Joining the Family Business
Joining the Family Business
After his experiences in Canada, Johnson's self-esteem was at an all-time low. He had returned to Miami broke, with his tail between his legs like a whipped puppy. He and Dany discussed whether or not his chances with the NFL might be any better the next year. They talked about what kind of job he might be able to find in the Miami area so he could support himself and they could remain together. They also discussed the possibility of Johnson changing careers, an idea he had been considering during part of his time in Canada. He later spoke of the time when his future was just a blank wall: "My goal was to make it in the NFL. I played with a lot of great players in college who went on to have illustrious, incredible careers and in the end it just didn't happen for me."6
Basically, Dany did not care what Dwayne chose to do. She would stand behind him no matter what. Dwayne knew that his parents loved him, but he could hardly believe he was lucky enough to have someone like Dany, who believed in him and loved him unconditionally. Finally, he made his decision. It would mean leaving Dany again, but at least he would not be thousands of miles away, as when he was in Canada. They would at least be able to see each other. All that remained was to phone his parents. This call was harder than the one he had made from Canada, telling them that he had been dropped from the team. He knew for certain his parents were not going to like what he was about to tell them.
Johnson knew his father would not like his decision. In fact, it would probably be easier to be slammed into the ground by a 275-pound defensive tackle (125kg) than to tell his father he wanted to become a professional wrestler. However, Johnson made the phone call. First, he asked his father to drive down from Tampa, where Johnson's parents were then living, and pick him up at Dany's apartment. Next, he told him that he wanted to become a professional wrestler, and furthermore, wanted his father to be the one to train him. Without a second's hesitation, Rocky Johnson got into his truck and made the exhausting 560-mile round trip (901.23km) to pick up his son.
The issue of his son becoming a professional wrestler, though, was another matter. He was glad to have Dwayne home with the family again, but he was not happy about his desire to become a wrestler. He was not going to give in on this matter without another kind of a fight, a verbal one. He intended to do everything he could to talk Dwayne out of what he thought was a bad decision. Rocky Johnson pulled no punches. He hit his son with every argument he had. All the way to Tampa, Johnson and his father discussed his situation. His father wanted him to be patient, wait for the next season, and give football another chance. After all, why would anyone spend four years in college just to become a wrestler and be slammed around a ring for the next thirty or so years? Then the frequent moves and financial hardships had to be considered, too.
After they arrived in Tampa, many heated discussions took place during the next week as Johnson went ahead and mapped out his plans. First, he needed a job. He found one as a personal fitness trainer at a local health club. The job did not pay very well, but Johnson did not need a lot of money. What he did need was access to workout equipment, which he was free to use whenever he did not have clients or the club was not busy. Also, since the job was part-time, he had plenty of time to train to be a wrestler.
Although Johnson's father was still reluctant to see his son go into the family business, if it was going to happen, then he was going to be the one to begin his son's training. From the beginning they maintained a tough training schedule. Up before daylight, father and son worked together for several hours before Johnson drove to the health club to work with his clients. When he was finished with his clients for the day, Johnson was back in the practice ring, either with his father or one of his father's friends, working on the basic moves, over and over again, until Johnson's father was satisfied that his son had the moves down just right.
Since Johnson had grown up around wrestling, he was already familiar with the vocabulary of the ring and what the names of the moves meant. When his father told him to do a certain move, he could immediately go into the correct position. For instance, one of the more common wrestling moves is called a headlock. To do a headlock, one wrestler holds his opponent's head with his arm. The body slam is a move where a wrestler picks up his opponent and slams him to the floor. Another move, and one of the most dangerous, is called the pile driver. To do this, the wrestler lifts his opponent upside down and appears to slam his opponent's head into the floor of the ring. If not done properly, this move can cause serious injury. Johnson performed every move his father called, and did them over and over. He did them as many times as his father told him to do them without complaint. Johnson understood how important it was for wrestlers to perfect every move, both to avoid injury and to put on a good show. He also wanted to perform well when it came time for his professional audition.
Training to become a wrestler was even more intense than college football training camp. As he practiced his moves, he also worked on developing what he hoped would some day become his signature moves, moves that would be identified with him. One of these moves is called the nip-up. To perform this move, the wrestler must jump straight to his feet from lying flat on the ground. He does not use his hands or even roll his body over. The move requires extreme physical agility and strength. Johnson practiced this physically demanding move many times each day. He also wanted to be able to land on his feet when his opponents gave him a backdrop, which is tossing one's opponent into the air over the wrestler's back when the opponent repels off of the ropes. Johnson was not satisfied until he thought he had perfected these moves.
