The Rock says he almost swapped the world of pro wrestling for the MMA universe back in 1997 which could have changed the course of both industries.
The Rock recently explained how his latest return to WWE came about but things could have turned out very differently for The People’s Champion if he followed through with his thought to switch to MMA less than a year after debuting for WWE.
Speaking on The Joe Rogan Experience, The Rock claimed that in 1997, he was ready to walk away from being booed relentlessly in WWE every week to try his hand at MMA in the PRIDE promotion:
1997, I was still going to LA and working out. We were crossing all the MMA guys. PRIDE just opened up in Japan. I started seeing all these MMA guys going over to PRIDE. At that time, I was making $150,000 dollars wrestling 235 days a year. Do the math on that and how much you’re making per match.
We start hearing, ‘These guys in PRIDE are making $250,000, $350,000, $500,000.’ I thought then, ‘F*ck, I don’t think I’m going to make it in WWE. People are booing me out of the arenas. I can’t be myself. They’re telling me to f*cking smile, I don’t want to f*cking smile. That’s not who I am.’
I start talking to Ken Shamrock, I start talking with Mark Kerr, ‘Tell me about PRIDE.’ I have this idea in my head ‘Maybe I should train in MMA, go to PRIDE, and make real money and I don’t have to smile.’ I’m going to get f*cked up, knock one of my lungs loose [laughs], but I’ll find the right coach and train. I have this whole thing in my head. I’m talking to my wife at the time, ‘I think this is the way to go. I can make real money while these fans are booing me for $150 grand.
A Call From Vince McMahon Changed The Rock’s Destiny
The Rock then noted that he spoke to WWE boss Vince McMahon about the idea of turning heel and joining the Nation of Domination. The Rock asked McMahon for just two minutes to speak to the live crowd and the rest is history:
I get a call from Vince [Vince McMahon], ‘How is your knee?’ ‘It’s healing up.’ I don’t tell him about this idea and that I’ve been talking to Shamrock and Kerr. He says, ‘I want to try to bring you back this one time. I want to turn you heel and we have a faction called Nation of Domination, I want to have you join them and we’ll see how it works out.’
I said, ‘Okay,’ but I still have this MMA idea in my head because I want to make money and be myself. I get to the arena that night, I went to Vince and said, ‘When I go out there, can I have two minutes on the microphone?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s live, all our time is allocated for.’ ‘I just need two minutes.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I just want to be real and tell the fans how I feel and I needed to recalibrate things.’ He said, ‘Fine, a minute, you got it.’
That was the most freeing thing for me in my career. You know how you have these defining moments? In that one little moment, I was ripping all this open. Now you can boo me, watch how I respond. F*ck the smiling, I’ll smile when I want to smile. Watch how I respond, watch my words and actions. The fans felt something that night and within a month, I became the hottest heel in WWE.
Some people have pointed out some possible issues with The Rock’s story with Dave Meltzer noting that he was “channeling Hulk Hogan” in that he might not have been telling the whole truth with his comments.
While The Rock may well have been considering a switch to MMA, he suffered the knee injury that took him out of action in April 1997 and returned to be part of the Nation of Domination in August of that year. The first PRIDE event did not take place until October 1997 in the Tokyo Dome and the company held a total of 68 events before being bought out in 2007.