The Mean 12.05.01: The Rock

Finally the Mean has-come-BACK- to 411

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything in life could be broken down into two extremes: excess and deficiency. He believed that if a person could find the medium or mean between the two extremes in all that they did in life, they would travel down the path to happiness and virtue. With pro wrestling fans, the two extremes are clear: the deficient “mark” enjoys watching wrestling more than anybody but has very little knowledge of anything not on TV, while the excessive “smart” knows every backstage dealing, but as a result can become highly bitter and cynical, losing their ability to enjoy the show. These two extremes view each wrestler differently, often disagreeing with each other. Each week I look at both perspectives and then attempt to find “The Mean” between the two. This week, let’s take a look at The Rock

In my last column on Test, I mentioned something I called “Rocky Maivia syndrome.” I spoke in brief about the tremendous initial push for young face Rocky Maivia and how fans, mark and smarts alike turned against him quickly and fiercely. Nowadays, the days anybody would boo the “Great One,” the man who is making the most successful transition from wrestling to Hollywood in recorded history, the man who may have been accepted better by the mainstream audience than any wrestler ever: The Rock.

One could argue that Hulk Hogan or Steve Austin heard bigger cheers or sold more merchandise at their peaks than him, but nobody in sports-entertainment has ever held the audience in the palm of their hands like The Rock has. And yet, there are still those in the internet and professional communities who despise the “People’s Champion.” The man entertains countless each week, has clearly spent time honing his in-ring abilities since his rookie days (his Iron Match with Triple H at Judgment Day 2000, among others, is cited as one of the best matches produced in the WWF’s most recent history), and he has endured the sting of fan hatred and survived. Why is that? Even though millions and millions, chant simply “Rocky” each week, there are still those whispers of “Rocky Sucks.” The question is where are they coming from, and why? Let’s take a closer look

As has been espoused by the WWF ad nauseum, The Rock is the third generation of his family to grace the pro wrestling/sports entertainment business. It began many decades ago with Rock’s grandfather Peter Maivia, one of the first Samoan superstars in what would become a long and legendary line. Maivia used the “High Chief” gimmick, playing up his Hawaiian heritage and becoming a huge crowd favorite (though he did have a brief run as a heel, young Rock’s first exposure to fans turning on somebody he cared about). Maivia’s daughter ended up marrying Rocky Johnson, a popular WWF wrestler in the 1980s. With a sculpted physique and tremendous charisma, Johnson was a WWF Tag Team champion along with Tony Atlas and paved the way for future African-American wrestlers much as his father-in-law had done for Samoans.

From this tremendous wrestling pedigree came Duane Johnson: the boy who would one day grow up to become The Rock. He was a fitness nut under the watchful eye of his father, and by the age of thirteen, already looked as if he was a strapping twenty-something (leading to him losing his virginity at age thirteen and almost be interested read all the “didn’t need to know that” details in “The Rock Says”). He was a high school football prodigy and was hotly recruited by several colleges, eventually settling on Miami University. Duane was a standout during his years as a Hurricane and had hopes of fulfilling his childhood dream of playing in the NFL; wrestling was never to be part of the equation. Unfortunately, injuries and other factors led to Duane not making it to the NFL. The furthest he got was the CFL as a member of the Calgary Stampeders. Making next to no money and separated from both his family and future wife who were still in Miami, Duane wanted out of Calgary and football. The question was what he was qualified to do outside of football? As seemed to be his destiny, come 1995, Duane Johnson entered a wrestling ring for the first time.

Duane’s father Rocky Johnson was reluctant at his son’s career choice, but chose to train him, with help from Haku and other relatives. Johnson had maintained a close friendship with Pat Patterson, one of WWF head Vince McMahon’s top advisors, over the years, and got Pat to take a look at his son. Though he wasn’t the most polished performer in the world, Duane impressed Patterson with his look, his natural charisma, and his athleticism. This is where the seeds for future backlash against Johnson were sewn as he was given a WWF developmental contract based more on potential and family connections than hard work.

After three tryout dark matches at WWF shows, one against “Brooklyn Brawler” Steve Lombardi, one against Chris Candido, and one against Owen Hart, Duane was signed and sent to the USWA where he took on the name Flex Kavana and teamed with veteran Brickhouse Brown to learn the tricks of the trade. In the fall of 1996, after less than a year in the USWA, Duane was brought up to the WWF where Vince McMahon rechristened him Rocky Maivia after his father and grandfather. 1996 had not been a good year for the WWF under the charismatic but diminutive Shawn Michaels as World champion, and Vince McMahon was desperately seeking new stars to reinvigorate the WWF. In Duane, now Rocky, Vince saw a look that he could market, an impressive physique, and untapped charisma by the truck load.

Maivia was first seen on WWF television in the fall of 1996 in a series of vignettes touting his family heritage, his football career, and his hopes for wrestling. Rocky was portrayed as a soft-spoken, humble young man; the classic wrestling babyface. However, this was not Duane Johnson’s typical personality; as he wrote in his autobiography, Duane, while a gentleman at heart, was always cocky due to his physique, was brash, and had a temper. He never felt comfortable playing a straight babyface, but that was what Vince McMahon felt the WWF needed, and so the cooperative rookie did not question what was asked of him.

