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Examining the Lasting Impact of The Rock's WWE Return on 10-Year Anniversary

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2021

Credit: WWE.com

The Rock's return to WWE on Valentine's Day 2011 episode of Raw sparked excitement around the pro wrestling industry and put The Great One on a collision course with John Cena in a feud that culminated in the biggest dream match of all time, but the impact it has had on the wrestling industry has had nothing to do with the Hollywood leading man.

Nor does it affect his place in the pantheon of WWE Superstars.

No, The Rock's return a decade ago set in motion a parade of part-time performers and industry icons that has stunted the company's growth and allowed WWE to mask its inability to create new stars.

                 

But First, a Homecoming

From the moment he set foot on his first movie set, Dwayne Johnson reiterated his desire to one day return to the squared circle. He said all the right things—WWE was his home, and he would never really be gone.

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And then he was. For eight years.

In that time, he became the star of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster stars. He was everywhere, making a name and legacy for himself that extended beyond the industry he had previously taken to new heights. He achieved such tremendous success in film that the idea of his return to a wrestling industry as ice-cold as it was entering a new decade was laughable.

And then he did.

Rediscovering his Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment moniker, he stepped through the curtain to a thunderous ovation and took to the ring to formally accept his role as the host of WrestleMania XXVII.

It was unforgettable and left audiences in awe, goosebumps up and down their arms. It was the unthinkable, a moment in time from a company that seemingly forgot how to produce them.

The Rock's return and the feud with Cena that unfolded over the proceeding year resulted in unprecedented box office success. It also gave way to WWE's troubling habit of looking to the past for its present.

                 

What's Old Is New Again

Throughout the 2000s, WWE routinely relied on the stars of its Attitude Era to help prop up television ratings, house show attendance and pay-per-view buy rates.

Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker and Kane all took center stage at key times of the year in the hopes of propping sagging numbers, so WWE's reliance on aging stars was not necessarily a surprise by the time The Rock returned.

Nor was it when Brock Lesnar returned from the Octagon of the UFC to wreak havoc, raise hell and beat up any fool in his path.

The success of The Rock opened the door for Vince McMahon to throw a ton of money at Lesnar to return to wrestling. The Lesnar effect, and Undertaker's yearly return for WrestleMania matches and the paydays that came with them, opened McMahon's eyes to the wealth of possibilities that existed for him and his company to welcome back stars of yesteryear in limited or part-time roles.

There was Triple H's annual comeback in time for The Showcase of the Immortals and then Kurt Angle dusting off his singlet for one last chance at glory. Ronda Rousey made like Lesnar and chased her dreams from the UFC to WWE.

The company's Saudi Arabian shows brought with them the returns of The Deadman and The Big Red Machine, The Game and The Heartbreak Kid to diminishing returns. The company even turned to The Hardy Boyz for a grand WrestleMania return.

Goldberg's return in 2016 started off excellently with a two-minute squash of Lesnar in the Survivor Series main event, but like most things WWE, it was watered down, overexposed and beaten into irrelevance before too long.

Even The Rock's grand return was soiled by the time 2013 and a rematch with Cena at WrestleMania 29 rolled around. The bloom was off that proverbial rose, but McMahon and Co. never learned their lesson.

To this day, the promotion continues to trot out legends in high-profile matches rather than turning its attention to the issue that plagues it most: the creation of new, exciting and fresh stars.

Until it recognizes its shortcomings in that regard, the company will continue to look for Superstars from days gone by to make cameos and wrestle in high-profile main events, only to realize that after a while, it will have no new names to pull from because it so inadequately created any from this era.

Hopefully it learns its lesson sooner rather than later because The Rock's 2011 return was the stuff of magic. It was the sort of thing that makes fans eager to show off the industry they love to others and, maybe, create new fans.

It has not been robbed of its specialness because of repetition to gradually weakening returns. Best of all, it was accomplished with one goal in mind: cement Cena, that era's top star, as an icon of his time. It worked. Rock lent Cena his credibility, and everyone hugged and high-fived right to the bank.

Why? Because fans cared about a returning star in a way they cannot possibly today thanks to the oversaturation of part-timers and aging veterans who have limped their way on screen and off without any noticeable benefit to the long-term success of the company.

The Rock's return to WWE in 2011 is the sort of thing missing from today's product and something the WWE product will be devoid of until it changes its booking philosophy.

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