Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson returned to pro wrestling and WWE last night in Brooklyn with a surprise segment on Raw. And the internet wrestling community (IWC), so often derided as a monolithic hivemind that loves everything Dolph Ziggler does while reviling John Cena's every move, quickly drew lines and started arguing about it.
So, that's one good thing that Rocky's latest return does for us so-called "smart" fans...it's indisputable proof that not everyone who reads and discusses pro wrestling online has the same interests, preferences, standards and morays. He's a flashpoint for what's right and wrong with wrestling, and especially the promotion he's meant so much to over the last almost twenty years WWE.
Before diving into what those things are, some background on this writer as a fan that influences what you're about to read:
I am a Dwayne Johnson mark. The man is as charismatic an action star as we have in Hollywood these days, and sneaky good at more traditional drama moments as well. His "real life" personality, as presented in interviews and on social media, is extremely positive and focused on encouraging and uplifting his loved ones and fans.
I'm also a huge fan of The Rock character, at least from when it was the only role Johnson played. While others were more into beer drinking bad ass Stone Cold or enigmatic superhero Sting, the idea of a cocky smartass super athlete (I always thought of him as Chevy Chase in a linebacker's body) spoke to and entertained me a great deal more, at least in the late 90s/early aughts.
That out of the way...
The Rock's appearance was glorious, because it was a uniquely pro wrestling moment. That in-the-moment reaction to a surprise, being moved to stand, cheer or just mutter "no way" because you hear some familiar sound blare out of the speakers in the arena or on your television...nothing else does that. Not "real" sports, not movies, or theater, or live music.
Seeing the Brahma Bull in a wrestling ring reminds us not only of the form's peak of popularity, but also that no other entertainment could have produced The Rock. If he were a football star, or started in movies, we'd never have been exposed to the blend of script and improv that WWE produces, nor the back and forth with another performer (or especially the live audience) at which Johnson excels. As he's moved from featured player to special attraction over the course of this century, his content has drifted from being primarily focused on storyline to more generalized storytelling. And that may not be as entertaining to fans who are heavily invested in the company's current week-to-week narrative, or to viewers at home already ancy about sitting through an overlong show. But it doesn't change the fact that Johnson is a gifted monologist capable of taking a large audience on a journey with him.
That journey may not be for everyone, but the knocks that he doesn't have a point (he was putting over his love of WWE and Rusev's credentials as a threat) or that he was pandering (of course he was, but so is Paul Heyman when he works an insult about whatever town he's performing in into every speech he gives) are off-base. It's entertainment, and folks enjoyment of that is subjective. But if you find Bubba Ray telling Devon to "get the tables" or Ted DiBiase stealing basketballs from children to be fabulous, you probably don't have a lot of critical high ground to take. There's no point in overtly or covertly shaming others for their enjoyment of one of Rocky's travel stories.
To my mind, there are several valid critiques of Rock's appearance last night - and note that I said appearance, not performance, because I think Johnson nailed the performance. It may not have been your cup of tea, but this wasn't a Brie Bella promo.
One, the reliance on nostalgia to sell today's product. With WWE Network, there's a valid reason to push the past. But too often it takes center stage, and it's become a regular presence on weekly shows. Last week it was Hulk Hogan. This week, Rocky and Edge. Prominently featuring the stars of yesterday not only takes up time, money and effort that could be being used on today or tomorrow's big names, it also sends a message that those days were somehow better than the ones we're experiencing now. That is reinforced when Attitude Era players interact on the same level as current, everyday workers. Sports leagues may have halls of fame and bring back legends for special occasions, but you'll never see the NFL showing Jim Brown juking JJ Watt out of his shoes, or Julius Erving posterizing Anthony Davis at an NBA event.
Which brings us to the second issue, which is booking Rocky to answer and show up Rusev. This is mitigated by his verbally building him up before their physical altercation, and, somewhat at least, by only striking him and then allowing him to walk away. There's also some benefit in just getting the rub of being asked to work the segment with The Great One. Being in the ring with him conveys a level of importance. I'm not sure that all fans see that, though. Some just see a supposedly unstoppable monster who was just easily dispatched by a guy who hasn't worked a match in a year and a half.
Last, but certainly not least, are the trademark insults referencing male genitalia and aimed at homosexuals and women. I laugh at some, cringe at others. I won't waste anyone's time defending them on their face, or by trying to fantasy book some larger purpose for them as it applies to Lana's character arc. I don't get how this warrants a larger amount of outrage than WWE's usual dose of misogyny, homophobia and potty humor, though. Chris Jericho calling Stephanie McMahon a ho, every comment Jerry Lawler makes during a Divas match, Dolph Ziggler mocking Miz for being naked in a locker room with his stunt double, Enzo and Cass calling opponents "sweet boy" on NXT...as the saying goes, if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention. It's an element of the WWE product.
The way in which the company deals with women and other minorities is the larger problem, but it's only part of the issue in many cases, including with The Rock. The other issue is that characters rarely evolve, and main event babyfaces never do. John Cena and Rocky's character's journeys ended when they reached the top. It's not surprising that we're tired of seeing them stand at the top and make noises for a decade.
It's this focus on the past rather than the future, this unwillingness to change that keeps WWE and pro wrestling a niche entertainment. Focusing on keeping 12 year old boys giggling at the same jokes, emphasizing t-shirt sales to existing customers over attracting new ones...these are the things that cause most pro wrestling fans to "stay in the closet", and keep advertisers away.
There's a lot wrong with WWE, and most of it was present in the fifteen minutes we got to spend with a star of the past last night. There's also a lot of things that only WWE can do, and those were all present in those same fifteen minutes.
It's part of what makes being a fan of this company's product so frustrating. But if we're going to support it by watching anyway, let's try to be rational with our criticisms. And most importantly, direct them at the product and the company producing it - not each other.