This article originally appeared in Calling Spots Issue 22. Republished with permission.
We last saw The Rock at WrestleMania 32, when he contributed to the continued burial of the Wyatt Family by defeating Erick Rowan in six seconds and beating down Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman with the surprise assist of John Cena. The injured fourth member, Luke Harper, didn’t get a WrestleMania moment but it’s hard to argue that he got the raw end of that deal.
The Rock had been harping on about how he would electrify AT&T Stadium since December last year, so expectations were high. But they didn’t include him entering to an introduction by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders (especially after the historical retiring of the Divas Championship, the inauguration of the WWE Women’s Championship and the accompanying press release stating that women’s wrestlers will henceforth be addressed as female Superstars) and setting an erection of his name on fire with a flamethrower like he was Chyna (RIP) in the poorly received segment. Was it when he derided Bray Wyatt—the man billed as the new face of fear and successor of The Undertaker—as a hot pocket-eating, gimmicky joke that The Rock lost his electricity?
Was it when he did chiefly the same thing to New Day in January by mocking their unicorn horns and calling Big E a woman (not The Rock’s first transphobic joke. Also, what’s more insulting than femininity?) and, frankly, coming across as out of touch and stale on the mic compared to the charismatic witticisms of New Day? While it did highlight that The Rock is arguably out of step with what wrestling fans want, it wasn’t then that he misplaced his electricity.
It could be deduced that it was a year prior at the Royal Rumble when The Rock aligned himself with his cousin, Roman Reigns, who has been anointed to follow in the steps of Cena, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock himself as WWE’s “Chosen One”, to a chorus of boos. Evidently, not even The Rock could get Reigns over.
But perhaps it goes back even further than that, to WrestleMania 29, when he met his Dallas compatriots on the opposite side of the ring in a rematch from the year prior, WrestleMania XXVIII, which was dubbed as a “once in a lifetime” event. It’s hard to believe in the electricity of an allegedly one-time-only occurrence when it happened again only a year later.
Many would say it was when The Rock took a hiatus from WWE in 2001 to film a cameo in The Mummy Returns, which parlayed itself into his debut carrying a feature film, 2002’s The Scorpion King. Modest success throughout the ’00s in action films Walking Tall and The Rundown and comedy The Tooth Fairy followed, but he garnered perhaps the most praise in scene-stealing bit parts in Be Cool, Get Smart and Pain & Gain. 2011 saw The Rock’s casting as Hobbs in Fast Five, the re-emergence of the franchise as the pre-eminent action series perhaps not wholly unrelated to The Rock’s own rise. The Rock, going by his birth name Dwayne Johnson, is now the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
Wrestling fans are notoriously disdainful of anyone who achieves fame outside of wrestling. The Miz, Batista and Eva Marie come to mind, with The Rock being the most obvious example. This could be why his most recent returns to WWE have been met with a lukewarm response from fans. It could also be because they have largely included the burying of younger, arguably more electrifying talent. Or maybe it’s just that The Rock’s character is actually shit.
Back in the Attitude Era, his cocky, overblown facade was a perfect match for the larger-than-life characters he shared the ring with: ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Mankind and The Undertaker. In the crossover period between Reality and New Eras, though, his misogynist, predictable schtick that often borders on stream-of-consciousness nonsense seems tired and embarrassing. No one but little kids (who could be said to be WWE’s target audience) are entertained by llama penis jokes and, in a climate where women in sport are slowly but surely being taken more seriously, his sexist, slut-shaming encounters with Lana are cringe-worthy.
To be clear, I’m not talking about Dwayne Johnson, the real man behind the character, who by all accounts is one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. His Instagrams illustrate his penchants for saving puppies, celebrating the birth of his second daughter with fiance Lauren Hashian and modestly throwing back to a time when he was poor and homeless. He possesses a warm smile, a big heart and a red carpet and on-screen presence that confirms his status as one of the biggest movie stars on the planet who can sell the shit out of dime-a-dozen disaster movies and campy, male-sexualisation romps on the back of the success of films like Magic Mike.
So where is this guy on WWE television?
Think back to how many wrestlers who are great on the mic have tanked it in their crossover attempts, such as Triple H. For some reason, they just don’t translate. Could the reverse be what happens to The Rock when he makes his obligatory returns to promote his latest blockbuster once or twice a year? Or is it simply a case of having outgrown the industry that gave him his start? Surely, with ten movies in various stages of production, not to mention his HBO show Ballers, he doesn’t have time to keep up with the constantly evolving WWE Universe.
So, to answer the question posed at the outset: yes, I believe The Rock has lost his electricity. It’s not an indictment of the character or even the man who plays him but rather of a bygone era that insists on holding on while new wrestlers surpass it. WWE is brimming with talent, arguably too much, so why does it insist on bringing back guys like The Rock and the Clique to give new talent the rub? Politically, we know why, but New Day and even Roman Reigns before he was anointed “The Guy” were getting over just fine without them. Wrestling is a deeply nostalgic sport, so there’s always going to be a Legend lurking in the background, but they need to recognise when the flame has been extinguished on their torch and to let the next generation electrify. The Rock has Hollywood: let us savour the charisma of Xavier Woods and Lana while we have them, before they put it to use elsewhere, just like The Rock did.
Related: In Defence of Eva Marie.