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In the pantheon of WWE, few Superstars have transcended the industry the way The Rock has.
A crossover star who found even more success in Hollywood than he did in the squared circles of Vince McMahon’s traveling circus, The Great One has established himself one of the greatest entertainers of his generation.
His WWE career, though, laid the foundation for everything he has been able to accomplish in the film industry. It has also been home to countless unforgettable moments.
To try to list every one of his greatest would be an unachievable goal. There are too many. To put together a list of the great moments that helped shape his legacy, though, is much simpler.
Then there are the worst moments of his WWE career—much fewer in number but equally as necessary to document in order to tell his story.
One cannot forget about the outrageous, especially those involving frenemy Mick “Mankind” Foley.
An iconic career that opened up a world of possibility beyond the squared circle and presented WWE with its greatest crossover success, The Rock’s journey to the top of the wrestling industry and the countless moments of excitement and electricity it spawned are fitting of an all-time great.
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At Survivor Series 1996, a third-generation blue-chipper emerged from the WWE locker room for a traditional elimination tag team match. After weeks of hype, Rocky Maivia teamed with Barry Windham, Marc Mero and Jake Roberts to battled the hated Hunter Hearst Helmsley, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Goldust and Crush in one of the more intriguing matches of the night.
That was not because of the collection of midcard talent involved but rather because of the presence of this young athlete who had so many in the industry buzzing.
On his first night of televised action, Maivia took the fight to his opponents and, at a two-on-one numbers disadvantage, fought through Goldust and Crush’s onslaught to win the match for his team.
Little did fans know at the time, but they had just witnessed the arrival of a Superstar who would one day cross over into the world of Hollywood and become the film industry’s biggest star, leaving the wrestling industry in a far better state than he had found it.
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The Rock was riding a wave of momentum heading into WrestleMania XIV.
He had turned heel the previous fall, was the intercontinental champion and was in the midst of a high-profile feud with Ken Shamrock. More importantly, he was finding his feet as a performer. Earlier in his young career, he was criticized for being too smiley and pandering to the crowd.
That was gone, and in that generic babyface’s spot was a confident and cocky bad guy whom fans wanted to see get his ass kicked.
All he was missing was a catchphrase.
That night in Boston, during an interview with notorious Gennifer Flowers, he got one.
He ended an answer to one of her questions with “…if ya smell what I’m cookin’.” In an instant, the third-generation star had found a conceited phrase he could throw on to the end of any promo and make work. Suddenly, “if ya smell what The Rock is cookin'” became a household phrase that television talk-show hosts were utilizing and youths walked around the schoolyard spouting.
It provided Rock with that key ingredient and served as a launching point for one of the greatest Superstars of all time.
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Warning: Video is NSFW
The 1999 Royal Rumble featured a brutal I Quit match that will forever live in infamy thanks to the role in plays in the documentary Beyond the Mat. In that contest, The Rock sought to regain the WWE Championship from Mankind, who vowed never to say the words “I quit.” Determined to change his mind, Rock beat the ever-loving hell out Foley and, at one point, applied a pair of handcuffs to leave his opponent defenseless.
Originally, a few chair shots were called for, leaving Mankind unconscious and leading The Rock to stick a microphone to his opponent’s mouth, at which time someone backstage would play a tape of Mankind uttering the words during a previously recorded promo.
Instead, Rock took liberties and unloaded a dozen unprotected chair shots to the skull of his opponent.
Mick Foley, the man behind the Mankind mask, relived the match and everything that came from it in his 2001 autobiography, Foley is Good: And The Real World is Faker Than Wrestling. In it, he recalls the original plan, how Rock got carried away and the effect it had on him, their friendship and his decision to wrap-up his legendary career.
In hindsight, the unforgiving barrage of chair shots did add a new element to The Rock’s character in that it gave fans a taste at the brutal and unforgiving bad guy that lived beneath the Hollywood charm and good looks. It also portrayed a performer who went off-script, took advantage of a situation and could have severely injured another man more than he did.
To this day, it is a black mark on the career of wrestling’s most iconic Superstar.
