Making His Name

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Making His Name

One Foot in the Big Time

A Learning Process

First Success

Baby-face Blues

Learning the Angles

Downtime and Major Changes

The Heel

For a young man still in his mid-twenties, Dwayne Johnson's life had already undergone many changes. As a child, moving frequently with his family to follow his father's wrestling opportunities, he had lived in many parts of the country. He had graduated from college and gone through a very disappointing and discouraging time when his football career did not work out the way he wanted. After that, he had chosen a career that most people would find intimidating and physically demanding. Though many people enjoyed watching wrestling, very few would want to do it themselves.

For months Johnson had put in many long, hard days, paid his dues, and waited. Now, it appeared that he was going to begin enjoying the fruits of his many months of hard work. This was the most important move, the one that would really begin his wrestling career. After one more long drive, he would finally be in the big time. He would actually be a part of the World Wrestling Federation, working with the best wrestlers in the country and preparing for his WWF wrestling debut. However, the matter of a ring name was still a problem. Not only did he not have one, he could not even come up with any ideas for one. One thing at a time, though. First, he had to get to Connecticut and learn the WWF way of doing things.

One Foot in the Big Time

Johnson was put through his paces in Stamford for more than two months. He trained for many hours every day, working on different moves and routines. Even the moves he thought he knew well he learned to do better. While working to perfect his moves and routines, Johnson still needed to settle the matter of his ring name. The WWF officials suggested the name Rocky Maivia. At first Johnson resisted. He had not changed his mind about what kind of wrestler he wanted to be. He did not want costumes, body paint, or other gimmicks, and he did not want anyone to think that he had used his father's and his grandfather's careers to get him into the WWF. However, the officials convinced him that by using parts of his father's and grandfather's names, he was not trading on their careers; he was honoring them. Once it was explained to him that way, and after discussing it with Dany and his family, Johnson decided he could use the name with a clear conscience. After all, he had a great deal of respect for both his father and his late grandfather.

Madison Square Garden

Madison Square Garden is probably one of the most famous sports and entertainment arenas in the United States. Called the Garden by local New Yorkers, the current Madison Square Garden, the fourth by the same name, was built in 1968 above a working railroad line. The name Madison Square Garden has two sources. One is the location of the first Garden, at 26th Street and Madison Avenue. The other is Madison Square Park, a beautiful nineteenth-century garden and park located in New York City.

The current Garden underwent a $200 million renovation in 1991. Today, it is the home of the New York Rangers hockey team, the New York Knicks basketball team, and the New York Liberty ladies' basketball team. It is also a home arena of the WWE, the site of several WrestleMania and SummerSlam events. In addition to sports, the Garden also hosts many popular music events and graduation ceremonies. It is also the site where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is staged when it comes to New York City.

Finally, on November 17, 1996, the newly named Rocky Maivia made his official WWF debut in the WWF Survivor Series in Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was by far the most important day in Dwayne Johnson's life. The Garden was far different from any other place he had wrestled. He was awed by the sheer size of the place. Johnson had been used to much smaller crowds. The matches he fought in makeshift rings on parking lots drew dozens to maybe as much as a couple of hundred wrestling fans. The smaller arenas held several hundred. Madison Square Garden had seating for up to twenty thousand wrestling fans.

In addition to being a huge facility, the Garden was careful about security. No behavior problems with unruly fans were tolerated at Madison Square Garden. Rules concerning fan conduct were in writing. Fans were to be respectful to those around them. They could not interfere with the events in any way. Offensive language, fighting, and throwing objects were not tolerated. Whether or not they drank alcohol, the fans were responsible for their own behavior. This meant that all the wrestlers had to worry about were their opponents, not the behavior of the spectators. In the event some fans chose to test the rules, security personnel were on hand to enforce them.

The Garden has an impressive history. The current Garden, opened in 1968, four years before Johnson was born, was actually the fourth Madison Square Garden. The first one opened in 1879. Since its creation, the Garden has had the reputation of hosting world-class sporting events and the best of entertainment. When Dwayne Johnson, aka Rocky Maivia, stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden that November day, he was not just performing in his first WWF event, he was becoming part of the history of the Garden.

