Wrestling fanatic’s guide to Young Rock
For wrestling fans, one of the big questions about Young Rock, a fictional account of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s childhood premiering tonight, is how much he’ll focus on wrestling. After all, The Rock was born into the wrestling business; his father was Rocky Johnson, his grandfather was Chief Peter Maivia, his grandmother was a successful promoter and he grew up an honorary member of the Anoa’i family, whose stars include stars like Afa, Sika, Yokozuna and the Usos and the current WWE -Champion Roman Reigns. The Rock became the greatest wrestling star of them all, and while he hasn’t wrestled regularly in nearly two decades, he still has never left the business entirely, despite becoming the greatest actor in the world. You just couldn’t do a semi-factual show about your upbringing that didn’t have a lot of wrestling in their DNA.
So yes: There is a lot of wrestling in Young Rock, or at least in the three episodes that are made available to critics. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy the show, but those who love the only real art will no doubt get an added thrill from the numerous wrestling references – and likely find plenty to explore, too. Here’s what you can expect.
The first episode jumps into the square circle almost immediately. After establishing the show’s cumbersome framing device, the first act of the episode takes us to 1982 when Rocky Johnson (played by Joseph Lee Anderson) wrestles in Hawaii. There’s no trying to keep Kayfabe: after a brief montage of in-ring action, we follow Johnson as he picks up his payoff from wrestling promoter Lia Maivia, who is also his mother-in-law and is played here by Ana Tuisila. Rocky is joined by his wife Ata (played by Stacey Leilua) and 10-year-old son they call Dewey (Adrian Groulx plays the youngest of the show’s three Young Rocks), and Miavia is where they meet some of the greatest wrestlers of the 1970s and 80s. Everyone gets their own star introduction with a facsimile trading card and a short recording in the ring. Expect actors to play the Junkyard Dog, Iron Sheik, Uncle Afa and Sika of The Rock and, tallest of them all, in both name and stature, Andre the Giant.
The show comes on The Rock at three different times in his life, as a 10-year-old in Hawaii, as a 15-year-old in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and as a college football player at the University of Miami. The episodes that focus on him as a 10-year-old will likely have the most wrestling content – of the three eras covered on the show, his father’s career was the most successful – but that structure is inherently conveyed an idea of how tough the wrestling business is can be for older artists who weren’t the biggest stars.
In episode two, 15-year-old Dwayne hopes to impress a date by taking her to one of his father’s shows. Early on, we see Rocky Johnson wrestling with legendary stars like Ric Flair and Roddy Piper in overcrowded houses. (The actor who plays Flair doesn’t look much like him beyond the hair, but the Piper is a decent stand-in.) These scenes show Johnson winning both games over Pinfall. The show claims he’s lying about these results in order to look better, and based on a quick search for Cagematch, it looks like Rocky Johnson didn’t capture Flair or Piper in a single game during the period in question. Yeah, I realize how ridiculously nerdy that phrase is. I can’t help being who I am.
The twist in this episode comes when young Dwayne and his date arrive for a big show at a local college arena. It’s actually a flea market in the arena parking lot where Rocky Johnson wrestles in front of about a dozen spectators that afternoon. This scene takes place in 1987, shortly before the end of Johnson’s in-ring career and two years after he last wrestled for WWF. It shows what most wrestlers look forward to as they get older Promoters. But it also prides itself on this condition. Yes, Dwayne is embarrassed at first and his date is horrified, but Rocky is just excited to still be able to perform in front of such a small audience. Whether you’re battling a world champion in front of a sold-out crowd or putting on a show for random people looking for bargains at a flea market, the goal is entertainment, says Young Rock, and the only shame about it is not all giving.
Of the three episodes we’ve seen, the one that might be most interesting to wrestling fans will air later in the season. Currently airing March 30th, “My Day with Andre” features a number of classic wrestlers through its history, plus a subplot about a territorial battle between rival organizers in Hawaii. An upstart tries to poach stars from The Rocks grandmother Lia Maivia, who was one of the few women in real life to successfully run wrestling territory when her husband passed away in 1982. One of his targets is Rocky Johnson, who is booked by his mother-in-law as the first wrestler to hold the Peter Maivia championship after his death. There are named drops from Junkyard Dog and King Kong Bundy, as well as appearances by actors representing the Iron Sheik, Sgt. Slaughter, Ricky Steamboat and Randy Savage. There’s a long series of slow-motion in-ring actions as Maivia and her stars craft the ending of a battle royal, and the final act shows the battle royal in full scale, complete with the kind of surprising, script-breaking finish overdone by wrestling -based media since the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” of the WWF in 1997.
“My Day with Andre” takes its title from a subplot in which Andre the Giant brings young rock to ET. It’s a really poignant look at the real world problems Andre faced because of his size. Former soccer player Matthew Willig, who doesn’t look very much like Andre in the face but can certainly capture his impressive size, finds the giant’s tenderness and humanity in one of the show’s better performances. If you’ve always wanted to see two actors who vaguely look like Andre the Giant and “Macho Man” Randy Savage talking about Spielberg’s beloved ’80s classic, now is your chance.
As mentioned earlier, the show focuses on the life of The Rock at three different ages. Of the three episodes available for review, only the pilot showed the third of those eras, The Rock in College in 1990, and then only for a single act. However, based on those few minutes, it seems to continue to haunt how it can be difficult to age gracefully as an active pro wrestler. Between age, injury, and a youth movement that ran broadly through the business in the 1980s, a wrestler like Rocky Johnson didn’t find many great opportunities in his 40s. Now divorced from Ata, we see him work in a factory or warehouse in Florida struggling to stay a part of The Rock’s life while maintaining a pro-wrestler’s weak relationship with the truth. There’s not much to do in the pilot, but this could turn out to be one of Young Rock’s strongest sources of drama – the old wrestler trying to make ends meet while fixing relationships that have been partially frayed by the demands of the business . This is a sitcom however, so hopefully it doesn’t get too serious.
Based on these three episodes, it’s safe to say that wrestling fans appreciate Young Rock a lot. You’ll also almost definitely make fun of some of the less realistic plot points and the quality of some impressions from pro wrestlers. If you’ve ever loved wrestling, Young Rock is sure to win you over.
Senior Editor Garrett Martin writes on video games, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.