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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson conquered sports entertainment, then left the squared circle to go conquer Hollywood. Though he is now a ubiquitous marquee name in movie theaters, The Rock never forgot the fans who loved him first—the WWE Universe. Since returning to the WWE in 2011, The Rock has jumped in with both feet. As host of WrestleMania 27, he jobbed John Cena so the WWE’s golden boy would lose to The Miz, then The Rock beat Cena outright in the headlining match of WrestleMania 28. After another full year of trash talk, the beef has reached a fever pitch, and The Rock and Cena will once again headline WrestleMania—this time with the WWE Championship on the line!
Dwayne Johnson is pinned under 135 pounds of iron. He’s 12 years old and working out for the first time. His father, famed pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, is his mentor in the weight room and young Dwayne wants nothing more than to get the bar off his chest. He can’t budge it.
1. “Till I Collapse” — Eminem
2. “Cult of Personality” — Living Colour
3. “Ghost” — 2Pac
4. “Enter Sandman” — Metallica
5. “Moment of Clarity” — Jay-Z
6. “Can’t Truss It” — Public Enemy
7. “A Country Boy Can Survive”— Hank Williams Jr.
8. “Where U From” — Trick Daddy
9. “Hell 4 a Hustler” — 2Pac
10. “I Stand Alone” — Godsmack
In the early days of professional wrestling, when the pay was lower and the boards beneath the mats were harder, Rocky became the first African-American World Wrestling Federation champion and a member of the first all-black championship tag team. He was also one of the first pro wrestlers to enter the ring with a physique like a bodybuilder’s, which was a larger part of his fan appeal. Besides being a gifted athlete—he once worked as a sparring partner for George Foreman—he was seriously dedicated to the iron, a point that wasn’t lost on his son. As a headstrong preteen Dwayne could be a challenge to Rocky’s authority, but when it came to training, father and son always clicked. After that Saturday morning when Dwayne couldn’t put up 135 pounds, he had seven days until his next workout session with his dad.
“I’ll never forget that feeling of being pinned under the bar,” Johnson says. “I did push-ups all week, and I came in the next Saturday and got it off. I was so happy.”
By the time he was 13, Johnson was more than 6′ tall and weighed 170 pounds. He started training every day at the local Boys Club or the World Gym in Waikiki, a 3-mile walk from home. His regimen was old-school bodybuilding with a lot of benching, squats and deadlifts. “I still train like that: big, heavy, basic movements,” he explains. “I’m not a one-arm reverse wrist curl while standing on an exercise ball kind of guy.”
The gym became a haven, an escape from the eviction notices taped on the door of the one-bedroom efficiency he shared with his mom while Rocky scratched out a living for them wrestling in faraway states. Those were tough times, but defining ones. Johnson always had an inkling that he’d influence people, that he’d be a man with a voice. Getting that bar off his chest made it clear how that would be accomplished.
“When I was 13, I realized I could control my destiny through hard work. I knew I had these,” he states, flexing his mitts. “I had my hands and I was going to work my ass off, and I was going to initiate and create some sort of change in my life.” He just didn’t know yet in which direction he was headed.
The weight room at the University of Miami is hot and tiny. Compared to the palatial facilities of Division I rivals such as Notre Dame and Florida, it’s laughable. For Johnson, it’s perfect. The cramped room packed with squat racks and Olympic lifting platforms soon becomes a sacred place for him. There were moments—lots of them—when that invisible needle broke through the barrier and the energy in the room became something like a tribal ritual. The music got loud, shirts came off and walls would almost vibrate. It smelled like a mix of sweat, turf and sometimes vomit. Everybody was screaming but coming together as a team at the same time. And the s—t talking. This was the University of Miami: There was always s–t-talking.
The scene in the Hurricane weight room wasn’t clean and it sure wasn’t sophisticated, but it had something that mattered to Johnson above all: It was honest. When men are being men—when sweat is pouring from all-out effort and character is being revealed in every rep—a truth emerges that’s pure and beautiful.
“That weight room was awesome. It had an energy that made it a very special place. A sacred place,” Johnson remembers. “There’d be guys doing plyometrics at one station for an hour and a half, someone else doing squats at the other station, benching at another. Everybody was so focused, determined and supportive of each other.”
Brad Roll, the current head strength and conditioning coach of the Oakland Raiders, was director of the strength program at Miami during Johnson’s time as a Hurricane. “It was an aggressive, competitive place every single day,” he remarks. “If you came in and weren’t ready to compete—you weren’t ready to stand up and be accountable—then you were going to get your feelings hurt or you might get your ass whipped.”