A Learning Process

For this match, eight wrestlers, four to a team, would fight until all of the members of one team had been pinned. Rocky Maivia was teamed with Jake Roberts, Marc Mero, and Barry Windham. Their opponents were Jerry Lawler, Crush, Goldust, and WWF Intercontinental Champion Hunter Hearst Helmsley. In addition to the huge crowd in the Garden, the event was also televised via pay-per-view. The spectators in the crowd and the viewers at home had one thing in common: Few if any of them had heard of Dwayne Johnson, and no one had ever heard of Rocky Maivia. Since his new persona was unknown, when Rocky Maivia entered the WWF ring that first time, the fan response was lukewarm, at best.

First, Roberts took down Lawler, then Goldust pinned Wind-ham. This left three men standing on each team. When Mero pinned Helmsley and Crush pinned Roberts, each team was down to two men. Maivia was one of the two remaining members still on his feet. First, Maivia pinned Crush, then he took down Goldust. Half an hour after entering the ring, Rocky Maivia had pinned his team's last opponent to the mat, and his team had won the match. It had been an impressive debut for Rocky Maivia, and Johnson knew that every wrestling fan, at home or in the Garden, who had seen the match would remember his new ring name. This win began the process of building his reputation as a professional wrestler. Johnson knew he was still very much in a learning process, though, and his matches were pretty much warm-ups for the headlining bouts. At this point in his career, he basically smiled at the fans and kept his mouth shut. He was concentrating on his performance as a wrestler, not on developing a personality to support his ring name.

First Success

Rocky Maivia's first major success occurred just a few months after that first match in Madison Square Garden. On February 13, 1997, with just three months of experience as a WWF wrestler, he won the Intercontinental Championship by defeating Paul Michael Levesque, known as Triple H. This win made Johnson the youngest Intercontinental Champion in the history of the WWF. He was three months short of his twenty-fifth birthday. Johnson was happy with the direction his career was moving. He was appearing in many matches throughout the country, winning an impressive number of these matches and starting to become a "name" as a professional wrestler. However, when it came to his ring character, the polite, smiling Rocky Maivia, something was missing. At the time, Johnson thought the problem was that he had taken this title so early in his career that the fans simply were not buying it, as though they thought the championship had come to him too easily. But then the fans had no way of knowing about all of the work he had done to get ready for his first championship match. Even though the "win" had already been scripted, professional matches have to be well rehearsed and the wrestlers have to be in top physical form so they will not be injured. Whatever the reason, though, baby-face Rocky Maivia was not getting the kind of fan response Dwayne Johnson wanted for him.

Baby-face Blues

Johnson was a very attractive young man with a dazzling smile and a pleasant personality. These were the same qualities he brought into the ring as Rocky Maivia. Because of this, he was labeled a baby-face, or face. In wrestling terms, a baby-face is a good guy, a wrestler with a clean image who is usually on the fans' good side. In fact, fans usually cheer for the good guys but not in Rocky Maivia's case. Not only did the fans not cheer him, they actually jeered him and threw verbal insults as he walked down the aisle and entered the ring for his matches.

Despite the mostly unexpected fan reaction, though, Johnson stayed with the role of baby-face throughout the rest of his first season with the WWF, ignoring the taunts and smiling as he approached wrestling rings in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He also kept his head down and mostly stayed to himself during the long traveling time. No one on the tours knew him very well, and he really did not know any of them. One exception was Bret Hart, who, like his brother Owen, befriended the twenty-four-year-old wrestler, a kindness Johnson never forgot.

However, Johnson was making his name, and his income had improved dramatically. For that alone, he could handle a few insults and some lonely days. He did, however, draw some favorable attention. During his first short season with the WWF, he was number three among the candidates for Rookie of the Year.

Learning the Angles

As he wrestled in different parts of the country, Johnson became involved in angles, which are carefully staged and planned fictional storylines played out in the ring. Some angles involve single matches; others, however, are played out over several years. Angles are played as long as the storyline and the wrestlers involved are popular with the fans. The success of the angle is based on the strength of fan response.

As Johnson knew when he entered the business, although wrestlers are highly trained athletes engaging in a potentially dangerous sport, wrestling is still entertainment—acting, with a lot of very physical stage prowess. As in other forms of entertainment it is all about the show and showmanship, selling the angle. Just like actors in stage plays, wrestlers follow cues. These cues let the wrestlers know what is supposed to happen next during the match. By following the cues, wrestlers can make their battles in the ring look real and sell the match to the fans. The cues also lessen the possibility of being injured. Like a play in rehearsal, wrestlers will work before a match to plan their spots, moves designed to get a certain type of reaction from the fans. Sometimes a spot does not work as planned. This is called a blown spot. A highspot can be either a top-rope move or a series of moves that appear to be particularly dangerous and usually draw a "pop," or a big response, from the fans.