Pat Patterson: Friend and Mentor
Pat Patterson was one of Dwayne Johnson's earliest mentors in the ring. A friend of Rocky Johnson, Dwayne's father, and one-time opponent of Dwayne Johnson's grandfather, Peter Maivia, Patterson had a long and successful wrestling career.
Born Pierre Clemont on January 19, 1941, the Canadian wrestler chose Pat Patterson as his ring name, but altered his ring name at times. He debuted in Montreal, Quebec, in Canada in 1958 as "Pretty Boy" Pat Patterson.
To increase their popularity, many professional wrestlers adopt gimmicks. Patterson's early gimmicks included pink wrestling trunks, red lipstick, and entering the ring accompanied by a poodle. Despite his glamour gimmicks, Patterson was a "heel" during the early years of his career. A heel is a bad guy, a villain. As part of his heel persona, he wore a head mask into the ring and hid objects in the mask that made his head butts more damaging to his opponents. He turned baby-face, or good guy, in 1972 and joined the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1979. In June of that year, he won the WWF North American Championship.
Retiring from the ring in 1984, Patterson became a wrestling commentator and an agent for the WWF. He was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly the WWF) Hall of Fame in 1996. He briefly returned to the ring in 2000, defeating Gerald Brisco with his old heel tactics. The win made him the oldest WWE Hardcore Champion. Patterson retired from the WWE in 2004.
After months of grueling work, Johnson's father decided his son was ready to be evaluated by an objective professional, and so he called on his old friend, the former wrestling legend Pat Patterson. Not only was Patterson a friend of Johnson's father, he had also wrestled against his grandfather, Peter Maivia. Patterson agreed to watch Dwayne work out in the ring to see if he thought Johnson had potential as a professional wrestler. Although it was easier for Johnson to arrange such a meeting, since his family had been in the wrestling business for two generations, he knew he would not get a second chance to make a first impression. Johnson understood how important this first impression would be to his future.
Johnson had learned his basic moves. He had also worked on timing and the acting part of professional wrestling. In wrestling, acting is called "selling." In the case of a wrestling match, a good sell would be convincing the spectators that every slam against the mat is agonizing and every time the opponent has the wrestler's head in a headlock, he is about to get his neck broken. Dany was in Tampa for the weekend and attended this workout. She did not know about the selling, though, and when she saw her boyfriend being torn to pieces in the ring, or so she thought, she broke down in tears.
At the end of the session Johnson asked Patterson if he thought he was any good in the ring. Patterson's answer was very encouraging. He assured Johnson that he had the makings of a professional wrestler, and he should continue training. Johnson knew that Patterson was an honest man, and he would not make such a statement if it were not true. That was all Johnson needed to hear. If Patterson thought he had what it took to be a professional wrestler, then he would keep working toward that all-important first match.
The wait was not as long as Johnson might have expected, though. The very next week, Patterson called Johnson to tell him he was booking him on a flight to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a tryout match. Johnson was happy and excited. He called Dany in Miami and told her the news.
With his flight scheduled and the airline tickets on their way, Johnson knew he was ready for a match; however, he needed to attend to a couple of matters first. He had been wrestling in the same kinds of workout clothing a person wore to the gym. He did not own a pair of professional wrestling trunks. In order to look like a professional in the ring, he would have to be dressed properly. Second, he needed a name to use in the ring. Although they were well-known wrestlers, he did not want to use his father's or his grandfather's name. He did not want anyone to think that he had made it to the ring riding on their careers. So, since he could not think of a professional name at that time, he decided he would take his first step into the profession under his own name, Dwayne Johnson.
In March 1996 Johnson boarded the plane for Corpus Christi and his first tryout with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). His first professional wrestling opponent was Steve Lombardi, known as the "Brooklyn Brawler." A wrestler since the 1980s, Lombardi was one of the best-known jobbers in the business. In wrestling, a jobber is basically a professional loser. If a jobber is part of a match, it is pretty certain that his opponent will win. Johnson was excited but also nervous. After all, his future as a professional wrestler hung on this tryout. However, he had worked hard and trained well. He felt he was ready.
