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Cena first watched wrestling at age 10, then became hooked when he got a chance to report on it.
Cena first watched wrestling at age 10, then became hooked when he got a chance to report on it. (Jason Johns for the Boston Globe)

Pinning a persona

When he's not at City Hall, he's ringside as 'Johnny Fabulous'

METHUEN -- During the work week, John J. Cena sits in a quaint office as the city assessor and marries couples on the side as a justice of the peace. He speaks passionately of love, marriage, and property values and wears the uniform of white dress shirt, khaki slacks, and tie.

But on weekends, he enters the wrestling ring and transforms into Johnny Fabulous, a Donald Trump-like character who wears a dark suit and a darker pair of shades and heckles fans without mercy. His villainous wrestling persona is so believable that a 72-year-old woman threw a beer in his face, with an obscene gesture for good measure, at one match in Sturbridge.

"I sound like Superman now, I know, but . . . when I walk through that curtain, I'm Johnny Fabulous, and there's only one thing that means anything to me, that I'm rich, I'm famous, I'm smart, I'm wise," he says, in character. "You're poor, you're stupid, you're fat, you're ugly, and you work for a living."

Cena, 63, of West Newbury, is also the father of World Wrestling Entertainment's reigning champion, who has the same name.

But he says the acting bug was in his blood long before his son became famous. He performed in theater at both Beverly Trade School and North Shore Community College in Beverly.

He first watched wrestling at 10 years old but was captivated in college while writing obituaries and feature stories for the Salem Evening News. His editor sent him to the Boston Garden with two tickets to each wrestling show on the condition he turned in stories on the matches.

The sport later became an important way to bond with his five sons, who often wrestled one another on the cellar floor of their home.

"I got cable TV in my house when they were small for only one reason, so we could watch professional wrestling on Saturday mornings," Cena said.

Next to his justice license in his office hangs an autographed photo of his famous son, flexing and shirtless with sagging shorts and a backward cap. Cena's son said he and his father had their own scuffles during his unruly teen years. But their final fistfight, when he was 18, led to lifelong respect.

"That was the first time I ever said I love you to my Dad," John Cena said by telephone this week before a match in Sacramento, Calif. "It was just so stupid. We just realized how much we both meant to each other."

Before every WWE match, Cena's son throws his shirt and hat into the crowd, then kisses a set of dog tags he keeps around his neck. They are inscribed with the names of his mother, father, and brothers.

A decade ago, the elder Cena was searching for something to keep him busy while separated from his wife, when he answered a newspaper advertisement seeking a ring announcer near Salisbury Beach. The show's organizers loved his voice so much that they put him in the action as a manager.

"My old man can hold an audience like nobody," his son said. "Throughout his life, he's done just that, whether it's just talking at a barbecue or a family dinner or a trip to the grocery store. . . . He has the type of personality that demands your attention."

As the bad guy, Cena had to create a character that people hated. For Johnny Fabulous's fiery debut in Salisbury, he sat in the audience wearing sunglasses and taking notes on a yellow legal pad. "Look at that fat slob in the ring," he remembers shouting. "He couldn't wrestle if he tried."

If he gets slapped in the face, Cena said, he has done his job. "It's a character; it's a persona," he said. "In order to develop a character and make it believable, you first have to believe who you are."

At a recent New World Wrestling match in Attleboro, Fabulous entered to the same glitzy effects as at a professional wrestling match, the flashing lights, a fog machine, and blaring music. But this was a snug, wood-paneled Moose lodge.

The blue and yellow ring left little space for 50 spectators, and some wrestlers' tall, leather boots kicked the ceiling tiles when they were tossed in the air.

"He said I was going to be fat and middle-aged or something," said Russ Morris, 18, of Oxford, who had asked Fabulous to quiet down and was offended at his response. "I was just eating my French fries, and I didn't want to hear him yelling."

Cena is just as tough on marriage as he is in the ring. As a divorcé after 34 years of marriage, Cena has refused to marry 13 couples who he says were not ready to commit.

Unlike in wrestling, he said, there are no timeouts in love. "It's not just a bunch of words," said Cena, who does not accept money and asks couples to send a check to charity instead. "It's like everybody is involved, you believe what you're doing, and they believe what you're saying, and that's really what it's all about."

Cena himself is single and looking. But, he says, you might see a woman by his side soon, at least in the ring. "Behind every great man there's a great woman," Cena said. "We're trying to find this person that can be the woman behind Fabulous."