Rocky’s wrestling debut came at Madison Square Garden at the 1996 Survivor Series; Rocky teamed with veterans Marc Mero, Jake Roberts, and Barry Windham against Hunter Hearst Helmsley (whose career would end up eternally intertwined with that of the Rock’s), Jerry Lawler, Goldust, and Crush. The decision was made to give Maivia a huge initial push, as after Mero, Roberts, Windham, HHH, and Lawler all got eliminated, Rocky got to eliminate veterans Goldust and Crush to become the sole survivor. The big debut worked because of the context: it was a Survivor Series elimination match and it was conceivable that with the aid of three skilled veterans a rookie could make it to the end of the match and then get lucky against two guys who were already worn down (tangent: the nature of Survivor Series matches were great for this reason, the unpredictable could occur and they were great for getting unlikely guys over; they should be brought back for this purpose). Rocky wasn’t perfect, but he was crisp, he smiled, he exuded a great image; the crowd took to him. By the end of the match, the crowd was chanting “Rocky, Rocky,” which would be worked into his initial theme music. It would not however last.

For the next few months Maivia rarely lost, but was locked in programs with other mid-carders such as Salvatore Sincere (Tom Brandi, aka Johnny Gunn); his push was proceeding as any rookie’s should. However, for whatever reason, Vince McMahon decided to push it up a notch and basically shoved Rocky down the fans’ throats whether they liked it or not. Rocky had two things working against him: first he was still green and the growing number of “smart” fans who knew the business did not accept him, and second with Steve Austin’s anti-hero character getting over, the landscape of wrestling as far as babyfaces and heels were concerned, and the era of virtuous young men who smiled and did not break the rules being popular was coming to an abrupt end.

I can lay claim to having been fortunate enough to have been live at some of the biggest landmark events in the context of the WWF of the last few years. I was at Wrestlemania XIV when the Stone Cole era began as Steve Austin won the WWF title for the first time. I was in Worcester the night Mick Foley unexpectedly won his first WWF title. But before all of that, I was in Lowell, Massachussetts, for Thursday RAW Thursday, the night Shawn Michaels relinquished the WWF title, the night Bret Hart met Vader for the first time, but perhaps most importantly, the night that in the opening matchup young Rocky Maivia met Intercontinental champion Hunter Hearst Helmsley (later Triple H) and upset the champ. Ironically enough, the program originally had HHH defending against Bob Holly and Rocky going against Steve Austin, meaning first that instead of the first Rock-HHH match I could have seen the first Rock-Austin match, and second who knows what plans the WWF had for the IC title had Michaels’ “injury” not forced them to rearrange the card. But getting back on track, I was there when the fans turned decisively against Rocky Maivia.

Thursday RAW Thursday was a very transitional show for the WWF. Shawn Michaels was out, Bret Hart was quickly becoming a heel, Steve Austin was gaining popularity, and it was only days before the debut of the new, darker “RAW is War;” the era of “Attitude” was not far off. However, in a bizarre ironic twist, the man who would win the Intercontinental title on Thursday RAW Thursday could not exemplify the new WWF Attitude any less. I was in the crowd, and there was a sense of shock in the crowd when Maivia small-packaged HHH for the pin and the title that I had never seen before and have rarely seen since (Foley’s win was another time). For a moment the fans were simply shocked but then they became incensed. This was the same crowd that booed Shawn Michaels for “losing his smile,” and they were not about to cheer some fresh faced rookie who adhered to the rules. “Rocky Sucks, Rocky Sucks,” resounded off the walls as Maivia gave his victory speech. The stage for an experiment destined to fail was set.

For all that is wrong with the WWF nowadays, you have to give Vince McMahon credit in that he has softened up considerably in shoving new talent down fans’ throats when reaction is bad. As I mentioned in my last column, Test, Edge, and Val Venis, all guys who were over very early on in their careers, had to wait for some time before getting big singles pushes. I believe Kurt Angle was originally intended to be a babyface out of the gate (judging by his initial encounter with Tiger Ali Singh), but when the boos were heard he turned heel and the rest is history. Nowadays the fans chant that they want RVD so Vince gives them RVD. Such was not the case in 1997, as the fans turned on Rocky Maivia immediately after he won the Intercontinental title. The character was bland and boring, partially because it was passé, partially because it was so opposite to who Duane Johnson was and is. Nonetheless, the wins kept coming as Rocky held onto the title for three months and scored wins over HHH and other guys near the main event. On a good night, Rocky got no reaction; on a bad night, he drew chants of “Rocky Sucks” or “Die Rocky Die.” I’m guessing sometime after one of the most dull title defenses in Wrestlemania history against The Sultan (today Rikishi; their rematch at Survivor Series 2000 had a lot more heat), the decision was made to kill the Rocky experiment.

Rocky Maivia lost the Intercontinental title to Owen Hart in the spring of 1997; it was seen more or less as a mercy killing. Rocky started jobbing heavily following the title loss, including a pay per view loss to Mankind at In Your House: A Cold Day In Hell, and was then put in a mid-card tag team with the heatless Flash Funk, feuding with the Headbangers.

1997-98 was not a good time to be a failure in the WWF; guys like Funk, Doug Furnas & Phil LaFon, Marc Mero, and even former WCW World champion Vader were demoted and eventually run out of the promotion after failing to garner enough heat in their formative push. Second chances were not en vogue, although the occasional one was given (see: Gunn, Billy). Rocky Maivia lucked out because despite falling just about as flat as a debuting wrestler could, Vince McMahon still saw that potential in him. A knee injury at the onset of the summer of 1997 was actually perfect timing. Rocky spent months on the sidelines, and when he returned in the fall of ’97, he had been given a character that allowed him to showcase more of his natural persona; Rocky Maivia was dead, and The Rock stood proudly in his place.