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The beginning of 1999 saw a red-hot, brutal and violent rivalry between The Rock and Mankind over the WWE Championship engulf the company and captivate the fans. As discussed, at the Royal Rumble, in one of the most unflinchingly violent bouts in company history, Rock obliterated then-champion Mankind with a dozen unprotected chair shots to recapture the title he lost on an epic episode of Raw.
During the halftime show of SuperBowl XXXIII, the Superstars would meet in the first-ever Empty Arena match for what WWE called Halftime Heat. With no one else in the building, the Superstars would have free rein to beat the hell out of each other until one man emerged victorious, the undisputed champion.
The match that ensued was a chaotic brawl that featured Vince McMahon on commentary and saw the Superstars fight from the squared circle, into the stands, through the backstage area, into the catering area and, finally, to the receiving dock in the back of the building.
There, Mankind lowered a forklift on his opponent, pinning his shoulders to the mat. The referee made the count, and the deranged, mask-wearing Superstar was announced the victor.
Rock may have lost, but his contribution to the most outrageous match of the Attitude Era was undeniable.
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This is Your Life is, was and forever will be the most overrated television segment in WWE history.
Garnering the largest television rating in WWE Raw history, Mankind’s tribute to his friend and tag team partner featured quality performances from the Superstars. For that reason, and its viewership, the segment remains one of the most memorable of either man’s career.
With that said, it was bloated, overly long and does not hold up in the slightest.
The material is dated, the jokes are not at all funny by today’s standards and the whole thing comes across as another Vince Russo bit designed to bring outside elements into the wrestling business.
Did I mention it is long?
What was a key element to sustaining the popularity of the Superstars and strengthening their wildly popular tag team’s chemistry has, over the course of the past 20 years, become a reminder of just how bad some of that beloved Attitude Era television was.
Even if Rock and Mankind appear to be having the time of their lives in the middle of it.
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There have been a lot of superb main events over the 30-plus-year history of WrestleMania, but one would be hard-pressed to find one that incorporated so many elements from one era into a single bout the way The Rock’s WWE Championship defense against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at No. 17 did.
Drawing on previous encounters, Attitude Era tropes such as ringside brawls and McMahon family interference and featuring The Texas Rattlesnake revisiting personas of bygone eras and retrieving The Million Dollar Dream, the contest was an epic conclusion to wrestling’s hottest and most unforgettable period.
Rock’s performance therein was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Drawing energy from the crowd, he transformed from the aggressor to the sympathetic hero. This, despite the fact the Texas fans were heavily behind Austin.
Still, that did not affect Rock’s performance. There was something noble and sympathetic about watching him receive countless chair shots about the back and body from a vengeful and frustrated Austin. Infuriated that he could not keep The Great One down, Stone Cold obliterated him with a steel folding chair before successfully pinning his shoulders to the mat for a three-count.
On that night, Rock may have failed to retain his title, but he turned in another all-time great performance in a match that has inexplicably become lost in the shuffle of Undertaker-Shawn Michaels classics, Once In A Lifetime battles and lesser-quality showdowns when it comes to discussing the best WrestleMania contests.
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The staredown between The Rock and Hulk Hogan at the beginning of their WrestleMania X8 classic is the stuff of legend, a goosebump-inducing moment that instantly portrayed to fans the enormity of the match. The leader of one generation was standing mere feet from the figurehead of another, ready to do battle for nothing more than bragging rights and personal pride.
The match Rock was able to work with Hogan was infinitely better than it had any right to be, thanks in part to his willingness to make all of The Hulkster’s stuff look great.
The red-hot fans in Toronto were invested in every spot, every dramatic near-fall and the idea that Hogan may, for one night, be able to dig deep down within himself to beat a Superstar at his physical and professional peak.
It did not happen.
Rock dropped The People’s Elbow and won the match before joining Hogan in fighting off Kevin Nash and Scott Hall. Then, in a moment that felt very much like the passing of a torch, joined his childhood hero in posing for the rabid fans jam-packed into Toronto’s SkyDome.
It was a magical moment and proof that, after nearly three years on top, Rock had finally earned his “icon” status.
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The Rock’s return to WWE in 2003 and subsequent heel turn made for some of the best television of his entire career.
