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From a natural talent standpoint, it is pretty much undisputable that The Rock is at the very top of the list of the most talented guys to ever lace up a pair of boots. When The Rock came to prominence in the late 1990s, he had every single skill that the World Wrestling Federation required from a top guy. The result of course was one of the greatest runs in box office history and The Rock's rise in popularly would increase to the point that he would end up outgrowing the wrestling business, moving on to loftier aspirations in the entertainment industry.
The Rock's background has been well-documented, he was the son of Rocky Johnson, a popular mid-card and tag team wrestler in the Northeast, and the grandson of High Chief Peter Maivia, one of the most popular babyfaces in the history of wrestling in California. The Rock was a standout athlete in high school, competing in football, wrestling and track and field. After playing football for the University of Miami, The Rock spent some time playing in the Canadian Football League.
After his football career ended, The Rock decided to get into the family business and his father agreed to train him. Due to his family connections, The Rock was able to get a tryout for the WWF in 1996. From day one, it was clear that The Rock had something the WWF was interested in. He was a third-generation talent, he was a big guy and a tremendous natural athlete, he was handsome and even if it wasn't completely capitalized on at first, it was apparent that he had some charisma. He signed with Jerry Lawler's United States Wrestling Association, which at the time was utilized as a developmental territory for the WWF. Wrestling under the name Flex Kavana, The Rock worked in the USWA, winning that promotions tag team titles twice in 1996 before being called up to the WWF.
The Rock would make his official WWF debut at Survivor Series 1996 under the name Rocky Maivia, a combination of his father and grandfather's names. As the name would suggest, The Rock was presented as a blue-chip prospect who was going to accomplish big things in the company. He was impressive in his debut, becoming the sole survivor in an eight-man tag team elimination match. While the crowd did not overwhelmingly react to him, his in-ring work, selling and charisma were enough to impress the WWF brass who remained very high on him. In fact, it was famously predicted after the match that The Rock would become the biggest star in the company by the year 2000. He would actually beat that estimation by a couple years.
Despite his obvious natural gifts, The Rock began to be the victim of the outdated booking philosophy that was hampering the entire company. The Rock was presented as being a generic babyface who didn't have a ton of outlandish charisma or character traits, and the crowd began to reject his basic personality. He upset Hunter Hearst Helmsley for the Intercontinental Championship in February of 1997. Despite the win and successful title defenses against Helmsley and The Sultan at WrestleMania 13, the crowd continued to be hostile against The Rock, famously chanting "Die Rocky Die!."
In April of 1997, The Rock would drop the Intercontinental Championship to Owen Hart and would take some time off to recover from a knee injury. When he returned to the ring he would do the logical thing, embrace the hatred of the fans and become a heel. The Rock would refuse to acknowledge the Rocky Maivia name, simply going by The Rock and referring to himself in the third person. No longer handicapped by having to endear himself to the fans, it became apparent that The Rock was very good on the microphone. He would insult the fans, announcers and his opponents with a remarkable off-the-cuff speaking style that had never before (or since) been seen in professional wrestling. A massive egoist, The Rock combined his tremendous physical gifts with superb comedic timing and classic heel tactics, which began to turn him into one of the most valuable commodities in the company.
The Rock aligned himself with the Nation of Domination, a militant group of black wrestlers, led by Farooq (Ron Simmons) that proved to be a unique and watershed stable for a company that was struggling to fight off World Championship Wrestling. While Farooq was the leader of the group, it was clear that The Rock was the star of the stable. In December of 1997, The Rock began to feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin, who was making his huge babyface run towards the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Austin defeated The Rock and retained the Intercontinental Championship on a PPV but the next night he was ordered to defend it again against The Rock. Austin instead forfeited the championship and then gave The Rock a Stone Cold Stunner.
In 1998 The Rock would feud with Ken Shamrock over the Intercontinental Championship. The Rock defeated Shamrock in a memorable bout at the Royal Rumble. The match saw The Rock hit Shamrock with brass knuckles and then tuck the knuckles inside of Shamrock's tights. After a referee bump, Shamrock recovered and hit The Rock with a belly-to-belly suplex for the pinfall to win the championship. However, The Rock complained that while the referee was down, Shamrock had hit him with brass knuckles and not his finisher, and if the referee didn't believe him, he should check Shamrock's tights. Sure enough, the referee found the brass knuckles in Shamrock's rights and reversed the decision, awarding the match to The Rock via disqualification. To this day, it is one of the more creative heel finishes in wrestling history and a wonderful way to get The Rock over as an insufferable heel.
