Introducing the Rock
Introducing the Rock
From his brief season of Canadian football to shortly after his marriage to Dany in May 1997, Dwayne Johnson had gone from a jobless college graduate with less than ten dollars in his pocket to a headlining professional wrestler. The success had not come easily, though. He had stayed in slum apartments and lived on the cheapest food he could buy or did without. He had also endured long, grueling days of training for many months and suffered his share of sprains, bumps, and bruises as he learned his craft. Finally, his training and other travel had taken him away from Dany for long periods of time. Now, though, the time was at hand when Johnson could enjoy the benefits of the sacrifices he had made. His new era began with a name.
Changing from Rocky Maivia to the Rock came about as part of a storyline, an angle. With each new match, Rocky Maivia gained in confidence and also in brashness. He went from being a smiling, polite, mild-mannered baby-face to a brash, cocky, arrogant, in-your-face heel, and it was working very well for him. The fans were responding to this rude, arrogant character with a great deal of enthusiasm.
According to the angle, Maivia was involved in a long-standing feud with the equally brash and mouthy Stone Cold Steve Austin. The feud was all for the public, though; privately Johnson and Austin got along very well. In fact, Austin made statements to the effect that he and Johnson actually brought out the best in each other in the ring.
According to the angle, the two were taking their feud into the ring, a challenge for Austin's Intercontinental Championship belt. Rocky Maivia's public challenge made WWF wrestling history. It changed his name. "Stone Cold Steve Austin, I'm challenging you for the Intercontinental championship," Johnson taunted, "and if you have any manhood at all, you'll accept my challenge. And if you do accept my challenge, then your bottom line will say: 'Stone Cold—has-been. Compliments of . . . The Rock!'"11
This statement started a wildfire of words and insults between the Rock and Austin which increased in intensity in the weeks leading up to the match. This was good for Johnson because interest in the Rock also ramped up considerably as the well-publicized feud with Austin progressed toward the big grudge match, the challenge for Austin's championship belt. By the time of the actual match, in December 1997, Johnson's alter ego had pretty much achieved superstar status and the Rock had become a household name among wrestling fans. The match, a pay-per-view event, was held on December 7 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Whatever the fans were expecting when they crowded into the stadium for the event, it certainly was not what they witnessed. Since Austin was a heel, too, he fought dirty and won the match. He did this by driving his truck to the ring as though he were trying to run down someone, and, among other things, put one of his signature moves, a stunner, on a referee. He also used the move to bring down the Rock.
Austin had the belt, but, according to the angle, McMahon, the owner of the WWF, was furious at the outcome. He said that Austin had used his truck as a weapon and ordered a rematch the next night. Rather than turning over the belt, though, Austin put the stunner on McMahon, and also according to the storyline, threw the championship belt into a nearby river. McMahon awarded the championship to the Rock as a forfeit. Many fans did not like the way the Rock got the belt, and it brought him more attention. As the Rock, Johnson said later in an interview:
Hey, is it my fault that Austin was afraid to get into the ring with me again? . . . He gave up the title to me rather than lose it in the ring, which is exactly what would have happened. He knew it, I knew it, everybody knew it. Austin's a coward. He'll come out there with his big truck, or he'll attack the Rock from behind, but when it came to a face-to-face match, he wanted no part of that. Where's his guts?12
Regardless of how he obtained the championship belt, though, the win meant more publicity for the Rock, and as anyone in the wrestling business knows, any publicity is good publicity. Despite his brash character, though, the Rock had a code of behavior. If an opponent beat him fairly, the Rock would admit it publicly, with a few appropriate "wait until next time" statements thrown in so no one would think the Rock was getting soft. Winning or losing, however, was not the issue. It was all about the publicity and the ratings—whatever brought in the fans. And the fans were showing up in droves to see what this big-mouth character called the Rock was going to do next. Whatever it was, it was sure to be entertaining. The more fans, the more tickets and pay-per-view fees. The more tickets and pay-per-view, the more money for the WWF. It was the sort of situation in which everybody in the business won, and one of the biggest winners was the Rock.
Over time the Rock became, if anything, even more brash and arrogant. Most people refer to themselves in the first person. The Rock, however, referred to himself in the third person. For instance, if he made a statement about an upcoming match, he would not say, "I will win this match." He would say, "The Rock will win." However, he would phrase it much more colorfully. In fact, some of the Rock's quotes became part of the wrestling scene. He once said, "The Rock will take you down Know Your Role Boulevard, which is on the corner of Jabroni Drive and check you straight into the Smackdown Hotel!"13
When making announcements in the ring or giving interviews, the Rock could not bring himself to say something as commonplace as "Do you understand?" Instead he would say "Do you smell what The Rock is cooking?" He was big, arrogant, and very vocal. In fact, many said the Rock had a big mouth, yet he also had the size and skill to back up whatever he said.