During the summer of 1997, the Nation of Domination faction founded by Faarooq (Ron Simmons) began to evolve from a Black Panther clone to an actual stable (although certain elements of the original gimmick would linger all the way to the group’s demise). Faarooq’s archenemy Ahmed Johnson originally became one of the new members of the NOD, but the move was not well-received by the fans, and when Johnson went down with an injury, he was booted out of the group with the newly returned and retooled Rock serving as his replacement.

The Rock debuted as a member of the NOD by attacking Chainz of the popular Disciples of Apocalypse during his match with Faarooq, and then destroying former partner Flash Funk in his in-ring return. But it was his first time on the microphone when Rock finally started to show why so many people had seen potential in him for so long. He delivered an eloquent speech that enraged the fans because it simply stated the truth: he had done nothing wrong as a babyface, the fans turned on him, and they hated him for it. The interview was incredibly well done; whereas Rocky Maivia was bland and often sounded like a naïve rookie (his character really) on the mic, The Rock was arrogant, and more importantly smart, something he relished in rubbing in the collective face of the fans. Just as Rocky Maivia’s face plummeted in record time as a babyface, The Rock’s heel credibility skyrocketed; suddenly “Rocky Sucks” wasn’t a bad thing, it was an accomplishment.

The Rock character was paying dividends in the ring as well. Able to ditch the goofy mannerisms that had worked for his dad in the 80s and develop his own in-ring presence helped Rock improve as a wrestler. He was still fairly green, but covered for it with both an enthusiasm and a confidence most guys only a year into their careers lacked. He put on a good show with Ken Shamrock at Survivor Series in an eight man tag match that would pave the way for the two to have several showdowns throughout 1998. The Rock quickly became one of the hottest heels in the WWF, and it just so happened that Steve Austin, the hottest babyface in the WWF needed a new rival.

Rock lucked out because Austin was the Intercontinental champ when they began feuding and the WWF were building to Austin becoming World champ so they needed the IC belt off of him. Austin’s feud was initially with Faarooq, but The Rock was clearly hotter so the feud moved over to him. The two had some outstanding wars on the mic and already both were being pegged as key players in the future of the WWF; they would of course go on to headline two Wrestlemanias against one another. But in their first encounter at Degeneration X in December, 1997, Austin emerged the decisive victor in a good brawl. Nonetheless, the next night on RAW, Austin was forced by Vince McMahon to give up the title to Rock because he refused a rematch, wanting to pursue the WWF title, but not before giving Rock a Stonecold Stunner (and Rock began his trend of being the best guy in the WWF in terms of selling that move) and then throwing the IC title in a river. Now, almost a year after his initial run, The Rock was ready to be the Intercontinental champion.

In the first part of 1998, The Rock was essentially running two angles at the same time: one was his feud with Ken Shamrock (which produced excellent matches, probably the best either man had up to that point, at Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania, King of the Ring, and Survivor Series that year), and the other involved the ambitious Rock trying to succeed Faarooq as leader of the Nation (as it came to be called). The latter angle came to a head the night following Wrestlemania XIV, as Faarooq called for Rock, whom he had left to the mercies of Shamrock the night before (though Rock managed to hold onto the IC title by virtue of disqualification), to be thrown out of the group; instead the Nation turned on its founder and embraced Rock as its new leader. In a similar fashion, the fans had embraced the man whose death they had literally been calling for a year prior. The fans still chanted “Rocky Sucks” at every opportunity, but it was now as acknowledgement at how good Rock was in his new role. And even as a heel, the charismatic Rock was winning over fans with his witty catchphrases, cool arrogance, and growing sense of comedic timing. The Nation became the WWF’s premiere heel stable, feuding with the popular Degeneration X (led coincidentally by HHH, leading to more matches between he and The Rock), and Rock was becoming a legitimate top tier player, the sins of the past seemingly forgotten. With the fans so into the character, the only question was how long could the WWF keep him as a heel?

Owen Hart was recruited into the Nation in spring of ’98 in order to consolidate all of DX’s feuds into one (HHH was feuding with Hart at the time), and to move the heat of the feud completely onto Rock. The Rock wrapped up his storyline with Faarooq by beating him at Over the Edge ’98 to retain his IC title and then began his next program at King of the Ring when HHH interfered in his KotR finals match with Shamrock (non-title of course), inciting the two stars to once again do battle. Both guys were starting to come into their own on the mic, with Rock in particular learning how to work the crowd. They had a two out of three falls match at Fully Loaded 1998 that went to a time limit draw, both to prove that both men could actually wrestle and to build towards a rematch; the match was extremely successful in the latter, but fell a bit short in the former as both guys were still learning to develop wrestling styles to fit their successful characters.

The rematch was signed for Summerslam ’98 as one of the marquee match and was made a ladder match to give both men a real chance to show what they could do. There was a huge legacy for the match to live up to, perhaps an unfair one, as Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) had set the benchmark for WWF ladder matches at Wrestlemania X in 1994, with what is to this day seen as probably the best gimmick match of all time. HHH’s friendship with Michaels didn’t help things as comparisons were being made before the match even occurred. Undaunted by expectation, Rock and HHH went out and delivered a classic in their own right. Though they may not have lived up to Michaels-Ramon, they showed that two bigger men could have a match nearly as, if not as, good and set the standard for gimmick matches in the “Attitude” era: more intense and brutal as both men bled and put their bodies on the line. In the end, HHH came out victorious, and many at the time said it would be the match that made the DX leader, but as it would happen, far bigger things were in store for the match’s loser.