As an incoming freshman, Johnson was 6’5″ and 235 pounds, and he knew his way around the weights. At 18 years old he could bench 440 pounds and bang out 33 reps of 225. Roll noticed him immediately. “The thing that made Dwayne different is he had that burning desire to take it to a higher level.
He’d do a regular workout with the team, then come back at night and we’d kind of put our heads together to think of different workouts that’d help make him better. Dwayne thought outside the box before most of those guys even knew there was a box.”
Tom Kanavy, now the head strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Vikings, was a strength-coach intern in the Miami weight room in 1993. He and Johnson quickly became close friends. “From Olympic lifts to the power lifts, he applied himself at everything,” Kanavy notes. “He was especially attentive to his footwork. That was all in the name of becoming a better defensive lineman. Where life took him, that paid off.”
At the time, a career in pro wrestling wasn’t even on the radar for the 21- year-old Johnson. Convinced from age 13 that he’d one day have a platform to reach people and inspire change, he was confident that the NFL would be the vehicle.
“All he ever talked about was how he wanted to play professional football. He did everything he could in the weight room and on the field to get his chance at the next level. He didn’t talk wrestling back in those days, not at all,” Kanavy says.
As the star attraction of the WWE, (then WWF) The Rock spends 250 days a year on the road. He learns to find a gym in Dayton,Ohio, or Bakersfield, California, or whatever town he lands in, and manages to bring some of that crazy Hurricane energy into those comfortable air-conditioned spaces. When he works out, he spits, he grunts, he gets tunnel vision. His rest periods are no more than 30 seconds, during which he paces his work area, getting ready to unleash hell on the iron. Fans figure out what gyms the traveling wrestlers hit when they’re in town, but when they see the look on The Rock’s face, they wait until the workout’s over to ask for an autograph. And at the end of the session, all of them get one.
In the fall of 1995, after graduating from the University of Miami, Johnson had $7 in his pocket and the bitter taste of getting cut by the CanadIan Football League in his mouth. For the first time in his life, he fell into a deep depression. He took a job at a local Bally’s in Florida, and being in a fitness environment every day helped him snap out of his funk. He began training as a pro wrestler and the rest is history: His first match was for the World Wrestling Federation in March 1996, in front of 15,000 fans in Corpus Christi, Texas. Three months after getting his official WWF contract, he became the intercontinental champion.
“The one thing he did above all others was never miss a day of working out,” states Kurt Angle, a former WWF/E champion and a 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling. “I’ve been all over the world and I can say that The Rock is, without a doubt, one of the most intense guys I’ve ever trained with.
The fishbowl training environment created an awkward public dynamic. Here he was, proud to be known as a guy who never turned down an autograph request but at the same time dying to get in his workout, his way. John Q. Public could never know that 50 savage athletes in a 105-degree F room screaming “Hit! Stick! And bust dick!” And what else? “Talk s–t!” while cranking out squats with 405 pounds was his idea of paradise. The vibe of the Miami weight room wasn’t meant for polite society.
“When I train, I’m peeled away. I’m at my rawest state,” Johnson explains. “Generally there’s spit coming out of my mouth, sweat pouring out of my body and every once in a while I may have just finished throwing up. Those are pretty good indications that it’s not time to talk and you should just pass me by.”
The newfound fame didn’t help his workouts, but it did have an upside. In 1999, Johnson started to put his vision into action, hoping to initiate change in the world. He became involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, although the word “involved” might not be quite right. In a two-year period he granted more wishes than any other participant and was named the Make-A-Wish Man of the Year in 2000.
“Every night with the wrestling crowd — 20, 30, 40,000 people — for me, that was incredible and electrifying. The result of that success allowed me to take that experience to a more personal level, and make great impacts with the amazing children and families of the Make-A-Wish Foundation,” he says. “I started to realize, There’s a really wonderful power here that we can exercise in a great way . It was so spiritually and emotionally gratifying for me.”
The vision now had a life of its own.
The life of The Rock has entered the PSK stage: post Scorpion King. He’s a bona fide A-list Hollywood superstar. He spends a lot more time in Los Angeles, so his gym of choice becomes the mecca of bodybuilding, Gold’s Gym in Venice. This is where Arnold and Franco trained, but these days it’s all lawyers and guys with scripts in their hands, and the gym etiquette is atrocious. His workout game face, the grunting and spitting—even the vomiting—aren’t stopping people anymore.
“I’m a huge fan, Rock.” Off come the headphones, a quick handshake and a “Thank you, man, I appreciate it,” and The Rock is on to his next set.
