As we’ve learned with Roman Reigns and countless other examples, it takes time and planning to create a new megastar in the wrestling business. There is also a lot of luck involved: Hogan getting the part in Rocky III, Austin getting boosted because Bret Hart wanted to work with him in 1996, the list goes on. Dwayne Johnson is one of the biggest movie stars in the world today and the year 1997 would change his life forever. It was a year he started as a green Rocky Maivia and end as the cocky and cool trash talker The Rock.
Rocky Maivia’s in-ring debut at the 1996 Survivor Series saw him as the sole survivor of his match. He was built through a series of vignettes promoting him as a third generation wrestler, a first in the WWF. The son of former WWF tag champion Rocky Johnson and grandson of High Chief Peter Maivia seemed a sure bet for stardom with his athletic background, his look, and wrestling pedigree. But it would take a lot of time for things to click.
The Rock did not have a true rival as 1997 began and was appearing mostly on secondary shows like the brand new Shotgun Saturday Night. Rocky was not a part of the racier content of the show, but would be a background figure to advance other storylines. He saved Marc Mero from the fake Diesel and fake Razor Ramon, but then Mero attacked him for butting in and trying to defend Sable. Rock also beat IC champion Triple H in a non-title match, but only to further the latter’s feud with Goldust. Savio Vega’s heel turn to the Nation of Domination was also sealed with a beatdown on the Jan. 24 episode of Shotgun.
Maivia lasted 13 minutes at #25 in the 1997 Royal Rumble, doing little of note and scoring no eliminations. On certain RAWs, the Honky Tonk Man would show up to Rocky’s matches as part of his effort to recruit a new singer type for him to manage. This had the potential to be a disaster even if we would learn that the Rock had some singing chops in comedy segments. Honky no longer had that 1987 magic going for him a decade later.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Rocky won the IC title from Triple H at the Feb. 13 Thursday RAW Thursday. Jim Cornette confirmed in his 1997 WWF timeline interview that this was a last minute booking decision. The crowd was still pro-Rocky at this point unless you are specifically looking for boos. The title win came off as a bit of a fluke as the winning fall came via an inside cradle as HHH had most of the offense in the match. Rocky won again three days later at the In Your House: Final Four PPV, but again did not look strong since it was a finished based off a distraction of Triple H.
The new IC champ faced challenges from Billy Gunn, Leif Cassidy, and the Sultan, the man he would face at Wrestlemania 13. The match in Chicago at Wrestlemania is a terrible match by any standard and the notoriously tough crowd in Chicago turned on him. While it could have been the weak opponents he was booked against, something with Maivia was not connecting with the audience. He was a pure babyface being routinely bailed out by old guys like his dad and Tony Atlas rather than the “cool” characters you might see in the nWo.
The show of weakness continued after Mania. Rocky would face Bret Hart on the 3/31 RAW and won via DQ, because Hart refused to release his new “ringpost figure 4” move. At In Your House: Revenge of the Taker, Savio Vega beat him via countout and the IC champ had to be saved by Ahmed Johnson. He looked like a fraud and a chump, and crowds could see through that. It was only a matter of time before he would drop the IC title, and Owen Hart won it from Rocky on the April 28 RAW.
At the May pay per view In Your House: Cold Day in Hell, Rocky lost cleanly to Mankind via mandible claw. Before the match, Maivia did an interview with Todd Pettengill and effectively said nothing. At this point, a Rocky interview was a signal that you could go to the bathroom or grab a snack because nothing entertaining would happen. Think about that. The future People’s Champ floated aimlessly through May mostly losing matches to Nation of Domination members, ending the month with Flash Funk in a short feud with the Headbangers.
A loss to Mankind on June 1 would be the last match for Rocky until after Summerslam in August due to a knee injury. A spot in the NOD opened up with the latest injury to Ahmed Johnson and other members splitting off to form Disciples of Apocalypse and Los Boriquas. Rocky made his return to TV during a match between Farooq and Chainz on the Aug. 11 RAW, debuting the Rock Bottom on Chainz with the referee down. The Rock stood with Farooq after the match with his fist in the air to signal his turn.
