Rock Star

Wrestler Dwayne Johnson body slams the notion that WWF stars can't be mainstream entertainers as well as athletes.


You may not recognize the name Dwayne Johnson, but almost certainly you've seen him lately. He's a hard guy to miss these days, and not just because of his 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame.

For the past several weeks, Johnson's autobiography has been atop the New York Times best seller list. He graced the covers of Newsweek and TV Guide recently, and his video was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for sports videos.

He's also appeared in several commercials -- one for the video game that features him -- acted in TV shows including "Star Trek: Voyager" and "That '70s Show," and appears in the movies "Jack of All Trades" and "The Mummy 2."

Still doesn't ring a bell? Then perhaps we should tell you that Dwayne Johnson is The Rock, the charismatic, trash-talking poster boy of a new generation of pro wrestlers who prefer to be known as "sports entertainers."

And The Rock is definitely on a roll. In just under four years in wrestling, he has become not only the industry's top star, but also a bona fide celebrity.

"I believe the term `pro wrestler' has become passe," Johnson said during a recent visit to Baltimore. "When people view the character of The Rock, professional wrestler isn't the first thing they think of. They think of larger-than-life television entertainer or artist."

That certainly seemed true at the last World Wrestling Federation show at the sold-out Baltimore Arena, when thousands of rabid fans looked on as Johnson, perched on the ropes of the wrestling ring, went through his signature opening bit:

As the crowd roars, Johnson lifts a microphone to his mouth but doesn't speak, first making a dramatic pause.

"Finally, The Rock has come back to Baltimore!" he says in his familiar cadence, the crowd chanting the words along with him. Then he utters his odd but memorable catch-phrase: "If you smell [dramatic pause] what The Rock [even longer dramatic pause] is cooking!"

His exclamation point -- a trademark raised eyebrow -- sends the crowd into a frenzy.

Mass appeal

It's a scene that's been repeated in packed arenas throughout the country in the past year, as Johnson's star has climbed -- both in and out of the ring.

Just how far into the mainstream has The Rock grappled his way?

Entertainment Weekly ranked him and his boss, WWF chairman Vince McMahon, No. 5 on its list of most significant entertainers for 1999, ahead of such Hollywood luminaries as Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, and People magazine hailed The Rock as one of its Sexiest Men of the year.

On Saturday, The Rock is scheduled to be the host on "Saturday Night Live," becoming only the second wrestler (after Hulk Hogan in 1985) to do so. And he's even been a guest on daytime talk shows such as "The View" and "Martha Stewart's Living," programs not normally viewed by wrestling's traditional demographic group (young males).

"Individual wrestlers rising to celebrity status is really a manifestation of great marketing by the WWF," said David Blum of Eisner Communications, a Baltimore-based advertising agency. "The WWF has learned to do the same thing the NBA did when they took the Michael Jordans and the Magic Johnsons and made them larger than life to represent the sport. They make that person a star, which in turn helps the organization itself."

In fact, today's wrestling stars need to handle a microphone as well they handle their opponents. And no one blends athleticism with showmanship better than Johnson.

"We have the ability to write the story lines and make or break who we want to be a champion, but if you watch him during an event, he's just a tremendous showman," said Jayson Bernstein, a WWF spokesman. "He's really a great actor in addition to being an incredible athlete. That's something that we can't necessarily train them to be. That comes from inside."

Said Dave Meltzer, of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter: "His overall charisma compares with Hulk Hogan at his peak. Barring injury, I think it's a pretty safe bet he's going to be the biggest [wrestling] star of this decade."

WWF fans not only "smell what The Rock is cooking," they are buying what he's selling -- including T-shirts, posters, videos, video games and his autobiography, "The Rock Says" (ReganBooks, $26), which has been No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list for four of the past seven weeks.

Rocky beginning

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of The Rock. And as the WWF gains in popularity -- its Monday night "Raw Is War" program is regularly the highest-rated show on cable while Thursday night's "Smackdown" is UPN's top-rated show -- so too does the self-proclaimed "most electrifying man in sports entertainment."

But as much as the 27-year-old Johnson exemplifies the slick product wrestling has become, his roots in the profession are steeped in the old-school rasslin' tradition of smoky, dim arenas.

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