Dwayne Johnson posing

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson can seemingly do it all. An eight-time WWE champion and two-time WCW champion, the man went from all-time wrestling legend to one of the biggest stars on the planet. He’s given acclaimed performances in everything from the Fast and Furious franchise to Moana to the Jumanji movies. He writes books, has a fashion line, is an inspiration for health nuts, has a massive social media following, and a TV show based on his youth. On top of all that, he’s just generally a likeable, popular guy who couldn’t screw up if he tried.

But it wasn’t always sunshine and roses for the Rock. He carved his immense success out of a tumultuous childhood. From poverty, crime, and major setbacks in his early career to skyrocketing success in wrestling and films, this is the story of how the Rock worked hard to turn his pain into unmatched star power and across-the-board popularity.

Dwayne Johnson comes from a long line of wrestlers

Dwayne and Rocky Johnson give interview

Today, Rocky "Soulman" Johnson is mainly known as the Rock’s dad, but he once had a respectable wrestling career of his own. Rocky, whose father (Peter Maivia) was also a wrestler, started in the ’60s and found considerable success after joining the WWE (then known as the WWF) in 1983. There, he had high-profile rivalries with wrestlers like Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Don Moraco, and Adrian Adonis. In December of that same year, Soulman and Tony Atlas defeated the Wild Samoans and became the first African-American tag team in WWE history. Rocky retired eight short years later, but he made enough of an impact to get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008.

Unsurprisingly, it was Rocky who first introduced a young Dwayne to wrestling, often teaching his son simple holds and maneuvers and introducing him to the gym at the age of 13. Sadly, Rocky passed away last year at age 75. His son said of him on Instagram, "I love you. You broke color barriers, became a ring legend and trail blazed your way thru this world. I was the boy sitting in the seats, watching and adoring you, my hero from afar. The boy you raised to always be proud of our cultures and proud of who and what I am. The boy you raised with the toughest of love."

His family struggled with serious poverty

Dwayne Johnson with his mom

Dwayne Johnson was born in 1972. By the mid-’80s, he’d moved around more than most people ever do in their entire lives, spending at least a few months in 13 states after moving to the US from New Zealand.

"We were living in an efficiency that cost $120 a week," Johnson said to The Hollywood Reporter back in 2014, explaining how his family was forced out of Hawaii. "We come home, and there’s a padlock on the door and an eviction notice. My mom [Ata Johnson] starts bawling. She just started crying and breaking down. ‘Where are we going to live? What are we going to do?’"

It was one of the darkest moments of his life. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d spent the weeks leading up to that eviction getting into dangerous underground fights and even stealing to help his mother pay bills after her car was repossessed. They eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, got evicted there, and wound up in Pennsylvania, all over the course of 1987. It was one of the periods in his life that brought Johnson to a fork in the road — give into crime and despair or work his way out of the mess.

Dwayne Johnson was no stranger to legal trouble as a kid

Young Rock at wrestling match

As a teenager, Dwayne Johnson didn’t simply commit a crime here or there. He was part of a self-described "theft ring" that landed him in jail at least eight times by age 17.

In his own words (via Muscle & Fitness), "There are a lot of tourists that come into Waikiki [Hawaii], and there’s a lot of money. A lot of foreign money that comes in, and we were part of a theft ring that would target those groups. We would target the money, we would target the high-end clothes, and we would target the jewelry — turn around and sell it, best we could.”

Johnson didn’t love having to turn to illegal schemes to keep his family afloat. Luckily for him, he was spending as much time at the gym during this period as he was lifting jewelry, and it was for the same reasons. His family’s experience with poverty and desperation led him to unconventional solutions.

As he put it, "At 14 when I started training, at 14 is when I also started getting arrested — for fighting, theft, all kinds of stupid s*** that I shouldn’t have been doing. But I still found time to go to the Boys Club every afternoon to hit the speed bag, hit the heavy bag, hit the iron. I was building my body because … it’s that eviction mentality."

Judging by his later success in wrestling and movies, it’s hard to make the argument that the workouts didn’t pay off.

The Rock’s life was turned around by a brief college football career

Dwayne Johnson celebrating

Go ask anyone on the street what comes to mind when they think of Dwayne Johnson. We haven’t done this exercise, but we’d bet money that 95% of the answers you’ll get will be about wrestling, movies, or working out. Almost nobody would mention football, but that’s exactly where the future WWE star got his start in professional sports. Of course, it’s not exactly surprising, given the fact that he was 6’5" and 290 pounds of pure muscle when he joined the Miami Hurricanes as a freshman in 1991.

