The Rock claims he considered leaving WWE to fight for Pride in 1997
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has worn many hats in his day, from pro wrestling superstar to Hollywood action icon, but is there a world where he would have fought for real?
The possibility was raised during Johnson’s recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, in which Johnson claims that as early as 1997 he considered putting wrestling on hold and making the jump over to Japan’s Pride Fighting Championship promotion in pursuit of greater glory (and paychecks).
Clip courtesy of Twitter user @Notori6us:
The Rock says he was close to signing with PRIDE back in 1997 and transitioning from Wrestling to MMA.
Imagine if The Rock was competing against guys like Fedor and Cro-Cop back in the day… pic.twitter.com/JqAw4pOkrX
— notNotorious (@Notori6us) November 15, 2023
“In ‘97, during that time, while I was still going out to L.A. and working out, we were crossing all the MMA guys,” Johnson told Rogan. “Pride just opened up in Japan so I was seeing all these MMA guys going over to Pride. … At that time I was making $150,000 wrestling 235 days a year. So do the math of that and how much you’re making per match. We start hearing, hey these guys over in pride are making 250, 350, 500. I thought then, ‘F***, I don’t think I’m going to make it in WWE.’ People are booing me out of the arenas, I can’t be myself, they’re telling me to f****** smile, I don’t want to f****** smile, it’s not who I am.
“I start talking to Ken Shamrock at that time, who was wrestling with us, I run into Mark Kerr, I start talking to him. ‘Tell me a little bit about Pride.’ And I had this idea in my head, maybe I should train in MMA and go to Pride and make money, real money. Then I don’t have to smile. I’m sure I’m going to get f***** up over there, knock one of my lungs loose, but maybe I can do something.”
While it’s fun to imagine The Rock throwing hands and trading slams with the best in Pride’s heavyweight division (most of whom like Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Cro Cop, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira didn’t make their mark there until the early 2000s) the sports entertainment legend’s claim should be taken with a grain of salt.
As MMA historian and Ken Shamrock biographer Jonathan Snowden noted in reacting to Johnson’s comments, Pride held just one event in October 1997 and several fighters like Shamrock were actually financially motivated to make the move from MMA to pro wrestling and not the other way around.
There weren’t “Pride” fighters in 1997. There was one Pride event at the end of the year.
Ken would have absolutely heard what they were paying over the next couple of years. It’s not at all what Rock says here. Which is why Ken himself didn’t go there until 2000.
— TheRealSnowden (@JESnowden) November 16, 2023
Shamrock and Severn both went to WWE specifically because there was no money in MMA in 97/98.
— TheRealSnowden (@JESnowden) November 16, 2023
Shamrock said as much in a recent interview with MMA Fighting:
Yeah, it was very difficult because when I made the decision [to go to the then-WWF] it was more of a financial decision because of where UFC was at the time and where I was at at the time with fighters and at a group home with at-risk kids, my family,” Shamrock said. “I had a lot of financial responsibilities and it was a lot of people. So I wasn’t able to make money the way I needed to during that time. … But I chose to wrestle to support the fighters, to support the group home kids, and support the family, but I had to do something other than what I wanted to do, which was fighting because of the financial strain the UFC had at the time with going to court, legal battles.
It was very risky, but I decided I could make this work. I believed I could do what I did in pro wrestling. … I saw the opportunity to bring those worlds together. And as soon as I started being successful, I didn’t have people hating on me. It was exciting to see the crossover and I was a part of that.
It’s also worth noting that by late 1997, Johnson had dropped the smiley babyface character that earned him jeers in the early part of his then-WWF run and was already seeing more success as a villainous character in the Nation of Domination stable.
So at the very least, it’s fair to question Johnson’s recollection of the timeline and the sums of money that he claims were being thrown at athletes to compete in Pride.
It’s not as if Johnson hasn’t dipped his toes in the MMA world in other ways, however, nor is this the first time that he’s discussed interest in participating in a cagefight. In a July 2016 interview, he told the UFC Unfiltered podcast that he considered training to become a UFC fighter following a departure from the WWE in 2004, but thought better of it and continued to focus on his acting career (a wise decision as it turns out as his movies have since grossed over $12 billion worldwide).
Johnson also memorably placed the “BMF” belt around fellow Miami favorite Jorge Masvidal’s waist at UFC 244 after Masvidal defeated Nate Diaz at Madison Square Garden, and he recently donated a house to UFC welterweight Themba Gorimbo.