Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson says he seriously considered making the switch from pro-wrestling in the WWF, to mixed martial arts during the 90s. He says it wasn’t UFC that he wanted to join at the time, but PRIDE FC in Japan.
PRIDE was massive, and The Rock would’ve fit right in
For newer MMA fans, it may be hard to appreciate the size and mainstream appeal PRIDE had during its peak in Japan. While UFC was far more niche and battling early stereotypes at the time, PRIDE — and K-1 — were truly ingrained into the Japanese mainstream culture during its heyday, consistently selling out stadiums, and holding attendance records that beats even top UFC events today.
For years, they were arguably the top MMA promotion in the world, and certainly had signed several of the best fighters of that era.
With kickboxing and pro-wrestling also being huge in Japan, PRIDE was never afraid of hosting big spectacles as they also regularly dabbled in cross-over fights from those two industries.
The Rock certainly would have fit into what they do, and the pro-wrestler turned Hollywood actor claims he seriously considered making the switch.
The Rock claims he wanted to switch to MMA, join PRIDE in the 90s
During an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience, Johnson explained that in the 90s when people started cheering for the “heels” in WWE, he was upset at how he was being booed and losing matches every night.
He says when he tore his PCL in a match with Mick Foley, and had time off from the grueling schedule, he seriously considered making the switch to MMA and joining PRIDE in 1997.
“97, during that time, I was 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,” Dwayne Johnson told Joe Rogan. “At that time, I was making $150,000 wrestling 235 days a year. Do the math on that and how much you’re making per match.”
Johnson says he spoke to a couple of MMA pioneers, and really wanted to join them.
“We start hearing, ‘Hey, these guys in PRIDE are making $250,000, $350,000, $500,000.’ I thought then, ‘F—, 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—g smile, I don’t want to f—g smile. That’s not who I am.’
“I start talking to Ken Shamrock at that time, who is wrestling with us. I run into Mark Kerr, I start talking to him,’ Tell me a little bit about PRIDE’. I have this idea in my head, ‘Maybe I should train in MMA, go to PRIDE, and make real money and then I don’t have to smile’. I’m sure I’m going to get f—d up, knock one of my lungs loose, but maybe I could do something like that.
“Find the right coach and train, so I had this whole thing in my head. I was talking to my wife at that time, I said, ‘I think that’s the way to go. Those guys are paying real money and these fans are booing me over here for 150 grand’,” Johnson claimed.
The Rock explains why he didn’t end up in PRIDE FC
So why didn’t Dwayne Johnson go over to PRIDE? Well, according to The Rock, once he recovered from his injury, he got a new opportunity with the WWF that eventually righted the ship.
“I get a call from Vince [McMahon] and he says, ‘How is your knee?’ I tell him, ‘It’s healing up.’ I don’t tell him about this idea after I’ve talked to Shamrock, Kerr and all these guys. He goes, ‘I want to try to bring you back this one time. See how it works out. I want to turn you heel and we have a faction called Nation of Domination… He goes, ‘I want to have you join them and we’ll see how it works out.’ I come in and say, ‘Okay.’ But I still got this MMA thought in my head.”
According to Johnson, he asked Vince McMahon for some extra mic time during this heel turn, which ended up turning the tide in his career.
“I’m walking out, they’re boing ‘Rocky sucks!’ but now I’m a heel, with this heel group. I grab the microphone and say something like ‘I’m a lot of things, but sucks isn’t one of them. Joining the Nation isn’t a white thing, isn’t a black thing, it’s a kicking your ass thing, and I’m going to get that respect one way or another.’
“Dude that was the most freeing thing for me in my career. You know how you have these defining moments? Even in that one moment, just ripping all this open, saying ‘here I am. Now you can f—g boo me, but watch how I respond.’ Now I’m real. F— the smiling! I’m smile when I want to smile.”
After that, the rest is history, Johnson says. He eventually blossomed into one of the biggest stars in pro-wrestling and eventually, in Hollywood as well.
The Rock’s PRIDE claims don’t line up
Despite not having a proper background in fighting, did The Rock want to start getting into real fights because he was… fed up of being booed and forced to smile? While his MMA flirtation was a good sounding story, pro-wrestling experts aren’t buying it, as a couple of things don’t quite line up with the timeline he brought up.
As former BE managing editor and pro-wrestling writer Brent Brookhouse noted on social media, The Rock “never wrestled 235 days in a calendar year in his career,” listing how he had 34 matches in 1996, 140 in 1997, and a career-high 202 in 1998.
Maybe Johnson was talking about days on the road?
Another former BE writer and pro-wrestling biographer Jonathan Snowden pointed out more timelines that didn’t line up.
As both pro-wrestling writers noted, the first ever PRIDE event happened late in 1997, and that October 11 show was the only event the promotion had that year. They reportedly had over 40,000 people attend that inaugural show, but they had a few smaller events after and only truly exploded to mainstream popularity a few years later.
Maybe Johnson just really followed PRIDE from the very start?
Mark Kerr’s first fight with PRIDE was in 1998.
Ken Shamrock joined the WWF in 1997 and stayed there until 1999. He would bounce around smaller pro-wrestling shows after, before eventually joining PRIDE in 2000.
Maybe Johnson just messed up the dates a bit?
Well, it’s also worth noting that the Rock’s injury he sustained from his match with Mick Foley happened in June 1997. His return from injury and debut with the Nation of Domination that turned his career around? That was in August 1997.
So basically from the time he was being heavily booed, when he was supposedly considering a move to PRIDE and speaking to fighters, to the time he turned heel and made him stay with WWF — all of that happened months before PRIDE even existed.
Dwayne Johnson also claimed he considered joining UFC in 2007
It’s also worth noting that in Dwayne Johnson also previously claimed that he also seriously considered training with Greg Jackson and trying to make it to the UFC in 2007. He says this was born of a “floundering” movie career at the time, and UFC sounded attractive to him at the time.
This was even before Brock Lesnar made that UFC move, and when Johnson was 35-years-old.
Greg Jackson only joined up with Mike Winklejohn in 2007, and further grew mainstream appeal as a master game planner in 2009, when he also first won coach of the year. But maybe The Rock was just an early fan of his coaching since his OG TUF and Gaidojutsu days?
The Rock did eventually step inside the Octagon years later, when he presented the BMF title to Jorge Masvidal and eventually became an official UFC shoe sponsor — that quite a few fighters weren’t happy about.
Join the new Bloody Elbow
Our Substack is where we feature the work of writers like Zach Arnold, John Nash and Connor Reubusch. We’re fighting for the sport, the fighters and the fans. Please help us by subscribing today.
About the author