A no-show can also be part of an angle. A no-show is a wrestler not showing up for a match. No-shows are usually staged as part of a storyline. Very seldom do wrestlers simply not show up for matches because this can result in being fined or fired.

Johnson, however, followed the rules and played by the numbers. He was a good guy both inside and outside of the ring. WWF officials told him to keep smiling and acting like he was glad to be there. So, no matter how hard it was to keep smiling while half of the fans in the arenas were hurling insults, that was exactly what he did—for as long as he could.

In the spring of 1997 Johnson's parents and his girlfriend Dany came to Chicago to watch him in a match. Rocky Maivia was defending his Intercontinental title against a heel character called the Sultan. Rocky Maivia successfully defended his title, beating the Sultan and the match even got a good "pop," or favorable crowd reaction, from the spectators. Despite this, though, the jeers and insults continued as he left the ring. Neither Johnson, his family, nor Dany could understand the crowd's reaction. The spectators shouted "Die Rocky, Die" and worse. Not content to just shout insults, the fans even began making insulting signs and holding them up during the matches.

However, Johnson reached the point where he could no longer ignore the jeering and insults. He continued to do his job in the ring, and do it well, but he stopped smiling. Finally, something happened that gave Johnson the opportunity to take some down-time and to change Rocky Maivia's personality for good.

Downtime and Major Changes

Later in the spring of 1997 two important events occurred. First, Owen Hart won Rocky Maivia's International title. Second, in a match with Mankind, Johnson suffered a knee injury that forced him to take some time away from the wrestling business. To recover properly, Johnson would have to stay out of the ring for at least two months. Johnson put this time to good use. He and Dany had already become engaged, and so they planned to have their wedding during his recovery time. By now Johnson had earned a name in the wrestling business, but Dany's parents were not particularly impressed. Although he was successful, he was still a wrestler. They knew wrestlers spent a lot of time on the road and that an injury could end his career. Because of this and other issues, they were very resistant to the idea of their daughter marrying him. However, they knew the couple was determined to be married, and so they put aside their personal differences to help the pair plan a unique wedding celebration, a family event that would honor Dany's Cuban background as well as Johnson's Samoan culture.

Dany and Dwayne Johnson were married in an outdoor ceremony on May 3, 1997, the day after Johnson's twenty-fifth birthday. The bride wore a beautiful traditional white gown with a flowing train and carried a cascading bouquet. The groom was classically handsome in a black tuxedo. With his best man Uliuli Fifita, the wrestler known as Haku, standing by, the couple said their vows beneath an arch of flowers.

After the ceremony wedding guests were entertained by a Polynesian band and dancers. Johnson's mother even performed a traditional Samoan wedding dance, and the wedding banquet was similar to a Hawaiian luau. In another departure from traditional receptions, in addition to a wedding cake the guests were served chocolate chip cookies, one of the groom's favorite treats. The number of guests was larger than the couple first expected. In fact, as a sign of respect, many of Johnson's Samoan relatives traveled great distances to witness his marriage and take part in the celebration. Dany's and Johnson's parents finally met for the first time at the wedding. This could have been a tense time, but everyone put aside their personal opinions to support Johnson and his new bride on their day. If the ice was not completely broken between Johnson and Dany's family, it had at least begun to thaw.

Johnson was happy to have Dany as his wife, and even though it was a happy moment in his life and one he had wanted for a long time, marriage was still a major change for him. However, this was not the only way his life was changing at this time. Johnson was preparing to make a big change in his career as well. This change would require completely overhauling the personality of Rocky Maivia, because Johnson did not want to go back to work as a baby-face. Fortunately, the WWF officials were in total agreement with him about making the change from baby-face to heel. In fact, once he was recovered from his injury and ready to go back to work, they asked him to join the Nation of Domination. The Nation, as it was called, was a "stable," or group of wrestlers who share some common element. The Nation was composed of a group of "heels," or bad-guy characters, and was led by Ron Simmons, known in the ring as Faarooq. Other members of the Nation at that time were D'Lo Brown and Kama Mustafa.

