McMahon just as the WWE was poised to embark on a new promotional era, Cena picked up the gauntlet challenging the sport’s new blood to ascend to stardom in grand fashion.

In the summer of 2002, during what’s celebrated these days as an instant SmackDown! classic, Cena stepped forward when wrestling titan Kurt Angle laid down an open call for new blood to come forward and answer McMahon’s dig-deep summons for someone to prove their commitment. In his WWE television debut, Cena did just that in a big way, declaring to Angle that he indeed possessed the “ruthless aggression” McMahon was looking for — and then he jumped right in the ring to prove he wasn’t all talk. Cena lost his debut match, but earned oceans of immediate respect from both fans and industry veterans on that fateful night 20 years ago. As his ensuing WWE career would go on to demonstrate, the rest, quite literally, was history. 

The Suicide Squad

In a superhero comedy where Sylvester Stallone and Margot Robbie could’ve stolen the show for their over-the-top roles (as King Shark and Harley Quinn, respectively), it was Cena who stalked away from James Gunn’s wild island showdown with his own HBO series in hand.

Aside from the rest of the (literally) killer cast, The Suicide Squad is where Peacemaker first proved his fervor, in no uncertain terms, to bump off every last obstacle standing between humanity and sweet, sweet peace — even if it meant killing the leader of his own crew. We’ve gotta admit, we’re still sour about the dirty death blow Peacemaker delivered to Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) in one of the film’s few totally serious scenes. But true to his talent, Cena knew just how to play it straight when Peacemaker had to shoulder a big movie moment like that, a skill that would go on to come in super, super handy when HBO yanked him on board for the roller coaster ride — complete with deep-seated daddy issues — that marked the Gunn-scripted TV series’ first season. 

The Royal Rumble Surprise Of 2008

Cena was the biggest thing going for WWE Raw by 2007, but a legitimate injury during an October match against Mr. Kennedy that year threw what looked to be a major wrench into his larger WWE takeover plans. Cena tore his pectoral muscle, requiring immediate surgery that was expected to require up to a year to rehabilitate. But with fans and WWE foes alike assuming he’d be nowhere in the picture for months to come, Cena seized the moment to show the world how close to superhuman his recovery speed truly is.

At WWE Royal Rumble in January 2008 — only three-and-a-half months after shearing his pectoral muscle from the bone — Cena shocked the wrestling world by strutting into Madison Square Garden in his trademark jorts not only to announce his return but to toss Triple H right out of the ring and lay claim to the Raw title in a wrestling comeback story for the ages. And broooo! — did we mention he also had to endure an elimination gauntlet that included Dave Bautista just to remain the last one standing? 

Bumblebee

Really, what’s not to love about a role that puts Cena in military gear and tasks him with a square-jawed determination to save his home planet from Decepticon-orchestrated destruction? That’s pretty much the part Cena plays to the hilt in Transformers movie spinoff Bumblebee, vying with the lovable titular yellow Volkswagen for eyeballs (and with star Hailee Steinfeld for some of the movie’s best one-liners). As Sector 7 agent Jack Burns, Cena’s character is meant to be mission-focused and perhaps a step slow to grasp the alien-led scope of the threat Earth is facing, and he deftly swerves back and forth between playing the part of a momentary villain and eventual good guy.

With Autobots closing ranks to protect the people, Cena’s not exactly piloting his helo into Oscar-winning skies here. But he dives into his big, bad government boss role head on, passing up no popcorn-munching opportunity to endear Agent Burns as an old-school action hero even a bug-eyed alien can’t deny.

Clocking The Rock At WrestleMania 29

Cena and The Rock: Wrestling spectacles don’t get bigger than this. Undeniably the WWE’s two biggest Superstars, this dynamic duo set the stage for WrestleMania 29 with a year-long storyline stemming from their WrestleMania main event matchup a year earlier — an epic tussle from which The Rock eventually emerged victorious. Fast forward 12 months, and the encore face-off had fans frothing for a rematch that could somehow surpass the previous year’s “Once In A Lifetime” billing.

At what went on to become the most-watched PPV event in WWE history, Cena delivered one Attitude Adjustment after another in a classic back-and-forth fight that finally found The Rock down for the three-count — only after vitally misjudging just how much fight Cena still had left. Before their classic 2013 showdown, Cena was already flying about as high as any WWE Superstar could. But after this, every pro on the planet — including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — had to respect the big, bright target on his back as an 11-time WWE champion.

Dallas & Robo

With the success of Peacemaker and a chameleon-like string of character switch-ups across his WWE career, Cena’s versatility as a hunk with acting skills hardly needs to be called into question. But if there’s still any lingering doubt, all you’ve gotta do is check out his brief but fun stint as the voice of a deep-thinking, philosophizing AI in the short-lived animated series Dallas & Robo.  As the red robotic half of the show’s titular duo, Cena trades sass and enlightened class in equal measure with Dallas, his trashier space-truckin’ partner voiced by MCU and 2 Broke Girls veteran Kat Dennings.

Cena actually brings flavor to a voice cast spiked with standouts all around: In addition to a regular lineup that also features Stephen Root and Tim Blake Nelson, Dallas & Robo also welcomed fun recurring and guest turns from Giancarlo Esposito, Jan Lynch, Sam Raimi sibling Ted Raimi, and Reno 911 mastermind Thomas Lennon. How’s that for some seriously funny comedic company?

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