Following the Summerslam match, The Rock had proven himself both in the ring and on the microphone. The WWF was left with something of a problem as the fans desperately wanted to cheer the heel Rock; a babyface turn seemed natural. The problem was that everything the fans loved about The Rock, his arrogance, his wit, his attitude, were heel characteristics. Also, Duane Johnson was able to successfully channel his own persona into the heel Rock character far better than he could as a babyface. The decision was made to proceed slowly, to test the waters before throwing Rock to the sharks, to see if the fans would cheer a slightly modified Rock rather than go forth with a full face turn. It began with Rock slowly disassociating with the Nation, without actually formally leaving the group, and being forced into a loose-knit team with the popular Mankind and Ken Shamrock as all three were targeted by the newly heel-turned Kane & Undertaker. Rock didn’t change any part of his personality, he was simply fighting for survival with the guys who were most convenient for him to team with; the character was not compromised as Rock was still looking out for number one. But the rub of being around Shamrock and Mankind was a sign to the fans that they could now cheer the Rock. Rock was forced into a Triple Threat cage match at Breakdown ’98 with his two reluctant allies and received by far the most cheers of the three, emerging from the match victorious.

Following Breakdown, Rock was standing on his own as a babyface, albeit one who retained all his heel mannerisms. He was turned on by the Nation, setting up a match with Mark Henry in which D’Lo Brown’s interference allowed Henry to score the upset; the WWF was showing that even though Rock was once again a face he would not be pushed too far too fast and Rock showed he was willing to be a team player. The one small change was Rock putting emphasis on a little nickname he had developed at first as a joke: “The People’s Champion.” Whereas at first Rock was just being cocky, he now truly claimed to represent the people, and they believed it. Rock was positioned as the secondary enemy of heel WWF owner Vince McMahon, behind Steve Austin. Rock was the chosen hero of the people, whom McMahon hated. The WWF World title had been declared vacant after Austin, Kane, and Undertaker had wrestled to an inconclusive finish at Breakdown, and a tournament was to be held at Survivor Series ’98 to determine a new champ. McMahon did all he could to keep Rock out of the tourney, but when Rock defeated Henry in a match McMahon set up on Raw, he earned his way into the tournament against McMahon’s wishes; but all was not as it seemed.

My colleague here on 411wrestling.com Scott Keith has called Survivor Series ’98 “Vince Russo’s finest hour;” it was also the night that The Rock became a superstar. Rock was scheduled to battle old rival HHH in the opening round, but HHH was injured and McMahon hired thug Big Bossman took his place, losing to Rock in about five seconds via a small package. In the quarter-finals, Bossman returned in Rock’s match against Shamrock and seemingly tried to toss Shamrock his nightstick, but missed, allowing Rock to get the baton and nail Shamrock for another win. Then in the semi-finals, Rock picked up a disqualification win over Undertaker when Kane entered and chokeslammed Rock as revenge against his brother who had beaten him earlier. Rock was sent to enter the finals against Mankind, who had turned heel several weeks earlier and become McMahon’s “surrogate son.” Mankind managed to get into the finals with a win over McMahon’s archenemy Austin which was assisted by Vince’s son Shane, who had seemingly turned on his father weeks earlier only to reveal it was all a ruse to gain Austin’s confidence and then turn on the “Rattlesnake;” with one McMahon enemy vanquished, all that stood between what was thought to be McMahon’s dream of Mankind as champion was The Rock. But in a move that shocked most wrestling fans (even most smarts, some of whom had predicted the Shane turn), McMahon called for the ringbell while Rock had Mankind locked in the Sharpshooter, in a recreation of the events of the previous year’s Survivor Series involving Bret Hart in Mankind’s position and Shawn Michaels in The Rock’s, but now it was part of the storyline; Rock had been secretly working alongside McMahon for weeks, and all of Bossman’s actions earlier in the night had been orchestrated to get Rock to the finals. Rock was still the self-serving jerk he had always been and now the fans booed him with even more fervor. Austin returned at the end of the show and annihilated the new WWF champion to a tremendous ovation; the dollar signs were lighting up in Vince McMahon’s eyes.

The WWF was still hesitant to do a Rock face turn so abruptly, particularly when he was still drawing money as a heel and they needed a strong heel champion to eventually feed to Austin at Wrestlemania. They also now knew through the bait and switch that once Rock did turn babyface for real he would be over huge and they would have another Austin level star on their hands if they just waited long enough and whetted the fans appetites. In the four months in between Survivor Series and Wrestlemania, Rock was programmed to work a long feud with Mankind, now a sympathetic babyface, who was also a seasoned veteran who could bump well and would help Rock both learn and get over. The feud took an interesting turn when Rock jobbed the title to Mankind at a TV taping (one which I happened to be at I’m just there for all of Rock’s big moments I suppose), giving the fans their sentimental Christmas present. Rock regained the title in a brutal I Quit match at Royal Rumble 1999 and then lost it once again in an Empty Arena match during half-time of the Super Bowl, wrestled to a draw at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in a Last Man Standing match, and then won it back for good in a Ladder match on RAW the next night thanks to new WWF arrival and new member of McMahon’s Corporate stable The Big Show. Mankind’s willingness to absorb tremendous amounts of punishment helped Rock get over big time as a ruthless heel in the series of gimmick matches as he honed his cocky jerk routine on the microphone to a nearly flawless level. In two years Rock had shown more improvement both in and out of the ring than many wrestlers do their entire careers. The fans could not wait to see Austin give the hated champion his comeuppance at the biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania XV.