In March of 1998 he overthrew Farooq as the leader of The Nation and defeated Farooq at Over the Edge. He would then move to feud with Triple H and his babyface faction, D-Generation X. DX and The Nation would often interfere during their matches, adding an element of gang warfare surrounding the Intercontinental Championship. The Rock retained the championship in a two-out-of-three falls match at Fully Loaded, but Triple H managed to win the championship at SummerSlam in a Ladder match. The feud would be a precursor of things to come for the two stars as they would have one of the more competitive rivalries in recent wrestling history.
At Breakdown in September, The Rock cut one of the more engaging promos of his career, referring to the fans as "The People" and showing signs of a babyface turn. He would then go on to defeat Shamrock and Mankind in a Steel Cage match that made him the number one contender for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. He would also begin a brief feud with stablemate Mark Henry, effectively ending The Nation.
As the paradigm in wrestling began to shift, The Rock went from being a heel to a babyface. Unlike his character one year earlier, The Rock wasn't bland and boring, he was bombastic, oozing charism and wit on the microphone and selling and reacting in the ring like one of the best wrestlers in the world. As Austin rushed the wrestling world into the age of the anti-hero, The Rock quickly followed in his footsteps; like Austin he was just so unique and engaging that fans gravitated towards him, regardless of the actual morality of his actions. The fans secretly wanted to root for The Rock all the time, but it was hard to do it when he was constantly insulting them. When he became "The People's Champion" they were given free rein to support him and he began to rival Austin in overall popularity.
When Austin was stripped of the world title, a one-night tournament was set-up for Survivor Series to crown a new champion. The Rock was the fan-favorite but also drew the ire of Vince McMahon, who criticized The Rock for being the peoples champion because McMahon "had a problem with the people." McMahon and his villainous stable, The Corporation backed Mankind and rigged the tournament for Mankind, giving him cupcake matches while The Rock bravely fought through The Big Boss Man, Shamrock and The Undertaker to reach Mankind in the finals. In the finals, The Rock broke the fans' hearts by taking part in a double turn that saw him align himself with The Corporation while Mankind was screwed by McMahon in an ending that was reminiscent of The Montreal Screwjob from the year before.
Mankind and The Rock would face off for the title at the next PPV in December, with Mankind seemingly winning the title when he forced The Rock to pass out with his mandible claw submission hold, but McMahon had the match overruled because The Rock had never actually submitted. They would meet again on a January 4 episode of RAW, which saw Austin interfere and cost The Rock the championship, in a finish that is regarded as leading to one of the biggest babyface pops in wrestling history. The Rock would regain the championship in a brutal "I Quit Match" at the 1999 Royal Rumble, only to lose it again to Mankind in a famous "Empty Arena Match" during Half-Time Heat, which saw the duo brawl through concession stands, arena offices and the parking garage. The Rock would end up winning the title for a third time and finally vanquishing Mankind on an episode of RAW in February, winning a Ladder match against Mankind thanks to help from The Big Show.
That set the stage for the main event of WrestleMania XV, with The Rock defending against Austin. Austin is often credited (and rightfully so) as being the biggest draw in wrestling during this time period. However, Austin was extremely fortunate to peak at the same time as The Rock. Both men were similar in that they were the two most charismatic men in wrestling, albeit in different ways and they were better in-ring workers than they were probably given credit for. While Austin was predominately the babyface and The Rock the heel, the crowds were often split towards who they were rooting for. Austin was this great, unstoppable wave of Texas rage and intensity that made him God to wrestling fans, but The Rock was just charismatic and physically gifted enough to give Austin a run for his money when it came to supremacy in the fans' hearts.
Austin would defeat The Rock cleanly at WrestleMania XV, regaining the championship he had been stripped off back in November. Austin would again defeat The Rock in a rematch at Backlash, asserting temporary supremacy over The Rock. The Rock would then turn babyface after Shane McMahon turned on him and The Rock would begin to feud with the members of the new Corporate Ministry, a merger of The Corporation and The Undertaker's Ministry of Darkness. The Rock would defeat the group's new ace, Triple H, at Over the Edge but would come up short against The Undertaker (who had won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship from Austin) in a title match at King of the Ring.
