'Like riding a bike': Inside The Rock's return at WrestleMania 40

The Rock has spent months in a training camp to prepare for his WrestleMania match on Saturday. Flannery Underwood/Seven Bucks Productions

DWAYNE "THE ROCK" JOHNSON stepped up into his tour bus parked outside the Allstate Arena loading dock in Chicago and slammed the door behind him. Raindrops beaded up on his muscular, tattooed arms, which were exposed to the Windy City's elements by a sleeveless designer vest. The blood of Cody Rhodes was still on his hands.

Brian Gewirtz, a longtime former WWE writer who still works closely with The Rock as the senior vice president at Johnson's Seven Bucks Productions, entered the bus behind him, following the final segment of "Monday Night Raw" on March 25. The presence cast by the 6-foot-5, nearly 300-pound former football defensive lineman, chest heaving, was an intimidating one.

"We've been working together for like 25 years," said Gewirtz. "He's in intense breathing and everything. And I actually felt a little uncomfortable because he was so much in that zone still. It wasn't like laid-back, friendly Dwayne."

Johnson, 51, has been back in WWE since New Year's Day, but this is not the same affable Rock that fans of his movies or television projects know. It's not even the same cocky "People's Champion" that wrestling fans loved -- or loved to hate -- in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Evolving with the necessary storyline and bringing in elements of reality, Johnson has become the "Final Boss," a menacing bad guy who beat Rhodes bloody outside in the rain while vowing to whip Rhodes with a weight belt in front of his mother.

It's that version of Johnson that will team with Roman Reigns against Rhodes and Seth Rollins in the main event of WrestleMania 40's first night Saturday in Philadelphia. And that's not all that's new for Hollywood's most recognizable star. Johnson is now, as of January, sitting on the board of directors of TKO Group, the parent company of WWE and the UFC. He also owns the full rights to "The Rock" character's name, image and likeness.

To ensure he's fully prepared for the rigors and timing necessary to deliver a top-notch match, Johnson started his training in the first week of February in Los Angeles and Hawaii. To accommodate him, WWE shipped two rings -- and three wrestlers -- from the East Coast. Away from the physical training, he leaned into the menacing authority figure persona and has appeared on WWE programming regularly since his comeback.

After multiple attempts in the past to bring him back, everything came together in 2024 for his first full-length match in 11 years, including those aforementioned final-boss-like business moves.

"Why this year?" Johnson told ESPN in February in Las Vegas. "It felt like the timing of this was going to work out good. And it felt like the timing was going to work out in our favor."

GEWIRTZ FLEW INTO Chicago from Los Angeles for the March 25 Raw episode on a private jet with Johnson and WWE president Nick Khan. Johnson texted Khan and Gewirtz a menu from Kuma's Corner, an acclaimed hamburger place, and told them to pick out what they wanted.

"It'll be waiting in your room when you get it," Johnson told them. "After all this training, I could really use a meal like this."

Johnson, from an aesthetic standpoint, is in incredible shape. A quick scroll of his Instagram page would confirm that he is an avid weightlifter constantly in the gym building his strength.

But while his enviable physique is larger than life, that does not necessarily translate into the cardiovascular shape needed for a major professional wrestling match, live and in front of around 60,000 fans.

That's why Johnson created a training camp, not unlike the ones you'll see in mixed martial arts or boxing.

WWE worked with Johnson's team to rent warehouses as training facilities. One of the rings the WWE shipped was set up in Los Angeles, where Johnson resides. There, he simulated matches alongside NXT's Gallus -- the Scottish trio that consists of Wolfgang along with real-life brothers Mark and Joe Coffey.

Since Johnson is competing in a tag-team match, he needed three wrestlers to push through in-ring sequences and hone his timing. Michael "P.S." Hayes, a WWE Hall of Famer as part of the Freebirds and a longtime match producer for WWE, supervised those training sessions along with Bobby Roode, a former NXT, U.S., and WWE tag-team champion who is now working as a producer. Veteran referee Chad Patton officiated those sessions while WWE medical oversaw the rehearsals to make sure it was run safely.

The other ring? It was placed in a shipping container and sent to Hawaii, where Johnson has a family home. The training ring's journey there took about a week. The total cost: tens of thousands of dollars. In Hawaii, The Rock trained alone.

Johnson said he's not doing as many speed or mobility drills in his preparation, but practicing more of the live-action types of "timing" scenarios.

"Suplexes, a launch off the top rope, a catch, like bodies hitting bodies," Johnson said. "It's things like that that you have to do and have to prepare for. And you're getting bruised up, you're hitting the ropes. It comes back fairly quick. ... It's like riding a bike."