The Rock-Austin main event for Wrestlemania XV had been public knowledge for some time, and both men were determined to make the other look good, to make the match the best it could possibly be, and to take the WWF to the next level. Both men are incredibly unselfish and professional, the biggest reasons they always seem to work so well together and why this match in particular is seen as one of the classics in the annals of Wrestlemania main event history. The finish saw Austin score the win after the second Stonecold Stunner he delivered during the match (Rock got the honor of kicking out of the first). Now that Rock had blown off his four month long storyline with Austin, it was time for the next phase of his career: finally turning face for real.

Rock continued the program with Austin at somewhat half-speed, though he still managed to produce some classic segments involving stealing Austin’s “Smoking Skull” title belt. The two had another great match at Backlash ‘99, which would serve as the catalyst for Rock’s big face turn. The next night on RAW, a frustrated Shane McMahon, who had assumed control of the Corporation while his father focused on The Undertaker stalking his daughter Stephanie, berated The Rock, ultimately firing him and challenging him to a match. Rock pummeled Shane at the end of the night, but then fell victim to a gang beating by the entire Corporation. By the very first Smackdown a couple days later, Rock was teaming with a face turned Vince and his rival Austin against Shane, HHH (who had turned heel and joined the Corporation) and The Undertaker. The face turn seemed like it never even really took place; Rock kept his old attitude, but now he was fighting the bad guys, and all the fans who had been waiting to cheer for him now had free license to do so.

The fans took to The Rock with fervor in the spring of 1999 as they had been waiting more or less for a year now to cheer him as a true babyface. He has just come off a run as World champ and Steve Austin had waited some time to gain that title, so Rock also did not have to worry about the strain of carrying the company’s top title. Unfortunately for Rock, since there was no desire to get him back in the World title picture so soon (and probably even then a basic plan if his popularity continued to grow to wait until the next Wrestlemania to give him the belt again), he spent most of the spring, summer, and even fall putting over or working with mid-card heels who needed the rub Rock’s newfound popularity could afford them. He found himself first in a program once again with HHH, now with Rock as the face and HHH as the newly turned heel (and one the WWF had big things planned for). Just as he had a year ago, Rock put over HHH in hopes of springboarding him into the main event level (and this time the results were far more successful). The Rock’s other major program of the period was not so successful, as he was booked for Summerslam ’99 against Billy Gunn, a career tag team wrestler who had just turned heel and won King of the Ring, and whom the WWF was also hoping to bump to main events. But despite initial strong showings around the King of the Ring pay per view, by Summerslam Gun showed he was not yet motivated or talented enough to cut in the singles division, and Rock was put over him, though the feud was generally seen as a waste of time. With HHH having won the World title and the WWF looking at a Rock-HHH grudge match as a potential main event for Wrestlemania XVI, they had to keep the two as separated as they could over the coming months. What then to do with somebody as popular as the Rock if you have to steer him clear of the main event?

The solution the WWF came up with was to put Rock in a tag team with the almost-as-popular Mankind and put the Tag Team titles on them. Rock & Mankind won the belts from The Undertaker & The Big Show following Summerslam and went on to hold the titles (with a break here and there) for the better part of two months. It was here that Vince Russo’s excesses began to show as he heavily played up the out of shape underdog Mankind’s hero worship of the arrogant Rock to the point where both were quickly becoming caricatures rather than characters. Most fans felt the “Mankind worships the Rock but the Rock can’t stand him” joke got real old real fast, but Russo kept on plugging. The “Rock & Sock Connection” garnered a tremendous reaction from mark fans, but smarts were getting annoyed; while the “This Is Your Life Rocky” half hour segment on RAW drew record ratings for the company, it also drew critical response from the fanbase. In October of 1999, Russo (perhaps mercifully) left the WWF for WCW and the Rock/Mankind team was pretty much scrapped, with a neat final twist of Mankind discovering that Rock had thrown out a copy of his autobiography and finally turning on The Rock and letting him know what a spoiled jerk he thought he was, although really seeds were just being planted for more down the line.

Rock was briefly placed back in the main event picture (following a forgettable feud with a deteriorated Davey Boy Smith) as he was booked to face World champ HHH as well as Austin in the biggest Triple Threat match in history at Survivor Series 1999. However, it was fairly public knowledge among the smart community that Austin had sustained a major neck injury and would be leaving the WWF for some time to recover from surgery. At Survivor Series, a newly face turned Big Show took Austin’s place and defeated HHH for the title as Rock was tied up on the outside by HHH’s Degeneration X buddies.

With the storyline shifting to HHH against Vince and Rock being saved for later, the Rock/Mankind issue was revisited by in a far more interesting manner: it was revealed that Rock had indeed read Mankind’s book and enjoyed it, but Mankind’s jealous best friend Al Snow (under the advice of new WWF arrival Chris Jericho) had framed Rock. Rock & Mankind reunited, now with a sense of mutual respect, to battle both Snow & Jericho and then HHH’s buddies the Tag champion New Age Outlaws on pay per view. It was a nice little series of distractions while the WWF figured out what to do next.