The match was what is known in the wrestling business as a "dark match." This means that the match was not scheduled to appear on television. Despite this, though, several important people were among the spectators. One of them was Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWF. Not surprisingly, Johnson won his first match. Even though the win was a foregone conclusion, it was Johnson's performance, the way he handled himself in the ring, that impressed McMahon and the other WWF officials present. The second half of his tryout occurred on the next night. This time his opponent was Chris Candido. Before the match, Johnson and Candido spent some time planning what they would do in the ring, almost like planning a stunt scene for a movie. This was important if they were going to give a good show without anyone being hurt. However, this time the match went to Candido.
The Role of Vince McMahon
The chairman of the board of the WWE and a major shareholder, Vince McMahon is a wrestling promoter and film producer. In the world of professional wrestling, McMahon has been involved in a number of wrestling storylines, or angles. He also sometimes gets into the ring himself.
A second generation wrestling promoter, McMahon began his association with the wrestling business through the World Wide Wrestling Federation, a promotion started by his father Vincent J. McMahon. He promoted the first WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden in March 1985. In addition to wrestlers at this event, McMahon hired well-known pianist Liberace, the Rockettes, and pop singer Cyndi Lauper to perform. He risked most of his personal finances on the event, and it paid off. This event led to what has been called the Second Golden Age of Wrestling.
In the 1990s McMahon became heavily involved in WWF storylines as Mr. McMahon, the egotistical heel boss of the WWF, later the WWE. He was involved in feud storylines with Steve Austin, Bret Hart, and Mankind, among others. In fact, no storyline is too extreme for McMahon. In June 2007 he was supposedly blown up in a limousine. McMahon later assured CNBC that he was not actually dead. His "hands on" approach to the WWE has been instrumental in making it the only remaining major professional wrestling promotion in the United States.
Johnson flew home to Tampa both anxious and encouraged. He had done a good job, given a good show, and, probably the best part of the tryout, McMahon himself had seen what the young wrestler could do in the ring. Johnson knew that if McMahon had liked the match, he would probably be back in the ring soon, this time for keeps. In the meantime, he worked, trained, and waited. The hardest part was the waiting.
Several days after returning to Tampa, Johnson had his answer. He received his first wrestling contract. In the beginning, his paychecks would not be much, but it was a start, and he was delighted to have the opportunity. Johnson later recalled, "It was a very basic contract. The guarantee was like $150, which was fine with me, I was happy to get that. I knew I was going to work for everything I got."7
The United States Wrestling Alliance was born in the Memphis, Tennessee, area in 1989. It was founded by Jeff Jarrett, Fritz Von Eric, and Jerry Lawler. They were attempting to create a third national wrestling promotion. Although it was not actually a farm club and in fact had a number of its own stars, such as Jerry "the King" Lawler, Junk-yard Dog, Brian Christopher, and Dwayne Johnson, known during this time as Flex Kavana, it became a training ground for up-and-coming young wrestlers. By October 1996, though, the USWA had run its course. It disbanded after being sold to XL Sports, a group based in Cleveland, Ohio. The last USWA event, at the Big One Flea Market Pavilion, drew only 372 fans, taking in less than two thousand dollars.
First, he would go to Memphis, Tennessee, the home of the United States Wrestling Alliance (USWA). This was something like a professional football or baseball team's farm club; however, the USWA had its own stars. Though it was not a large wrestling promotion, or territory, the USWA was home to Jerry "the King" Lawler and Jeff Jarrett, both well-known wrestlers. Johnson knew the WWF people kept regular tabs on all of the USWA wrestlers. They received regular reports on the wrestlers and films of their matches. From the Memphis group they would choose which wrestlers would move up to the WWF.
In May, just two months after his first tryout match, Johnson bought a used SUV, loaded it with his belongings, and began the 850-mile drive (1,368km) to Memphis. On the long trip Johnson had plenty of time to think about his future as a wrestler. Of course it would be hard being farther away from Dany, and making any plans for their future together had to be on hold for a while. He also needed to think of a name to use in the ring and think about what type of a character he would be. All he was sure of was that he did not want to be gimmicky, with masks and flashy costumes. As he left Tampa he did not have the answers to any of his questions. He was still determined, though, that he would not take advantage of his father's or his grandfather's name. He wanted his own ring name, something that sounded a little flashy, but also strong-a name people could remember. He settled on "Flex" for the strength part and "Kavana" as a tribute to his Samoan heritage.
