The greatest of all WWF Attitude era superstars was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and not because of what he did but how he did it. Steve Austin may have been more popular and HHH may have had better matches but no one epitomized everything that was good about the Era moreso than the Rock. Even though he has wrestled briefly in the WWF from 1996-2002 and took lengthy breaks between 2001 and 2003, the matches and moments that the Rock left behind have stood the test of time and proven that not only was he one of the most entertaining guys on the mike but he was one of the greatest workers in the ring.
To tell great stories while wrestling is difficult. To cut promos that engage the crowd is an equally unflattering task. To do both, time after time, is the Holy Grail which every wrestling promoter seeks within a wrestler that is capable of electrifying the crowd verbally and gripping them athletically while making a company successful financially. Most wrestlers, even the greatest ones, survive just by image and talk. Not the Rock. The Rock has not just the look and the acting, but also the drive and the passion that makes him a phenomenal worker. No other wrestler has proven his legitimacy both in the ring and on the microphone. Only a handful of people come to mind: Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart; Ric Flair and Curt Henning; Brian Pillman and Steve Austin; there may be more but the important thing here is to establish the company that the Rock belongs in.
Like his contemporaries Austin, HHH and Foley, the Rock had a troubling start in his WWF career. When he debut in 1996, the Rock was pushed as a new sensation and a representative of a new generation of WWF wrestlers. Tailor made as a clean-cut fan favorite and the “Blue Chipper”, the Rock was not given time to improve his in-ring ability, despite a monster push and an Intercontinental title win, and it showed: with the exception of a couple good matches with HHH and Bret Hart, his wrestling was sloppy, awkward and undeveloped, a contrast to what was to come later in his career. As a result, he was hugely booed and jeered by a majority of fans, who randomly chanted the ever classic “Rocky Sucks” and “Die Rocky Die”. Poor Rocky had to smile while the fans heckled him greatly.
In April 1997, after the Rock lost the Intercontinental title to Owen Hart, he took time off to heal an injury and returned in late summer that year. But this was not “The Blue Chipper” that the WWF had been pegging for the duration of winter 1996-spring 1997. This was the new Rock, the heel Rock, the one Rock who got fed up with the lack of gratitude from all “you pieces of craps for my blood, my sweat and my tears”. No longer calling himself Dwayne Johnson or the son of Rocky Johnson or even Rocky Miavia, the Rock started to refer to himself in third-person and even called himself “The People’s Champ”. A star was not so much born as revitalized.
The transformation of the Rock’s persona was perfect for the forthcoming Attitude Era. While positive role models were met with strong apathy, fans became increasingly intrigued by the rebellious nature of unconventional antiheroes like Steve Austin, Diamond Dallas Page, Sting and eventually the Rock. The Rock’s new attitude, his arrogant characteristics and his boasting as a “People’s Champion” was a complete reversal from his goody-two-shoe character that he had the indignity to play and it was a beneficial one at that: by being himself instead of catering to the fans like a reject from the 80’s Rock N’ Wrestling Connection, the Rock wind up doing what the WWF writers could not do in his early days: make people take him seriously. The Rock did become the ideal representative of the new generation but not in a way the WWF originally intended.
But to express admiration for the Rock simply because he changed his character is to overlook many other positive aspects that distinguish the Rock from, say, Hulk Hogan and make his work less dated in retrospect. What strikes many people today is how fresh his promos and matches are. Most promos and matches are good for nostalgia but watching the Rock talk and wrestle 15 years from now can still resonant with wrestling fans today. And I believe that the reason for his success is his ability and determination to prove that he was more than a mouthpiece. Contrary to what many people say, the Rock truly is a workaholic and if he senses an error he made in any match, he will erase it in the next one. His willingness to improve and passion to give his all makes him a breed apart from those who succeed through being a charismatic talking head.
Nowhere was this more evident than in 1998. 1999 and 2000 may have been the peak of his creative and athletic powers but 1998 was where he truly came to his own as a star. As months passed, his interviews became increasingly confident; his wrestling ability continued to improve; and his heat had gotten larger to the point that he was cheered. To watch the Rock wrestle Ken Shamrock in an insubstantial but very entertaining IC title match at WrestleMania XIV and then compare it to his defense against The Sultan at WrestleMania XIII, it was like watching a dropout become a graduate. When he faced Triple H in the ladder match at SummerSlam in MSG and got a standing ovation for his effort, he pretty much earned his Masters.
Even though the Rock was (and still is) a great wrestler, people will always remember him the promos he gave. And, my God, were those promos funny as hell. Promos are often used to either establish a character or move the story along but the Rock took them to another level by inserting moments of intricate humor, psychological mind games, blazing tension and verbal fistfights that would have made Ric Flair blushed. Whether he’s insulting the police by telling them to stick their jelly donuts up their rear ends; commenting on how Jericho was getting his ass kicked by Juventud Guerrera; hyping up the handicap match with Foley against Evolution; challenging Hulk Hogan to a match at WrestleMania X8; mimicking Triple H’s caveman-like mannerisms on the mike; mocking Toronto fans for cheering at the mention of their city name; or going back and forth with John Cena on the mike, the Rock brought an intellectual and emotional edge to the art of promos that has rarely been matched. As a result, his promos are fresh, no matter how many years go by. People will always be amused by Hulk Hogan showing off his 25 inch pythons but the Rock playing the role of God to insult a wrestler’s ability, despite winning the 1999 King of the Ring, feels relatively modern in comparison.
