It’s been more than 10 years since The Rock last appeared in the Valley. It’s been so long, in fact, that the then-WWF is now known as WWE and the then-America West Arena is now known as US Airways Center.
Well, The Rock returns… FINALLY… to Phoenix, Arizona, this Sunday when he challenges the current-WWE Champion, CM Punk, at the 2013 Royal Rumble. Before the bell rings on the pay-per-view, though, we thought it would be worth a stroll down memory lane to the corner of “Know Your Role Boulevard and Jabroni Drive.”
On Jan. 25, 1999, the day after his memorable “I quit” match against Mankind in the ‘99 Royal Rumble, a 26-year-old Dwayne Johnson was in our arena with his fellow superstars for an episode of Monday Night RAW. Several hours before Phoenix fans filled the stands, and more than two years before he would launch his Hollywood career as “The Scorpion King” in the Mummy Returns, The Rock took some time out to talk with our then-editorial manager (now VP, digital) Jeramie McPeek.
The following is a transcript of that conversation held down the hall from the Phoenix Suns’ locker room.
McPeek: What have these last couple years been like for you?
Rock: The Rock’s on top, riding high and it’s been great. It has been good in a sense that through hard work and trying to be creative, trying to be innovative and trying to recognize that these people want to be entertained, I take pride in the fact that nobody’s as entertaining as The Rock.
McPeek: Surely you didn’t expect to rise to the top of the WWF as fast you have?
Rock: No, not necessarily, I really didn’t think that quick. But don’t call me Shirley. Sorry, old joke. No, I never really premeditated anything success wise. I always just thought “Let me go on, do my thing and work hard.” I always believe that hard work pays off one way or the other.
But The Rock character, the explosion for the character, the popularity and all that, I never really thought… “Let me do the People’s Elbow,” or “Let me come up with cool catchphrases.” It was never like that.
I’m surprised at the popularity of it, because The Rock always has the intentions of going out there and crapping on those people, calling them “trailer park trash.” You’re this and you’re that. I guess, eventually, if you say it enough, then the people kind of go “Yeah, all right!” If you say it enough, it almost becomes true, like “The most electrifying man in sports entertainment” or “The Great One.” I had a couple people go “Hey, that’s Wayne Gretzky,” and I say “Yeah, but the difference between Wayne Gretzky and The Rock is The Rock calls himself the Great One.” Wayne Gretzky is humble. I’m The Rock, ya know, so…
McPeek: Did you always know you wanted to be a wrestler, following in the footsteps of your family?
Rock: Yeah, I always knew that I wanted to do it somewhere down the line. It was just a matter of going to Miami and playing football down there, graduating and taking football as far I as I could. After doing that, you have a feeling on the inside, you come to a crossroads in life so to speak, and everybody comes to them, thinking “Well, let me go on and do what I believe I was born to do.”
McPeek: For those that don’t know, your father was Rocky Johnson and your grandfather was “High Chief” Peter Maivia. And Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka is your cousin, correct?
Rock: Yeah, he’s my mom’s cousin and the Wild Samoan’s are my mom’s cousins. What happens is, when you’re Polynesian and you’re Samoan, everybody’s cousins (laughs). That’s just the way it is. There ain’t but like two or three families on the whole island, so yeah, that’s all true. Watching them, I knew it was going to happen (for me) somewhere down the line.
McPeek: Did you have this character in mind when you were young?
Rock: No, I just had intensity in mind always. Really that was about it. Again, everything that The Rock does, from the eyebrow to the “Layin’ the smack down on your candy ass,” and things like that, it was an evolution. You know, just trying little things out there, seeing how it works, seeing how the crowd reacts and responds, seeing what kind of crowd reaction I get and if I get a great reaction, “remember that.” Take it one step further next time on pay per view.
McPeek: It seems like your work on the mic is as important as your in-ring performance, in terms of your success and growing popularity.
Rock: It is. It definitely is now days, because the fans are much smarter. No longer are these the days where anyone is trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. Hey listen, what we do is all legitimate. It’s legitimately physical, obviously. But things ARE predetermined. I mean, that’s just the way it is. It’s a show. It’s a live-action adventure show. It’s a live-action soap opera. It’s entertainment and nobody does it better than The Rock. It’s one of those things where you’ve just got to keep that in mind and just do your thing.
McPeek: Talk about the exploding popularity of wrestling in recent years.
Rock: I think the key to that little recipe of success for our business now is one, again, that we need to make a collective effort to say “Hey, we’re here!” We’re not trying to insult anybody’s intelligence or anything like that. Let’s get over the hump of the fact that what we do is strictly entertainment, showmanship and theatrics… let’s get over that hump. Take it for what it’s worth; it’s a show. It’s entertainment. Let yourself be enthralled in the show.
It’s like when I go to the theater in New York, like Phantom, when you’re watching that, your entranced for an hour and a half, two hours and at the end of the show, you’re like this (clapping) “That’s good stuff.” Then they come out and bow and things like that. We just don’t all come out and bow in the middle of the ring, but when people leave here they’re spent emotionally. That’s a key to the success now as opposed to 20 years ago.
Also what’s important is just that you be creative; you pride yourself on your creativity. It’s really, really, really important every week, because it’s so easy to be stale. It’s easy to go out there and do the same thing. It’s easy to fall in that rut, where you’re going out there and just going through the motions. When you’re going through the motions, people know that you’re going through the motions and they’re like ‘This guy doesn’t believe in what he’s doing.’ You have to go out there and believe in what you’re doing. I believe I’m going to go out there and entertain these people, then they know, they feel that energy in me. So, that’s a key too, just being creative.
I think what’s key to being a successful character is the closer you can be to a real person, the better.
McPeek: How does your dad feel about your career and your success?
Rock: My dad’s proud. He’s one of those guys whose proud but quiet, you know what I mean? He just kind of soaks it all in and says “Good job.” He would probably criticize more than put me over (laughs). Typical dad, that’s just the way it is. Dad always knows more.
McPeek: What is it about wrestling that is appealing to sports fans?
Rock: Again, nobody’s out here trying to lie to anybody. This is a show. It’s a big production. You see the way it is back here (backstage). But when the bell rings, and the music goes off, and the lights and cameras and pyro and all that, we go out there and put on a great show. I think what is appealing is the storylines, the creative storylines. That is so important, again, being creative. It can’t be the same thing week in and week out. I’m not knocking those guys down there (in WCW). I’ve got some friends down there but….
McPeek: A lot of pro athletes have been getting involved and have become big fans.
Rock: That’s cool. I think it appeals to pro athletes, football players… a lot of my boys in the NFL and in the NBA, we do what they can’t do. We’re out there and we’re defying the boss, like Stone Cold Steve Austin.
When they get on interviews with a camera and a microphone in their face, they have to be humble, represent the program, the whole deal. But stick a mic in The Rock’s face and I’m “I’m going to kick your monkey ass all over…” I’m not giving any kind of credit, so there’s the appeal right there. It’s just cool stuff.
(ESPN’s) Stuart Scott was calling some college basketball game and somebody sank a three-pointer and he said, “The three pointer is… GOOD, if you smell what the Rock is cooking.” That was good stuff. So the appeal is in that. We do what they really can’t.