What came immediately next was Rock leading the WWF locker room in threatening to walk out on the show if HHH and Vince’s daughter Stephanie (who had married and seized control of the company) did not reinstate Mankind, whom they had fired a week earlier. The Helmsleys relented and babyface Rock got a new dimension to his character, as he was still an arrogant jerk, but clearly one who believed in doing the right thing. However, in an interview that night, one WWF superstar took exception to Rock’s typical bravado in saying that he would easily win the Royal Rumble, that being the Big Show (who had dropped the World title back to HHH). On Smackdown Rock was scheduled to team with Show, and expressed excitement over teaming with a former WWF champ in his backstage interview (another new Rock characteristic: showing respect for his peers), but then Show turned on Rock during the match because of the remarks he had made. It was an interesting little storyline, because on the one hand Show was right in assessing Rock as an arrogant jerk, but on the other hand he was clearly overreacting since wrestlers (himself included) gave interviews saying how they’d easily win matches all the time.

The Rock-Show program continued into the Royal Rumble of 2000 as Rock won by last eliminating his rival, and then even afterwards as Show presented footage showing that Rock’s feet had actually hit the ground before his. HHH (who was essentially running the WWF on camera at this point) made a match between the two at No Way Out ’00 that was considered a mere formality for Rock to win and then go onto face HHH in the match that had been built for months at Wrestlemania. The WWF threw the first of many curveballs though, as Shane McMahon, who had been absent from TV for several months, returned and turned heel, helping Show win and become number one contender. Any fan knew HHH-Show would not be the main event for Wrestlemania, but were curious to see how the WWF would get out of this one. A few weeks later, Rock faced Show in a match where if he won he’d get the title shot ina three-way rematch from Survivor Series at Wrestlemania, but if he lost he’d never get another WWF title shot. Obviously Rock won, but it was the how that was interesting as Vince, who had also been gone several months, returned and aided Rock in victory. The next week, HHH jumped the gun on holding the three way, only to have a pinfall victory over Big Show interrupted by Linda, Vince’s wife, who announced that the Wrestlemania main event would be a four way elimination match also involving Mick Foley (the former Mankind whom HHH had defeated in a retirement match at No Way Out) with a McMahon in every corner.

Another shock was in store for fans at Wrestlemania, albeit not one that all fans took too kindly to. Most fans were banking that the World title would ultimately find its way into the possession of either the ultra-popular Rock, or the nostalgic favorite Foley, who was retiring after this match for real; after all, the good guy always won at Wrestlemania. For the first time ever, this old adage was not to be, as after Show and Foley were eliminated, Rock and HHH squared off in the showdown fans had been waiting for and the finish saw Vince McMahon shockingly turn on Rock and give the win to HHH. The turn itself was not surprising (McMahons turned every other week), but that it would occur in the main event of Wrestlemania was unheard of (the babyface had won in the fifteen previous main events). The finish was supposed to signify that the WWF was turning a page and entering a new era, but fans, marks in particular, as much as they had grown to respect HHH as a legitimate champion, were conditioned to expect Wrestlemania to be the one show that sent them home happy. The absurd explanation for the turn given the next night on RAW (that Rock had never thanked Vince for his first title run or something) did not help matters, and the WWF ended up acting fast and giving the fans what wanted with interest by having Rock win the title the next month at Backlash, with help from “special enforcer” Steve Austin who made his first appearance on WWF TV in five months.

During the period between Wrestlemania and Backlash, Rock’s value both to the WWF and as a mainstream media star was also firmly cemented. Rock took several weeks off to film his part in the major Hollywood action feature “The Mummy Returns,” and well newly face-turned Chris Jericho certainly provided somebody different for the bad guys to mess with for a couple weeks, his run proved that the WWF was not yet ready to survive without The Rock, particularly impressive since they had been doing fine without Austin since November.

Rock and HHH had proven their mettle to the WWF by carrying the Federation sans Steve Austin for over half a year, something many had said would be impossible. Now another challenge was thrown their way for the Judgment Day ’00 pay per view in May of 2000: just as they had been asked to try and measure up to the Michaels-Hall ladder match two years earlier, they were now being booked in a sixty minute Iron Man match, a gimmick Michaels and Bret Hart had done to near-perfection at Wrestlemania XII. Critics groaned as they insisted that neither man possessed the stamina, the versatility, or the moveset to put on a quality sixty minute match. Sow what did the WWF’s two hottest young stars do? They went out and proved the world wrong by putting on a match that most agreed put the Michaels-Hart version to shame, with great psychology, pacing, and action; it is a match that to this day is considered a classic (and one of the very best this columnist has had the good fortune to watch). HHH had proved earlier in the year with Mick Foley that he had improved tremendously as a wrestler, but Rock (though he lost the title when a returning Undertaker inadvertently got him disqualified) clearly contributed as much to this match as his eternal rival did. The kid who could once merely “throw a decent dropkick” had come a long way.

