As with most endeavours that ended up on screen or with a live audience, as little pipsqueaks ekasi circa the late '90s and early 2000s we were none the wiser to the dramatic machinations behind World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), known as the World Wrestling Federation in those days.
Yes, we watched Days and Bold, but we did not look upon wrestling as a dramatic undertaking. No sir, that was where we redeemed our manhood.
Alas, we should have known better. The WWE was careful to refer to its business as Sports Entertainment, and the monologues and plot twists that preceded some of the biggest bouts were rife with extensive scheming on the part of the writing team.
On the screen, we saw our heroes and sportsmen, but they were essentially carefully crafted characters designed to move the narrative forward. Little did we know that this was beyond athletic ability, but a whole package created to either endear the character to the audience or antagonise them to the last degree.
In wrestling terms, the 'heel' is the guy we love to hate. Wikipedia describes the 'heel' as "a wrestler who portrays a villain or a 'bad guy' and acts as an antagonist to the faces, who are the heroic protagonist or 'good guy' characters". These guys were athletes that performed lines in front of a live audience night in night out.
Nonetheless, we behaved accordingly and supported those portrayed as the good guys even though there were groups more in sync with our lived experience and shared historical links.
For instance, we supported a bunch of long-haired punk rocker bums known as D-Generation X or DX. Their members included Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Chyna, Rick Rude, X-Pac and The New Age Outlaws which featured the Road Dogg and Billy Gunn. Long hair and tights was the vibe.
In hindsight, we should have supported the Nation of Domination, a Black Power fist-raising assembly of bad men.
Early members were Farooq, D'Low Brown and PG-13 (a tag team consisting of J.C. Ice and Wolfie D). Additional members included Kareem Olajuwon, Sir Mohammad, Elijah, Brakkus, Shaquille Ali, Randy X, and Queen Moisha. Later on, they would be joined by Rocky Maivia/The Rock and "the world's strongest man", Mark Henry.
They were fashioned as a Pro-Black Militant Faction and were essentially a composite of The Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam.
The Rock stood out and oozed a charismatic weirdness about him and was often content to play the role of the heel in the world of professional wrestling. The writers, who had a knack for institutional storylines, began to notice The Rock's potential and devised means to up the stakes.
The Rock would abandon (sell-out) the brotherhood and join The Corporation in a move designed to further his ambition of becoming a world champion. The Corporation was led by the McMahon family and was characterised by an authoritarian and corrupt attitude towards more rebellious wrestlers. Their supporting cast was referred to as The Corporate Stooges, Gerald Brisco and Pat Patterson, WWF Commissioner, Slaughter and enforcer Big Boss Man.
They later joined forces with The Rock, who was The Corporation's proclaimed "Crown Jewel" (and whom they helped win the Championship at Survivor Series).
Once again, The Rock stood out and eventually left The Corporation to become a solo act, thus began his journey from being a heel to a hero. The dramatics increased and his catchphrases were echoed from Tampa, Florida to Nkowankowa, Limpopo Province. We could "smell what The Rock was cooking", and we bowed down to "the most electrifying man in sports entertainment".
So big was The Rock's antics they named a show after one of his signature moves, Smackdown. He would later venture into the world of film and we followed suit. We have since become more critical of his acting acumen, perhaps unfairly so because little is required from action stars.
Although the WWE stage runs the great risk of typecasting its performers, The Rock's character has had an eventful story arc that has secured him a position as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. The People's Champion.
- You can catch Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson – currently the highest-paid actor on earth, according to Forbes – on his series Ballers, on Showmax (which also has several of his films available for streaming)
- WWE is on DStv channel 128, 24 hours a day