How The Rock Became the Most Successful Ex-Wrestler in Showbiz History

Ryan Aday

Can you smell what The Rock is cooking? If you smell unprecedented success, then your nose does not deceive you. Dwayne Johnson parlayed his mega-stardom in the WWE into unfathomable achievement in mainstream entertainment. The Rock surpassed milestones previously considered unreachable by former superstars in the sports entertainment world. Shedding the negative stigma of the wrestling business, Johnson now sits atop the mountain as the highest paid actor in Hollywood. With his 45th birthday upon us, we are excited to celebrate with “The Great One” and take a look at how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has become the most successful ex-wrestler ever.

The Rock is 45. Let him eat cake.

The Past Competition

Many wrestlers have tried before, but none have broken through to find the kind of mainstream success that The Rock managed. Top of the card superstars like Bill Goldberg, Kevin Nash, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and Shaun Michaels all caught the acting bug at some point in their respective careers. However, these attempts usually resulted in bit parts in bigger productions, lead roles in films developed by WWE studios, or roles in sequels to Van Damme or Segal films that really didn’t need to exist, like Universal Soldier: The Return and Half Past Dead 2.

Other wrestlers have had measured success. Andre the Giant was phenomenal as Fezzik in The Princess Bride. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper gained cult status for his work in They Live. The Marine and 12 Rounds featured WWE golden boy John Cena but are glorified “B” movies. And guys like Randy Orton, Dean Ambrose, and Kane tried their hand with relatively little success.

The Hulkster was one of the first wrestlers to make the jump but failed to reach the potential that his WWF star power proposed

Hulk Hogan was (and still may be) the most popular wrestler ever, but his showbiz journey beyond wrestling was much less successful. In fact, his most popular role is a cameo from 1982 (“Thunderlips” in Rocky III). The list of films starring Hogan includes semi-forgettable flicks like No Holds Barred, Mr. Nanny and Suburban Commando. Hogan’s most profitable mainstream venture, Thunder in Paradise, was mildly successful sitting under the ceiling of syndicated television.

The Current Challengers

The recent emergence of Dave Bautista might be the only other example of a former wrestler breaking the stigma of sports entertainment. Bautista portrays one of the main heroes, Drax the Destroyer, in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy series.  And in 2015, he landed the role of Hink, a Bond villain, in Spectre.

Bautista is the only other wrestler with a major role in a film that grossed 9-figures

These films are a marked change from previous non-Rock, former wrestler films. They grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and have line up good roles for Bautista in the future including Bladerunner 2049. Yes, Bautista did do his Van Damme sequel (Kickboxer: Vengeance) and a straight to HBO film (House of the Rising Sun). However, unlike others before him, these rolls merited bigger and better things for Bautista.

The People’s Champion

All of this being said, no one with any connection to Pro Wrestling can hold a candle to the “Great One.” Starting with his role as The Scorpion King in 2002, The Rock’s meteoric rise stands unmatched. Almost immediately his abilities thrust him into a leading man role in mildly successful films like Walking Tall and The Rundown. He has proved highly successful in films geared towards younger audiences including Gridiron Gang, Tooth Fairy, and Disney’s Moana. Johnson’s rocket really took off when he joined the cast of the enormously popular Fast and Furious series.


A single Johnson film makes more money than all other wrestlers efforts combined (excluding Bautista). Those results leave The Rock with no shortage of work. He finished work on two upcoming films: The Fate of the Furious and Baywatch.  On top of that, he signed on to nearly a dozen films that are either in production or announced.  These include remakes (Big Trouble in Little China and Jumanji), sequels (Journey 3 and San Andreas 2), and a dip into the Marvel Universe as Black Adam in the Shazam series. He is the executive producer and star of the hit HBO series Ballers which begins its third season this summer.

Now that we’ve established the unprecedented success of Dwayne Johnson as an ex-wrestler. That begs the question: What makes The Rock the most successful former sports entertainer ever?

He’s Got the Look

Dwayne Johnson looks like a classic action star. Sure, his muscles often resemble a bodybuilder more than an actor but he can slim down when the role requires. His proportional physique plays well for a multitude of parts. His “gimmick” was never of a pharmaceutically enhanced behemoth. Rather, his look resembled someone who took good care of himself, ate well, and hit the gym regularly.

When the occasion calls, Rock can look like the meanest person you know or your friendly next door neighbor. This versatility opens up practically every genre and a plethora of characters for Johnson. His substantial size is always sure to lead to athletic and physical characters but that doesn’t prevent him from thriving in other roles.

The Balance of Ego and Humility

Don’t get me wrong. Although I’ve never met Dwayne Johnson I’m sure he has an ego. However, his willingness to suppress that ego when the occasion calls opened lots of doors. The wrestling stigma is their unwillingness to do anything that makes them look bad or weak. The Rock has demonstrated his ability to lay his ego aside to further his career.