In the last scheduled match Johnson had, against John Cena at WrestleMania 29 in 2013, Johnson tore his abdomen and adductor muscles, as well as suffered a hernia about 10 minutes into the match. Johnson did have an unannounced match at WrestleMania 32 in 2016.

And that wasn't even his first match back after a long layoff. He wrestled CM Punk three months prior to that at the Royal Rumble. He was 11 years younger, too.

Johnson has visibly looked leaner on television the last few weeks. That's not only because of his wrestling-specific training. He's also working out with an eye toward his next movie role: MMA legend Mark Kerr in the upcoming "The Smashing Machine" biopic.

Johnson will jump right into making that film after WrestleMania, so in some ways it truly is an MMA training camp.

"I know he is training and dieting and working out like a maniac, and I think this was strategic by design," Gewirtz said.

First, though, Johnson has to perform in the ring at the same extremely high level he has been on the microphone during the leadup to this weekend.

"Fortunately for me, very lucky in that I became somewhat of a ring general where I see the circumference of the ring and where I need to be usually timing wise," Johnson said. "Because timing is really important in our business of wrestling. So, just putting in the work, training -- the diet begins, which always sucks. And taking the falls and just getting my ass kicked every day. So, we'll see how it goes."

The work continued while Johnson was on the road for appearances. On Monday, The Rock pushed through a full rehearsal of Saturday's main event along with Rollins, Rhodes and Reigns in Brooklyn and will do so again Thursday in Philadelphia.

The Rock calls out Roman Reigns: 'Should The Rock sit at the head of the table?'

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson appears to call out Roman Reigns on "Monday Night RAW."

THE ROCK'S RETURN started to materialize in December 2021 in Atlanta. It was there Johnson gathered with Khan, his longtime friend, at the Atlanta staple Bones, where the pair enjoyed a five-hour dinner. There they began to lay the groundwork for his eventual in-ring comeback.

"My grandmother was promoting wrestling shows in Hawaii, Lia Maivia, in 1983, '84," said Johnson, who will induct his late grandmother into the WWE Hall of Fame on Friday. "Nick and his sister Nahnatchka [the creator and executive producer of the 'Young Rock' TV show], were all running around together in that arena [in Honolulu] back then because they were living in Hawaii, too. So our relationship goes way back."

It was two months later, February 2022, in Honolulu, where Johnson's wife and two daughters -- as well as Khan's wife, daughter and son -- met once again to continue the dialogue.

"Nick's an excellent leader, astute businessman and sharp dealmaker," Johnson said, "because he's an innovative collaborator, big-picture thinker, and has the capacity to recognize epic, disruptive opportunities for brand-building."

Khan represented WWE since 2016 as part of his role as co-head of television at CAA, but he joined the company officially as president and chief revenue officer in 2020.

Bringing The Rock back to the WWE universe would be as big as they come in terms of building the brand, but Khan, still relatively new in his role at the company, wanted to blow out a Rock return at WrestleMania 38 in Dallas. However, it didn't come to fruition.

The big return that night ended up being "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who starred alongside The Rock during the Attitude Era. Austin faced Kevin Owens in a street fight. The Rock's comeback would have to wait.

"Ultimately, Dwayne would say one of his greatest loves was WWE," Khan said. "But Dwayne needed to figure out the 'Why?' Beyond his love of wrestling or to try to prove that he was the real Head of the Table. So, it didn't happen.... Dwayne went about with his empire-building career, and then we reengaged in late 2022."

That conversation centered around WrestleMania Goes Hollywood last year at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Between The Rock's real-life standing as a highly paid movie star and the public demand for a long-simmering feud between him and Reigns, it appeared to be the perfect setting for his return.

"Dwayne did the on-camera intro before the Super Bowl [at SoFi]," Khan said. "When he was leaving the stadium, Dwayne said on camera to his videographers, 'I'll see you again at SoFi this April'. Ultimately, Dwayne and I met again -- and again, the 'why' wasn't there."

The day after WrestleMania 39 at SoFi, the creation of TKO Group -- the forthcoming merger between WWE and UFC -- was announced. In late 2023, alongside Endeavor CEO -- and longtime Johnson agent -- Ari Emanuel and President Mark Shapiro, Khan and Johnson discussed a board seat for The Rock.

"And the 'why' started to materialize for Dwayne," Khan said.

Now with a reinvigorated, vested interest in WWE, it was time for Johnson to go all-in.

"I was excited to work with [Nick], Ari and Mark Shapiro to help expand the WWE/TKO business to new heights."

It all culminated in The Rock's return to WWE on Jan. 1, when he delivered his trademark Spinebuster followed by "The People's Elbow" on Jinder Mahal. Johnson was wildly cheered by the crowd and trended instantly across social media after he teased a showdown with Reigns.

