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Who Doesn’t Love Dwayne Johnson?

How Rocky Maivia became one of the biggest stars in the world

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things we can all agree on.​ The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

If the fans had gotten their way, Dwayne Johnson never would’ve had a chance to become the Rock. When the third-generation wrestler first popped up on WWF television in 1996, it was as "Rocky Maivia" — the first name from his dad, the last from his maternal grandfather, both of whom were pro wrestlers. The audience, though, wasn’t having it.

"His first wrestling persona was the perception of what a third-generation wrestling star was supposed to be: a smiling babyface [wrestling good guy], slapping hands with everybody and claiming to be fighting for truth and justice," said Brian Gewirtz, an 11-year writer for WWE who’s now the head of television development for Johnson’s Seven Bucks productions. "And obviously the fans threw up all over it. It’s pretty daunting if you’re being told ‘die Rocky die’ by fans when you’re just doing what you’re told."

The voice saying, "Now there’s gonna be the man right there," belongs to Jim Ross, the lead commentator of the WWF through the 1990s and then the company’s vice president of talent relations. He offered Johnson his first WWF contract.

"I just thought that he was a can’t-miss guy. I paid him the most we’d ever paid anybody in that respect. I think he got a low-six-figure deal, and [WWE chairman] Vince [McMahon] was astonished that I’d given him that. Rock got a bigger contract than a lot of guys because I felt he had an unlimited upside."

"Unlimited upside" now gets tossed around by coaches and draftniks with barely a passing consideration, but in this case — even judged by the intangible terms of sports entertainment — Ross was close to right.

"He had a kind of odorless and invisible aura," Ross said. "Obviously I could see a 6–4 or 6–5, 270-pound individual who was handsome, great look, all that stuff. I think anybody who had any objectivity could have said that this guy looks too good in an 8-by-10 not to investigate. But when we got him in the ring, he had a natural aptitude. He had it — early."

In 2016, it’s easy to look at Johnson in all his rippling, sui generis glory and take him for granted. But he came to wrestling only after his football dreams petered out. And he almost didn’t make it as a wrestler. When he left for Hollywood, he almost stalled out there, too. The road to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world had plenty of red lights.

"I thought we had done a really good job of creating a babyface with the vignettes we put together," Ross said. "Little did we know that he was gonna march out there in the [Madison Square] Garden and that we were going to get ‘die Rocky die’ chants."

Was Ross worried when his six-figure investment got booed out of the arena?

"No. I just knew it might take us a little longer than we might have wanted. He was ready to be the biggest star we had after a couple of days."

It took closer to three years. After a knee injury put him out of action for a few months, Johnson got the chance for a reboot. The idea was hatched to bring him back as a heel — a wrestling bad guy — to quash the boos. But Johnson didn’t just want to silence the boos; he wanted to embrace them. Rocky Maivia became "the Rock," and the rest is history.

"As he infamously told Vince, ‘Just give me a microphone and one chance, and I’ll take this character and run away with it,’" Gewirtz said. "I think that’s a pretty strong parallel to what he does in movies and television appearances — once you give him that ball and let him run with it, you’re going to get something incredible."

In August 1997, he got the mic and took his chance:

The lesson was real: Johnson would make you love him, make you respect him, and he’d do whatever it took to make it happen.

Gewirtz first met the Rock when the writer was hired by MTV to script some segments featuring wrestlers introducing music videos to promote SummerSlam 1999. By that time, Johnson had already headlined a WrestleMania, and thanks to his urging, Gewirtz was hired by the WWF several months later. Johnson was eager to collaborate, even as other wrestlers sneered at accepting help from writers.

"You knew that [Johnson’s] talent was different than the others."

When wrestlers do their match-hyping interviews backstage, they can choose to record them ahead of time or do them live. According to Gewirtz, almost everybody chooses the former, for the safety net in case something goes wrong. But Johnson insisted on doing his promos live.

"When we did a promo, it actually became an event backstage. The wrestlers and staff would stop what they were doing and gather around the set to watch him. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen that with to this day. It was, ‘Pick up your popcorn box and watch the Rock cut a promo.’"

