The Rock Returns to Professional Wrestling: Are Fans Waiting or Worrying?P4.

It was a little odd seeing Dwayne “The Final Boss” nee “The Rock” Johnson walk down to the ring at WrestleMania XL with his own title belt. He hasn’t wrestled in eight years. Not exactly the work rate of a champion.

But after the Final Boss had whipped baby-faced Cody Rhodes with a weightlifting waistband and hoisted that belt to a roaring crowd of 70,000 people on April 6, it was clear that the man who helped turn wrestling mainstream, then left it to become a movie star, had once again found a new role.

Johnson had also completed one of the most notable comebacks in this not-quite-sport. His win, of course, was scripted. But there had been no guarantee that WWE fans would accept this latest reinvention of the Rock — a wrestling legend from another century who, some suspected, only returned to the ring after Hollywood got stale.

Why he decided to return is something of a mystery on the online rumor mills. Maybe Hollywood execs had grown tired of Johnson’s trademark performance, which Rolling Stone once described as “beefcake served with a side of ham.” Maybe it had something to do with reports that Johnson was ruffling feathers behind the scenes, allegedly pushing for producer credits on films he did little to promote or demanding his tequila brand be used at promo events. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he had joined the board of WWE’s parent company weeks before his match, could it? The Rock did not respond to a request for comment.

But if Johnson knows one thing, it’s how to pivot. So he embraced the hate and turned himself into WWE’s next big bad guy.

The third-generation star of a real-life bloodline that pioneered the professional wrestling industry, Johnson debuted to widespread jeers in 1996 as Rocky Maivia, whose hokey outfits and corny smile might have been a symbol for professional wrestling’s reputation in pop culture at the time.

A year later, Johnson transformed his wrestling persona into a trash-talking, overly confident badass now known to millions as the Rock. It’s hard to overstate what the Rock did for professional wrestling. Johnson became a nine-time world champion over the next four years (he won his 10th title during a short stint in 2013). His catchphrases changed dictionaries and his outfits became Halloween staples. He is largely credited with bolstering wrestling’s golden “Attitude Era,” when anywhere between 5 million to 10 million people tuned into the WWE’s weekly shows.

His charisma proved too great for the WWE to contain. After moonlighting as an actor in the Mummy franchise and remakes of “Walking Tall” and “Get Smart,” Johnson burst into the popular consciousness in 2011 with his role as special agent Lucas “Luke” Hobbs in the fifth Fast & Furious movie. This opened up a 12-year, on-again, off-again partnership with the franchise, alongside roles in two “Jumanji” sequels and Disney’s “Moana.” His résumé now includes 60 movies and 29 TV appearances. He launched his own clothing collection, tequila brand and skin-care line, and hinted at one point he might run for president.

Meanwhile, wrestling was evolving in the Rock’s absence. After years of cheesy scripts about sniveling suffering succotash and childish gags (the dog-food-smearing ringside fight is widely considered WWE’s modern low point), the 2020 coronavirus pandemic emptied out arenas and caused WWE to focus on intentional and long-form storytelling. (Example: Lovable loser Sami Zayn spent nearly all of 2022 trying to join the prestigious Bloodline team. The final test was for him to beat up his longtime friend Kevin Owens. Zayn couldn’t go through with it and instead smashed the Bloodline’s leader with a chair to save Owens. Fin.)

There has also been a recent shake-up in leadership: Longtime WWE chairman Vince McMahon retired in 2022 amid accusations of sexual assault and abuse — all of which he has denied. A corporate merger the next year left WWE with a new creative leader, Paul Levesque, who has focused on recruiting wrestlers already popular outside the industry. Rhodes is a “Today” show darling. Rhea Ripley is all over TikTok. Logan Paul is the United States champion, and commentator Pat McAfee has a daily ESPN show.

So it wasn’t exactly surprising when Johnson was named as a board member of WWE’s parent company, TKO, in January. But when Johnson announced that he would also return to the ring at WrestleMania, some fans bristled. Many feared he would steal the spotlight from red-hot Rhodes, who spent more than a year trying to win WWE’s heavyweight title. #WeWantCody trended worldwide and, well, you know how those things go.
But Johnson leaned into it. He made a heel turn and became WWE’s ultimate villain, the Final Boss.

The Final Boss is a meaner, foul-mouthed version of the Rock, with an egotistical edge that may or may not be Johnson’s way of satirizing himself. The Final Boss carries the “People’s Champion” belt, bestowed upon him by Muhammad Ali’s family 24 hours before WrestleMania. The Final Boss has a 15-minute ring entrance that’s packed with flames, lightning and thunderous music. The Final Boss swears on live TV, whips people with belts, screams at referees to ignore the rules.

He drew more heat from fans than any wrestler in the past two months and led WrestleMania to seat more than 145,000 people between two nights at the event — a record for the company. Ratings for WWE’s “Raw” and “SmackDown” television shows skyrocketed. Hardcore fans started to come around, too. “He knew how to flip the script,” said Damon Varges, one of the thousands of fans in Philadelphia that weekend. “The way he came on, and the way he became an ‘a-hole,’ the way he was, that was perfect for this ultimate WrestleMania. I love what the Rock is doing. I love everything that’s going on. I’m a fan again.”

Identity is a blurry notion in the world of wrestling. Johnson is now the Final Boss, but sometimes he is still the Rock, and sometimes he is just Dwayne Johnson.

After he won his tag match against Rhodes on Saturday night, Johnson appeared at a press event sans persona. He promoted his upcoming movie, an A24 biopic called “The Smashing Machine.” He answered more questions than WWE allowed. He held the room in his easygoing aura for 19 minutes, then dismissed everyone with a joke: “I need a cheat meal … and some tequila!”

Rhodes made a comeback the following night, beating Roman Reigns at WrestleMania’s main event and becoming the new heavyweight champion. The night after that, on WWE’s weekly show “Monday Night Raw,” Johnson was back in character as he crashed the victory celebration.
“The Rock loves professional wrestling,” the Final Boss said of his old persona. “The Rock made it cool again.” He then pointed to Rhodes. “You made it cool again.”

The Final Boss told everyone that he — Johnson, the Rock, whoever — was going away for a while to film some movies. The crowd replied with a mix of boos and cheers. They sang back, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.”

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