Last seen in the summer of 2002, when he was booed out of the building during his WWE Championship match against Brock Lesnar despite being the babyface, he understandably was hurt and infuriated. The decision to turn his character heel, allowing the Superstar long recognized as The People’s Champion to unleash his frustrations on the WWE Universe, was one that would lead to some of his finest work.
Openly mocking audiences and verbally demolishing their favorite Superstars, Rock delivered four months of spectacularly entertaining product.
His feuds with Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and Goldberg also provided fans with dream matches that kept the fans invested in the product at a time when WWE was in a creative slump.
A side program with The Hurricane led to some of the most over-the-top funny segments of that era and culminated with The Great One putting the masked superhero over on the March 10 broadcast.
Willing to make an ass out of himself to make an ass out of the audience, Rock thrived in the role and had some fans imagining what might have been had he not had a successful Hollywood career to go back to.
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The Rock is one of the most magnetic personalities in wrestling history. He has a rare quality about him that demands fans sit up and take notice as soon as he walks through the curtain. There is a charisma and showmanship he employs that drives audiences crazy.
Those are typically signs of an all-time great performer, but in some instances, it can be detrimental and prevent the performer from recognizing the gravity of a situation.
Especially when they are not the focal point.
Case in point: Backlash 2003.
The Rock was headlining the show against the debuting Goldberg. The crown jewel of the WCW roster, it had taken two years for Da Man to arrive in WWE, and when he finally did, the company clearly had plans for him to become the face of the Raw brand.
But first, he would have to defeat The Rock in a way that left no question about it: Goldberg was the man around whom the flagship show would be built.
Things did not quite go as planned.
On a night when Rock needed to take the spotlight off himself and put it on his opponent, convincing fans there was a new lead star in town, he failed.
Rock overshadowed Goldberg thanks to his heel antics and the amount of the match he controlled. Whether he did it personally or it was called for by Creative, it was a bad look for a Superstar who had a reputation for being a selfless performer when the time called for it.
When historians look back at Goldberg’s initial, failed WWE run, blame is often apportioned to Triple H for failing to put him over at SummerSlam 2003 because blaming things on the boss’ son-in-law is easy. But going further back, The Rock’s failure to put Goldberg over in a way that ensured his long-term success was even more damning for the prospects of the WCW phenomenon.
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The bitter rivalry between The Rock and John Cena that ignited in 2011 and rolled all the way into WrestleMania 28 in 2012 saw each man take verbal jabs at the other, playing off real tension to enhance and build a storyline rivalry.
It worked, creating intrigue for their eventual showdown on The Grandest Stage of Them All.
It also resulted in several moments of discomfort for fans, who may have reacted favorably but also knew the dislike between the Attitude Era great and his Ruthless Aggression rival extended beyond the squared circle.
During a memorable verbal encounter, Cena insulted The Great One by exposing one of his secrets: He had written the notes for his promo on his wrist.
It was a low blow and one that visibly caught Rock off-guard. Remaining cool, calm and collected, he spit his catchphrase, and everything was right with the world.
Except for the fact one of the greatest promo guys in the history of professional wrestling was just caught scribbling notes on his arm so he hit every point during the promo he was delivering.
After weeks of back-and-forth jabs, it felt like Cena had delivered a knockout punch. That Rock never appeared able to counter only made him look worse.
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After eight years away from the squared circle, The Rock returned from Hollywood for a match with John Cena dubbed “Once in a Lifetime.”
The main event of WrestleMania 28, it was a marquee match that felt deserving of that spot on that card.
Fan anticipation was off the charts, as members of the audience split into teams as if they were bearing witness to the WWE equivalent of the Twilight films. Some were Team Cena. Others were Team Rock. But all were invested in the biggest WrestleMania main event in years.
The Superstars did not disappoint.
Cena and Rock delivered a main event fitting the occasion. The match was smartly worked to hide Rock’s weaknesses and emphasize his strengths, and in the end, The Great One caught a cocky Cena with a Rock Bottom from out of nowhere to pick up the victory.
Standing tall in front of his hometown fans in Miami, The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment had once again proved, without a shadow of a doubt, why he was one of the elite performers in professional wrestling history.