Although Dwayne Johnson is not a superhero out of a comic book, he does have an alter ego. By day he is a somewhat mild-mannered husband and father. But at night when he steps into the ring, he becomes the chair-flinging, wisecracking wrestler known as The Rock. In the late 1990s the charismatic Johnson, with his exotic good looks and signature eyebrow arch, helped make World Wrestling Smackdowns a part of must-see TV. By the mid-2000s, he had such a following that he was dividing his time between the mat and the big screen. Some observers felt that Hollywood had found its next big-budget action idol, and many predicted that Johnson would have no problem filling the shoes of America’s favorite muscleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was now busy in his new role as governor of California.
Johnson is a third-generation wrestler. His mother’s father, Peter “High Chief” Maivia, was a professional wrestler of Samoan descent whose heritage served as the basis for his ring persona. Samoa is an island nation located in the South Pacific, and Maivia played the part of an island native, wearing his hair long, wrestling barefoot, and sporting traditional tattoos over most of his body. While on the wrestling circuit he became acquainted with an up-and-coming African American wrestler named Rocky Johnson. During a visit with Maiva’s family, Johnson met High Chief’s daughter, Ata. The two eventually married, and on May 2, 1972, the couple had a son, whom they named Dwayne Douglas Johnson.
Johnson was born in Hayward, California, but he grew up all over the country, since the family moved around to accommodate Rocky Johnson’s wrestling career. Because of the family’s frequent moves, young Dwayne had a difficult time making friends. He was also teased by other children about his father’s profession, and about his size—even as a youngster, Johnson was bigger than average. As a result, he had a quick temper, and as Johnson admitted to Samantha Miller of People, he was even arrested several times for fighting. “It was all youth and stupidity,” he explained. In the mid-1980s, however, the Johnsons settled down long enough for Dwayne to begin attending Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where an interest in sports helped calm the young man down.
“My work, my goal, my life, it’s like a treadmill. And there’s no stop-button on my treadmill. Once I get on, I just keep going.”
At Freedom High, Johnson boxed and ran track, but he pursued football with a vengeance, hoping to win a scholarship in order to become the first member of his family to go to college. He was a standout star, and by his senior year he was named to USA Today ‘s high school All-American team. Before graduation Johnson was recruited by several colleges, but he chose to head to Florida to attend the University of Miami, where he played defensive tackle. He soon became known for his talents on the gridiron, but was also known for his crazy antics. During one game against San Diego in 1992, millions of people watched on television as he raced around the field chasing the opponent’s mascot, a man in a giant Aztec warrior costume.
Johnson’s future in football looked bright until he suffered a back injury during his senior year. He was so depressed that he cut classes and his grade point average (GPA) dropped to a dangerously low 0.7. Not only was he sitting on the bench, he was also on academic probation. Johnson pulled himself together, thanks in part to his future wife, Dany Garcia, a business major he met while in Miami. Garcia encouraged him to hit the books, and in 1995 he graduated with a degree in criminology and a respectable 2.9 GPA.
Because of his injury, Johnson was not picked to play for the National Football League (NFL) during the 1995 draft, but he still pinned his hopes on a career in pro football. When he was offered a contract by the Calgary Stampeders, he signed on the dotted line and headed to Canada. Life in Canada was miserable. Johnson saw little field action and was paid less than $200 per week to be a practice-squad player. He rented a tiny, dingy apartment and slept on a mattress he found near a local dumpster. His salary left little room for food, so Johnson took to attending every Stampeder meeting, even though he didn’t have to, because he knew sandwiches would be served. He was determined to stick it out, but in an abrupt move, Johnson was let go by the football franchise to make room for a former NFL player. “That was hard,” he told Zondra Hughes of Ebony. “I was supposed to be reaping the fruits of my labor, and there I was in Canada having to start all over again.”
Johnson returned to Florida where both his parents and Dany Garcia lived, and immediately approached his father with a proposal: he wanted to be trained as a wrestler. His decision was made partially out of necessity, but Johnson also had a real love of the sport. After all, he had seen his first wrestling match when he was three weeks old, and when he was six years old his father had taught him such basic moves as the headlock and the armlock. Rocky Johnson, however, had his doubts. He knew that the life of a wrestler was not an easy one and he wanted to spare his son the tough road he had walked. Rocky finally relented, and for the next few months kept the would-be sparrer on a grueling training schedule.
When he felt prepared enough, Johnson contacted a colleague of his grandfather’s, who helped open the door for a tryout with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in Corpus Christi, Texas. Although promoters were impressed enough to sign a contract with him, Johnson still had to pay his initial dues by spending some time in Memphis, Tennessee, performing in the WWF second-tier system, the Unites States Wrestling Alliance. During the summer of 1996 Johnson wrestled in promotional matches using the name Flex Kavana, and earned about $40 per night. In August he was given his second professional tryout, this time pitted against a well-known wrestler named Owen Hart. He did so well that he was transferred to Connecticut where the WWF headquarters and training facility were located.
On November 16, 1996, just one year after hitting a low point in Canada, Johnson made his professional wrestling debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He performed under the name of Rocky Maivia, a nod to both his father and grandfather. The WWF event was called the Survivor’s Series, and Johnson, as Rocky Maivia, was considered to be a “good guy” or, in wrestling terminology, a “babyface.” His “bad guy” opponent, or the “heel” in the match, was Paul Levesque, more commonly known as Triple H.