Over his four years with the team, he appeared in 39 games and made a respectable 77 tackles. Nothing mind blowing, but it gave the future Rock his first taste of true success. Crucially, it proved to him that the years of work he’d put into bettering himself — and avoiding the life of crime and poverty that his tumultuous childhood had set him up for — could pay off.

A series of injuries ended the Rock’s football career before it started

Dwyane Johnson as football player

After a few years of playing successful college football, Dwayne Johnson appeared to have a bright future in the sport ahead of him. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. His career ended before it truly took off, in the same way so many young athletes’ careers do — with a series of debilitating injuries.

"During that play I got hurt," Johnson said to Sports Illustrated in February 2021, regarding a play he ran during practice against current University of Oregon head coach and then-Hurricanes linebacker Mario Cristobal. "I tore everything in my shoulder, which meant that I redshirted and spent the season on injured reserve. I was so depressed during that stretch."

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson was eventually restored to his standing in the team after spending weeks in despair with a bandaged arm. He even found his old passion again, but more injuries followed. When the NFL came around in 1995, they skipped him in the draft.

Dwayne Johnson was cut from a professional football team within months of signing

Dwayne Johnson smiling

Despite being skipped over by the NFL, Johnson did find work on a professional football team – the Calgary stampeders. It wasn’t where he wanted to be, and the money ($300 a week) was pitiful compared to what he would’ve made in the NFL. But at least it was something, and The Globe and Mail reports that Johnson was popular among his teammates. Stu Laird, who played with Johnson on the team, compared him to a Greek god and said the players’ wives swooned when Johnson walked into the clubhouse to relax after practice.

However, his time with the Stampeders was painfully brief. He’d played a handful of games with the team, but he struggled to stand out amongst an already stellar defensive lineup. He was eventually bumped to the practice team, and he was barely making enough money to eat. Soon after, the Rock was cut from the Stampeders entirely, and he went back to live with his parents in Florida. Johnson then fell into one of the darkest periods of his life, struggling with severe depression.

He abandoned football to go into wrestling

The Rock smirking

After getting cut from the Calgary Stampeders, Johnson spent several weeks at his parent’s Florida apartment, dealing with feelings of hopelessness and despair. It’s understandable — he’d put everything into his NFL dream, and he’d come up short of the prize.

It was arguably the best thing that ever happened to him.

After nearly two months of living at home, the head coach of the Stampeders called him up and asked him to return to the team. Johnson thanked him and said he’d think about it, but his mind was made up. He never called back.

Dwayne then told his parents that he was putting football behind him so he could go into the family business — wrestling. His father was stunned. Johnson recalls (via OWN) being told that he was making a terrible mistake and ruining his career. However, after seeing that his son was serious and passionate about the move, Rocky "Soulman" Johnson agreed to train him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johnson started wrestling in flea markets and parking lots

Dwayne Johnson posing

When it comes to anything — but especially professional wrestling — you don’t start at the top. And nobody knows that better than Dwayne Johnson.

"It was hardcore," Johnson said to Stephen Colbert in 2018. "So when I first started out, we would … live life like gypsies and I would wrestle, I had a guarantee of $40 per match every night." Johnson often found himself wrestling in rings set up in the middle of flea markets or the parking lots of used car dealerships. "And people would go in," Johnson explained, "they’d buy used cars, and if you want, you could see free wrestling matches."

It was far from glamorous, but the future star knew that if you wanted to hit the big times, he had to pay his dues — even if things were awkward or embarrassing. As the man himself put it, "I would be there with my pineapple haircut, and I would be putting on my boots and wrestling gear next to an office who was trying to sell cars. It was the oddest thing."

Pat Patterson got the Rock into the WWF

The Rock talks with Pat Patterson

As Dwayne Johnson was working his way through the lowest levels of the wrestling world, he got a lucky break when his father’s friend, Pat Patterson, caught wind of his amateur matches. A professional wrestler himself, Patterson was impressed by Johnson’s abilities, and he told WWF CEO Vince McMahon that he had to come see the kid train.

Johnson told the story in an Instagram post following Patterson’s death in December 2020. As Johnson told it, he was around 24 years old when Patterson called up McMahon, telling him, "I just watched this kid, Dwayne Johnson, work out in the ring. … He’s only been training for three months, but Vince, you’ve got to see this kid." The boss responded, "Great, I’ll see him when he’s done training in another three months," but Patterson wasn’t having it. "You’ve got to see him now," he insisted. McMahon agreed, and from there, well, Dwayne Johnson’s future was coming up roses.

