Revisiting Dwayne Johnson’s 1990 WWE success, when he first became a ‘Superstar’ and began his rise to the top of his career

Not everybody could smell what “The Rock” was cooking early on in Dwayne Johnson’s WWE career.

In the season 3 premiere of WWE Rivals on A&E, a number of retired WWE wrestlers recalled feeling a sense of “jealousy” during Johnson’s early ascension to the top of the professional wrestling company.

Johnson, 51, and retired WWE star Paul “Triple H” Levesque, 54, were the subjects of Sunday’s episode, which looked back on the two decorated wrestling stars and what A&E dubbed “the infamous animosity between” them that “[began] with their heated rivalry over the World Championship in the early 2000s.”

And according to WWE Rivals, Johnson and Levesque’s rivalry didn’t end when the cameras stopped rolling. “There was always competition between the two,” longtime WWE producer Bruce Prichard said. ”There’s a reason you believed these two guys didn’t like each other: They didn’t.”

It wasn’t just Levesque who gave a side-eye to Johnson early on in his career. Johnson’s early push from WWE’s top executives rubbed several wrestlers the wrong way at the time.

Johnson, whose father Rocky Johnson and grandfather Peter Maivia were both former WWE wrestlers, made his debut with the pro wrestling company at one of its biggest events, the Survivor Series pay-per-view, in 1996. He pinned Levesque, a veteran at the time, to help his team win his debut match.

“Never has anybody had so much success so quick!” one WWE announcer said in an throwback clip of Johnson walking out for a match during his rookie year. Just three months later, Johnson had already won his first WWE title, the Intercontinental Championship, by defeating Levesque a second time.

“I’ll tell you, when he first came in there was some jealousy and people were like, ‘Why are they pushing this kid?’ ” Glenn Jacobs, who wrestled as “Kane” throughout the 1990s and 2000s, said in the episode. “He struggled with that.”

Levesque said he remembers Johnson “taking a ton of s—” from both wrestlers backstage and fans in the crowd, who quickly turned against him. Johnson said in the episode that WWE’s fanbase “saw right through” the company’s overt support for him at the time, leading audiences to “boo” him and chant “Rocky sucks!” when he appeared on camera.

Soon, Johnson played into their distaste and created “The Rock” character, whose quick-witted trash talk finally won over the WWE audience. By November 1998, Johnson won the first of his 10 world championships.

“It was a big deal at the time,” Levesque said in the episode. “Titles didn’t change hands as often, and I can remember being jealous of that.”

Regardless of his jealousy at the time, Levesque said he knew it was inevitable Johnson would become a “superstar” in WWE. “The first time I ever saw him, I’m just thinking, this guy’s going to be a star,” Levesque shared. “He just had a look.”

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