It’s March 20th, 1999. I’m twelve years old, and I’m at an arena in Austin, Texas to see the World Wrestling Federation put on a show. My dad marvels at how Kane, a wrestler who’s billed at seven feet tall, towers above his competitors. He’s graciously tolerating this event on my behalf. I don’t realize it at the time, but this show is largely a dress rehearsal for Wrestlemania 15, which is only a week away. Still, I’m dressed for the occasion.
I have a foam championship belt slung over my shoulder. I’m wearing a pair of cheap sunglasses I picked out at the corner drug store. I’ve taken a magic marker and drawn a pair of long sideburns on my prepubescent face. I do my best impression of his demeanor, his strident presence, his swagger. I’ve spent hours looking in the mirror, trying to keep one eyebrow raised over the other. I have every one of his catchphrases memorized and ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. It’s all I can do to imitate my favorite wrestler — The Rock.
Born Dwayne Johnson, The Rock became one of the biggest stars, if the not the biggest star, in his era of professional wrestling. He rode a wave of charisma, catchphrases, and crowd-pleasing to the top of the World Wrestling Federation. There was something in the way he simply carried himself that excited the crowd and made them follow his every punch. He rose up as one of the biggest names in company history — holding championships, hosting Saturday Night Live, and starring in movies in his breaks from the squared circle. He connected with the crowd, managed to fire them up every time, and earned the admiration of one mesmerized young man.
But as The Rock began to pull away from professional wrestling, so did I. As I grew older, the “Attitude Era” that boasted some of the WWF’s greatest success and featured in your face personalities like The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Mick Foley, had begun to fade. I never believed that wrestling was real, but the other cracks in the armor became clearer with age.
The larger-than-life characters that had impressed me as a kid began to seem like walking cartoon characters. The grand speeches and rousing threats from one wrestler to another that had captured my imagination as a kid revealed themselves as crusted with cliches and pandering. There were still occasional shining moments, but in many ways, the presentation had lost its luster. Gradually, I just stopped watching.
But every year, despite my status as a lapsed fan, I still make time to watch Wrestlemania. It’s the Super Bowl of professional wrestling, the “Grandaddy of Them All.” and the night when the WWE’s biggest stars come out to shine. It gives me a chance to connect with the spectacle, the athleticism, and the outrageous personalities that were able to reach out and grab me as a kid.
This Sunday, after a long absence, The Rock is returning to wrestle in the main event of Wrestlemania 28. He will be taking on John Cena, the WWE’s current biggest star. It’s a match up between the top dogs of two different eras, a dream match that fans have talked about for years.
The WWE has billed it as a “Once in a Lifetime” match, and for once, the hyperbole rings true. It’s rare to see the old and the new stand side-by-side, so close to their respective peaks, in any medium. When The Rock decided to come back to wrestling for one last match before returning to Hollywood, it seemed only right that he ought to take on the biggest name the modern day WWE has to offer.
And now, thirteen years after that first show with my dad, I’m rooting for him to lose.
I have no misconception that The Rock and John Cena will actually be competing against each other to win the match. Their “fight” is a dance, a tandem performance, one that can be both athletically impressive and engagingly entertaining in the story it tells.
But that story is why I hope The Rock will lose. It’s for the same reason people root for one character or another to come out on top or receive their just desserts in television shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It’s because we like a character; we appreciate what they stand for, or we think they deserve to falter. Both sources of entertainment are often a morality play, where everyone has a favored ending to the story. Mine closes out with Dwayne Johnson “counting the lights.”
It took me a good long time to figure out why I wanted the character who had once been my favorite wrestler in the world to lose. It’s not because I like his opponent in the match, John Cena, any better. Cena’s character is an odd mix of the WWE’s prior successes. His character shares a great deal in common with Hulk Hogan in that he’s the latest in a long line of superhero-types in professional wrestling. He’s always overcoming the odds, defeating the bad guys, and striking a blow for justice with a square jaw and a big smile. You can practically hear him tell the kids at home to remember to say their prayers and eat their vitamins.
Yet Cena also has a healthy, if somewhat contradictory, dose of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s anti-authoritarian bent. WWE’s weekly television shows have often featured Cena beating up more than his fair share of commissioners, general managers, and other miscellaneous authority figures, sometimes for little-to-no reason. He’s also taken on the mantle of The Rock’s populism, pandering to the crowd and positioning himself as their representative, or even their avatar.
In this way, he’s sort of a character by committee. This fact alone is why a number of the diehard wrestling fans cannot stand him. It seems as if WWE Chairman Vince McMahon sat in a lab with some marketing executives, picked out the best characteristics of his prior big stars, and sewed them together into a new character, with no regard for whether they seamlessly blend or shamelessly clash.