By the time the summer of 2000 came around, Rock was clearly the WWF’s franchise player and was seen as more than worthy of being the man to carry the company. He won back the WWF title in a somewhat convoluted six man tag team match at King of the Ring 2000, teaming with Under & Kane to defeat HHH, Vince & Shane, and then moved into the program that would put the final touches on making Rock a complete wrestler. Rock entered a series of matches with Chris Benoit, widely considered by smarts and experts to be the best technical wrestler on the planet. Rock put Benoit over under questionable terms on RAW then went over him at Fully Loaded in July, a couple times on RAW during the summer, and then again during the fall at Unforgiven and on RAW. However, Rock clearly learned better chain wrestling by working with Benoit, as well as adding several new moves to his repertoire to keep up with Benoit’s breakneck offense. In the end, some people argued that Benoit got the short end of the stick, but ultimately his matches with The Rock did give him a rub, but there is no arguing that they benefited Rock even more, helping him use his athletic potential to fulfill his wrestling potential.

Fall of 2000 was an exciting time for the WWF as Steve Austin was set to make his return to active competition. Rock became swept up in the “Stone Cold returns” storyline as the explanation given for Austin’s year-long absence from the WWF was being hit by a car driven by a mystery driver at Survivor Series 1999. The WWF played out the “whodunit” storyline for all it was worth, bringing back superstars who had been absent from TV (like Shawn Michaels and Billy Gunn) as red herring suspects and also dropped clues, including that it was Rock’s rental car that had been used in the hit-and-run. New WWF Commissioner Mick Foley served as the “Sherlock Holmes” of this little caper and ultimately discovered the less than thrilling culprit: Rikishi, the 400+ pound Samoan fan favorite and cousin to The Rock. Rikishi admitted to the crime and then gave the explanation that he had done it to get Austin out of the way so his cousin could win the World title and further made claims that the WWF was racist against Samoans and preferred to push “the great white hope.” Some found the revelation and explanation to be both unexpected and ripe with potential, but most did not like the racial undertone and didn’t buy Rikishi (who was less than stellar on the mic) as the Federation’s new monster heel.

At No Mercy 2000, Rikishi had a brawl with Austin that went nowhere and then came back to try and assist his cousin in his main event match with Kurt Angle, but accidentally nailed Rock and cost him the WWF title. As it was clear that the Rikishi turn had not paid off, the WWF did some last minute damage control and revealed rather hastily that it was HHH (who had just turned babyface) who was actually behind Rikishi’s attack. The main event focus moved to Austin vs HHH while Rikishi revealed that he had only claimed that he had run down Austin on behalf of The Rock to frame his cousin, whom he really resented, thus burying the racism angle and placing the two cousins in a feud. The entire WWF was running somewhat on cruise control here as Vince McMahon was getting ready to launch his new football league, the XFL, and Rock scored a dull win in a lackluster match with Rikishi at Survivor Series 2000.

Rock finished up the year 2000 as the man who got pinned by Angle in a six way Hell in a Cell match for the World title at Armageddon also involving Austin, HHH Undertaker, and Rikishi. As the new year dawned, Vince returned, Rock concluded any business with Rikishi, and rededicated himself to winning back the WWF title. Rock came up short in the Royal Rumble being eliminated by his old rival the Big Show (leading to a mini-feud that played out on RAW and basically only served to put Rock over Show and build him for a rematch with Angle). Rock earned a title rematch with Angle at No Way Out 2001. Angle was developing a new, more aggressive character (in contrast to his former comedic heel) and he and Rock tore down the house with a great match, showing why they are among the best main-event performers from a wrestling standpoint the WWF has had in quite some time.

Just as in 1999, fans knew that the path to Wrestlemania led to Rock-Austin for the WWF title, but the difference now was that both men were huge babyfaces (the two most popular wrestlers in the business) and who would win, and whether either man would turn heel was unknown. Angle and HHH both laid claim that they deserved the title shot leading to some excellent matches featuring all four men leading up to Wrestlemania. Ultimately, the WWF made the questionable decision to turn Austin heel and have Vince help him beat Rock. The next night on RAW, Austin aligned with HHH and then on Smackdown, Vince suspended Rock indefinitely. The reason behind Rock’s suspension was actually that he was again taking time off to shoot a movie, this time “The Scorpion King,” a spin-off of “The Mummy” with The Rock starring as the character he created. Also during his time off, Rock solidified his mainstream popularity, appearing on various award and talk shows to promote the release of both films. Rock has proven perhaps the best crossover representative to the mainstream world that the WWF had ever had; he is a very intelligent and eloquent man who comes off as suave and sophisticated (and his good looks do not hurt).

Rock made his return to the WWF at Summerslam 2001 as the WWF was in the midst of taking on a WCW/ECW “invading” faction made up of wrestlers from both companies that Vince had purchased. Rock defeated WCW standout Booker T to win the WCW World title in his return in a solid match and then feuded for several months with Booker, helping to elevate him. Now that the Invasion has concluded, Rock finds himself aligned with Austin, who has again gone face, against Vince’s new heel faction, in specific Chris Jericho, another man Rock has helped to elevate with their great feud in recent months.