But the greatest reason for the freshness and the endless appeal of the Rock’s popularity is his passion for storytelling. The Rock may not have been a technical wrestler like Bret Hart or an all-around pure athlete like Shawn Michaels but he equals those two in terms of pure, unbridled passion and he uses that to create some of the greatest stories in wrestling. His handicap matches against Degeneration X, T & A, Edge & Christian and Big Boss Man & Bull Buchanan are textbook examples of how to book a handicap match where an underdog guy who has no friends somehow manages to overcome the odds against a number of guys in a coherent fashion. His matches with Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle were just as much about him proving he was a sound wrestler as it was about trying to prevent a bullying heel, an arrogant rock star and a goofy, self-centered Olympian from beating him through cheating, illegal tactics and wrestling prowess. His battles with Steve Austin, the Undertaker and Triple H were good, old-fashioned and exhilarating clashes of dark vs. light, good vs. evil, virtue vs. vice, with the villains’ henchmen trying to put down a struggling but resilient hero. And his fights with Mankind gave the impression that even an underdog with abnormalities can win the big one. Many have told these stories before but none with more vigor, greater emotion and with such a sustaining amount of interest.
Not only was The Rock one of professional wrestling’s best storytellers; but through acting and wrestling, he made some of the greatest wrestlers of all time excellent and some of the most substandard ones great. The Rock had this gift to bury wrestlers on the mike, only to elevate them into monsters and legitimate contenders while wrestling them. And even when he won, he always made his opponents look like stars. Some of the most popular wrestlers like Hogan, Nash and Goldberg rarely did that and even some of today’s greats like HHH, Undertaker and Austin were hesitant to make their adversaries look like champions.
I believe the perfect way to illustrate this point is to compare HHH’s feud with Booker T in 2003 to The Rock’s feud with the Big Show in 2000. Booker T was a considerably better in-ring performer than the Big Show (for obvious reasons) and a better talker but HHH made Booker T look like he was not capable of being a champion. In his promos leading up to WrestleMania XIX, HHH put down Booker T citing his criminal record and never offered him a comeback and when the match took place at XIX, HHH beat Booker T and the man disappeared into the midcard. Booker T was proven that he did not have what it took to hang out with the main eventers.
In contrast, look at the Rock’s feud with the Big Show. Throughout 1999-2000, the Rock cut hilarious promos where he basically insulted his character, ridiculing the man’s weight, hairstyle (“Somebody got a haircut”), entrance music (“Well, it’s the Big Slow”) and overall athleticism (“I’m gonna take a leak. This guy sucks”). Now watch the Rock wrestle the Show at the Royal Rumble 2000, at the PPV afterwards No Way Out and then his WrestleMania title shot bout on RAW with Shane McMahon as the guest referee. In those three matches where he only lost one, the Rock made the Big Show look like a killer, a menacing giant that was a force to be reckoned with. It’s primarily because of the Rock that people took the Big Show seriously as their own 911.
This would not be the last time that the Rock was capable of making opponents look like menacing foes. Throughout 1999-2003, rather he was making fun or wrestling Foley, Austin, HHH, Benoit, Jericho, Angle, Rikishi, Guerrero, Kane, Hogan, Lesnar and Goldberg, even when he won, the Rock made all these men look like stars. When the Rock wrestled Chris Benoit and sold the Crippled Crossface like a horrific torture device, many really thought Benoit was going to beat him. In the last month of his Honky Tonk-esque reign as WWF Champion in 2001, the Rock made Kurt Angle a dangerous heavyweight champion (watch his match at No Way Out 2001) after Angle spent months playing second fiddle to Austin-HHH and the McMahon family saga. Rikishi, Kane and Goldberg, three lesser opponents compared to Angle and Benoit, all benefited from the Rock and were seen as legitimate threats, not “hosses” (as JR would say). And in the case of Lesnar, a lot of people did not buy him as a credible main eventer until the Rock feuded with him into SummerSlam 2002. And when the match took place, Lesnar was over big time and even received an enormous face pop when he beat the Rock. It is a testament to the consistency and passion of the Rock that all these men became stars that met the hype, rather than underachievers that had potential or overachievers that had little merit.
Even though the Rock has been spending more time making movies, the legacy he has left behind still lingers in the WWF. Few wrestlers can bring so much to the table and leave behind something that will have people talking. Even to this day, the Rock is a hot topic, so much that the WWF brought him back to book a feud between him and John Cena. Like the Rock, John Cena has proven himself to be a perfect package of charisma, passion and work ethic. But whereas the Rock has been warmly embraced for what he has been doing, Cena has been vilified for those same reasons. Rather than use that to attack Cena, though, the Rock has done a direct opposite: he is putting him over. He is helping him make people take him seriously. And did I hear fans cheer Cena just now?
Even to this day, the Rock is still doing the right thing.