He fed on the jeers and taunts of wrestling fans. He was getting exactly what he wanted, becoming one of the best-known heels in the business. For the Rock, any attention was good attention. The fans even reacted wildly when he raised his right eyebrow. He called this the "People's Eyebrow."
Meanwhile, in another angle, jealousy was brewing among the Nation over the attention the Rock was getting. In fact, Faarooq, the leader of the Nation, did not like it at all. After all, he, Faarooq, not the Rock, was the leader of the Nation. The Rock was only the new guy on the team. Jealousy continued to mount. With two such strong personalities, it was not long before a full-blown power struggle for leadership of the Nation began.
As usual, the Rock, always the attention-grabber, had something arrogant to say:
I've got power because I've got the belt. What's he [Faarooq] got? He has a big mouth, but he doesn't have anything else going for him. The Rock is the leader of this group. The Rock is the best Intercontinental champ in history. I've proven myself. The Nation of Domination is mine. The Rock is just better suited to being a leader. If Faarooq really thought about things, he'd realize he's better off taking a lesser role with The Nation.14
The feud with Faarooq came to a head during a match between the Rock and Ken Shamrock during WrestleMania XIV on March 29, 1998. Although both wrestlers were heels, the Rock had gone by the rules during the match; Shamrock did not. Shamrock chose to ignore the referees and refused to break a hold on the Rock when the referees ordered him to stop. When they tried to physically break his hold, Shamrock slammed all of the referees to the mat and pinned the Rock, who appeared to have incurred a leg injury. Although Faarooq was ringside, he did nothing to help his teammate who was suffering under Shamrock. Despite his illegal moves, Shamrock thought he had won the match. However, due to his behavior in the ring, the decision was reversed. The Rock retained his Intercontinental title.
Drugs and Other Health Issues
Although the outcomes of most professional wrestling matches are determined in advance, wrestling can still be hard on the health of the performers. Many professional wrestlers are on the road three hundred or more days out of the year. If they have downtime due to accidents, they lose money, so some wrestlers work despite painful injuries. Some turn to painkillers. Although painkillers numb the pain, they also make the wrestlers feel tired and slow. Because of this, they take other drugs to speed up their bodies so they can perform. Not only is this mixture of drugs dangerous in the short term, it is also addictive.
Another drug problem that the wrestling industry as well as other professional sports contends with is steroid use. Wrestlers have to have big, strong bodies. They can make their bodies large by gaining a large amount of weight, which can be a danger to their health. Instead, some turn to steroids to bulk up. However, steroid abuse can also affect the minds of its users. They sometimes become violent and out of control, as in the case of Chris Benoit, who allegedly killed his wife and child and then took his own life on June 25, 2007.
Although he still had his title, the Rock was angry because Faarooq had not helped him in the ring when Shamrock had been trying to break his leg. The other members of the Nation were angry, as well. They felt Faarooq had betrayed the Nation by not coming to the aid of a teammate. Because of his bad behavior, the team kicked Faarooq out of the Nation. Of course, this began another major feud, leaving the Rock and Faarooq bitter enemies. The new feud brought larger crowds to their supposed grudge matches. One of these matches was the "Unforgiven" pay-per-view event in April 1998, when Faarooq, Shamrock, and Steve Blackman defeated Faarooq's former teammates, the Rock, Brown, and Mark Henry. Of course, what these well-publicized events actually did was made a lot of money for the WWF and increased the popularity of the wrestlers as well as their income. In the fall of 1998, Johnson signed a new contract with the WWF that would earn him a minimum of $400,000 a year. In addition to his new contract, the Rock made another career change. He left the Nation and joined another group, the Corporation, which had been formed by Vince and Shane MacMahon in the fall of 1998. Among the Corporation were the Big Bossman, Commissioner of Slaughter, also called Sergeant Slaughter, Pat Patterson, and Gerald Brisco. The Rock was billed as the Crown Jewel of the Corporation.