It’s hard to find any chinks in the armor of The Rock. He is an exciting wrestler, a charismatic performer, and the kind of ambassador to the mainstream world who can make wrestling seem a bit better than a “hillbilly sideshow.” It’s a tremendous list of accomplishments for a man who during his debut year was told to “die” by fans who were all but explicitly told to cheer for him. And yet even today there are those who claim The Rock is overrated and that indeed it is still true that “Rocky Sucks.” The majority has become the minority, but it still exists; why? Where did Rock go wrong? Let’s take a closer look

THE MARK: Once upon a time they were his biggest detractors; now they follow his instructions to the word. Fans at house shows are sucked in by Rock’s look, his charisma, his sense of timing, and his intensity. They follow his interviews with mouths agape waiting for him to deliver a hilarious barb or trademark line and then go wild breaking into loud chants of “Rocky” (no “sucks” necessary). His merchandise sales are through the roof. Even people who don’t watch wrestling love The Rock. He has hosted Saturday Night Live, appeared on countless talk and award shows, and stands poised to become Hollywood’s next big action star. Even celebrities occasionally flash the People’s Eyebrow or threaten to lay the Smackdown on rivals. The Rock has made it cool to be a wrestling fan and is now truly “The People’s Champion.”

THE SMART: Following his transformation from Rocky Maivia to The Rock, internet fans would waffle back and forth for years in their opinions. As he rode a wave of popularity in 1998, the internet heralded him as the future of the WWF. In late 1999, when the internet was sour on the WWF in general, the internet pointed at Rock as the token representative of staleness and lack of originality. In 2000, as the WWF was resurrected via Rock/HHH, the internet jumped right back on the bandwagon, with the Iron Man match being Rock’s internet high point. Of course once Benoit got jobbed out to The Rock, the internet jumped like a pack of hyenas, but it didn’t last long. When Rock was one of the few guys putting in great performances in late 2000 and early 2001, the internet declared that he had redeemed any wrongs from the dawn of his career. Now opinion is clearly split, as some are praising Rock’s work with Chris Jericho and others are once again complaining that his act has gotten stale. Can Rock ever win?

And finally

THE MEAN: The Rock may indeed be the “most electrifying man in sports entertainment” as he has long claimed; there are few people I enjoy watching more. Yet, it seems that for all his fans, there remains a small if vocal faction that still holds Rock in great disdain. Looking at it logical, the resentment is understandable. No matter what Rock does, the stigma of the push that came too soon at the beginning of his career and the spectre of Rocky Maivia will always hang over The Rock. Is it fair? Not necessarily, but it’s a fact of life that wrestling fans will usually forgive (at least temporarily), but they never ever forget; they are among the most anally detail-minded people in the world (myself included). There are is also the fact of course that Rock is an easy target due to his success. Picking on X-Pac, The Big Show, or The Undertaker is easy, because everybody does it, but if you pick on somebody as beloved as The Rock, it’s bound to grab you some attention. And though just about every wrestler who has done a shoot interview has praised Rock as a nice guy and great to work with, there must still be some lingering jealousy from guys who have been in the business for decades with no World titles or movie deals to show for it.

His detractors can claim that Rock’s act is stale or that he’s over-pushed, but the facts show that Rock has given far more than he has taken from the wrestling business. Fact #1: Yes Rock has something of a repetitive in-ring style, but at the same time he is limited in the time he is given and was “raised” so to say on Vince Russo and his three minute matches. When time comes for Rock to put on a quality long match on pay per view he always steps up his game. And look at Rock from 1996 or 1997 compared to 2000 or today and you’ll see a man who has worked hard to become the best wrestler he can be under the circumstances provided. Fact #2: Rock has almost without fail done what’s best for the WWF first and The Rock second. He never asked for what he was given early in his career, but he has done everything he can to give back. He has jobbed on pay per view to Mark Henry! He has dropped the WWF title cleanly when called upon to do so, and one time on an untelevised card only weeks into his first reign as champ to a guy who many others with bigger egos probably would have refused to lay down for. He could easily have asked for more time off following his hiatus to film the “Scorpion King,” but he rushed back into the ring because the WWF needed him. Fact #3: His catchphrases can get old, but he consistently gives some of the most entertaining interviews that wrestling has seen since Ric Flair; it’s what’s in between the catchphrases that counts. Fact #4: Between he and Kurt Angle, wrestling has never had ambassadors to the “real” world that make it seem classier than it does now. Fact #5: Rock has put guys over, given the rub and made careers. He put HHH over twice in an attempt to build him. He most likely would have done the same for Billy Gunn. He tried to do so for Rikishi and did in part for Chris Benoit. Now he’s in the process of turning Chris Jericho from a guy who has been “this close” for years into a legitimate main event superstar. Fact #6: Nobody (and I mean nobody) wrestles with the intensity of The Rock. For him even simple moves like punches or kicks are executed with a wealth of emotion; his spinebusters and DDTs have a snap to them unmatched. But at the same time, when’s the last time you heard of Rock injuring his opponent or even of The Rock taking time off to tend to his own injuries.

Often times in life we blame people for things that aren’t their fault, especially celebrities. Duane Johnson to the best of my knowledge has never done anything not asked of him by his bosses in the WWF, but there are those wrestling fans who will forever hold him responsible for the sins of Vince McMahon and others. For better or worse, The Rock has always been unselfish, hard working, and has stood at the helm of the good ship WWF through good times and through bad. I’m sure the grumbles of a few unsatisfied fans are drowned out by the millions and millions cheering for him each week, but perhaps there is still a pang of hurt as it has to evoke painful memories of the abysmal early days of his career. Still, Duane Johnson has never stopped working hard to justify the opportunities he’s been given, and as a result, he’s been handed even more. It’s more or less impossible to please all of the people all of the time, but who knows, perhaps The Rock can be the man to do it

In the mean time, thanks for reading