When you mention ‘professional wrestling’ in most common settings, you’ll undoubtedly generate snickers and nervous laughter. “You believe that stuff is real??” And for those superfluous consumers (who probably can’t watch Family Guy or South Park without constantly reminding themselves that “it’s a cartoon!”) they’ll probably never understand this post. But joke as you may, wrestlers (professional and amateur) are about as well-conditioned as any athletes in the world. I’d argue that running around a ring and taking body slams for five nights a week with no off-season goes up against any football, basketball or even boxing schedule. (Even boxers prepare for months before a fight.) Regardless of whether the outcome is pre-determined, the conditioning is real. So in that sense, it’s about as real as any other physical sport.
As the film The Wrestler revealed to many, the road to the squared circle isn’t always paved with confetti and gold shiny belts. For every Hulk Hogan there has to be a Frank Williams and for every Andre the Giant, you’ve got to have a Domenic Denucci. (And if you can only remember two of the four names I mentioned – exactly.) As wrestling insiders will tell you, there’s very little difference between the huge babyface (read: Hulk Hogan) and the jobber (read: any guy whose name you can’t remember, but saw him get squashed in 3 minutes). It’s all based on who the promoter feels is better suited for the role. It’s all about exciting the fans. So, if you’re blessed enough to have “the look” and to find the favor of the booker (or writer, for those not familiar with wrestling-speak) you should consider it an honor.
When people think of “The Rock” today, many who don’t follow professional wrestling may assume that this handsome, charismatic movie star would have navigated his way to the top regardless of his wrestling past. But anyone who follows wrestling knows that this is far from the truth.
Dwayne Johnson grew up as the son of Rocky Johnson – former WWF Tag Team Champion and fan favorite. He grew up around wrestling all his life. His mother is daughter to WWF Hall of Fame legend Peter Maivia. After a failed football career in the CFL, Dwayne Johnson decided to try his hand at wrestling. I can recall the huge vignette-laiden lead-in to his WWF debut. I was actually at his WWF debut match at Survivor Series in 1996. For weeks before his appearance, there were montages and teasers that this 3rd generation WWF athlete was going to debut. And to be honest, his debut was a bust.
We fans suffered through almost a year of the ‘push’ that Rocky (then called “Rocky Maivia” – to leverage both his father and grandfather’s success) got. He was stiff. He was boring. He was a fake hero being forced down our throats at a time when the concept of the anti-hero was growing in popularity. And I while I don’t know all of the backstage politics, I’m sure there had to be some thought by the writers at abandoning the journey altogether. However, it was when the decision was made to “turn” Rocky Maivia into a rulebreaker – a so-called “heel” – that the magic started. Clearly Rocky’s acting talent began to show it’s first signs of birth. He was entertaining and he slowly turned from ‘the guy you waited for so you could go make a sandwich’ into the main reason to watch the product. It was amazing to see this dramatic turnaround in what I considered a failed wrestling career.
Fast forward to the mid 2000’s. The Rock is now the biggest attraction in all of wrestling. He’s showing up on Mad TV and on <fill in name of popular sitcom or variety show>.
And it’s at this point where he made the decision that almost no one who came before him has made.
You see, all wrestlers who make it big since the 80s have brief glimmers with stardom beyond sports arenas. Hulk Hogan made his share of movies – each one more forgettable than the last. Roddy Piper did a few somewhat respectable films. Bret Hart even tried his hand at a weekly television drama. And this doesn’t count the multitude of cameos that wrestlers make whenever the movie script calls for a “huge hulking dude who can act a bit.” Andre the Giant has a memorable role in The Princess Bride and Jesse Ventura had arguably the greatest success outside of the ring (even omitting his term as Governor or Minnesota). But what separates these guys from Dwayne Johnson is one thing – respect for the vehicle that brought them to the dance.
I’m sure that Hulk Hogan can sell exercise equipment or fat-draining hamburger grills without needing a check from any wrestling organization. And I’m sure the same goes for many of the other popular men and women that the sport has produced. No matter how big they get, they always seem to come home to pay homage to the fans ‘who knew them when’.
