Monday, February 21, 2011

The Rock returns to WWE

"FINALLY ... The Rock has come back to Anaheim". And with those words, Dwayne Johnson announced his return to WWE ranks leaving seven years and ten poor-to-fair movies behind. His reception was nothing less than stupendous. After the show's main event, the ring announcer informed the baying audience that the host for Wrestlemania was in the building and promptly left the ring. This allowed the punters the luxury and pleasure of anticipation in true-to-form WWE silence. A pregnant silence, in fact, as the crowd remained remarkably quiet for a WWE flagship show. After a minute, the famous catchcry hit the speakers at full blast: "Can ya SMEEEEEEEEELLLLLL what The Rock ... is cooking".

And he was back, strutting at the top of the entranceway, savouring the euphoria those eight words had created in a packed Anaheim Arena. The same electric personality, though with a little less hair. The same charisma, the same attraction remained: Dwayne Johnson the performer walked out and was almost instantly reduced to Dwayne Johnson the man as the crowd refused to quiet. After a while, he strode down the gangway and into the ring to give his traditional one-armed turnbuckle salute; the crowd remained at eleven. It took a full four minutes before he spoke - so visibly moved was he by the reaction that just his presence at the arena had elicited.

"FINALLY ... The Rock has come back to Monday Night Raw". By saying this, he announced this wasn't a one-show gimmick, or a preview to his stint hosting Wrestlemania 26. The Rock had returned and would be doing what he did best, mediocre action movies aside, returning to the ring and, as he said "Promis(ing) to Layeth the Smack Down" on the next generation of Sports Entertainment. After the five minute standing ovation was quelled - partly, it seemed by Johnson's embarrassment at such a warm reaction - and the "Finally ... " formalities out of the way, The Rock did what separated him from the crowd a generation ago: cut a ten-minute promo that signalled his focus for the foreseeable future: WWE. Still the industry's most identifiable star, The Rock returns to a company which he may struggle to recognise.

His opponents of yore are gone. Chris Jericho is touring the world with his band Fozzy. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's body succumbed to the effects of alcohol, pratfalls and being a redneck. Chris Benoit and Chris Kanyon took their own lives, Eddie Guerrero passed away of the Wrestler's scourge, heart problems. Big Sexy Kevin Nash and Shawn Michaels realised the time was leave, and did so with pride intact. Goldberg and Brock Lesnar were never really that "into" WWE. Their places have been filled with the youngsters who broke into the business at about the time of Johnson's departure: John Cena and Randy Orton chief among them. Only a few of the old nemeses remain - Kane, Triple H, Edge, the Big Show and Undertaker.

It's a different game now and The Rock's return may help shore up a company whose lack of major cross-market stars and identity to the average-joe mean it remains a popular curio, a throwback to years past. Professional Wrestling's biggest advantage is also it's greatest drawback: the "Wow" factor, where a viewer will see an amazing stunt and automatically expect it to be topped in successive matches. The storylines have moved from (admittedly very bad) plot and character-driven characters to rely almost exclusively on Wow factor for entertainment. The business misses the drawcards of of the 80s and 90s, able to cut killer promos at the drop of a hat: all of Hogan, Jericho, Michaels, Austin and Johnson had the ability to charm, menace and disarm with their mic-work. The new breed do not, relying on tough-guy bluster and gimmicks which don't have the all-age appeal of those used by the long-term pros.

The Rock's return, all eighteen minutes of it, was enough to promote expectation that he'll be the same magnetic on-camera personality as ever, telling heel announcer Michael Cole the taste would be slapped so far out of him he'd never get it back - (relatively) witty but threatening at the same time. The younger generation of WWE stars have someone to look up to now, someone whose Top 10 all-time status as a wrestler is unquestioned.

"FINALLY ... The Rock has come back ... home". And with this came the admission that he remains what he's always been - a rassler, one of the best. With the exception of perhaps Hulk Hogan, there's never been a more naturally likeable face than Dwayne Johnson. His heel turns always seemed jarringly out of synch with his innate character, meaning he's destined to be a face for most of the rest of his career. As he strode to and from the squared circle, he stopped to tousle the hair of children held up by their parents - kids who probably had never seen him in the ring - instantly winning over older and younger fans in ways newer faces couldn't imagine. Seven years is an eternity in wrestling, and an entire generation of fans now knows of him only by name. In his first match, likely at Wrestlemania, it's his chance to show youngsters how to really play face. Only Hogan could have pulled off what Johnson did on Monday night, especially as he was able to marry the imposing with the schmaltzy in the time-honoured wrestling manner. A little older and a little more Dwayne Johnson than Rock, his eighteen-minutes left more of an impression on the wrestling world than much of the past two years of "thrills" and stunts.

Easily forgettable is that he's only 38 and sports a body seemingly uncorrupted by steroid use and alcohol abuse. Even in movies, his best roles were those which either required all-action and no talk, or he played himself (Welcome to the Jungle); The Rock was never an actor but - as he now identifies himself - an entertainer and that's perhaps for the best - entertainers don't necessarily make the best character actors. A man who made his career on reading audiences all over America found it difficult to read lines and is much better at off-the-cuff bravado. Hopefully he's not lost to movies forever - his work wasn't nearly as bad as popularly thought - but also it's a fond anticipation that he remembers that "the business" is home.

It may be that word which singly defines wrestling better than any other: entertainment. The Rock is Back, and ready to entertain.

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