Johnson quickly became a hit with wrestling crowds, and in February of 1997 he captured his first WWF championship, making him, at age twenty-four, the youngest wrestler to win a belt. But just a few months later Rocky was being booed during matches. Apparently the fickle audience members were becoming much more interested in rooting for the “bad guys,” and in a business where image is everything, Johnson had some rethinking to do. In mid-1997, after suffering a knee injury, he took some time off to recuperate, to marry his longtime girlfriend Dany Garcia, and to strategize.
Wrestling in the late 1990s was not the world of wrestling Johnson’s father had inhabited. In 1979 the regional federations that existed throughout the United States had been consolidated into a single organization known as the World Wrestling Federation, and by the mid-1980s pro wrestling had evolved from an athletic sport into a form of high-energy entertainment. Wrestlers now admitted that their moves were choreographed and that the outcomes of the matches were pre-determined. Wrestling had become big business, attracting millions of fans and earning millions of dollars for promoters and the main attractions, the wrestlers.
Johnson and WWF writers and producers worked long and hard to come up with just the right image for the handsome, six-foot-four-inch, 270-pound newcomer. What finally emerged was a character named The Rock, who would transform the world of wrestling. According to Johnson, who spoke with Sona Charaipotra of People, “The Rock is Dwayne Johnson with the volume turned all the way up.” Wearing black boots, black briefs, and with a tattoo of a Brahma bull on his twenty-two-inch bicep, The Rock was touted as part of the Nation of Domination, a league of “bad boy” wrestlers. He also became a formidable force both inside and outside the ring, especially when he glared at opponents and the press with a menacing lift of his right eyebrow.
When The Rock was unveiled on August 11, 1997, in Jackson, Mississippi, the crowd went wild, and over the next several years fans stood in line to catch the next installment in his wrestling storyline. Producers pitted him against various characters in mock grudge matches, and The Rock won, then lost, then regained his federation championship several times. Along the way, Johnson became perhaps the most popular wrestler in the history of the sport. He was known as The People’s Champion, and his signature eyebrow move even took on a name—The People’s Eyebrow. In addition, The Rock became a merchandising gold mine. His image appeared on T-shirts, posters, and Halloween masks; and there were Rock action figures and video games. By the 2000s, according to Gillian Flynn of Entertainment Weekly, the WWF was bringing in $120 million in merchandise sales per year, thanks solely to Johnson.
Johnson’s appeal was not limited to wrestling fans, although he is credited with almost doubling the WWF’s female fan base, thanks in large part to his movie-star good looks. He was so popular that in 2000, when he published his autobiography, The Rock Says, the book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for an astonishing twenty weeks. Johnson drew record crowds at book signings, and began popping up on television, both to promote his book and to take on small acting roles. He made several appearances on the late-night comedy program Saturday Night Live, and was featured on such TV shows as DAG, Star Trek: Voyager, and That ’70’s Show. The next logical step was the big screen.
In 2001 Johnson appeared briefly in the summer blockbuster The Mummy Returns, for which he was paid, in Hollywood terms, a paltry $500,000. Although he was given only minutes of screen time, producers were impressed enough that they built a movie around Johnson’s Mummy character, called The Scorpion King. The film, which was released in 2002, is an action-adventure movie set in ancient Egypt. Johnson plays Mathayus, a desert warrior who is determined to save his people from an evil conqueror named Memnon. If he succeeds, he will take his rightful place as the Scorpion King. Although the movie was definitely not high drama, considering that Johnson’s character spent most of his time swinging a sword and slashing his enemies, the would-be actor took his role seriously. In fact, he worked closely with an acting coach throughout the shooting of the film.
When The Scorpion King hit theaters in April of 2002, it made more than $36 million during its opening weekend. Critics discussed the digitized action sequences and compared the movie to The Mummy, but most focused on Johnson and his million-dollar performance ($5 million, to be exact). In various reviews he was called a big-screen champ and the new face of Hollywood action. As Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly put it, “The Rock commands the screen as naturally as he does the ring.”
The Scorpion King opened up a whole new career for Johnson. In 2003 he followed up Scorpion with The Rundown, another action movie, but one with a comedic edge that allowed him more acting freedom. Again, reviewers were pleasantly surprised. They called The Rundown a movie that was a cut above the average shoot-’em-up blockbuster, and they praised Johnson’s portrayal of Beck, a bounty hunter set loose in the Amazon jungles of Brazil. In particular, critics praised his comedic abilities, which viewers had glimpsed in his television roles. Johnson’s acting coach, Larry Moss, told Gillian Flynn in Entertainment Weekly, “The action roles were obviously what he
By the mid-2000s, Johnson was a full-fledged movie star. In 2004 he made his dramatic debut in Walking Tall, playing Chris Vaughn, a club-wielding sheriff who battles drug dealers and con artists who threaten to take over his peaceful Washington town. There were also several other movies in the pipeline, including two comedies, Be Cool (2004), a sequel to the 1995 hit Get Shorty, and Instant Karma, slated to open in 2005.
Although busy with his many film roles, Johnson still managed to maintain his hectic wrestling schedule. This meant that between filming he was still out on the road, performing and promoting for more than two hundred days a year. Such a demanding schedule was hard on family life, especially considering that Johnson and Dany had their first child, daughter Simone Alexandra, in 2001. Even on the road, however, Johnson claims that he finds the time to call Dany every day, and he still retains close ties to his mother. As Hughes commented, “The Rock is a mama’s boy.” But The Rock is also a very determined man who has pumped-up plans for the future. As he told Hughes, “I want to do more in the WWF. I want to do more in the movie industry. Ultimately, I want to be the most electrifying man in sports entertainment, period.”
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