The fans hated Johnson’s debut character, ‘Rocky Maivia’

Rocky Maivia wrestling

Dwayne Johnson didn’t start out as the Rock. He actually debuted in the 1996 Survivor Series as "Rocky Maivia," which was a combination of his father’s and grandfather’s wrestling names. It wasn’t just his name that was unrecognizable. Rocky came out in a rather bizarre outfit consisting of a checkerboard neckpiece lined with feathers and draping blue tassels. Despite this — and his wacky hairdo (he later admitted he was cutting his own hair at the time) — Madison Square Garden gave the newcomer the benefit of the doubt.

The WWF (which would eventually become the WWE) dubbed him "the Blue Chipper" and played around with his family’s extensive wrestling background, heavily hyping Johnson as a third-generation wrestler. He won a string of matches and was getting considerable title consideration within a year of his debut. But the fans weren’t having it. They thought the WWF was trying to ram Rocky’s superstar qualities down their throats before they’d had time to get to know him, and they made their distaste known by audibly chanting "Rocky sucks!" and "die, Rocky, die!" at his matches. Ouch.

The Rock is born

The Rock strikes a pose

The WWF had invested heavily into Dwayne Johnson, but it was obvious his Rocky Maivia character wasn’t going over well with fans, who saw him as being prematurely hyped as a future champion before they’d gotten to know him at all. It was clear that Johnson’s family history in wrestling wasn’t enough. He needed to carve his own path.

So, they changed course. Johnson ditched his blue drapes and "Chipper" identity for black leather trunks and a no-holds-barred, trash-talking persona. Thus, the Rock was born. Johnson debuted the Rock as a "heel" (a wrestling villain) in 1997 as a member of the Nation of Domination, a team of Black wrestlers whose shtick was taking names and kicking ass as revenge for being held down. He often referred to himself in the third person and insulted the audience and his rivals in the ring. Most notably, he developed an in-character feud with fellow legend "Stone Cold" Steve Austin during this period, one that lasted well beyond his Nation of Domination days. The fans loved it, and Johnson found his niche.

In a 1997 storyline, the Rock delighted fans by backstabbing teammate Faarooq and taking over the Nation of Domination. But it was becoming abundantly clear that the Rock was too popular to be stuck in a team. After a high-profile defeat for which he blamed the Nation, he disbanded the team and struck out on his own. Superstardom awaited.

The Rock becomes a wrestling superstar

The Rock with his belt

By 1999, the Rock went solo and quickly established himself as a smooth, trash-talking Attitude Era villain and a wrestler to be reckoned with. His high-profile rivalries with Steve Austin, Triple H, Mankind, and others gave him plenty of opportunities to win belts and legions of fans.

His first WWF championship win was in the 1998 Survivor Series, where he defeated Mankind in the finals after surviving a series of matches in which Stone Cold, Al Snow, Ken Shamrock, and others all competed. He lost the title to Mankind in January 1999, but the Rock won it back in a Royal Rumble "I Quit" match that same month by defeating Steve Austin, a rival of Johnson’s ally, Vince McMahon. In a ladder match less than a month later, the Rock defeated Mankind again and won his third WWF championship. He won a fourth championship the following year, against Triple H, a fifth that June, a sixth in February 2001, and a record-breaking seventh in July 2002. He eventually won his eighth and final WWE belt against CM Punk in January 2013.

By that time, the "People’s Champion" had become not only one of the most popular wrestlers of all time but a pop culture icon whose star power had arguably outgrown the ring entirely.

Dwayne Johnson, movie star

Luke Hobbs holding gun

After portraying his own father on a 1999 episode of That ’70s Show, the Rock made his theatrical acting debut in 2001’s The Mummy Returns. He returned for the Scorpion King sequel the following year. The films received lukewarm reviews (Mummy Returns is remembered primarily for the laughably bad CGI job of Johnson’s face), but the negative reception hardly put a dent in Johnson’s rising star power. And reviews of his acting abilities were positive.

He’s hardly taken any serious time away from acting since, and the A-lister has appeared in over 40 films. He’s received considerable acclaim for his many turns as Luke Hobbs in the ongoing Fast and Furious franchise, Dr. Xander "Smolder" Bravestone in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level, and for his role in Disney’s hit Moana. He also plans to wow superhero fans by appearing as DC’s Black Adam.

In both 2019 and 2020, Johnson topped Forbes‘ list of highest-paid actors in the world — not like he needs the financial help. Far from his poverty stricken days as a teenage thief, Johnson sells clothes, has written books, and has even made some wildly popular returns to the WWE. He’s currently one of the most popular men on the planet, but none of it came easy.