‘Fate of the Furious’ Dwayne Johnson has been wrestling for years with the politics of race, pro wrestling and Hollywood
The Rock had to get through the WWE first
The Rock is black.
I grew up in the late ’80s and ’90s watching wrestlers who looked like me play thugs and jive-talking ex-cons while losing most of their matches. So The Rock was the black superhero I needed. And as much as he’s relied on his Samoan heritage for a starting point most other black wrestlers haven’t had the benefit of, Dwayne Johnson should be celebrated for thriving and becoming a megastar in the face of, at best, microaggressions and, at worst, outright racism. He’s an All-American heroic movie star now, but bigotry has — all puns intended — colored how he was introduced when he debuted for World Wrestling Entertainment in 1997, and the way he was received when he returned in 2011.
Johnson’s televised WWE debut at New York City’s Madison Square Garden was as “Rocky Maivia.” He won a marquee match for a pay-per-view called Survivor Series. From the moment Johnson hit WWE television he was marked as wrestling’s Next Big Superstar. And why wouldn’t he be? Wrestling’s LeBron James before LeBron James, Johnson was a 6-foot-6, 250-pound University of Miami football national champion (defensive lineman) who was athletic enough to jump from the top rope and leapfrog his opponents in the middle of the ring. Wrestling hadn’t seen anyone with his mix of size and athleticism.
But, even as the first African-American wrestler WWE had ever been really chosen for superstardom, Rocky took a circuitous route to the top. The plan was for Rocky to be a happy-go-lucky “babyface,” or good guy, who would smile and high-five fans in an era when wrestlers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin cursed and raised middle fingers. Soon, crowds began chanting “Die, Rocky, Die.” The Rocky Maivia experiment was dead.
Johnson and the WWE started over by embracing the crowd’s jeers and turning Johnson’s character into a villain. And here’s why it’s difficult to defend any notion that Johnson wasn’t considered “black” during his WWE run: Vince McMahon turned Rocky Maivia into a villain by placing him with the now-defunct and villainous black power faction The Nation Of Domination. The group, consisting of wrestlers nicknamed Farooq and D’Lo Brown among others, was a “Black Panther”/“Nation of Islam” spoof that used pro-black racial slogans (ending many promos with “by any means necessary,” a direct nod to Malcolm X) and spoke on how WWE was holding black wrestlers down. The Rock, though, initially distanced himself from the group’s racial aspects when he joined: “This isn’t about the color of my skin,” he said during a promo on an August 1997 edition of Raw in front of rabidly booing fans. “This is about respect.” Still, his association with The Nation and what they represented infuriated white audiences. The Nation used to put a fist in air at the end of their matches to a chorus of boos.
Rock’s time with The Nation allowed him the freedom to be an amplified version of himself. He ditched the smile and terrible hair. “I’ve got f—ing chia pet on my head as a haircut,” he said in 2016 when looking back at his first match. And he switched from Rocky Maivia to The Rock: a mean-spirited, cocky, Rolex-wearing antagonist who called himself “The People’s Champ” and started ending his promos with the unforgettable “If you smell what the Rock is cooking.”
It was during this time that The Rock became a premier talker, one of the elite promo guys in wrestling history. Eventually, as much as he tried to remain a villain and make wrestling crowds hate him, his charisma was overpowering. By 1998, The Rock was one of the most popular stars in wrestling — although his ability to talk a crowd into a frenzy was a curse for his win/loss record. The Rock would lose matches at almost every major event, and then, on Monday Night Raw episodes, flash his catchphrases and make the crowd forget he ever lost. While this is a testament to his great mic work and his ability to transcend losses, it became infuriating to watch him get pinned so many times.
The Rock’s legendary career is littered with high-profile losses, namely WrestleMania 16 (aka WrestleMania 2000, because everything in the year 2000 had 2000 in its name), in which he was pinned in the main event by rival (on- and off-screen) Triple H. This marked the first time in which a good guy (The Rock) was pinned by a villain at the event. WrestleMania had been seen as WWE’s unofficial season finale in which the hero finally has his hand raised in triumph. All the great heroes had these moments; Hulk Hogan, Austin, Shawn Michaels and Randy Savage celebrated WrestleMania main event wins while confetti fell from the rafters.
That wasn’t the case for Rocky in 2000 or in 2001 when he lost to a newly villainous Stone Cold Steve Austin. Of the 32 WrestleMania main events, bad guys have walked away the winner only four times. The Rock was the good guy who lost two of those matches. The 2001 loss is justifiable: The Rock was on his way to film Scorpion King, and it’s wrestling tradition to lose on the way out. The 2000 loss is harder to stomach. On one hand, the loss was a testament to the aforementioned belief that The Rock’s charisma can withstand any loss no matter how high-profile. It’s also evidence of The Rock being a team player willing to “put wrestlers over” or allow them to look good at his expense when other wrestlers in his position have politicked to make sure they won.