Johnson's willingness to go all-in on roles that aren't quite macho have helped his career

A major example of this is the film Be Cool. In this film Johnson plays a gay bodyguard to Raji (Vince Vaughn). Even now, but especially in 2005, the stigma of being gay seldom fits in the world of professional wrestling. Many of the wrestlers mentioned in this article would have and probably did shy away from such a role. The Rock chose to forgo any macho ideology that frowned upon this type of part. Laying aside his ego and, at the same time, opening eyes in Hollywood.

The Rock’s Tireless Work Ethic

Most experts would agree that a full-time professional wrestling schedule requires a lot of work. The travel, physical work, and 300-plus-day schedule leaves most bruised, battered, and tired. Often, the allure of Hollywood is partly based on the idea that it might be an easier way of life. No one faults sports entertainer for wanting to take a break.

At the gym, on the set, or it his other ventures, Johnson's work ethic is seldom matched

For the Rock, the transition to Hollywood simply involved shifting his hard work from one setting to another. In 2016, he revealed his crazy schedule on Facebook:

“Here’s a look at my 2016 shooting schedule and why I’m up at 4am everyday to train (aside from being slightly bat s*** crazy). Once we wrap season 2 of Ballers (4 weeks left), the next day I’ll start shooting our “little” beach movie called ‪#‎BAYWATCH‬ (literally THE most successful TV intellectual property of all time – so the pressure is on – bring it).

After a 12 week BAYWATCH shoot, I’ll go right into shooting Fast & Furious 8. We’re a family, and playing the character of HOBBS is one of my greatest joys and I’ll make the promise to ya right now: I’m stepping on that set ready to rumble and raise the bar on all levels: The intensity, the tactical gear/weapons and especially that “Hobbs’ winking fun”. Since Fast & Furious 5, you’ve made HOBBS the highest testing character for a reason – and we’re gonna give new meaning to the catchphrase, “Daddy’s gotta go to work.”

After approximately 12-14 weeks of shooting FF8, I’ll transition right into the big one… ‪#‎RAMPAGE‬. Before we start shooting I’ll spend time at the San Diego Wildlife Preserve as well with Anti-Poaching Units out of Africa. As big and fun as this movie is, the key is grounding it in research and authenticity. The entire team that brought you San Andreas is back and we can’t wait to get started on this one. King Kong is just a little monkey compared to what these massive RAMPAGING ANIMALS can do.

Now of course the universe can step in at anytime and throw a flag on the play, but as you see there’s a method to my madness of 4am wake ups for cardio & training hard – it anchors my day and allows me to 100% focus and prep for these roles – and the irony of this whole thing is all these roles pale in comparison to the most daunting, gratifying and holy s*** scary role of all – being a father. But that’s for another fun discussion. (Dwayne Johnson on Facebook)”

This hardly feels like taking a break. In fact, it appears that Johnson pours more blood, sweat, and tears into his movie career as he did in the squared circle.

The Rock Is Irresistibly Likeable

It is really hard to not like the Rock. In wrestling, even when fans were booing him, he was never a true villain (heel). The chants of “Rocky Sucks” actually presented as terms of endearment. In the same way, the Hollywood version if Dwayne Johnson makes himself pretty hard not to like.

By all indications, the Rock is a genuinely nice guy that is easy to like

He grants tons of interviews. Gets along with pretty much everybody.  By all accounts, he is a genuinely nice guy. His short-lived USA Network show, Wake Up Call, featured Johnson helping ordinary people achieve their dreams. He runs his own social media and interacts personally with his fans.

A lot of professional wrestlers might fit into one or two of these categories. Dwayne Johnson is very strong at all of them. When you combine these attributes with his relentless desire to succeed, it’s not hard to figure out why he has been so successful.

Many pro wrestlers trying to enter the business are looking for the immediate payday. They want the main event spot from the get-go. The Rock understood from the beginning that he had to earn his spot in this new business, just like he had in the WWF:

“Success isn’t always about ‘Greatness’, it’s about consistency. Consistent, hard work gains success. Greatness will come.”

The Rock – June 2012

By far The Rock is the most successful ex-wrestler ever. And here’s the thing: At just 45 years of age, he has a lot more success ahead of him.

Happy Birthday, Dwayne! Here’s to many more adventures ahead.

Ryan Aday
Ryan is a former college athlete with a degree in Communication from Point Loma University. He is also a 5-time Game Show Contestant (Incl. Wheel of Fortune) and decorated fantasy football player (Fantasy Football Evolution National Champion Runner-Up). Mr. Aday is kind to animals.
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