'The Rock' sets his focus on WWE
For years, The Rock badgered his opponents to "know your role!"
The most electrifying man in sports entertainment knows his as he settles into his first extended run with World Wrestling Entertainment in seven years.
"I've got to put on the most entertaining Wrestlemania the crowd has ever seen," he said.
He shed his geological nickname for his real name, Dwayne Johnson, when he made the transition from the squared circle to the big screen. Now -- finally! -- The Rock has come back to the WWE.
As he would rhetorically ask, do you smell what The Rock is cooking? It has the scent of a comeback.
The Rock-and-wrestling connection was reborn when Johnson made his surprise return Feb. 14 to the WWE's flagship program, "RAW," to announce he was the guest host for Wrestlemania XXVII on April 3 in Atlanta. He won't wrestle in the company's signature event, but Johnson promised he'd be all over the Georgia Dome, interacting with wrestlers, fans and just maybe laying the smack down one more time if John Cena or The Miz step out of line.
Johnson was the biggest star in the company and already a mainstream success who published an autobiography and hosted "Saturday Night Live" when he quietly left to further his blossoming movie career at only 31.
"It was kind of like Jim Brown retiring or Barry Sanders retiring," said Cena, who emerged as the face of Vince McMahon's empire. "What are you doing, dude? You've got plenty more left in the tank. Why are you leaving?"
The answer was simple: He was a movie star. Hollywood beckoned and the chance to give up steel chairs to the head for tutus was too tempting to pass on. He was now judged on box office opening weekends, not Monday night cable ratings.
Johnson has mixed mostly action movies ("The Scorpion King") and family comedies ("Tooth Fairy") with rare dramatic leading roles ("Gridiron Gang") to the tune of $1.12 billion in domestic box-office grosses. The 38-year-old Johnson's biggest grosser in a starring role was 2008's "Get Smart" with $130.3 million.
Johnson's charisma and comedic chops made it a natural transition to movies. He was as much a standup comic as a brawler in the ring and with the raise of an eyebrow delivered the most famous arch not found in St. Louis.
His catch phrases like "smackdown" and "jabroni" have worked their way into the public lexicon. He popularized "The People's Champ," "The Rock says," and "it doesn't matter!" on his way to becoming the heavyweight champ of trash talk.
Johnson's handful of cameo appearances since his last match in 2004 only made the millions (and millions!) of fans clamor for a return -- even as others like Cena wondered why he abandoned the genre that made him a star.
Johnson said he was simply too busy building his film career to commit to the weeks needed to appear for a successful pay-per-view build.
"The goal was to come back in a big, powerful way," he said. "My return has been years of strategizing with Vince McMahon."
He delivered all his greatest hits in his return, a 20-minute live promo that had the crowd hanging on every word and chanting "Rocky!" as he announced, "Finally, The Rock has come back home!"
"That night was the greatest 'RAW' moment I had ever experienced," said Johnson, who debuted in 1996.
Johnson's encore was designed to boost the buzz for Wrestlemania -- what WWE calls the showcase of the immortals.
WWE -- the company with Wrestling in its name and put the Wrestle in Wrestlemania -- has oddly tried to distance itself from the term, wrestling.
But it's clearly what fans want to see. Since making the full-time shift to holding the spectacle in football stadiums in 2007, the production has rivaled the Super Bowl. Wrestlemania drew 72,219 fans last year at University of Phoenix Stadium; 72,744 to Houston's Reliant Stadium in 2009; 74,635 to the Citrus Bowl in 2008 and 80,103 to Ford Field in 2007.
"WWE will always be the greatest show you'll ever see," Cena said.
Cena followed Johnson's path in his outside projects, starring in movies and recording a rap album. While the TV angle has played up animosity between the pair, Cena said he always wanted Johnson back in the ring.
"I can't tell you how much it plugs our product back in," he said. "It's like getting hooked up to defibrillators. It's the one little jump-start we needed."
The WWE also invited back Johnson's retired rival, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin to serve as a guest referee. And the hard-partying "Jersey Shore" socialite Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi is on the same card as The Undertaker.
The polarizing reality show star is competing in a six-person tag-team bout. She's the latest in a line of celebrities to participate that started with Mr. T in the first Wrestlemania main event and stretches through Donald Trump, Lawrence Taylor, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.
Add The Rock to the list. The former Miami Hurricane has interjected himself into the WWE title match between the former "Real World"-star-turned-WWE champ, The Miz vs. Cena. All three will attend "RAW" on Monday for one final round of hype before Wrestlemania.
McMahon and the WWE know the real money match is Cena vs. The Rock.
"I have been willing to do anything for that match. I will do anything for that match," Cena said. "If I have to talk more trash about The Rock, I'm your guy."
It sounds like the bout is closer to reality -- or at least the tease is -- than ever. Johnson is booked for "RAW" the night after Wrestlemania, but he wouldn't disclose how many more appearances he'd make before leaving in June to film his next movie.
Johnson appears in the movie, "Fast Five," which opens April 29, and he recently wrapped filming on "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," the sequel to "Journey to the Center of the Earth." He pushed back the start date of his next movie so he could stick around the WWE -- and just maybe wrestle again.
"I've never said never. I'm open to it," he said. "For years when I was asked that, I kept my emotions very close to my sleeve. I would say, 'No, I don't see myself wrestling a match,' because I didn't want to leave that open too much. I wanted to make sure I was concentrating solely on my goals in acting."
He believes he can handle the acting-wrestling tag-team combo from here on out and dropped enough hints that he'll be landing "The People's Elbow" well beyond Wrestlemania.
"It's 'The People's Era' that's getting ready to happen," he said. "It's just beginning."