I still remember where I was when I heard that, finally, The Rock had come back to the WWE.
It was February 14, 2011, and I was waiting for a late-night train in 30th Street Station after visiting my lovely girlfriend in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to me, a special guest was being announced on WWE Raw as the host of the upcoming WrestleMania XXVII. This couldn't have sounded more irrelevant, until someone -- I think it was hockey blogger (and wrestling fan) Greg Wyshynski -- tweeted something along the lines of "OMG THE ROCK IS BACK!"
I didn't even watch wrestling at the time, but I remember throwing my hands into the air and yelling "Yes!" Such was the power of The Rock.
Yet here we are -- about one week from WrestleMania XXVIII and a few weeks into The Rock's "real" return -- and I can't wait until it's finally over. WWE Raw is usually, at worst, entertainingly awful, but lately it's been genuinely awful. And a good deal of the blame for that falls at The Rock's feet.
The Rock used to be the classic "bad guy gone good," a smarmy asshole who earned the love of the fans by backing up all his bluster with action. He gave outstanding interviews and often made iffy bits into something memorable (compare the recent, disastrous "Rock Concert" with its first edition). He had genuinely catchy catchphrases and a great look.
Basically, he used to be a successful professional wrestler.
But, even though he's once again receiving paychecks from Titan Towers, The Rock doesn't seem to have much interest in recapturing what made him so memorable. As the great Brandon Stroud has noted a few times over in his weekly Raw recaps, The Rock isn't doing his homework. He's not offering up any sort of a nuanced character, not trying to build a genuine feud with upcoming opponent John Cena that's based on something, anything. He's giving interviews, sucking up cheers and getting the fuck out of there.
This might be acceptable under some circumstances -- he wouldn't be the first big-time pro wrestler to decide not to give a shit -- but when you're building towards a WrestleMania main event that's been planned for over a year and claiming, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you're "back and you'll never leave," the letdown becomes palpable. No one knows why Cena and Rock are wrestling, which means we all know why Cena and Rock are wrestling: It'll make Vince McMahon a lot of money.
So why has The Rock become so goddamn bland? At best, he's gotten too used to the talk show circuit, gigs where his only job is to smile and talk fat Midwesterners into going to see his movies. At worst, he's back just to re-up his credibility with the company that made him and collect a nice paycheck for very little effort.
The worst part is that pro wrestling fans are conditioned not to expect very much in the way of detailed storytelling. When you step back and ignore all the bells and whistles of the modern-day WWE/WWF, it's actually pretty straightforward. Even something as ridiculous as "Steve Austin saving Stephanie McMahon from a wedding/crucifixion at the hands of The Undertaker" can be summed up with "good guy can't let bad guy get away with doing wrong." It's all just variations on the same old stuff.
So if The Rock offered up a few detailed Cena barbs a week, if he did more than bask in unearned praise and try to get things trending on Twitter, the fans would eat it up. They want to love The Rock; every recent crowd has been falling over themselves to cheer on his generic ramblings. I don't think most of them are even listening to what he's saying (which, again, is not a unique event in the world of professional wrestling).
Part of Cena's anti-Rock propaganda of late is that the superstar-turned-actor doesn't belong in the WWE anymore. He's Dwayne Johnson now, not one of the guys busting his ass every week at house shows and autograph signings and guest appearances on Psych. Basically, he's trading on his name. He hasn't earned this.
This is just generic wrestling banter, part of the usual back-and-forth, but anyone who's been watching Raw lately knows that he's right. Cena's easy to dislike, but at least he's a real pro wrestler. For better or worse, this is his life. The Rock's life is in Hollywood, and he makes it clearer and clearer every week that that's where he belongs.
At the end of the day, WrestleMania XXVIII will make Vince McMahon a buttload of money. And as the Masked Man pointed out today, it'll probably be pretty good, too. But even when I didn't care about pro wrestling, I used to care about The Rock. Because of apathy, laziness or other, those days are long gone. Maybe I expect too much from a sport that's primarily aimed at kids...or maybe one of the best in the business has lost whatever magic that made him a famous millionaire in the first place.