Professional wrestling is an industry comprised entirely of larger-than-life characters, so it’s no mean feat that Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson almost became the largest-than-life from the moment he stepped into the ring. The dude had, to paraphrase a classic David Lee Roth video, “char-as-ma.”
The Rock is a wrestling legacy. His father
was “Soulman” Rocky Johnson, and his maternal grandfather was “High Chief” Peter Maivia. He counts three uncles and six cousins who’ve also tasted turnbuckles, including WWE stars Yokozuna and Rikishi. Dwayne is the first third generation wrestler in the history of the WWF/WWE.
An outstanding high school athlete, Johnson pursued track and field and wrestling – but it was on the gridiron that he really stood out. In his senior year at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he was named to USA Today’s high school All-American team.
This led him to the University of Miami where he played defensive tackle for the Hurricanes and helped them win a championship in 1991. An injury eventually sidelined him, and even though he was eligible for the 1995 NFL draft, he went unpicked.
Johnson didn’t leave U of Miami empty-handed, however. He met his wife and mother of his daughter there, and received a degree in criminology. So why doesn’t he play more cops?
When the NFL failed to come knocking, Johnson headed to the Great White North where he briefly played for the Calgary Stampede of the CFL (alongside Doug Flutie). At the time, Johnson was so broke he slept on a mattress he found near a dumpster outside his low-rent apartment, and he attended every Stampede team meeting (even if it wasn’t required) because he knew there’d be free sandwiches. In a bitterly ironic turn of events, Johnson was cut from the team after a few months to make room for an ex-NFL player.
After making his name in the WWE and messing around with a few minor TV roles, the Rock hit paydirt when his brief appearance in an installment of “The Mummy” film series led to a spin-off starring role in “The Scorpion King.” The $5.5 million he was paid is the highest salary ever paid to an actor for a debut starring role.
When The Rock captured his first WWF title in 1997, he was the youngest wrestler ever to win the belt. He was 24.
Is it any wonder they won’t completely let him go? At the height of his popularity in the early 2000s, Dwayne was earning the WWF/WWE an average of $120 million in merchandise sales per year.
You can add this to the Rock’s list of accolades: in 2002, he was the first athlete to ever return as host of Saturday Night Live. If you want to split hairs, he hosted once as a “wrestler” and once as “the star of The Scorpion King” but doing that would make you insufferable.
“Can you smell what Flex is cooking?” Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? If Dwayne had had his druthers, he’d have wrestled under the name Flex Kavana. He originally didn’t want to trade on his father’s and grandfather’s legacies, and initially balked at the WWF’s suggestion he call himself “Rocky Maivia.” He eventually took the name briefly, before eventually rechristening himself The Rock.
A fortunate lunch date led to Dwayne having the action hero torch passed to him onscreen by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. While making “The Rundown,” Johnson got a call from Arnold saying he was in the area and wanted to have lunch with Dwayne and director Peter Berg.