For wrestling fans, one of the big questions about Young Rock, a fictionalized account of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s childhood that premieres tonight, is how much it’ll focus on wrestling. After all, The Rock was born into the wrestling business; his dad was Rocky Johnson, his grandfather was High Chief Peter Maivia, his grandmother was a successful promoter, and he grew up as an honorary member of the Anoa’i family, whose ranks include such stars as Afa, Sika, Yokozuna, the Usos, and current WWE champion Roman Reigns. The Rock became the biggest wrestling star of them all, and although he hasn’t wrestled regularly in almost two decades, he’s still never fully exited the business, even as he’s become the biggest actor in the world. You simply couldn’t make a semi-factual show about his upbringing that didn’t have a lot of wrestling in its DNA.
So yes, then: there’s a lot of wrestling in Young Rock, or at least in the three episodes made available to critics. You don’t need to be a wrestling fan to enjoy the show, but those who do love the one true art will no doubt get an extra thrill from the copious wrestling references throughout—and also probably find much to nitpick about. Here’s what you can expect.
The first episode almost immediately jumps into the squared circle. After establishing the show’s awkward framing device, the episode’s first act takes us to 1982, with Rocky Johnson (played by Joseph Lee Anderson) wrestling in Hawaii. There’s no attempt at keeping kayfabe: after a short montage of in-ring action, we follow Johnson as he goes to collect his payout from wrestling promoter Lia Maivia, who is also his mother-in-law, and who is here played by Ana Tuisila. Rocky is joined by his wife Ata (played by Stacey Leilua) and the 10-year-old son they call Dewey (Adrian Groulx plays the youngest of the show’s three Young Rocks), and at Miavia’s home they run into some of the biggest wrestlers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Each one gets their own star introduction, complete with facsimile trading card, and a brief shot of them in-ring. Expect to see actors playing the Junkyard Dog, the Iron Sheik, The Rock’s uncles Afa and Sika, and, the biggest of them all, in both name and stature alike, Andre the Giant.
The show drops in on The Rock at three different times in his life, as a 10 year old in Hawaii, a 15 year old in Bethlehem, Penn., and a college football player at the University of Miami. The episodes focusing on him as a 10 year old will probably have the most wrestling content—of the three eras covered by the show, that’s when his father’s career was the most successful—but this structure inherently gives an impression of how tough the wrestling business can be for older performers who weren’t the biggest stars.
In the second episode 15-year-old Dwayne hopes to impress a date by taking her to one of his dad’s shows. Early on we see Rocky Johnson wrestling in packed houses against legendary stars like Ric Flair and Roddy Piper. (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 of those matches via pinfall; the show insinuates that he’s lying about those results to make himself look better, and based on a quick search on Cagematch, it looks like Rocky Johnson never pinned either Flair or Piper in a one-on-one match during the timeframe in question. Yes, I realize how ridiculously nerdy that sentence is. I can’t help being who I am.
The twist in that episode comes when young Dwayne and his date arrive at what they expect to be a big show at a local college arena. It’s actually a flea market in the arena’s parking lot, where Rocky Johnson is wrestling in the afternoon in front of a dozen or so spectators. Set in 1987, near the end of Johnson’s in-ring career, and two years after he last wrestled for the WWF, this scene shows what most wrestlers have to look forward to as they age, complete with Rocky getting stiffed on pay by a shady promoter. But it also finds pride in this state of affairs. Yes, Dwayne is embarrassed at first, and his date is aghast, but Rocky is simply excited to still be able to perform in front of an audience, no matter how small. Whether you’re wrestling a world champ in front of a sell-out crowd, or putting on a show for random people shopping for bargains at a flea market, the goal is to entertain, Young Rock says, and the only shame in that is not giving it your all.
Of the three episodes we’ve seen, the one that might be most interesting to wrestling fans airs later in the season. Currently scheduled to air on March 30, “My Day with Andre” features a number of classic wrestlers in its storyline, along with a subplot about a territorial battle between rival promoters in Hawaii. An upstart promoter tries to poach stars away from The Rock’s grandmother Lia Maivia, who in real life became one of the few women to successfully run a wrestling territory when her husband passed away in 1982; one of his targets is Rocky Johnson, who is booked by his mother-in-law to become the first wrestler to hold Peter Maivia’s championship after his death. There are namedrops of Junkyard Dog and King Kong Bundy, and appearances from actors playing the Iron Sheik, Sgt. Slaughter, Ricky Steamboat, and Randy Savage. There’s a lengthy sequence of slow-motion in-ring action as Maivia and her stars layout the finish to a battle royal, and the last act shows the battle royal in full, complete with the kind of surprise, script-breaking finish that has been overdone by wrestling-based media since WWF’s infamous “Montreal Screwjob” in 1997.
“My Day with Andre” gets its title from a subplot that sees Andre the Giant taking young Rock to see E.T. It’s a genuinely poignant look at the real-life problems Andre faced due to his size. Former football player Matthew Willig, who doesn’t look much like Andre in the face but can certainly capture his formidable size, finds the tenderness and humanity inside the giant in one of the show’s better performances. If you ever wanted to see two actors who look vaguely like Andre the Giant and “Macho Man” Randy Savage talk about Spielberg’s beloved ‘80s classic, now’s your chance.
As mentioned earlier, the show focuses on The Rock’s life at three different ages. Of the three episodes available for review, only the pilot featured the third of those eras, The Rock in college in 1990, and then only for a single act. Based on those few minutes, though, it seems like it’ll continue to track how hard it can be to age gracefully while being an active pro wrestler. Between age, injury, and a youth movement that generally swept through the business in the 1980s, a wrestler like Rocky Johnson didn’t find many prominent opportunities in his 40s. Now divorced from Ata, we see him working at some kind of factory or warehouse in Florida, struggling to stay a part of The Rock’s life while still maintaining a pro wrestler’s tenuous relationship with the truth. There’s not much to go on in the pilot, but this could prove to be one of Young Rock’s most potent sources of drama—the old wrestler trying to make ends meet while also repairing relationships frayed in part by the demands of the business. This is a sitcom, though, so hopefully it doesn’t get too serious.
Based on these three episodes, it’s safe to say that wrestling fans will find much to appreciate about Young Rock. They’ll also almost definitely make fun of some of the less realistic plot points and the quality of some of the impressions of pro wrestlers. Still, if you’ve ever had any love for wrestling, Young Rock will surely win you over.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.