My face almost melted when I saw Scott Steiner execute the Frankensteiner for the first time. Wherever the match took place in 1980-something, I remember the fans going hysterical; clearly, they had never seen anything like it. As wrestling moves go, it was as if we had all seen the height of physical innovation that day.
When I first saw The Rock deliver the People’s Elbow, my reaction was the opposite: I had no response, and neither did the arena audience watching. Why, it wasn’t even the People’s Elbow then. In 1997, it was simply a running elbow drop, an everyday wrestling strike that happened to be in the offensive repertoire of Dwayne Johnson, who was transitioning from Rocky Maivia to The Rock.
But what was once a mundane maneuver soon became the hottest thing in all of wrestling.
And it all began as a joke.
According to Triple H, the People’s Elbow began as an attempt to make The Undertaker break character, telling TMZ in 2020:
“I believe the first time Rock did the People’s Elbow was in a match where we were trying to make ‘Taker crack,” said Triple H. “It absolutely started that way, and then, you know, was getting a huge reaction, and everybody went with it.”
As time went on, Rock’s patented elbow drop began to evolve, with Rocky adding a little more stank on it each passing week.
First, he’d slow down and pause just before dropping his elbow like a hammer on someone’s chest. Next, he added an extra step by crisscrossing the ropes. Then he began using a body slam as the setup before glaring menacingly at the crowd. For added effect, Johnson incorporated a slow and deliberate striptease of his elbow pad, exposing the meaty joint for all to see.
Years later, Rocky replaced the body slam with a scooping spine-buster that seemingly knocked the air out of his opponents. This allowed Rock, now The People’s Champion, enough time to perform whatever additional histrionics he saw fit to get a rise out of the crowd.
And it didn’t take long for this silly, comical, and over-the-top performance of physicality to whip the public into a frenzy. By 1998, the People’s Elbow was the most popular move in the entire industry. How beloved it had become was made evident during a tag team match involving The Rock and the Undertaker.
As Rock swooped in for the kill, the Undertaker did his usual horror movie sit-up, and the audience gasped in disappointment. It was as if the mighty Casey had struck out as joy began seeping out of Mudville. That was until Rock jumped back and knocked ‘Taker back down with a kick to the chest before finishing the elbow strike. The roar that followed from the fans was as if the ball had dropped in Times Square to signal the arrival of the New Year.
The People’s Elbow became so effective that it was Rock’s finishing weapon of choice in select matches. Most notably, he used it to beat Hollywood Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8, where he hit Hogan with three Rock Bottoms to no avail.
Since its inception, the People’s Elbow has spawned various spinoffs from the Road Dogg’s shaky knee drop to the worm (or as the kids call it these days, the caterpillar) and into the modern day with LA Knight’s homage, the L-Bow Knight (“YEAH!”). Entertaining as each of those variations has been, nothing comes close to The Rock’s People’s Elbow, which is a testament to how over the former Rocky Maivia has become. Only someone at the level of popularity could pull off such a hokey-looking move and get away with it.
Because of that, The Rock has a simple crowd-pleaser that he can continue to perform for at least another 15 years, possibly into his 70s, so long as he can take a flat-back bump and the person taking the elbow can act like they’ve been struck by lightning upon impact. It’s a safe move that poses no physical threat to Rock or his dance partner, and it evokes a response like no other move ever has, especially compared to the flashy and high-risk offense that puts one or more wrestlers in danger.
And until someone comes along who surpasses The Rock as an entertainer who happens to perform an ordinary move at an unusually extraordinary level, The People’s Elbow will remain the greatest move in wrestling history.
Or, to be precise, the most electrifying move in sports entertainment history.