It’s relatively unknown to his mainstream audience, but Dwayne Johnson got his big break in wrestling as part of a black nationalist group called The Nation of Domination. Before he would become one of the most successful actors alive, Johnson — who had only recently become known as “The Rock” after dropping his dorky “Rocky Maivia” moniker — quoted Malcolm X, threw up black power fists, and admonished his white haters, all while referring to himself in the third person. More exaggerated characters have proliferated in professional wrestling, a business predicated in acting absurd to get a rise out of the audience, but upon advocating for the race war, the Rock became a meteoric success. Shortly after assuming this persona in 1997, he transformed into one of wrestling’s hottest stars, quickly holding the top belt in the World Wrestling Federation (now known as the WWE) before eventually leaving to crack Hollywood.
The Rock was around as a full-time wrestler for less than six years, which makes his popularity more retroactively impressive — it can easily take wrestlers much, much longer to catch on with the audience. But trawl through any of the clips of early era Rock online, and it isn’t difficult to see why: He was generationally charismatic, blessed with sculpted looks, a stentorian bellow, precise comedic timing, and more facial expressions than an Etch-a-Sketch. In retrospect, it’s amazing he wrestled at all; in an alternate timeline, he would have been pulled out of casting and turned into an action star from day one.
Never was that more apparent than in this seemingly throwaway segment from a random pay-per-view 20 years ago, in which the Rock wrestled an unmemorable match as part of the Nation of Domination. There were no titles at stake, no intense grudges to be settled. The most significant thing was the teasing of a storyline that would ultimately culminate with the Rock seizing control of the group from its then-leader, the tough-talking Faarooq.
What is worth revisiting is the pre-match interview with the Nation, shown backstage at the arena. (Go to the 1:30 mark here.) The interviewer alludes to the tension in the group, before addressing its “leader.” The Rock attempts to respond, only for Faarooq to pull the microphone away and chastise his underling for assuming the role. Faarooq proceeds to cut a heated, though not particularly distinct speech about the importance of falling in line and being a tough dude, all while the Rock mugs for the camera like a fifth grader fiddling with Photobooth for the first time.
Though he remains silent, he immediately attracts the viewer’s attention. He chews gum, makes the universally recognized sign for “look at my giant, invisible championship belt” while wearing an actual championship belt, flexes his pecs, points at himself, mimics swinging a chair into someone’s face, raises his eyebrow, flashes some smug grins, and — in the most memorable moment — rolls his eyes so dramatically at Faarooq you might have assumed the leader had just claimed the earth was flat. The actual claim that prompted his disdain: “Most dangerous man? [Editor’s note: They were wrestling Ken Shamrock, who billed himself as the world’s most dangerous man, but it’s not important.] I’ve been in some of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods!” Faarooq’s righteous appeals to street cred might have resonated with some of the audience, but not the Rock, who relished the chance to show he was categorically over this old man’s aggro babble, and ready to take over.
Look at the way he rolls his eyes, raises his eyebrows, dramatically exhales, and smirks in one fluid motion. It’s beautiful. This GIF is two seconds of pure “get a load of this fucking guy” that needs no context, as the Rock’s particular genius as a wrestler was communicating the exact emotion he needed in whatever time he was allotted. (This is also known as, uh, “acting,” which is why he became a very rich actor.) You could have no idea who he was, and get everything you needed from the GIF — the sign of any great viral image, which is why I’ve seen it deployed hundreds of times over the years by people who probably didn’t even watch Johnson in his wrestling heyday. Watching it gives me a little twinge of nostalgia for the way the Rock used to be: a gloriously defiant shithead eager to be in the spotlight, not because he craved the approval of the people the way he does now, but because of his moral offense at the notion anyone else was worth attention.
I am aware he was acting. But befitting a true carnie, Johnson has maintained his character as “The Rock” in real life without formally acknowledging the difference between the two personas, which bleeds back into his character whenever he’s on WWE TV. Because Johnson is more likely to spout heartwarming platitudes about self-improvement and post selfies with exuberant fans, so “The Rock” spouts dad jokes about how goofy his opponent is, and wears t-shirts emblazoned with workout mantras. He’s still entertaining, but it’s different. I can only think about how 20 years ago, he would’ve told us how this old guy needed to get fucked without saying a single word.