In 2000, Vince McMahon somehow conned Lorne Michaels into letting the Rock take his live magnetism to NBC. At the time, having a wrestler host Saturday Night Live seemed a little bit crazy, but Johnson pulled it off.

"That was a big turning point," says Gewirtz. "Not only did he break perceptions about himself, but he broke perceptions about wrestlers in general. Whenever you would see a wrestler on a sitcom or in a movie, it would be the typical grunting, musclebound caveman. His performance on SNL just completely obliterated that perception."

("Although the WWF is still my first love, it turns out that I’m also pretty good and a natural at comedy," Johnson said in his monologue. "People also tell me I look like a sexy Rob Schneider.")

Johnson’s first big movie role was in the Mummy spinoff The Scorpion King, in 2002. Maybe it was a little schlocky, but nobody does schlock better than Johnson. Pro wrestling, the Fast and the Furious franchise, the Baywatch movie that’s coming next year — Johnson elevates schlock into something, well, if not something great, then something entirely palatable and impossibly hip.

"When I heard he was off to do The Scorpion King," Gewirtz said, "even though it was kind of a little thing, [I thought], ‘Yeah, I see where this is going. This is going to be huge.’"

The movie made $165 million worldwide on a $60 million budget.

"I went to the opening of Scorpion King and I sat next to Vince," Ross said. "We didn’t have to say anything. We looked at each other and knew we’d better be thinking about what’s next because that kid on the screen was probably not going to be with us much longer, not full time anyway. And he wasn’t."

When The Hollywood Reporter named him one of Hollywood’s 100 most powerful people last week, Johnson Instagrammed his thanks, along with the credo of his Seven Bucks production company (which he cofounded with his then-wife, Dany Garcia): "Hungry, humble and always be the hardest and smartest workers in the room." Gewirtz has another phrase for it: "benevolent world domination."

Besides the Furious franchise and the San Andreases and Journeys and Central Intelligence — which is the biggest live-action original hit of the year — Johnson’s HBO show, Ballers, is about to start its second season. He’s also producing a talk show, a reality show about marching band battles, a music history show, a prison documentary, a Bob Hope–style USO troop spectacular, and even an app that mainlines Johnson’s unyielding work ethic into your soul. The Rock Clock is a small thing, but it feels like an accidental statement: It’s the shift from metaphorical media omnipresence to the real thing. The Rock isn’t a nerd subculture or cottage industry. He’s everything.

According to The New York Times, Johnson has a Q score as oversize as his lats: "Since the company began tracking him seven years ago, Mr. Johnson has maintained a Q score that’s consistently way above average, topping Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the earlier paragon of musclebound crossovers. Mr. Johnson ‘established a foothold and held on to it.’"

In 2013, he was Hollywood’s highest-grossing actor, according to Forbes, and he had to earn it: "Iron Man 3 is the highest-grossing movie of 2013 so far with $1.2 billion. But that’s not enough to put its star, Robert Downey Jr., on top of our list of the top-grossing actors. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson beat him this year by working more."

The determination isn’t a new phenomenon, according to Ross: "He never was willing to settle to be Stone Cold [Steve Austin’s] understudy. He didn’t come up the way Austin did, but the Rock never wanted to be no. 2. He always wanted to be no. 1, and that was with no ill will toward Steve."

"Dwayne could read the alphabet and it would be entertaining," Gewirtz said. "But the flip side of that is that every time, Dwayne would say, ‘OK, how do we raise the bar? How do we do something that’s never been done in the history of the business?’ That was the expectation."

In the world of pro wrestling, characters flip back and forth from good guy to bad guy on a fairly regular basis. But nobody plays the clean-cut, all-American, everybody-loves-me character anymore. Except one, in Hollywood, and his name is Dwayne Johnson.

Johnson’s Instagram account, which counts 57 million followers, is a hypnotizing churn of inspirational quotes, respect for country (along with the tease of a future presidential run), respect for elders, his pair of French bulldog puppies, him saving his puppies from drowning, his grief over the death of one of the puppies, and (of course) workout porn. Johnson hasn’t just changed what the perception of a wrestler is; he’s changed what the perception of an action star is, and he’s done it by turning back to the babyface character that once nearly got him booed out of the ring.

It took a long time, but Johnson finally made Rocky Maivia cool.