Let’s get this out of the way: Dwayne Johnson and The Rock are two completely different entities. As the recent Hulk Hogan/Gawker trial showed, it is important to separate the wrestler from the performer, especially when one entity is a beloved movie star and the other is a catchphrase-spouting jackass. And so, it is with little pleasure that we state the following: The Rock, recurring wrestling character and groan-inducing persona, should be put out to pasture for good. The WWE, for all of its faults and shortcomings, does not either need nor benefit thematically from The Rock hanging around on a biannual basis, especially when most of his appearances are unwanted time machines back to the Attitude Era “glory days.”
Now, we all know that The Rock is a lot of people’s idea of what wrestling is and (more accurately) what wrestling was. The man was not only a 10-time world champion and Wrestler of the Year for 2000, but also the industry's biggest crossover star during wrestling’s most popular period. Sure, Stone Cold Steve Austin is probably more influential and iconic in the realm of wrestling proper, but The Rock slithered his way into the mainstream much more successfully.
It's hard to enjoy WWE in 2016 when the person on the mic is still stuck in 2001.
His catchphrases were uttered across every schoolyard and office in America, and his theatrics were replicated in backyards worldwide (who hasn’t hit their friends with the Rock Bottom, or tried to do the People’s Eyebrow?). Never mind the fact that he went on to become one of the biggest action stars in the world, starring in such action heavyweights as Fast Five (and Six and Seven), Pain & Gain, San Andreas, and the upcoming Baywatch movie. All of this guarantees that he will go down in history in the same breath as Hogan, Austin, Flair, Rhodes, and other titans of sports entertainment. At the same time, The Rock was very much of his era, and with every appearance in recent times, he erodes the goodwill earned at the turn of the millenium, piece by piece.
Since his big return to “host” WrestleMania XXVII, The Rock has put over exactly one person: John Cena (and that was after beating him first). He has, in one way or another, defeated or embarrassed quite a list of fantastic up-and-coming talent: The Miz, R Truth, The Miz again, Cena, CM Punk twice, Rusev, Lana, The New Day, the League of Nations, and Lana one more time for good measure. Some of these might not be too egregious (League of Nations, take a bow), but the ones that hit hardest had long-term consequences for WWE. The Miz was never the same after his main event at WrestleMania XVII (to be fair, part of that had to do with his concussion during the match), Lana was properly slut-shamed and misogynized into oblivion on both occasions she interacted with The Rock, and then there’s CM Punk.
The self-proclaimed Best in the World would probably still be in WWE if he hadn’t crossed paths with The Rock. Not only did Rocky’s return in 2012 push CM Punk—then WWE Champion—into the undercard of WrestleMania XVIII, but he also beat Punk at the Royal Rumble in 2013, snapping the Straight Edge Savior’s record title reign at 434 days. As if that wasn’t enough, Punk was yet again relegated to the undercard of Wrestlemania 29 (albeit against The Undertaker), instead of taking on Cena and/or The Rock in the main event. No wonder the guy left the company in a rage.
Vince allows him to basically do whatever he wants, because The Rock gets people nostalgic, and [vince] figures that’ll turn into ratings and positive reactions.
All of which could have been avoided if Vince McMahon didn’t have such a blind spot when it comes to The Rock. Unlike most part-timers, who at least return for a match when they come back, The Rock hasn’t wrestled since April 2013, and even then, he got to stand tall next to John Cena in a “changing of the guard” moment we didn’t need. Vince allows him to basically do whatever he wants, because The Rock gets people nostalgic, and he figures that’ll turn into ratings and positive reactions. However, those eyeballs are only tuning in for The Rock, and once he’s gone, we’re left with a WWE roster that has no real breakout stars because their time and energies are being siphoned towards performers like Dwayne Johnson, who (rightfully or not) are only here for their own sake.
Perhaps the most iconic (and meme-able) return of the “2010s The Rock” occurred last year, at the 2015 Royal Rumble: The Rock, who has never failed to receive a loud ovation since 1998, was sent out to give his IRL cousin Roman Reigns some shine after the younger superstar won the Rumble. Normally, this would be a cheap ploy that would nonetheless work, because The Rock’s magnetism and charisma are powerful enough to subdue even a smarky, contrarian crowd like Philly. But not on this night. After an initial “surprise” pop, the Philly crowd (including yours truly) booed the everloving hell out of The Rock, a development that would have surprised anyone but especially Dwayne himself, who looked as if he was about to murder someone when he got backstage. While this was most likely the proof that damned the Roman Reigns Babyface Tour, it also showed that some fans (and a growing number of them at that) have become tired of being transported to wrestling’s most offensive and cheap thrills era.
And yet, The Rock is being trotted out again as one of the main advertising points for WrestleMania 32, the WWE’s self-proclaimed biggest show ever. Although it’s unclear as of this moment what exactly he will be doing, you can be certain of a couple of things: He will take forever to start talking, just soaking in the fan adoration, and he will most likely put himself over at the expense of someone on the active roster. The latest rumor is that he will be the fourth man on the New Day team against the League of Nations, which would be ridiculous not just because he tried to humiliate them in a recent Raw segment, but also because it would be another instance of The Rock hooking onto a hot act in order to get himself more cheers.
What WWE should do instead is use The Rock in segments like the (still-too-long) opening of WrestleMania 30: have him come back in the context of legends, spew some quick catchphrases, and then go back to Hollywood. If he can’t come back and at least pretend to be a part of the universe WWE has built, then he really should have no other use than a harmless nostalgia pop. As someone who has been “fortunate” enough to be at three of The Rock’s appearances over the last two years, the best part of his semi-frequent returns is when his music hits unexpectedly. It’s hard to not pop for “IF YOU SMELLLLLL WHAT THE ROCK. IS. COOKING.” Almost impossible.
The problems come after the music stops and The Rock grabs a microphone. It's hard to enjoy WWE in 2016 when the person on the mic is still stuck in 2001.