The Rock lost a number one contender's match at Fully Loaded to Triple H when Billy Gunn interfered in the match, sparking a feud between the two that led to The Rock defeating Gunn at SummerSlam. The Rock would then form a humorous tag team with his old nemesis, Mankind. Mankind desperately wanted to be The Rock's partner; with The Rock reluctantly agreeing to team up with Mankind because he needed a partner to fight off his numerous enemies. The duo formed a phenomenally entertaining dynamic in the ring, with Mankind constantly trying to endear himself to his partner while The Rock remained distant. A segment involving the two parodying the TV show This Is Your Life drew the highest Nielsen rating in RAW history and the "Rock n' Sock Connection" would capture the WWF Tag Team Championships on three different occasions.
The Rock would win the 2000 Royal Rumble in controversial fashion, giving him the opportunity to wrestle Triple H as a part of a Fatal-Four-Way elimination match at WrestleMania 2000 for the world title. The Rock would make it to the final two in the match, but would lose to Triple H when Vince McMahon interfered. He would get his revenge at Backlash in April, defeating Triple H for his fourth title reign. Like most of his title reigns, it was short-lived as he dropped the championship back to Triple H at Judgement Day in May, losing an Iron-Man match when The Undertaker interfered. He would recapture the championship in a bizarre tag team match where he teamed with Kane and The Undertaker and defeated Triple H, Vince and Shane McMahon that had the title on the line. He would make successful title defenses against Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle and Triple H in a memorable match at SummerSlam 2000 and Benoit, Kane and The Undertaker in a fatal-four way match at Unforgiven.
During 2000 The Rock enjoyed the best run of his career from a drawing perspective. Austin was out with injuries for most of the year, not returning until October. At the same time, the WWF in 2000 had a greater profit margin than any other wrestling company in history. At the highest water mark in wrestling history, The Rock was the top draw for that company, and set an all-time record for most 10,000+ gates in a single year (breaking the record he had previously set in 1999). While Austin helped get the WWF out of the doldrums and back to the top of the wrestling universe, it was The Rock who was leading the charge at the WWF's highest point.
The Rock dropped the championship in October at No Mercy to Kurt Angle, and then was unsuccessful in regaining the title through the rest of the year, mainly because he was feuding with Rikishi. He would finally regain the title in February when he defeated Angle, setting up another WrestleMania main event against Austin. In a peculiar twist, Austin defeated The Rock at WrestleMania X-7 with the help of Vince McMahon, effectively turning heel in the process. This marked a seminal change in The Rock vs Austin rivalry, up until this point The Rock was either the heel or it was a bayface vs babyface rivalry. Austin as the heel, teaming up with McMahon and The Rock now as the beaten-down babyface was a complete 180 from what fans had been conditioned to expect from the company.
The Rock would then take time off, leaving to film his first major film role in The Mummy Returns a huge development in his career. When he returned in July, he emerged in the middle of a rivalry between the WWF and The Alliance, a combination of wrestlers from WCW and Extreme Championship Wrestling (plus Triple H and Austin). The Rock became the flag-bearer for the WWF, defeating Booker T for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship at SummerSlam 2001, and then swapping the title with Chris Jericho over the next two months. He would then pin Austin in the finale of a 10-man elimination tag match at Survivor Series that forced The Alliance to disband.
The Rock dropped the WCW World Heavyweight Championship to Jericho at Vengeance in December, who would then unify the WCW and WWF world titles to become the undisputed champion. The Rock was unsuccessful trying to regain the title at the 2002 Royal Rumble. He then began to feud with the nWo which had invaded the WWF and led to one of the more memorable matches in WrestleMania history at WrestleMania X-8. The Rock faced "Hollywood" Hulk Hogan, and while The Rock was supposed to be the babyface, the crowd, desperate to cheer Hogan, who they hadn't seen in nearly a decade, turned on The Rock leading to an incredible fan dynamic. Despite that, The Rock managed to defeat Hogan, although when the nWo turned on Hogan after the match, The Rock teamed with Hogan to fight them off to the delight of the crowd.
