Before the A-list Hollywood megastar Dwayne Johnson, there was pro wrestling superstar The Rock. The ubiquitous star of the Jumanji and Fast & Furious franchises took an unusual road to silver screen superstardom. A road paved with bumps, bruises and blood. 25 years ago today, he debuted for the WWE at Survivor Series 1996.
Dwayne Johnson was born on 2nd May 1972, the son of former WWE tag team champion Rocky Johnson, and grandson of wrestler ‘High Chief’ Peter Maivia. Despite growing up around the business, with Johnson recalling visits from Andre The Giant to his childhood home, the future Rock chose to pursue American football. After a championship-winning college career with the Miami Hurricanes, Johnson turned professional in the Canadian Football League. The Moana star was cut after two months in the practice squad, and decided to turn his attention to the business that ran in his blood.
Industry connections go a long way in any business, and Johnson was able to secure early tryout matches with the WWE. Wrestling under the incredible moniker Flex Kavana, the young prospect wrestled in untelevised matches and for the USWA, owned by WWE commentator Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, to gain experience. It was not long until the 6’5 kid from Miami was offered a WWE contract, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather in working for the company.
The creative minds of the world’s biggest wrestling organisation quickly decided that Flex Kavana wasn’t going to cut it as a name, and instead reached into Johnson’s heritage to find a more appropriate character. Taking his Dad’s forename and his grandad’s surname, Rocky Maivia was born. The newcomer no longer sounded like a character from the Beano, but a fully-realised human being.
His first match arrived on this day a quarter of a century ago. Maivia would debut in a traditional Survivor Series match, where two multi-person teams are pitted against each other under elimination rules. The debutant teamed with Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, Marc Mero and Barry Windham in his short-lived Stalker gimmick, to face Lawler, Goldust, Crush and future-rival Hunter Hearst Helmsley, who would go on to become Triple H. Maivia was given a strong chance to make a first impression, eliminating Crush and Goldust on the way to being sole survivor.
Despite this star treatment, fans were slow to warm up to ‘The Blue Chipper’. Portrayed as a smiling, polite babyface, Maivia felt like a man out of time. Over on the other channel, WCW was presenting perennial hero Hulk Hogan as a sunglasses-wearing heel character dubbed Hollywood Hogan. Outlaw promotion ECW was putting on matches with barbed wire ropes and broken tables. Wrestling was skewing darker and more gritty in its presentation, something which was not reflected in the bright blue tassels of Rocky Maivia. The youngster routinely had chants of “Rocky Sucks” and “Die Rocky Die” ring out during his matches, the audience seeing through the facade.
WWE held firm with their promotion of Rocky, giving him an Intercontinental title win in February 1997, and a disqualification win over made man Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart the following month. The crowd would not be sated, however. Little did they know, their jeers would be the embers that lit the fire of one of the biggest names in entertainment.
After spending time on the sidelines with an injury, the spurned star returned in the summer of 1997. The tassels were swapped for fashionable grays and blacks, sunglasses hanging menacingly on the returnee’s nose. This was not Rocky Maivia, the smiling babyface. This was The Rock, the sneering heel who berated the very fans who had rejected him. Joining up with The Nation Of Domination, a militant stable based on the Black Panthers and The Nation of Islam, The Rock immediately caught on with audiences. The storyline worked because it turned the fans’ own aggression against them. The Rock railed against the ‘Die Rocky Die’ chants, and now when the audience chanted those words at him it was an endorsement of the character. They were buying into this brash new heel, and from that point on they always would.
The rest of the story is well-documented. Just 14 months after debuting his new character, The Rock would lift the WWE Championship for the first time. From there, there was no stopping the industry’s new sensation. Iconic feuds with Mankind, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Triple H would follow. In 2001, the star would make his initial transition into movies, with a role in The Mummy Returns. After impressing in his silver screen debut, a spin-off titled The Scorpion King was released with Johnson as the lead.
The rest is history, with Dwayne Johnson becoming the highest-grossing box office star of 2019 and an ever-present lead actor in huge franchise movies. But Hollywood may not have found one of its most bankable leading men, if it was not for the debut of a rookie professional wrestler 25 years ago today.