Cena is not ready to step aside from WWE despite other opportunities

John Cena admits there was significance to leaving his "Never Give Up" armband behind in the ring after his loss to AJ Styles at SummerSlam. Nick Laham for ESPN

Fifteen years into his career as a WWE superstar, John Cena has heard the rumors and assumptions regarding his future.

With myriad acting, hosting and marketing opportunities sprouting around him, fans and critics alike have questioned whether the 15-time WWE world champion might soon transition into a part-time wrestling schedule.

Further questions abound about whether Cena was ready to follow in the footsteps of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson -- whom he calls "the ideal example of WWE superstars having talent beyond the WWE ring" -- down a road toward full-time crossover into the mainstream.

Cena, 39, understands his situation to be unique.

"I'll answer it like this: Every single day that I don't have an outside obligation, I will fulfill any commitment that I have to WWE," Cena told ESPN.com. "And I will attach this quote with it that every outside obligation I have is to expand the brand of WWE and there has never been a superstar to say that before."

Cena's plate, at the moment, is considerably full. One day after competing in a triple-threat match for the WWE world championship at the No Mercy pay-per-view, he announced a partnership with Wonderful Pistachios on Monday for a new $55 million advertising campaign.

As the voice of a new character, Ernie the Elephant, Cena will debut a pair of "Get Crackin'" ads during Monday Night Football and "Dancing with the Stars." Later in the football season, he will be joined in two more ads by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

"The character has a bit of a sense of humor; he's not afraid to tell you how he feels," Cena said of Ernie the Elephant. "So I kind of fit that mold as well."

In between WWE live events, Cena has also been travelling to promote his role on E!'s new series "Total Bellas," a spin-off of its popular "Total Divas" reality series featuring WWE superstars. Earlier this year, he starred in a series of Hefty trash bag ads and hosted both the 2016 ESPY Awards on ESPN and the first season of the competition reality series "American Grit" on Fox.

Along with his burgeoning acting career, Cena has proven the crossover ability of his personal brand, from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. He's quick to remind us that it hasn't been an overnight thing.

"It hasn't been like, 'Here kid, here's the key to the city,'" Cena said. "Keep in mind it has been a 15-year journey for me and an over 30-year journey for the WWE. I guess my mission statement is now to let the world know on a global scale that WWE certainly is a wonderful form of entertainment but its superstars are more than just superstars inside the ring. They do so much more outside the ring and have so much more to offer."

Along with a tireless work ethic, Cena has become a master of corporatespeak, with subtle product references and polished responses meant to protect the interests of both the company and his own brand. It has left no surprise as to why he's so often called upon to represent WWE in a variety of public forums.

The self-proclaimed "Face That Runs The Place" hasn't been shy, either, about promoting his ability to speak Mandarin or his knowledge of WWE's business plans. Cena is a brand ambassador as much as he is a promoter, which is a role he admits that he envisioned for himself from the very first time he stepped into a WWE ring.

"It's a reflection of passion," Cena said. "The Wonderful pistachios campaign is a great example -- I don't involve myself with a project I don't feel passionate about. I could talk your ear off about internal statistics for WWE and what we have planned for the future. Why do I know that stuff? Because I like to do all that stuff.

"That sort of depth and feel isn't for everybody. Some people just like getting into the ring and doing what they do."

Along with his competing passions outside the ring, the idea that Cena was ready for a decreased workload took greater significance at SummerSlam on Aug. 21 in Brooklyn, New York. Following Cena's loss to AJ Styles, he left behind his armband in the center of the ring.

The gesture appeared to be very much symbolic of something greater, akin to when amateur wrestlers leave behind their shoes in the center of the mat following their final match. Moreover, Cena disappeared from WWE television in the subsequent weeks.

So was there significance to the gesture that went beyond Cena's on-screen storyline (which included Styles wearing the armband in the aftermath)?

"Of course there was significance for me in leaving the 'Never Give Up' armband in the ring," Cena said.

When pressed for more details, Cena wouldn't budge.

"That's for me, man," he said.

This is pro wrestling, after all. It's always difficult to tell whether a performer is furthering a scripted storyline when speaking publicly. In Cena's case, there is even more blurring of that line considering he's one of the last WWE superstars to compete under his own given name.

While Cena certainly recognizes the advantages of that, he's just as quick to admit the challenges that come with it.

"There is no off being John Cena, it's always on," Cena said. "In a way, I think that has helped me, because over the years I have been able to be humble. I have been able to be humiliated in front of the WWE universe in a good way. They have shared in my successes and my failures and it went from 12 years ago this kid trying to make it in the WWE using hip-hop as a vehicle trying to establish an identity to over a decade and a half later everybody just relating to the human being that just is John Cena."

Transitioning from a more urban and brash character to the wholesome All-American he portrays today was much more calculated than evolutionary, Cena says. He credits his forward-thinking vision that WWE would soon switch their content to a PG-rated platform (which it did in 2008) and admitted he had become stagnant as "The Doctor of Thuganomics."

"To me, there was definitely some method behind it," Cena said. "Hip-hop certainly is in sync with the youth and every day that passes I grow less youthful, as much as I have tried to hold onto it. I knew that the platform really wouldn't be indicative of success. I knew [the PG format] would just drastically change the style and almost cripple the character so I was the one proactively who said 'no' and said 'I would like to take everything another way.'"

Closing in on age 40, Cena admits that he's working smarter inside the ring and constantly evolving, but that doesn't mean he's holding back on taking risks. He quickly referenced his match with Styles at SummerSlam (praised as one of 2016's best matches), offering it up for "folks who need to be critical" to go back and watch on the WWE Network.

Cena's answers to tough questions are too well-thought out to reveal anything he hadn't planned for, making it difficult to guess just how active he intends to be as a wrestler entering 2017. He's committed to only choosing outside opportunities that reflect WWE superstars in the best possible light, in an effort to change preconceived notions of pro wrestlers outside of the ring.

In July it was announced that Fox had renewed his "American Grit" series for as second season. He has also taken on more acting roles of late, including appearances in four movies in 2015.

As far as his wrestling career, Cena remains committed to giving his all each time he steps into the ring. It's all part of what he calls an "eternal promise" he has made to himself regarding whether he can still perform at the same level of his peers.

"Right now the roster is loaded with characters," Cena said. "It demands that you perform at your best every single night. I don't believe in shortchanging the consumer. I believe in giving the WWE universe what they want and the day I can't do that is the day I move aside."