Whatever the case, The Rock was until 2012 the only megastar good guy to not have a WrestleMania main event win since the show’s inception. He returned that year and beat John Cena. To this day, The Rock is the only black wrestler, with except for the actor Mr. T and NFL legend Lawrence Taylor, to ever, in 32 years, have a main event match at WrestleMania. Not seeing The Rock win when he was in his prime feels similar to the Oscar snubs Denzel Washington was experiencing during the same era.
In 2004, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson quit wrestling to become a movie star. As we speak, The Fate of the Furious, the latest installment in one of the most successful and most diverse film franchises ever, is scheduled for an April 14 release. It’s on its eighth episode, and The Rock has starred in four of them. The seven years he spent as a wrestler prepared him to be Hollywood’s biggest action hero by placing in his path just the kind of obstacles and pitfalls he’d face before film cameras. In truth, for The Rock to make it to Hollywood, he had to fight his way through wrestling’s own showbiz universe.
Johnson’s slow exit occurred without announcement or fanfare. He’d actually started scaling back his WWE appearances in 2001. “I never ever wanted to utilize and leverage the WWE to help my movie career, which is why I had to step away,” he said in the 2012 documentary The Epic Journey Of The Rock.
The Rock, even as many fans clamored for his return, was portrayed by some of his former wrestling peers as someone who believed he was too good for wrestling. “Rock,” one anonymous WWE talent texted PWInsider in 2011, “is out for Rock.” Wrestling crowds are loyal, and the idea that someone wanted to move on to something else was an affront to their dedication. There’s a racial component as well: wrestling’s biggest star of color deciding to walk away from mostly white audiences across the country for bigger and better things? For many, it didn’t fly.
In 2009, Cena, effectively WWE’s new version of The Rock, criticized The Rock. “For him to go on the front and say, ‘I love the business’ and then not be a part of it [is something I’d never do],” Cena told MTV, seemingly speaking for other wrestlers who believed that Johnson become too big for his spandex tights — with his patented “Brahma Bull” on the back. By then The Rock was a movie star (though not the megastar he would become), having appeared in movies such as The Scorpion King, Doom and Be Cool (the last with a cast including John Travolta, Christina Milian, Cedric The Entertainer and Harvey Keitel). Cena’s comments remain interesting — especially as he’s begun appearing in movies and on television more himself, acting alongside Amy Schumer in 2015’s Trainwreck and hosting Saturday Night Live last December.
And the chatter that doesn’t go away has to do with Johnson’s complex relationship with race, as well as the public’s views on his interactions with the idea of race and “what” he is, or isn’t. Johnson is half-black and half-Samoan. He is the son of Canadian-born “Soul Man” Rocky Johnson, one half of the WWE’s first tag team champions. His mother is Ata Maivia-Johnson. His maternal grandfather was wrestling legend High Chief Peter Maivia. The Maivia family tree is wrestling royalty (current WWE superstars include Roman Reigns and Nia Jax), known for in-ring instincts and charisma.
The Rock’s Polynesian/Samoan roots have allowed him to escape the plight of so many black wrestlers. He’s never portrayed a pimp or a gangster or any overtly racist stereotype typical of the WWE. Also, Johnson is a master of code-switching. At times racially ambiguous on-screen — his two white daughters in San Andreas come to mind — The Rock also rhymes alongside Busta Rhymes in the ring or wears an Afro or daps up Rick Ross when the opportunity presents itself.
The easy response is to say that The Rock is multiracial so he’s merely speaking to all sides of his heritage. However, there’s a definite benefit for him. By not playing strictly black characters, he’s allowed access to more films — his role in Fast Five was originally written for Tommy Lee Jones, for instance — that don’t need to rework scripts or recast roles based on the star’s race.
In 2001, The Rock was splitting his time between wrestling and Hollywood, but he still managed to have a classic match with Hogan in Toronto for WrestleMania 18. It was a legendary moment before one of the most rabid crowds in wrestling history. At WrestleMania 19, he had a match with Austin. The Rock won both matches, giving him the opportunity to leave with his hand raised even if it wasn’t to close out either show. At WrestleMania 20 in 2004, The Rock participated in what was to be his last match for the WWE for eight years. As he told the Wrestling Observer in 2005: “The company and I are at an odd crossroad. It was an oddly quiet ending, without any interaction or communication from the front office or [Vince McMahon]. Surprising, to say the least, especially after eight years.” He was no longer The Rock. He was Dwayne Johnson.
