It all started, as things often do now, with a tweet.
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, former professional wrestling superstar and the current highest-paid actor in the world, recently sent the social media world into a frenzy with this:
The Rock? The pro wrestler and actor? Doing mixed martial arts? Like, with real punching and whatnot?
It seems hard to believe (and perhaps even a little silly) today. Even back in 2007, Johnson's acting career was on an upward trajectory. He'd given a critically acclaimed performance two years earlier in Be Cool and was beginning a concentrated push into movies and television for kids with an appearance on Hannah Montana and the Disney film The Game Plan.
But, according to Johnson, it was also the year he gave serious thought to taking up a new career in mixed martial arts.
He was a lifelong athlete who'd dedicated himself to football and earned a place on the legendary University of Miami team of the 1990s. Johnson followed that by becoming one of the biggest stars in the history of professional wrestling.
It was clear he had the athletic tools. He had the drive. He even had a gym, coach and team picked out: Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In those days, JacksonWink wasn't the vaunted destination for top fighters it would later become, but even then, co-owner and head coach Greg Jackson was developing a reputation as one of the sport's foremost analytical thinkers. He spent his free time reading philosophy and history and rummaging through ghost towns, but a big chunk of his time was dedicated to approaching the problems associated with cage fighting in a way nobody else had.
Jackson believes Johnson had all the necessary tools for mixed martial arts.
"I think he is a great athlete and would have had no problem with MMA at all," Jackson tells Bleacher Report. "He is very driven to be the best at whatever he does. That attitude would carry over and give him a great chance at success."
But just how successful would "The Rock" be? Are we counting merely stepping in the Octagon as a success, as with Johnson's fellow pro wrestling veteran CM Punk? Or do we mean Brock Lesnar, championship-caliber MMA success?
"It's hard to say. But certainly he has all the tools he needs to be a world champion," Jackson adds.
Others are skeptical of Johnson's long-term potential in the sport, but most agree on one thing: He had the necessary athletic tools.
"Based on athleticism alone, he would have been a blue-chip prospect or more," MMAFighting.com editor Marc Raimondi says. "It's worth noting that Brock Lesnar was able to capture the UFC title in a very short amount of time, but he also had a decorated amateur wrestling background. Johnson does not. Johnson is more athletic than CM Punk by a wide margin and would have been in a more manageable weight division."
"I've trained a few former football players, and one thing that they all have in common is great balance and footwork," says Brandon Gibson, the striking coach at Jackson-Winkeljohn. "In the world of mixed martial arts, those are key skills."
Dave Doyle of MMAFighting.com and Yahoo Sports agreed with Raimondi. Doyle also noted the oft-overlooked grueling physical strain pro wrestling places on the body.
"People who have done both, like Bellator fighter Muhammed Lawal, have said wrestling is more physically demanding than MMA. So take that as your baseline," Doyle says. "And then consider that apart from guys like Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez—who were legitimate amateur wrestling standouts and physical specimens—matches between your lower-ranked UFC heavyweights during that era resembled a pair of drunk manatees fighting over chum. So yes, The Rock absolutely had the athletic pedigree."
Combat sports historian (and Bleacher Report lead writer) Jonathan Snowden is less confident.
"In 2007, Rock would have been 12 years removed from his last real athletic competition. And, while earning an athletic scholarship is impressive in its own way, being a backup tackle for the Miami Hurricanes isn't the kind of pedigree that makes you sit up and take notice," Snowden says. "WWE requires great dexterity and strength from top performers like The Rock, but it's applied in a very different context. After all, hitting the 'Rock Bottom' is a lot easier when the other behemoth in the ring is willing to cooperate."
Perhaps Johnson would have struggled to adapt to the different kind of physicality offered by MMA. After all, not everyone handles being punched in the face with aplomb. It takes a different kind of soul to find cage fighting—if not exactly fun or pleasant—something that can be endured.
Aside from Johnson's athletic successes, his ability to transition from the zany, political and often immature world of pro wrestling to become one of Hollywood's brightest stars is proof of his mental toughness and determination.
"Dwayne's success in the WWE and Hollywood is also an indicator of his work ethic, intelligence and drive," Gibson says. "People often get caught up in the physical traits that are required to be a fighter, but when I'm looking at developing a prospect, intelligence and work ethic are the traits that are the most important to me."
"I don't think there's any doubt that Rock is a driven individual. He's a winner, one of those guys who seems destined to succeed in anything he chooses to put his mind to," Snowden says.
"He had the mental skills to make it to the top of the wrestling business, which is a brutal game to navigate. Then, at the very peak of his popularity, he had the mental acuity to get out and become the biggest action star in Hollywood, in a movie business which makes wrestling look pristine by comparison," Doyle says. "Nothing about that chain of events suggests mental weakness."
Doyle first encountered Johnson in 2006 at UFC 60. Johnson, Doyle says, was in his seat for the very first preliminary fight, before the UFC's hardcore fans had even bothered to find their seats. During an intermission, Doyle spoke to Johnson about his interest in the sport. Johnson, he says, had trained with Ken Shamrock at the famed Lion's Den.
Johnson also told Doyle that if MMA had been a viable career path back in 1998, he would "absolutely" have given it a shot instead of pro wrestling. Of course, the willingness to give it a shot is no guarantee of success in combat sports.
"At the end of the day, the Mike Tyson quote 'Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth' still holds true," Doyle says. "Who knows how he'd react to getting clobbered by one of today's elite fighters? But beyond that, given his knowledge and passion for the product and the success he's had in every other endeavor he's pursued, why wouldn't he have found success in MMA as well?"
Last Saturday, Johnson attended UFC 214 in Anaheim. After Jon Jones finished Daniel Cormier to win back the UFC light heavyweight title in the main event, Johnson went backstage and met with Jackson, Gibson and Jackson-Winkeljohn wrestling coach Izzy Martinez in Jones' locker room.
Johnson raved about the performance he'd just seen from Jones. He also told the team the story of how he nearly pursued mixed martial arts. "We all had a good laugh telling him that he certainly made the right career choice," Gibson says. And Jackson told Johnson that the doors to his gym are always open for Johnson to swing by, even if it's just to check the place out.
Which is not to say everyone wants to see Johnson in the Octagon.
"I'm glad he didn't [pursue MMA]," says Jackson. "He makes really fun movies."