PHILADELPHIA -- Dwayne Johnson's latest movie just topped $300 million in worldwide grosses. He's laid the smack down on Hollywood and become an in-demand action star for hire.
But the next time someone barks, "Action!" Johnson will slip back into his most famous role yet: The trash-talking, trail-blazing, jabroni-beating wrestler known simply as The Rock.
Think an established superstar actor like Brad Pitt would risk getting his teeth knocked out for a run in sports entertainment?
The Rock, who rose to stardom in the wrestling business, says there's nowhere else he'd rather drop The People's Elbow than in the ring. The Rock returns to the WWE for his first WrestleMania match since 2004 when he headlines the April 1 card against former champion John Cena at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
For a company once home to Hulk Hogan and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, this bout is as close as it gets to a dream match. Catchphrase-chanting, die-hard pro wrestling lovers are revved up about the return of The Great One. Casual fans, too.
"I came back to put on the biggest match of all time," Johnson said. "That's all I want to do. There's no one I can do that with right now other than John. He's far and above everyone else in terms of popularity. He's the guy. Is he Stone Cold? No. Is he Hogan? No. But he is John Cena and he's been on top for a long time now."
Johnson reigned in that top spot at the end of the 1990s and the early part of the last decade before embarking on an impressive run in Hollywood. His current film, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," grossed $95 million in its first six weeks domestically and reached $300 million worldwide. His previous movie, "Fast Five," made more than $210 million in domestic grosses, proving that Johnson knows how to rock the box office.
All that big-ticket drawing power is why the WWE believes he can attract more than a million pay-per-view buys (at $54.95 a pop) in his return singles match.
"They know that I'm back, not for money, not because I like being on the road, but because I love the business," Johnson said. "The energy level is different this time around, the connection is more emotional this time around."
Sitting in the Wells Fargo Center seats hours before 18,088 fans packed the place for Monday's live "Raw," Johnson reflected on a career that took him from $40 paydays and Waffle House meals to his choice of top movie roles and a lavish $3.4 million pad in South Florida.
His stories are interrupted by visits from today's WWE crew. Sheamus, a rising WWE star, had a brief chat with The Rock.
"Great match on Friday," Rock says. "I texted Chris (Jericho) on Friday. You guys killed it. That boot at the end, that was awesome."
Sheamus smiles and appreciates the feedback.
"Thank you, Rock."
The Rock says, if the boys in the back are resentful he slid into the main event without toiling 200-plus days last year on the road, he hasn't noticed.
"The best part of me coming back is hearing them say, `You've inspired me, thank you,'" Johnson said. "That's the greatest compliment that I can get. It's so cool man. They don't talk about movies. They don't talk about other matches. It's just, `You've inspired me.'"
On screen, Cena has a contrasting take.
"I was a fan in `99. I'm not a fan now," Cena said. "I don't know what he's got going on upstairs."
The Rock returned to Vince McMahon's empire last year as WrestleMania's guest host, but couldn't help but get physical in the main event. He dropped his finishing move, The Rock Bottom, on Cena which allowed WWE champion The Miz to get the pin and retain his title. The next night on "Raw," Cena and Rock agreed to a bout for this year's signature event, a bold and risky yearlong push for a company where real injuries often fracture fantasy storylines.
Johnson's return boosted Wrestlemania's buy rate to 1,042,000 worldwide – the first time it topped a million in three years and seventh time overall.
The Rock wrestled for the first time in 7 1/2 years when he teamed with Cena at November's Survivor Series pay-per-view against Miz and R-Truth.
The temporary alliance disintegrated and the duo have engaged in verbal battles for most of the last two months. Cena tweaked Rock's catchphrases in a rap song. Rock strummed the guitar and sang his own tune about where he wants to stick his boots at Wrestlemania. The two have gone back-and-forth on Twitter. It's a unique twist on hype – far removed from the ferociousness of Roddy Piper bashing Jimmy Snuka's head with a coconut.
"We've been griping like two little kids now for about a year," Cena said. "Now, everybody wants to see us fight."
Cena and Rock top a card that includes WWE champion CM Punk vs. Chris Jericho, "Triple H" Hunter Hearst Helmsley vs. the Undertaker in a steel cage, and Beth Phoenix and Eve Torres vs. Kelly Kelly and "Extra" co-host and current "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Maria Menounos.
Like Johnson, Jericho has found mainstream success as an author, lead singer of the band "Fozzy," and reality TV and awards show host. Jericho said few people have Johnson's oversized personality to transition into all forms of entertainment.
"I know just how much firepower Rock has," Jericho said. "I think people forget sometimes how good he is."
Fans have tuned in, though not quite in the monster numbers of Johnson's "Attitude Era" heyday. The March 12 "Raw," averaged 4.82 million viewers (4.97 million watched the second hour of the show) which bested the highest-rated NCAA tournament cable game, Kansas vs. Purdue (4.43 million viewers).
Johnson has committed to appearing at next year's WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. In what role, he hasn't said.
It's clear if the WWE wants to squeeze another potential blockbuster buy rate out of the Rock, the last man standing to get the headline match would be the return of former WWE and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
How about it: Brock vs. Rock at WrestleMania 29?
"I'm not saying a thing," said a laughing, grinning Rock, eyebrow raised. "I didn't say anything."
The Rock silenced. That's a first.
Before Johnson can map out a storyline for next year's WrestleMania, there are more movies to shoot. He just wrapped, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," and begins filming Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain," with Mark Wahlberg on April 3. He also has starring roles lined up for "Fast Six," and "Hercules."
Johnson would like to shed the invincible hero role for once and grapple with a meatier, dramatic role.
"A role like that will come," he said. "I can't wait for that to come, by the way. We'll develop things. I'm patient."
He won't have to wait much longer for WrestleMania.
"He wants to be No. 1, so do I," Cena said "So go at it boys, and see what happens."