This coming Saturday, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson turns 43 years old, and in celebration of Old Man Johnson’s upcoming birthday, we’re taking a look back at another chunk of his electrifying life.
We recently got you up to speed on The Rock’s early years as a rough and tumble kid growing up in a cash-strapped wrestling family, and we’re now delving into his prime era. Well, “prime,” if you like pro wrestling more than car chase movies. From his debut in 1996, to his departure for Hollywood, The Rock’s time on top of the WWE/F was brief, but very bright. Here’s a few factoids from the era when you couldn’t help but smell what The Rock was cooking…
1. Dwayne Johnson was initially reluctant to call himself “The Rock”. Last we caught up with Dwayne Johnson, he was debuting in the WWF as the perpetually smiling third-generation blue chipper, Rocky Maivia. The crowd didn’t respond particularly well, buring Johnson in deafening “Rocky sucks” and “die, Rocky, die” chants. Thankfully, this was 1996, not 2006, so instead of sticking to their guns and continuing to force-feed fans Rocky Maivia, the WWF brain trust decided a change had to be made. When Johnson was briefly on the shelf for a minor knee injury, it was decided he would return as a member of the Nation of Domination under the under a somewhat tweaked name: The Rock.
One problem… there had already been a few Rocks in pro wrestling. The most famous was Don “The Rock” Muraco, who was a close friend with Dwayne Johnson’s dad, Rocky Johnson. Our of respect for Muraco, Johnson initially refused to call himself The Rock. It took a bit of cajoling (Johnson continued to go by Rocky Maivia for a while following his heel turn), but he eventually saw the light. Probably for the best, being that the one time Rock got to name himself, he crapped the bed with Flex Kavana.
“What about Pump Abobo? Mondo Liftman? Is anybody even listening to these great alternatives?”
2. He was mentored by Bret Hart when he first started in the WWF. The Rock’s version of the Sharpshooter is one of the most appalling holds in pro wrestling history. Many have speculated that Rocky defiling the move was an intentional WWE jab at Bret Hart, but it turns out that Rock’s Sharpshooter is a tribute to Bret Hart, who he considers one of his mentors. He’s just not very good at it.
According to The Rock, a lot of the other wrestlers were about as thrilled to have him around as the audience was when he first debuted. The Rock and Bret Hart are as different as two wrestling personalities can be, but Bret would often ride with alongside Rock on the buses and share helpful tips of the trade with the youngster. To this day, both guys continue to speak glowingly of one another. That said, Mr. Excellence of Execution isn’t about to let that Sharpshooter fly…
3. Meng was the best man at Rock’s wedding. By 1997, Rock’s career was starting to heat up, and away from the ring, his personal life was also falling into place. In May of 1997, Dwayne Johnson married his longtime girlfriend Dany Garcia, and Rock’s best man was MASTER OF THE TONGAN DEATH GRIP, MENG (he’s one of The Rock’s many “uncles”).
Everybody in wrestling has a Meng story, most of which involve terrifying violence and/or bitten-off noses. The Rock’s was just a bit more romantic than most.
There was no getting cold feet at The Rock’s wedding.
4. The Great One needed surgery to reduce his man boobs. The Rock always seems to have something snappy to say about everybody else’s appearance, but the artist behind “classic” tunes such as “Bitch, You Look Horrible Tonight” had his own cosmetic issues early in his career. Put simply, the guy had man teats.
Not even crossed-arms and a title belt bra can contain young Rock’s moobs.
There’s been plenty of murmurs about what might have caused Rocks gynecomastia (it can be caused by steroid use), but it was probably just genetic. A lot of the guys in Rock’s extended family could have done with a manzier. So, there was a reason The Rock was wrestling in a shirt in early 1999 like he was an Uso or tubby, late-career Rey Mysterio. I’m guessing there was a fear his post-surgery pasties probably would have detracted from his main-event brawls with Mick Foley.
5. Rock didn’t apologize for his vicious chair shots during his “I Quit” match with Mick Foley for years. Speaking of Rock’s brawls with Foley, the most infamous of them was their “I Quit” match for the WWF title at the 1999 Royal Rumble. Foley is handcuffed towards the end of the match, and Rock assaults him with a series of unprotected chair shots that would turn Balls Mahoney’s stomach. Foley was only supposed to take around five shots, but Rock baseball swung for his head 11 times, leaving Foley with a four-inch gash in his scalp and dislocated jaw. To make matters worse, Foley’s wife and children were at ringside, and, as captured by the documentary Beyond the Mat, they became understandably distraught watching their husband/father get legitimately destroyed in the ring.
Foley, no stranger to brutal matches, has repeatedly said Rock’s chair shots were one of the hardest, most painful things he’s ever absorbed in the ring. Again, this is a man who had his ear torn off while wrestling. For his part, The Rock has said a combination of inexperience and “getting carried away” led to him laying the chair shots in to a dangerous degree. It would take him a while to admit that, though.
