No. 6: Persistence Pays
When he was eight years old, Dwayne’s parents allowed him to participate in sports—baseball, soccer, martial arts, gymnastics. Sometimes his dad would wrestle with him, bending his wiry frame into knots, toughening him up for the hard knocks to come. Dwayne was dying to lift weights like his dad, but he’d have to give it a few more years.
“They used to say that if you started lifting too young you’d stunt your growth, so my dad made me wait till I was a teenager.”
Then, at long last, the day came when Dwayne could finally step into a gym and do something other than sit around and watch the adults have all the fun. He was 13, and it was a Saturday, and he was ready to put all his years of fascinated observation to use. The bench press was an obvious first choice. Rocky started his son out with an empty bar. The kid handled it easily—none of the shaking you’d expect from a newbie—so they load a pair of 25s onto it. No problem. The kid makes his old man, and himself, proud.
“So my dad says, ‘All right! Are you ready to go for the 45s?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’
“So we put a 45 on each side, and I get down on the bench with him spotting me. He counts off, ‘One, two, three!’ and he lifts the bar off the supports…and I get buried. I was completely embarrassed. I’ll never forget that feeling. Buried with 135 pounds!”
Dwayne became obsessed with the idea of moving that weight, and soon. The quicker he could exercise the demon of failure, the better. So every day that week he could be found either in the gym training or on the floor of his apartment doing pushups. He would apply the same work ethic he watched his dad and so many other wrestlers and bodybuilders exhibit for the past seven or eight years, and be damned if he didn’t lift that weight!
The following Saturday he joined his dad at the gym, determined to push that bar off his chest. They went through typical warmup sets, and then loaded a pair of 45s onto that same bar that had crushed Dwayne seven days earlier. He got back on the bench as Rocky positioned himself to spot, and on the count of three, Dwayne unracked the weight, lowered it to his chest, and forcefully pushed it back up to arm’s length.
“And that’s why I don’t need therapy today.”
No. 5: Have a Sense of Purpose
Dwayne had seen his mother cry before, but not like this. They had just come home to an eviction notice and a padlock on the door of their tiny one-bedroom efficiency flat in Honolulu, when all the years of struggling to make ends meet as the wife of an itinerant professional wrestler seemed to come crashing down upon Ata Johnson, and she wept as hard as she ever had. It was then and there that 14-year-old Dwayne Douglas Johnson made a vow to himself.
“I was determined to take control of the situation. I would never be homeless again, and I’d never, ever see my mom cry like that again.”
Of course, at 14, Johnson couldn’t get a job that would pay the rent. Yet with his dad wrestling in Tennessee, he was the de facto man of the house and knew that he had to do something—anything—to help turn his mother’s situation around. Then he had an epiphany.
“It occurred to me that all of the men I knew who had achieved success were all men of great physical stature. And I knew that they all got that way through sweat equity—putting callouses on their hands. So in my mind, the key was simple: I’d continue going to the gym and work harder than before, and then I’d follow their path to greatness.”
To that point, Dwayne had been training two days a week, fitting workouts into a student-athlete’s schedule. But now he’d have to take his training more seriously. He would have to build himself up, just as his dad had, just as the bodybuilders whose images he gazed upon in wonder in M&F had. If he truly wanted to protect his mother and himself from ever being evicted again, he reasoned he would have to double down on his gym time.
And so he did, training harder than ever, building himself into manhood by way of heavy metal and calloused hands. And while in retrospect he knows that lifting weights and paying rent are unconnected in even a tangential way, the determination and sense of purpose that grew out of that event would continue to serve him to this day. His workouts took on a new level of intention from that moment on.
“In looking back I realize how seminal a moment that was in my life.”
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