And still, Johnson agreed to come back for a more engaged role with WWE in 2011, hosting WrestleMania 27 in Atlanta. The announcement was made when The Rock made a surprise return on the Feb. 15 edition of Raw. And he wasted no time firing shots at Cena.
The next two years would be spent building a scripted feud between The Rock and Cena revolving around their real-life animosity. They headlined WrestleMania for two straight years, with The Rock showing up in the months leading up to each WrestleMania but staying away from WWE the rest of the year. The buildup to WrestleMania 28, which took place in The Rock’s hometown of Miami, was a fascinating mix of planned altercations and true resentment. The most noteworthy moment came on Feb. 12, 2012: Cena went off script and called out The Rock for having notes written on his wrist for his in-ring promo, causing a stare-down that was so tense it felt like they would have a real fight. They didn’t, but they had a main event match and The Rock finally got his big WrestleMania main event win. Finally.
“John and I had a real different relationship back then,” he told Jonathan Coachman in 2016. “I did not like him, and he did not like me, and it was legitimate.” Which, for someone who’s as guarded as The Rock, translates to, I hated his guts. Old habits die hard. The Rock is apparently currently beefing with his Furious co-star Vin Diesel during the run-up to the premiere.
Aside from Cena, The Rock’s biggest obstacle to a true comeback came from wrestlers who believed he was taking their deserved WrestleMania spot. Being able to main-event WrestleMania is the biggest accolade any wrestler can hope to accomplish. Wrestlers work year-round to get booked at the top spot, where more eyes are glued to a ring than at any other point in the year. So when The Rock, a part-time wrestler, got that spot, wrestlers such as Dolph Ziggler and Randy Orton couldn’t wait to go public with their anger. “Anybody in the locker room that says it doesn’t piss them off,” said CM Punk, “that he works however many days a year he works when we’re working 300 days a year … they’re kidding themselves.”
All of this reeks of haterism. White wrestlers spouting ideas about The Rock staying in his place and not leaving the WWE to become more successful reeks of microaggression and racially coded language — as if they were happy with The Rock’s success as long as it served WWE, its wrestlers and their bottom line. But once he got too successful, it became a problem. The resentment has only been magnified as we roll up to this weekend’s WrestleMania.
The main event of WrestleMania 33 is a world title match between Bill Goldberg, a 50-year-old wrestler who hasn’t been active since 2004, and Brock Lesnar, who, like The Rock, left WWE in 2004 to pursue an NFL career that eventually turned into a dominant run with mixed martial arts. Both wrestlers are on “special attraction” contracts with WWE that allow them to make limited TV appearances.
Goldberg is the current WWE Universal champion who beat full-time wrestler Kevin Owens in less than a minute. The two men are rarely on television, yet they have supplanted WWE’s full-time stars. But what’s notable here is that there hasn’t been nearly the amount of backlash from wrestlers about their spots being taken. There hasn’t been much public complaining from wrestlers about the main event.
Maybe wrestlers saw the paychecks they received from the WrestleManias in which The Rock participated, thanks to those shows having record-breaking buy rates. Maybe they’ve learned to deal with the new wave: The Rock was just the first in a new trend of part-time stars taking main events. Cena, who is now effectively a part-time wrestler who has begun guest hosting on The Today Show, has changed his tune about The Rock:
“I consider what I said back then the stupidest stuff ever,” he said on a December 2016 episode of WWE’s Talking Smack. “I was looking at it through very blinded eyes. I really wanted The Rock to come back to the WWE, and figured that hitting him where it hurts would get him back … it worked. But I’ve apologized to him in person; I’m on the web for the world to see. I was wrong, he was right. He’s now the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, he has transcended this business and I think … any time a superstar can give what he’s given to the WWE, and then transcend the WWE, that’s good for all of us.”
For the past couple of years, The Rock’s WrestleMania appearances have been surprises. He hasn’t wrestled since his WrestleMania 29 rematch with Cena in which he tore not only his abdomen but also his adductor muscles off the bone. Part of the dilemma is that any injury The Rock suffers can derail Johnson’s filming schedule for months.
Johnson’s wrestler name, The Rock, has taken on a double meaning for a man who seems to have an impenetrable surface of chiseled muscle, pearly white teeth and an infectious smile. Because, yes, Johnson smiles. A lot. His image is that of a man with a perfect life. But beneath that surface is a man who spent years battling expectations and a wrestling industry that rarely knew what to do with a star like him. For kids like me, he was a black superhero before he was a black superhero. We’ll always remember.