Looking back on it, he realized it was not really a great name, but at the time he just needed a name, and it was the best he could do. "When I said the name aloud-Flex Kavana-it sounded like a name I could live with," Johnson said. "It had a nice marketable ring to it. One thing was for sure, nobody else had ever called themselves Flex Kavana. For better or worse, it was my name."8
The Dwayne Johnson who was driving to Memphis was far ahead of the young man who had flown to Canada to pursue a football career just a few months earlier. He was a more mature person. When he had flown to Canada, he had been a kid just out of college full of hopes and dreams. This trip was different. This Dwayne Johnson was a man who had experienced real-world disappointments and hardships. He still had hopes and dreams, but he was more realistic about what it took to turn the hopes into reality, and he also knew that sometimes dreams do not come true. However, he was willing to start at the very bottom and work his way up, whatever it took.
The first news that greeted Johnson when he arrived in Memphis was a disappointment. He would not be paid $150 a match as he had first thought. As a trainee he would be paid only $40 a night. This information might have sent the old Dwayne Johnson back down the road to Tampa, but it did not faze the mature Dwayne Johnson. If he had learned one thing while in Calgary, it was how to get by on next to no money. He drove through the bleaker parts of Memphis until he found a small, cheap apartment. He signed his lease and went right to work.
In fact, only a day after arriving in Memphis, Johnson had his first wrestling event, a tag team match. As Flex Kavana, he entered the ring with a wrestler named Brian Christopher. They went against USWA star Jerry "the King" Lawler and his partner, Bill Dundee. The match became little more than a brawl, or a "schmozz" in wrestling language, but Johnson earned his first forty dollars.
Sometimes Johnson fought in professional wrestling rings, but more often than not, he fought his matches in wobbly, makeshift rings temporarily rigged on fairgrounds, asphalt parking lots, and even in barns. Other obstacles included times when the spectators were more dangerous than his opponents. Occasionally, spectators became so drunk and rowdy that they threw things at the wrestlers, causing cuts and bruises.
There were rewards, though. For example, on June 17, 1996, just a month after moving to Memphis, Johnson, as Flex Kavana, and his then-tag team partner Buzz Sawyer won the USWA Tag Team title.
His time in Tennessee also involved putting a lot of miles on his used SUV. He later described a normal Saturday's work schedule: "On Saturdays I worked a live TV show in Memphis in the morning, then drove to Nashville for a show at the Nashville Fairgrounds that evening. After that show I'd climb in my truck and drive back to Memphis. I almost never stayed overnight because I couldn't afford a hotel."9
On Saturdays alone, Johnson's round-trip drive was 430 miles (692km). Aside from his long drive on Saturdays, he drove to other matches outside of Memphis. All in all, Johnson put an average of 1,700 miles (2,736km) on his SUV every week. In a month's time, that added nearly 7,000 miles (11,265km) to a vehicle that was already secondhand when he bought it. Not only was he adding wear-and-tear to his vehicle, he was also spending a lot of his hard-earned money on gasoline.
Because of his low pay and the amount of money he had to spend on transportation, life in Memphis was a real challenge for the young wrestler. When it came to making ends meet, Johnson was cutting it pretty close. To make more money he sometimes sold his own autographed photographs after matches. He had kept up this exhausting pace for nearly six months when he received a call from the WWF. He was being sent to Columbus, Ohio, for another two-night tryout match.
He won the first night's match against David Haskins. Johnson's opponent the second night was the well-known wrestler Owen Hart. Hart was known for his sense of humor and his practical jokes, such as the false arm cast he wore during their match. He did not admit the cast was a fake until they were already working in the ring. Once Johnson understood he had been duped, they put on a good show. Although Hart won this match, he told McMahon that he thought Johnson was at least as good if not better than many of the wrestlers already working in the WWF. Over the years the two would become friends, but at that particular moment Johnson was basking in the praise of one of his favorite wrestlers, and it felt good.
Johnson was a happy man when he returned to Memphis. Hart's opinion meant a lot to him. He watched videotapes of the best wrestlers in the WWF and worked harder than ever to correct any of his weak areas. Then, just two weeks after his match with Hart, Johnson received another phone call from the WWF. This time, they did not want him for another tryout match. He would be moving for good. He was being sent to Stamford, Connecticut, which was the headquarters of the WWF. Although he had several free days before he was expected to report to Connecticut ready to work, he immediately packed his belongings. Shortly after receiving the call, Johnson was in his SUV, pulling away from the curb. He was grateful for all that he had learned in Memphis, but he was more than ready to get started on the next step in his wrestling career. As Memphis disappeared behind him, so did the ring name Flex Kavana. Johnson was headed for Connecticut and his future with the WWF, and he still did not have a proper name for the ring.