Now, I don’t know Dwayne Johnson. I don’t know whether or not he had some physical injury or if he simply had a disagreement with the WWE management that led to his disappearance from the television shows completely. But there are some things that you don’t need to be at the Gorilla Position to understand. The WWE is at a crossroads of sorts. I view their plight quite similar to that of the NBA right now. Both organizations are with their recognizable stars – but nowhere near the star power of years gone by. The difference here is that Michael Jordan can’t sign a one day contract and play for the Chicago Bulls to draw fans interest back into the sport. In wrestling, this kinda thing happens all the time. And all of the stars – all of them – seem to hold to this time-honored tradition. I’m sure Steve Austin has a laundry list of things he could be doing instead of showing up in a WWE ring on a Monday night, but when the organization calls on him, he’s right there. And had Bret Hart not been through the problems that have plagued his family (and there are problems that extend beyond the death of his brother) he would be right there. Hell, he’s even recently offered to be right there. (He has a niece and a nephew who wrestle and he’s expressed a desire to support them.)
Arguably nobody has had the commercial success that Dwayne Johnson has had since leaving the WWE. No other wrestler has starred in Disney feature films and action movies that had as much publicity and had as big a box office return as he did. You’d think with success like that, he’d take a single Monday night out of the year and pop in on his old money maker to show the fans and his WWE colleagues that he remembers what it was like to be Rocky Maivia. But he doesn’t. As a matter of fact – his last few appearances before disappearing completely had been pre-taped.
For a man who grew up having his hair disheveled by Andre the Giant before Andre went out for a big match, you’d think that he might understand. But regardless of his reasons, at some point you just have to come to grips with the truth: Dwayne Johnson doesn’t respect wrestling. It was a rung on the ladder of success to bigger and better things. And why should we despair? Sure, we miss his wit. (He had probably the funniest segments that I had ever seen in wrestling. Ever. And many of them in his last few appearances.) And we miss his athletics and the way that he could electrify a crowd. But it’s like every good coach says: A guy can be the best player in the world. But if he doesn’t want to be here, then we don’t want him here. And clearly The Rock doesn’t want to be here. And it was with this comforting thought that I arrived at the ‘acceptance’ stage of my struggle to understand the psyche of one who attains success and develops a strong case of amnesia along the way.
But tonight… tonight was the final straw.
It’s Monday night. And despite my pleas to swear her off completely, that lady that I’ve been seeing since I was four years old (yep, it’s been awhile) called ‘wrestling’ seems to always find her way back into my life. Our relationship is a bit different now. Where I used to sit up attentively and hang upon her every word, with the VCR reels spinning to capture what I knew would be footage I’d want to watch again someday… well now, it’s turned into a love based on a past that is no longer. The TV’s on USA Cable and while she’s showing me Randy Orton and John Cena in high definition and screaming for my attention, I casually slide my 15” laptop between her and I; a 15” chunk out of a 50” inch display – that I only occasionally peer over when something extraordinary catches my attention. (Usually only for a moment – and then it’s back to the web for my real entertainment.)
But tonight, as I perused through the comments on my Facebook page, I heard a familiar voice. Wow – I know I’m getting up there in age… but I’m sure I heard a familiar voice…. It almost kinda sounded like… The Rock. Only this time he wasn’t asking me if I smelled what he was cooking. No, he didn’t have to ask – because I already knew what he was cooking. And it wreaked of disrespect.
“Hey, it’s me D.J. Dwayne here – and I know you’re watching Raw, but stay tuned after to see clips from my new movie “Return to Witch Mountain”. If you stay tuned after Raw is over you can see these exclusive scenes, Raw fans.”
It’s one thing to decide that you’re done with the sport that gave you success. It’s a very different thing to come on television during the commercial breaks and PIMP the fans to buy what you’re selling when you can’t even condescend to come into the arena, do a few poses, maybe referee a match and give the fans a bit of what they gave to you.
I may never attain the success that Dwayne Johnson has. But one thing I can say with certainty: if it’s in my power to come back to the places where people believed in me during a time before people were willing to pay just to say hello, I’m surely going to do whatever’s in my power to help them. “The Rock” may have better mic skills and a better ring presence than almost any other wrestler I can think of today. But in the spirit of movies like “The Wrestler” (i.e. “I do it for you fans….”<as you point and circle and arena of cheering people>) the Rock may have grown up around wrestling, but clearly he never quite ‘got it’. Maybe he was too close to it. Maybe the fanaticism was lost on him. Whatever the reason, disappearing from wrestling and only showing your face in commercial segments designed to run during the show to hock your movie? I consider it disgraceful.
The movie industry is quite fickle. And I suspect that he understands this fact and is probably keeping a close eye on his money (that could stop flowing in at any time). But one day, I have a funny feeling that you’re going to come face to face with the fans that made you who you are. And I hope they boo so loudly that your voice can’t be heard over the public address system.