The Rock has revealed that he nearly left professional wrestling for MMA in 1997, a decision that could have significantly altered both industries.
He discussed how his return to WWE unfolded, but his career trajectory might have been very different had he pursued MMA shortly after his WWE debut.
On The Joe Rogan Experience, The Rock shared that in 1997, he considered leaving WWE due to constant booing and trying his luck in MMA with the PRIDE promotion:
"In 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, ‘Fck, 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 fcking 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."
However, a conversation with Vince McMahon shifted The Rock's path. McMahon proposed that The Rock turn heel and join the Nation of Domination. The Rock requested just two minutes to address the audience, which became a pivotal moment in his career:
"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."
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