While there was a great deal of concern for Foley backstage after the match, The Rock never came to check on Foley or apologize for going overboard. You can see Foley expressing his anger over Rock’s absence after the match on Beyond the Mat, and according to his second book, Foley would secretly hold onto that resentment until he and The Rock finally talked it out in the early 2000s.
6. The “This Is Your Life” segment was mostly improvised, and Vince hated it. Foley may have been a bit sore, literally and figuratively, about Rock’s out-of-control chair shots, but that didn’t stop the duo from forming the Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection, a wacky mismatched tag team that unexpectedly spawned the most watched segment in Raw history.
Rock and Foley’s infamous September 1999 “This Is Your Life” segment was goofy as hell and didn’t really lead to anything, but it was unfathomably popular, pulling in a ridiculous 8.4 rating. Interestingly, despite what Vince Russo will probably tell you, there was no script for the segment. Rock and Foley had a basic idea of what characters would be coming out, but all their lines were improvised. Considering the segment was actually funny, I suppose it’s not surprising that WWF writers had little to do with it.
Not everybody was wowed by Rock and Foley’s improv shenanigans, though. Vince McMahon was blowing his stack backstage because the segment was going so long. As I recall, the segment did feel unusually long at the time (not that I minded), but the whole thing was actually around 23 minutes. These days, Randy Orton can eat up 23 minutes describing how tag match works.
7. He turned down a feud with Shawn Michaels. The Rock has wrestled pretty much every big name there is to wrestle, with one major exception. The Rock has never thrown down with Shawn Michaels, and that was apparently very much by choice.
I can think we can be fairly certain this guy was to blame for whatever beef existed.
By most accounts, Rock isn’t one to play backstage politics. The guy’s lost as many matches as he’s won and has never had a problem working with almost anyone, but for whatever reason, ol’ HB Shizzle rubbed The Great One the wrong way. Of course, Michaels was out of action for a good chunk of Rock’s career, but the idea of a Michaels/Rock feud floated around at one point. Surprisingly, Rock shot it down…
“I can remember many, many years ago, Pat Patterson asked about [wrestling The Rock] and I said, ‘Sure, whoever you want.’ But he wasn’t interested, and that was it.”
Around a decade ago, WWE.com directly asked Rock about possibly wrestling Micheals, and he was surprisingly forthright, particularly for an interview on the WWE’s corporate website…
“I was never ever interested in working with him, to be honest with you. I’ve known him for a long time. He came in and worked for my family in Hawaii when I was like 13. It was just one of those things.”
Rumor has it, it was those early days in Hawaii that spawned the real-life Rock/Michaels animosity. Apparently, Michaels may have said something derogatory about Rock’s wrestling promoting grandmother, Lia Maivia, and you best believe Rock won’t forgive any unkind words said about his gramma. Whatever the reason, the usually happy to glad hand Rock continues to be a be a bit standoffish about HBK to this day.
8. Rock’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live kickstarted his movie career. By 2000, Rock had already done pretty much everything a person can do in the wrestling industry. To take his career to the next level, Rock would have to do something different. It turns out that something different was dressing up like a monkey and humping somebody’s leg.
Rock’s first gig as host of Saturday Night Live wasn’t the stuff of comedy legend. (He dressed up as a lady in one sketch! Can you even believe it?) But it opened Hollywood’s eyes to his potential. They weren’t about to hire some lowly wrestler, but this guy on SNL seemed like he could roll with the punches. Almost immediately after Rock appeared on the show, movie offers started to roll in.
9. Rock wrestled a mere four full years for WWE. The Rock’s Italian loafers may have left a big imprint on the world of pro wrestling, but the man’s full-time career was remarkably short. Rock debuted in November 1996, and by 2001, he was already taking significant time off to film movies like The Scorpion King.
Finally, The Rock gets to fight while wearing extensions.
Rock only worked a full-time schedule for a relatively measly four years (’97, ’98, ’99 and ’00). To put that into perspective, Heath Slater has been on WWE TV for almost five years. Rosa Mendes has been around for more than six. Zack Ryder has had eight. Use your time wisely, is what I’m saying.
10. Dwayne Johnson made a record-setting amount for his first starring movie role. In 2002, The Rock would star in his first movie, The Scorpion King, which would immediately land him in the Guinness Book of World Records. Rock was paid $5.5 million for the movie, which was, to that point, the largest stack of cash anybody had ever been paid for their first starring role.
Needless to say, the writing was on the wall for The Rock’s wrestling career. Honestly, WWE had been lucky to hold onto the guy as long as they did. In 2002, it was time for The Rock to leave the building.
And so, another chapter of The Rock’s life comes to an end. Know any interesting stories I missed? What are some of your favorite memories from Rock’s $500 shirts and sideburns era? Shine your comments up nice, turn ’em sideways and, uh, post them nicely in the comments section.