"That relationship that I have with Nick has certainly helped propel a lot of this forward," Johnson said. "Even though things didn't work out philosophically for us to get the deal done for WrestleMania 39 at SoFi Stadium, that allowed this incredible opportunity for Cody Rhodes to come in. And as we are feeling and sensing and hearing from his passionate fans ... what an incredible opportunity for him."

Positive comments like that from Johnson about Rhodes have come few and far between lately. After Rhodes became just the fourth man ever to win back-to-back Royal Rumbles in January, he seemed destined for a WrestleMania rematch with Reigns for the WWE Undisputed Universal championship. Reigns' title run has now exceeded 1,300 days.

Six days after the Rumble, Rhodes seemed on the verge of finalizing his choice for 'Mania during a SmackDown segment. Instead of picking Reigns for his title shot, Rhodes introduced The Rock, and with a hug, appeared to pass off his main-event spot.

Tensions rise after The Rock slaps Cody Rhodes

After Cody Rhodes decides to fight Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 40, The Rock slaps Rhodes across the cheek.

The fans hated it. They revolted with "We Want Cody" chants, which gave way to The Rock dubbing them the "Cody Crybabies." Six days later, they converged on Las Vegas three days before the Super Bowl for the WrestleMania 40 kickoff news conference. It was there The Rock slapped Rhodes to set up the tag-team match that will headline Night 1.

Now, Rhodes has the chance to, as he says, "finish the story" and win WWE's top prize, the championship that eluded his legendary father, Dusty Rhodes.

"[Cody's] gotta tell his story," said Johnson. "So here we are in WrestleMania 40 .... What can we deliver for them? How can it be unique? How could it be different? And how could we still put on the biggest WrestleMania of all time?"

What's been most unique is Johnson embracing his heel character to an ultra-violent degree. He's embodied a ruthless, take-no-prisoners persona that is out for blood -- literally -- in a quest to ensure he, Reigns and the entire Bloodline are respected and acknowledged above all else.

Part of that respect will come from the audience who expect The Rock to deliver in the ring the way he did during his prime.

It's all about "respect," Johnson said, and not just for the fans in attendance and watching in their homes, but "for the men and women who have been busting their asses night in and night out for years."

THERE'S NO TELLING if and when he'll step inside the ropes again for a full-fledged wrestling match. But The Rock's influence will remain -- in and beyond the wrestling ring.

"I'm not off the board after WrestleMania," Johnson told Gewirtz. "I'm still on the board, and I will always be a part of this. And we are in it now. This is our thing and will forever be our thing."

Gewirtz said that doesn't mean The Rock will be "a fixture" on Raw from now on.

"But I do think there's going to be a Rock presence in WWE going forward until whenever he doesn't want to...," Gewirtz said. "I could definitely say that this isn't [over a] day after WrestleMania and I'm going to go off into the sunset now."

But after all the stops and starts on the journey to The Rock's return, he'll surely cherish this weekend and so, too, will the fans. Even if the best-laid plans were upset by the surge of support behind Rhodes. And in an entertainment medium filled with swerves, the table is now set for The Rock to turn on Reigns for a singles match down the road.

"This whole run has really kind of rejuvenated him," Gewirtz said of Johnson. "He is not physically and mentally capable of ever being on autopilot. But there was kind of like this safe zone in the babyface space that is fun and fan-pleasing but isn't the edgiest of things you can do in a ring with a microphone. Not to the point of bloodying up the No. 1 babyface in WWE and threatening his mother and dog."

"It's like he's never been bigger than he is now," he added. "He's part of the board. He just kind of carries a certain weight as opposed to when he came back earlier when he was at a great level, but not this. That's why the Final Boss feels so organic, because it not only is the TKO literal final boss, but just the weight of Dwayne Johnson in 2024. It just feels important."

Rhodes said he believes the "Final Boss" character is reminiscent of when beloved legend Hulk Hogan turned heel in 1996 and formed the NWO as "Hollywood" Hogan with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash in WCW. Hogan went from being the ultimate good guy to a dastardly, violent villain.

"It's a whole other layer," Rhodes said on ESPN's "First Take" on Wednesday. "I can tell you that's the staying power. You turned this and made this into something incredibly different and very special."

And as the final Raw heading into WrestleMania went off the air Monday, The Rock followed through on his promise. He stripped Rhodes of his shirt -- and his weight belt -- and proceeded to use it to whip Cody relentlessly as he screamed, the echo of leather striking flesh reverberating throughout the arena. Even a referee got caught in the rampage.

All the while, a wry smile was on Johnson's face, a cow-print vest the only clothing covering his muscular frame. He was back where he belonged.