The current WWE Champion, C.M. Punk, began his wave of success by becoming the anti-Cena. He injected a bit of reality into the pre-scripted world of professional wrestling by framing his real life struggles to succeed in the company in contrast to Cena’s comparative golden ticket. Where Cena was a WWE corporate creation, Punk was a self-made man. Where Cena almost always had the backing of the front office, Punk had to fight to prove the fans would get behind him. While Punk exuded a sense of genuineness about who he was in relation to the character he played, Cena’s character seemed tailor-made to be boardroom’s family-friendly, desperate-to-be-cool, and above all else marketable, face of the WWE.
But there’s a difference between John Cena the character and John Cena the person. Fans debate endlessly as to how talented Cena is, how charismatic he is, how athletic he is. But one thing nobody questions is his dedication.
He’s been a company man, willing to go out and do his job no matter what is asked of him, and to put his all into it. He’s known for repeatedly saying he loves his work, that he loves the industry, and that he loves being a professional wrestler. He’s known for going above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to being a representative of the WWE, whether it’s in promoting the company, giving countless interviews, or through his charity work. In fact, he’s granted more wishes for the Make-A-Wish foundation than any other individual in the organization’s history.
Whatever fans have to say about Cena’s character, it’s hard to debate that he’s always shown himself willing to go the extra mile and that he loves and appreciates the business in which he’s become the standard bearer.
The Rock, on the other hand, left professional wrestling seven years ago for the sunny shores of Hollywood. He’s a movie star now. He took all those facial expressions, all that swagger, all that charisma that made me latch onto him as a kid, and used them to make his way in the film industry. He stopped being “The Rock” and started just being “Dwayne Johnson.”
It’s hard to blame him. He found a way to make a living that does not constantly wear on his body. He found a way to use his ability to be a character without having to go on the road for three-hundred days a year. I can only imagine that The Rock looks back on his heydey in professional wrestling fondly, but that he’s moved on.
And in that sense, The Rock is like me, in the same way that Cena is like the dedicated fan. Cena’s biggest talking points in the build to Wrestlemania 28 center around the idea that he’s been out there every week, giving his all, for years now. In boom times and in periods where business was down, Cena has persevered. No matter what the crowd reaction, be it wild cheers or angry boos, he goes out and puts on the best show he can.
In much the same way, those hardcore fans have watched the product every week. Even in the doldrums between big events, they were still paying attention. Even in the years where the talent was lean or the storylines were weak, they still bought the pay per view events. Even when they hated Cena himself and he was the biggest focus of the show, they were there.
The Rock and I, on the other hand, are frontrunners, dabblers, and dilettantes.
The Rock rarely made any sort of appearance in the wrestling world after he left for Hollywood. He rightly, at least in terms of his career, attempted to distance himself from the industry that made him a household name. He only stepped back to wrestling when his filmmaking stock had started to drop.
Even then, he decided he only wanted to participate in the year’s biggest event. He wanted to contribute primarily via pre-taped segments from the comfort of his own home, instead of bearing the burden of taking his show on the road. He used his appearances to launch his Twitter account, to promote his film career, and to run down the company’s current top star as not measuring up to the legacy he left behind. And when Wrestlemania 28 is over and wrestling is no longer useful to him, he’ll leave again and not return until he decides he needs the publicity.
In the same way, I only start to remember professional wrestling when Wrestlemania rolls around. I barely watch a second of their programming aside from that period of buildup where the WWE is guaranteed to be putting its best foot forward. Even then, I generally only watch the one segment of the weekly show devoted to promoting the main event.
I can’t name half of the people wrestling in the undercard. I cheer for the cameo appearances from the guys I used to know when I was a kid and sit quietly while the company’s current stars earn their keep. I’m only there for the high water mark. When those waters recede, my attention will too. I’ll return to the other eleven months of the year when the WWE rarely warrants a passing thought, let alone my time and attention.
The Rock and I are wrestling’s fair weather fans. We’ll come for the the spotlight, the high points, the big finish, but we’ll disappear when the rush is over and it’s time for business as usual. We’re back mostly for nostalgia, an attempt to capture something long since past. We’re both trying to claw back a piece of that time when The Rock was on top of the wrestling world, and I was a twelve-year-old screaming my lungs out for him at a house show in Austin, Texas. Then, as soon as we get what we came for, we’ll be gone.
Cena will still be there. The real fans will still be there. The show will go on while The Rock and I decide that we have better things to do.
There’s nothing so wrong with that. There’s nothing reprehensible about moving on, in terms of a career or an interest. There’s certainly nothing wrong with revisiting it from time to time. The issue is that we didn’t put in the hours. We didn’t put in the effort. We didn’t show an ounce of real interest.
Instead, we make these half-hearted attempts to revisit past glories, in the shadow of the people who genuinely care. And it’s why we both deserve to lose.