Ron Simmons: The Rock's Rival

The name Ron Simmons may mean little to wrestling fans, but the name Faarooq is sure to ring a bell. In the 1990s, Faarooq was the leader of the Nation of Domination, a stable, or group, of mostly African American wrestlers. His leadership of the Nation, as the group was called, ended in 1998 at the hands of the Rock.

Though professional rivals, Faarooq and the Rock had similar backgrounds. Simmons was born in 1958 in Marietta, Georgia, but like the Rock, his first sport was football. Simmons was a high school football star and then attended Florida State University. From 1977 to 1980, with Simmons playing defensive nose guard, the Florida State University football team, the Seminoles, was nearly unstoppable. The team played in Orange Bowl championships during Simmons's junior and senior years. While still at Florida State, Simmons was inducted into the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame. After university, Simmons spent the first half of the 1980s playing professional football, first with the Cleveland Browns, and then with the Tampa Bay Bandits.

In 1986 Simmons was recruited into wrestling by Japanese wrestler Hiro Matsuda, who also trained him. Simmons made his professional wrestling debut in the fall of that year. His full-time wrestling career spanned more than twenty years. He is currently involved in public relations work with the WWE.

The Heel

Johnson's first appearance as a heel took place in Jackson, Mississippi, in August of 1997. After an absence of more than two months, Rocky Maivia rocked wrestling fans when he made his official debut as a bad guy. Faarooq was pinned by the wrestler Chainz. Maivia jumped into the ring on a "run in." A run in is a wrestler who is not actively participating in a match jumping into the ring to come to the aid of one of the wrestlers.

The fans expected Maivia to play his usual baby-face role by helping Chainz, who was also a good guy. They were shocked when he came to Faarooq's aid instead and choke-slammed Chainz. Although he was already committed to them privately, this was Rocky Maivia's very public uniting with the Nation. Rocky Maivia was thoroughly and loudly booed by the fans. The noise level was incredible. He had been booed and jeered before, but this was different. The fans were showing enthusiasm for Rocky Maivia like they had never shown it before.

Johnson had been waiting for this very kind of fan response for his ring character for a long time. In the wrestling business, this is called a push, something that causes a wrestler to gain in popularity. In this case, Rocky Maivia had become a wrestler the fans loved to hate.

However, Johnson had one concern about being part of the Nation. At this time, the Nation of Domination was composed almost entirely of African American wrestlers. At first Johnson was worried that joining the Nation would make him appear to be a racist, aligned only with people of his race, and having been on the receiving end of racism at different times in his own life, that was the last thing he wanted wrestling fans to think of him. Young people watched the matches and, even though he had turned heel, Rocky Maivia was still a role model. He intended to set the record straight immediately. He wanted his fans to know exactly why he had chosen to join the Nation and that it had nothing to do with the color of anyone's skin. He said, "Joining the Nation wasn't a black thing. It wasn't a white thing. It was a respect thing. And one way or another, from now on, Rocky Maivia is going to get some respect . . . by any means necessary."10

The Nation of Domination

The Nation of Domination was a militant "heel" stable in the WWF for two years, from November 1996 to November 1998. Loosely based on the Nation of Islam, the group was originally led by Faarooq. Members of the Nation during its lifetime included J.C. Ice, Wolfie D, Crush, D'Lo Brown, Savio Vega, Kama Mustafa, and Ahmed Johnson.

The beginning of the end for the Nation occurred due to an emerging feud between Faarooq and the Rock, who had turned heel and joined the Nation. Ultimately, the Rock succeeded in defeating Faarooq and putting him out. The personality of the Nation then changed from militant to cool and gimmicky. The Rock's popularity incited jealousy among other members of the Nation, who finally jumped the Rock. This assault ultimately led to the disbanding of the Nation.

As a bad guy, this reborn version of Rocky Maivia had a lot to say. In fact, he was so outspoken it was sometimes hard to shut him up. When his fans booed and jeered at him during matches, he jeered right back at them, often grabbing the microphone from the announcer and hurling insults of his own from the ring. Sometimes he called them a bunch of jabronis—slang for "nobodies." He even insulted fans during prerecorded promotion spots. Surprisingly, the fans loved it. They went for the new Rocky Maivia in a big way.