He now referred to himself as "the People's Champion." He had a signature move called the "People's Elbow" which he used to "lay the smack down," defeating his opponents. Of course, the name, the character, and the words were all a part of the whole entertainment package. Whether the Rock was winning against Mankind and Ken Shamrock in Breakdown- The Steel Cage Match or losing the Intercontinental title to Triple H, both of which occurred in 1998, the Rock was still a winner because each match increased his popularity. As the Rock's popularity rose, Dwayne Johnson's income rose, whether from WWF contracts, endorsements, or other opportunities. This all meant money in the bank and financial security for Dwayne and Dany Johnson.
By now Johnson and Dany were living in a home with closets that were probably larger than some of the ratty apartments Johnson had occupied in Calgary and Memphis. The secondhand SUV was long gone. They no longer needed to be on a tight budget and could pretty much afford whatever they wanted in the way of homes, entertainment, food, clothing, and vacations. This was because not only was Johnson successful as a wrestler, Dany was also a successful businesswoman, a financial planner.
The couple had everything money could buy, but the fame and fortune came at a high price. For instance, Johnson and his wife lost much of their privacy. They could no longer take a walk in the neighborhood, go shopping at the mall, or go out to a movie without being mobbed by fans. While many fans were polite and waited for an appropriate moment to approach Johnson to have their picture taken with the Rock, others were rude, pushy, and demanding. In fact, sometimes they would physically push Dany out of their way, shoving themselves between her and her husband. Whatever the behavior of the fans, though, outside the ring Johnson was unfailingly courteous, thoughtful, and polite, especially with his youngest fans, the children. He knew that many of them looked up to the Rock and wanted to be like him. Because of this, one way Johnson put his fame to good use was by always trying to be a good role model. He once said,
There's a huge responsibility. It's extremely important to me, outside of the ring, outside of the character, that these kids realize you have to go to school, get your grades, make sure your grades are up, and do the right thing. It's hard in this day and age to escape the peer pressure. But, believe me, look peer pressure in the face and tell those other guys who want you to do drugs or to take pills or take crack or smoke whatever it is, and say, "Hey, I'm going to do the right thing." It's just that simple.15
Johnson knew that fame had other downsides as well, such as getting a swelled head and becoming too impressed with one's reputation. Sometimes, whether in wrestling or any other entertainment field, when people become stars they lose sight of who put them there, and the people who put them there are the fans. Johnson knew firsthand that some big names in the entertainment industry refused to talk to fans, give autographs, or have their pictures taken.
Before Their Time
Owen Hart's 1999 death resulting from a mishap during a stunt at Kemper Arena in Kansas City occurred before thousands of wrestling fans. Hart was not the only wrestler to die young but most wrestlers died outside the ring. A few, like Frank "Bruiser Brody" Goodish and Dino Bravo, died violently. Goodish was stabbed to death during a fistfight in Puerto Rico in 1988. Bravo was gunned down, gangland style, in his Quebec apartment in 1993.
Other wrestlers died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. This list includes Louie Spicoli, lady wrestler Miss Elizabeth, and Crash Holly.
A surprising number of wrestlers have died as the result of heart attacks. This includes Eddie Guerrero, who succumbed to heart failure in his Minneapolis hotel room in 2005 at the age of thirty-five. Other heart-related deaths include Road Warrior Hawk, dead from a heart attack at forty-two; Hercules Hernandez, who suffered a fatal heart attack at forty-seven; Big Bossman, heart failure at forty-two; and the British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith, dead from a heart attack at thirty-nine. Experts attribute some of these deaths to long-term steroid use and some to the repeated blunt-force trauma of wrestling matches, while others are due to natural causes, such as family history of heart disease.
He had also seen colleagues in the wrestling business abuse and misuse the opportunities fame had brought them. Some were involved in public brawls and other out-of-control behavior. Some damaged their minds and bodies with drugs. Alcohol and drug abuse had even taken the lives of wrestlers and other sports figures. Johnson chose not to go down that path. He respected his life, his family, his health, and all of the opportunities he had been given. He would not waste them.
Another wise move Johnson made was keeping his eyes open for any of the variety of opportunities that came his way. By now, wrestlers, like other sports figures, were earning additional income from product endorsements and appearing on television programs other than sporting events. Sometimes they had cameo roles in television comedies and dramas. Cameos are brief roles with few spoken lines. For some, these cameo roles led to larger parts, both on television and in the movies. Johnson carefully considered each opportunity he was offered, and when a good one came along he took advantage of it. However, it was wrestling that had made him rich and famous. For a while longer, it remained his main focus.
Johnson was not about to drop his wrestling career and jump into an acting career, something he knew little about, but he did consider his options as he continued wrestling. Johnson appreciated all of the benefits that came along with the increased popularity of professional wrestling and especially the popularity of his character, the Rock. He had earned his success, though, as well as the friendship of some of his former wrestling idols.