While NOD had become something of a “black power” faction to some criticism in media circles (Meltzer: “Skin colors of a feather stick together”), Rocky explained his turn the next week by saying that it wasn’t a “black thing” and more about how he was treated by the booing fans. He was slowly built as a foot soldier in the NOD under Farooq’s leadership. While he lost to Ahmed Johnson on the Sept. 22 MSG RAW in the IC title tournament, Rocky got a pin on Hawk at In Your House: Badd Blood to start October and was starting to pick up steam and show some of what would become his legendary personality.
There was a controversial angle in October where D-Generation X framed the Hart Foundation with racist graffiti in the NOD locker room. The promo that followed showcased the Rock’s newfound skills on the microphone. While he spoke about discrimination, I am more struck by how he has a different look than the rest of the NOD members with the t-shirt with the R on it. He mainly worked tag matches, and even took a Stone Cold Stunner from Steve Austin one week during his fall rampage while injured.
The Oct. 20th RAW saw a historic moment in Rock history: the debut of a new move where he would run the ropes then drop an exaggerated elbow on his prone opponent, in this case Ken Shamrock. This would later become The People’s Elbow, but at the time it was just a humorous interlude dropped into his matches, allegedly started in an effort to make the Undertaker laugh and break character at live shows. This match also had DX sitting on the stage flashing signs like “Who booked this crap” which would later become an internet meme. At the Survivor Series, Rocky got some shine by surviving to the final one on one with Shamrock before tapping to the ankle lock.
Coming out of that event the WWF was in turmoil due to the Montreal Screwjob and its effects on the locker room. Bret Hart was gone, along with the British Bulldog and Jim Neidhart. Owen Hart was on leave after dropping the IC title back to the still-injured Steve Austin, and Stone Cold needed a challenger. The Rock really began to shine as a result of this vacuum. On the Nov. 17 RAW, the Rock stole the IC title from Austin and started carrying it around. The following week, Steve Austin interrupted a Rock promo by invading the production truck and screwing with the audio levels and flashing Rocky Sucks on the Titantron. He followed with a video of him taunting the Rock by asking if this was live or Memorex, and when Rock’s beeper says “316” you can be sure Austin will show up to kick his ass. Rocky’s facial expression when he sees his beeper is absolutely priceless. The whole thing is here and it should be noted he uses the term “People’s Champion” and arches the eyebrow long before those became commonplace. Personally, it’s one of my favorite RAW segments of all time.
The match with Austin at In Your House: D-Generation X was limited to due Austin’s neck issues and was more of a wild brawl mostly remembered for Austin stunning D-Lo Brown on the roof of his truck that he drove to the ring. Austin retained, but the Rock definitely got a rub from being in there with the company’s top babyface.
A rematch was to take place on RAW the next night, but Austin refused to wrestle and forfeited the title instead. This was done so that Austin would not have to lose as they built him to the world title level. A nice side effect was the conflict between Austin and McMahon kicked to a new gear at this point. Austin asked if he would be fired, and the Rock sneaks over and says “Vince, the Rock thinks you should fire him” in a hilarious moment. I remember following this RAW on the RSPW newsgroup at the time and people went nuts for this line. Rock was developing a following from hardcore internet fans who found him funny, while still having great heel heat from casual fans who hated him for his cockiness. It was also clear that the Rock was being featured in the NOD over Farooq and that slow burn storyline was underway.
On the final RAW of 1997, the Rock answered the challenge of Ken Shamrock by saying that the former UFC star would instead be facing Farooq next week, much to the consternation of the alleged leader. Within a year, he wouldn’t only be the leader of the new Nation, but he would be the world champion and a defining figure in turning the Monday Night Wars once and for all. The Rock in 1997 is a cautionary tale: don’t give up on a talent just because the original plan failed miserably. A change can do wonders not only for the person, but can also potentially change the course of wrestling history.