By the fall of 1998, The Rock was gaining support from a WWE audience that found his persona and catchphrases highly entertaining. Heading into Survivor Series on November 15, he was arguably the second most popular star in the company and found himself the target of the evil Mr. McMahon's wrath.
It looked as though Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, two men who had been bitter rivals a year earlier, would be the Superstars charged with taking down the corrupt owner of WWE.
Then the self-proclaimed "Great One" shocked the world en route to winning his first WWE Championship.
The tournament to crown a new champion had come down to Rock and Mankind, who had done everything possible to get in the good graces of McMahon and his Corporation. Mankind had allowed himself to be manipulated, embarrassed, abused and punished for the sake of what was in McMahon's best interests, and throughout the majority of the Survivor Series event, he appeared poised to capture the title at the expense of every other Superstar involved in the Deadly Game tournament.
Then a familiar scenario played out.
Late in the final-round match between Rock and Mankind, the People's Champion locked Mankind in a Sharpshooter and McMahon called for the bell. Confusion reigned supreme as deja vu set in. McMahon, his son Shane and The Rock embraced in the center of the squared circle, celebrating the fact that they had duped the entire world.
What was shocking was not that Rock won the WWE title, nor that he aligned with the McMahons and turned his back on the fans in the process—although it was a bit surprising. What was shocking was that the company saw a hot, rapidly rising young Superstar and chose not to strike while the iron was hot.
They recognized that fans wanted to cheer Rock, that fans found him wildly entertaining, and knew they still would when the time came to turn him for good. Vince McMahon and head writer Vince Russo deserve a ton of credit for staying the course and telling the story they wanted to without giving into impulse.
It worked out better for everyone involved in the long run.
Mankind would gain a measure of revenge against Rock on January 4, 1999 by defeating him and earning his first WWE Championship. The rivalry between the polar opposite Superstars would entertain millions for months, leading into WrestleMania XV, where Steve Austin spoiled Rock's—and the rest of the Corporation's—reign of terror over WWE.