The evolution of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson: A timeline of WrestleMania 40's 'Final Boss'

The professional wrestler turned film star has had an incredible career. Before his return to the ring at Wrestlemania this weekend, we look back at his professional trajectory

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. Photo: @therock/ Instagram
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Professional wrestlers have been switching over to films for decades, with Andre the Giant turning up in The Princess Bride in the 1980s and Dave Bautista's acting career thriving in the present day in films such as Dune: Part Two. But none have found the record-breaking success of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The 51-year-old had an early start in professional wrestling, travelling the world with his father Rocky Johnson, who was also a working wrestler, before pursuing a career in American football.

Johnson's time as a football player was short-lived due to constant injuries, forcing him to pivot to wrestling. Despite a bumpy start, Johnson would shoot to the top of the card in the late 1990s, establishing himself as one of the most famous faces in the industry over a four-year period.

Johnson capitalised on his outsize fame when he appeared as The Scorpion King in the second Mummy film, a small role that launched him towards huge film franchises. Today, Johnson balances his film career with professional wrestling, returning to the WWE earlier this year for his first major match in more than a decade.

After months of anticipation and fast-talking promos in the ring, Johnson is set to take part in the main event of night one at WrestleMania 40, WWE's biggest night of the year. In the lead-up to the big match-up, we look back at Johnson’s career, chronicling the highs and lows.

1972 – 1995: The 'Young Rock' era

Dwayne Douglas Johnson was born in California in 1972 to the professional wrestler Rocky Johnson and Ata Maivia, the daughter of the legendary Samoan wrestler Peter Maivia. Being part of a wrestling family meant the young Johnson travelled a lot, moving around with his parents to where the work opportunities were.

During his childhood, Johnson got to spend time with some of the biggest names in the world of wrestling, from Andre the Giant to Hossein "The Iron Sheik" Vaziri. These figures were friends and colleagues of his father and constant travelling partners of the family, so Johnson was able to learn from the best wrestlers in the business.

Johnson brought the story of his interesting childhood to the small screen with the sitcom Young Rock, in which he appeared and narrated the events that shaped his life and career in a comedic, dramatised style.

1996 – 1998: Rocky Maivia and the Nation of Domination

After debuting in 1996 under the name Rocky Maivia in the WWE, then still called the World Wrestling Federation, Johnson initially struggled to find his feet as a pro wrestler. Audiences rejected the bland hero character of Maivia, which leaned into Johnson's heritage but did not offer much in the way of personality.

It wasn't until he turned "heel", leaning into his status as a villain with the Nation of Domination faction, that he started to figure out a character that would resonate with audiences: calling himself The Rock, referring to himself in the third person, and finding his voice on the mic.

1998 – 2000: 'Know your role and shut your mouth'

Soon, the so-called Attitude Era in the then-WWF was in full swing, marked by an edgier sensibility. In that context, Johnson's brand of unique trash-talking thrived, spawning multiple catchphrases that resonated far beyond the wrestling community ("Know your role and shut your mouth!"; "Lay the smackdown!") and helped turn The Rock into a cultural hero the likes of which wrestling had never seen before and has never seen since.

Drifting between hero and villain depending on the storyline but always receiving deafening reactions from wrestling crowds either way, Johnson helped bring pro wrestling into the cultural mainstream. Together with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, he defined the era, and brought in millions of new fans who have stayed loyal to him since.

But even then, his acting ambitions were clear. In 1999, Johnson was given the opportunity to portray his father on the hit comedy series That 70s Show. While the role was small, it gave Johnson the confidence to pursue further television work. That same year, he appeared in an episode of the crime thriller The Net, a television adaptation of the Sandra Bullock film of the same name.

A year later, Johnson landed a role on an episode of the hit science fiction show Star Trek: Voyager. The episode, titled Tsunkatse, sees Johnson portray a fighter from a species called the Pendari. Johnson’s appearance bridged the wrestling and Star Trek fandoms, earning him praise for both his acting and his wrestling moves on the episode.

2001 – 2002: The Rock goes Hollywood as The Scorpion King

In 2001, Johnson appeared as the villain in the sequel to the successful film The Mummy, portraying a character named The Scorpion King. While the role was small, it was memorable enough to give the character and Johnson his own film in 2002.

The spin-off film was directed by Chuck Russell and starred Kelly Hu and Michael Clark Duncan. Made on a modest budget of $60 million, the film made $180 million at the box office. The film was an important stepping stone for Johnson as it was his first as a leading man, and its success proved he could attract viewers from inside and outside the wrestling world.

When he returned to wrestling around that time, he worked his success in Hollywood into the character, playing a brash and arrogant villain similar to the one he portrayed during his initial years of success.

2003 to 2010: An emerging superstar

Between 2003 and 2010, Johnson appeared in 13 films, most of which were moderately successful. Some of the highlights included Gridiron Gang and Walking Tall. He also took chances with experimental projects that allowed him to flex his acting skills as well as his muscles. These included roles in films such as Doom, a big-screen adaptation of the popular video game, and Southland Tales, an ambitious film from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly.

During this time Johnson was also appearing in family-friendly films such as Race to Witch Mountain and Tooth Fairy. These films, while not successful commercially or critically, gave Johnson a new outlet to expand his fame among children.

2011: Return to WWE

After years away from the ring, Johnson returned to WWE as The Rock in WWE in 2011 to feud with John Cena, who at the time was the biggest star in the company. The rivalry was lightning in a bottle, leaning heavily on Johnson's long absence and Cena's status as the full-time pillar of the sport.

Leading to two WrestleMania main events, the return reinvigorated Johnson both inside and out of the ring, as he soon took the next step in his film career as well.

2011 – 2022: A proven blockbuster draw

In 2011, Johnson was cast as Luke Hobbs in the fifth entry in the Fast and Furious series, Fast Five. Johnson towered over his co-stars both literally and figuratively. With his acclaimed addition, the also-ran franchise rose to the status of a cultural touchstone.

The series reached new heights with the inclusion of Johnson, with the film making over $620 million in box office returns, launching him as one of the biggest stars of the silver screen. The film also gave Johnson a chance to reignite his talent for cutting a promo, engaging in confrontation scenes with Vin Diesel.

Establishing himself as box office gold, Johnson even found himself discussing presidential bids after an online poll ruled 46 per cent of Americans would consider backing him. He would also cement his position in the Fast and Furious, appearing in Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious.

Johnson’s Hobbs character became so popular that he and Jason Statham’s character Deckard Shaw would appear in a spin-off film titled Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw in 2019. The film capped off a successful decade for Johnson as he became the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.

2022: No more capes

Black Adam was supposed to be Johnson’s big entry into the DC universe, which includes Superman and Batman, and was more than a decade into the making. Unfortunately for him and fans of the character, the film was a failure critically and commercially and was one of the last films in the extended universe that ended with Aquaman 2 in 2023. The DC universe will be rebooted under the leadership of James Gunn, and it remains to be seen whether Johnson is part of his new plans.

While Johnson publicly insisted that the film was not the flop some portrayed it as, it nevertheless led to a widespread perception that he was not the sure thing he once seemed to be, leading him to make several moves that many thought would never come.

2023: A return to his roots

The perceived failure has seemingly led to Johnson finding his feet once again in the places that helped launch him into the stratosphere.

After announcing his return to the Fast and Furious franchise after a multiple-film absence and public declarations that he would never return, Johnson appeared in a post-credit scene at the end of the 10th film in the franchise, Fast X, promising an important role in the story of the next film.

Johnson is also due to return as Maui in the sequel to Disney’s Moana, a film Johnson has said was very important for him because of his Samoan heritage.

He's even rekindling certain aspects of his early days in Hollywood, this time teaming with acclaimed filmmaker Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems) for an MMA-themed film about the life of fighter Mark Kerr, with Johnson set for the starring role.

2024: The Final Boss

In the world of WWE, Johnson has set his return for a tag match against Cody Rhodes and Seth Rollins, teaming up with his real-life cousin Roman Reigns. While initially set to face Reigns in a singles match, fan backlash caused the company to pivot, turning Johnson's character into a proper villain for the first time in years.

The "Final Boss" character has been a massive success with audiences, leading to highly rated segments and widespread praise, with Johnson seeming to have more fun than he's had in years. While it's too early to say how long Johnson will compete in the ring, the stint has seemingly reinvigorated his creative prowess, with a new era for his filmmaking career seemingly to follow.

And who knows, maybe he'll actually end up running for president.

Updated: April 05, 2024, 7:13 AM