The last months of the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century brought both triumph and tragedy into Johnson's personal and professional life. One of the saddest events in his life occurred on May 23, 1999, in Kansas City, Missouri. The Rock and the other wrestlers were in their dressing rooms, waiting to be called to the ring for their own matches. In the meantime, Johnson's friend and former mentor, Owen Hart, waited high above the crowd in the arena's rafters, ready to perform one of his scene-stealing stunts. According to the plan, he would be lowered from the arena's ceiling and into the ring by a cable to make a grand entrance for his match, a stunt he had performed previously. Some say the cable snapped. Others say he became disconnected from it. Whatever the cause, Hart plunged over 50 feet (15m) to his death. Fans and performers alike were stunned and heartbroken by the accident. Owen Hart, the incorrigible joke-ster, had been a beloved member of the wrestling community. One teenage onlooker said, "We thought it was a doll at first. We thought they were just playing with us. We were really shocked when we found out that it was no joke."16
From WWF to WWE
The World Wrestling Federation announced its name change to World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., on May 6, 2002. One issue causing the name change was the World Wildlife Fund, which also used the WWF logo. Another reason for the change had to do with the growing diversity of entertainment properties connected with the organization.
Linda McMahon, CEO of WWE and wife of Vince McMahon explained the change: "As World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, we have entertained millions of fans around the United States and around the globe. Our new name puts the emphasis on the "E" for entertainment, what our company does best. WWE provides us with a global identity that is distinct and unencumbered, which is critical to our U.S. and international growth plans."
WWE is headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut, and has offices in New York City, Chicago, London, England, and Toronto, Canada.
World Wide Entertainment, Inc., news release, May 6, 2002. www.corporate.wwe.com/news/2002/2002/_05_06.jsp.
Having to go into the ring such a short time after Hart was taken away by ambulance was one of the hardest things the Rock and the other wrestlers had ever had to do in their wrestling careers, but they did it. In the entertainment industry, the show must go on. While wrestling is a sport, it is also entertainment, so, putting aside their personal feelings, the wrestlers took their turns in the ring. However, all storylines and scripts planned for the following night's event were scrapped, and the program was dedicated as a tribute to Owen Hart.
Johnson had his share of wins as well as losses the last six months of 1999. He beat Billy Gunn in the SummerSlam in August, and with Mick Foley, won the Tag Team titles from the Undertaker and the Big Show in September. And again with Foley, he won the Armageddon match against the New Age Outlaws on December 12.
However, in addition to wrestling, Johnson had the chance to try several other things. He was involved in writing his autobiography, released in 1999, titled The Rock Says . . . . This book ultimately reached number one on the New York Times best seller list. He also made his acting debut, both on television and in the movies. He had several television roles including one episode of That Seventies Show, titled "That Wrestling Show," in which he played his father, Rocky Johnson, and one episode of The Net, in which he played the character Brody. In March 2000 he guest hosted Saturday Night Live, acting in several skits, and he played the Champion in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. He also had a cameo role as a mugger in the motion picture The Long Shot, filmed in 2000.
Johnson's first big movie role, though, was as Mathayus the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, which was released in 2001. In order to act in this film, he had to take some time off from his WWF duties. Although he was very happy to have a significant role in a major motion picture, 2001 was a special year for another reason. His wife Dany gave birth to their daughter, 7-pound, 10-ounce Simone Alexandra (3.5kg), born August 14 in Davie, Florida. Next to his wedding day, the birth of his daughter was the most important milestone in Johnson's life. Despite the Rock's tough guy image, with his little daughter Johnson was a total softie. In a recent interview the wrestler and action movie star openly admitted he is totally in his daughter's control: "I'm wrapped around both of her little fingers! I'll do anything to keep that smile on her face."17
Johnson is a hands-on parent. His devotion to his daughter and his ability to step away from any tough guy or celebrity persona and proudly and openly admit the power his daughter has over him only adds to his approval ratings. His popularity has led to a number of games and promotional items. The Rock and some of the movie characters Johnson has portrayed have appeared in a number of computer games and as action figures. Even after acting for several years, Johnson still gets a kick out of seeing these characters leaping across the computer screen or in toy stores. Despite his success Johnson takes none of this for granted: "It never gets old for me, whether it's seeing myself in a video game or as an action figure or on a movie poster or in a movie trailer—it never gets old or lost on me."18