Now here comes a guy with his kid. Off come the headphones. It takes twice as long, but he always stops for the kids. Always. Here comes another guy. The headphones come off, here’s the handshake and the thank you. But the guy isn’t leaving. “So tell me, Rock, how did it all start for you?”
Johnson was having two problems in the gym: His particular brand of intensity was scaring the crap out of the normal folk, but it wasn’t stopping the wrestling diehards from sitting down and asking him to go over his epic 1999 WrestleMania match with them move for move. So he came up with a solution that took care of both.
“When I was with the Philadelphia Eagles and the WWF would come to Philly for their Monday-night show, Dwayne always worked out with me in the Eagles’ weight room,” Kanavy states. “We had an implement called a trap bar—it looks like a big diamond that you step in and the weights are loaded on the sides—and we had guys doing squats with it. I remember him getting after it, doing squats with the team. Before he left, he asked me where he could buy one. He fell in love with it.”
Jacking sick amounts of iron with some of the baddest NFL players in the country just hours before a major pay-per-view event in which you’ll be wrestling for 30 minutes straight seems like a rec ipe for disaster. Instead, it became Johnson’s formula for success.
“Training not only anchors my day but also allows me to tap into endless energy and intensity,” he explains. “Whether I was performing at Wrestlemania or shooting a 16-hour day on a movie set, train ing allows the floodgates to open. It carries me through the rest of the day and night.”
While his big-screen celebrity status made it challenging to get in a few uninterrupted reps, it opened up whole new avenues for enacting Johnson’s newly focused vision: Improve the lives of children through health and fitness. He expanded on his work with Make-A-Wish by creating The Rock Foundation and teaming up with the powerful Entertainment Industry Foundation. He was named the ambassador for Diabetes Aware in 2009.
“It aligns with our mission in termsof educating and empowering children to understand the importance of physical fitness and living healthy lifestyles,” he points out. “Diabetes is a lifestyle disease that can be combated early through education, so that was a great partnership.”
Johnson could train in any gym in the world and the red carpet would be rolled out for him. He has the means to build himself a whoop-ass home gym straight out of Cribs, but he doesn’t. What he’s looking for can’t be replicated: He wants to feel the needle break through that barrier. He wants to be where men can be men, where you can smell the dirt and the grass, where camaraderie suffuses every second and each rep. He wants to be where the training is sacred. So every day, Johnson makes the 60-mile round trip to get his workout at the University of Miami weight room.
These days, the Hurricanes’ gym is no longer the tightly packed sweat lodge where Johnson cut his teeth in 1990. It’s now a magnificent state-of-the-art training center, complete with the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson football locker room, an honor bestowed on Johnson after he and his partner Dany Garcia donated $3 million to the university, the largest donation ever to the athletic department by a former student-athlete.
“The University of Miami is my sanctuary. It’s my home. I can train intensely without distraction. I also have the opportunity to interact with all the coaches and players, and that’s important to me,” Johnson says.
“I know his heart and soul are in that weight room. It’s sacred ground for him,” Kanavy explains. “I bet he trains at an even higher level when he’s in that room. For him to go back there and see the helmet emblems and the orange and green stripes, it feels like home but it also juices him up a bit.”
Training in Miami isn’t the only thing that has stayed constant in Johnson’s life. He makes sure to throw some iron around every morning before he shoots a scene, whether it’s the newly released family comedy Tooth Fairy (Jan. 22, 2010) or a gritty revenge flick like the upcoming Faster. “When I was working with Robert De Niro on Men of Honor, he’d get up at 5 a.m. to work out and mentally prepare himself for the role,” says George Tillman, the veteran director of Faster. “Dwayne does the same thing before he starts a scene. I think he gets his spiritual mind ready for the role.”
In Faster, Tillman states, Johnson has a chance to show off a complete emotional range, from grief to rage to forgiveness. But above all, he gets back to kicking ass. “Look at Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. These were men, and that’s what Dwayne is,” he points out. “We’re getting back to machismo in the film, but it’s machismo with a human side that everybody can relate to. I see Dwayne as a throwback to Steve McQueen.”
Unlike other physical specimens who parlayed movie stardom into careers in public office, Johnson swears that politics are not in his future. His mission is to create positive change for millions of kids worldwide. “I appreciate politics, but my passion lies in entertaining people, whether it’s making a comedy or big action movie, or hosting Saturday Night Live,” he says. “Ultimately, the biggest way that I can impact lives globally is through entertaining people.”