In 2002 The Rock starred in his own spin-off from The Mummy series, The Scorpion King and his success in Hollywood was becoming more apparent to wrestling fans, as he was now missing significant time to film movies. He would win his seventh WWF World Heavyweight Championship (the undisputed title) when he beat Kurt Angle and then-champion The Undertaker in a triple threat match at Vengeance. He would drop the championship to Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam and then took more time off.
He returned in January of 2003, turning full-fledged heel by announcing that because of his success in Hollywood, WWE and its fans are no longer a priority. He beat a babyface Hogan at No Way Out and then finally earned a WrestleMania victory over Austin, pinning him at WrestleMania XIX in what turned out to be Austin's final match. He then would face former WCW star Goldberg, who debuted in WWE by attacking The Rock and then defeating him at Backlash. The Rock would then leave once more, marking the final time he would wrestle full-time for the company. The Rock wrestled his final match for eight years at WrestleMania XX, teaming with his former partner Mick Foley in a losing effort against Evolution. He would then appear sporadically over the remainder of the decade in non-wrestling roles.
The Rock's success in Hollywood cannot be understated. Plenty of wrestlers had done acting before, including top names like Hogan and Roddy Piper, but none of them came close to the success The Rock has had. His level of charisma and comedic timing transcended wrestling, and he became too big of a star for the WWE, leaving the company to go make more money in Hollywood without risking his long-term health. Today, over a decade since he left WWE for Hollywood full-time, The Rock is arguably the most bankable star in all of film. In wrestling, the term "main-stream success" is thrown around a lot and usually it means very little. Hogan appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated and it is seen as a watershed moment; even if today nobody except wrestling fans remember that. The Rock has found more mainstream success than anybody else in wrestling history; undisputedly he is an A-list celebrity, and while that is more because of his success in film than wrestling, it cannot be denied that wrestling was the original medium that endeared him to the public.
The Rock would return to WWE when he was announced as the host of WrestleMania 27 in 2011. He used his spot as host of the show to forge a rivalry with John Cena, the company ace who was tasked with filling The Rock's enormous boots when The Rock departed the company in 2004. The two exchanged in entertaining promos and would end up teaming up against The Miz and R-Truth at Survivor Series 2011, winning the match and setting the stage for their match at WrestleMania 28, which saw The Rock defeat Cena in a good match.
The Rock returned to the ring the following year at the Royal Rumble, inexplicably earning a world title shot and defeating CM Punk for the WWE Championship, his eighth time holding the belt. He successfully defended the title against Punk at Elimination Chamber before dropping it to Cena at WrestleMania 29 in a re-match from last year. The Rock then left again and hasn't wrestled a legitimate match in WWE since, although he has appeared occasionally since then and another return to the ring cannot be ruled out. The Rock's re-appearance in the WWE did do a lot to help his legacy; not only did he endear himself to a new generation of fans but his appearances could always be counted on to increase ratings and PPV views, meaning that he was still arguably the most viable drawing card in all of wrestling.
So why not rank The Rock higher? To many knowledgeable fans, he is the greatest wrestler to ever live. If you examine his resume, there is statistical evidence of his drawing power to support that claim and his charisma speaks for itself, nobody in wrestling history had quite as many catchphrases or interacted with a live audience like The Rock. He will never be in the conversation for best in-ring workers, but he was still very good and I think that part of his career is undervalued. If we are picking wrestlers who reached the highest peaks in their careers, it is hard to build an argument against The Rock.
The case against The Rock is simply one of longevity. The Rock was really only a top star in wrestling for a full 4-5 years, everything else was a little bit here and a little bit there. Comparing him to other wrestlers, such as The Undertaker and Stan Hansen, I would prefer to rate them a big higher. Unequivocally The Rock was a bigger draw at his peak, but those guys also peaked for over 20 years. Now The Rock may have had the ability to consistently draw for two decades, but the reality is that he did not. If you were a wrestling promoter, would you rather have 4-5 years of The Rock at an A+ drawing level, or would you rather have Hansen or The Undertaker for 20 years of A drawing levels? It's up for debate, but when considering the rankings for this list, I value durability greatly and The Rock's career as a top draw was just a tad too short over guys who were wrestling lifers.
Next week #12 will be revealed, a legendary star whose style of wrestling would influence matches the world over.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock