Dwayne Johnson's very first WrestleMania felt like "the Super Bowl of wrestling" to the then-24-year-old performer. Known as Rocky Maivia, the clean cut, often-smiling newcomer was eager to put his all into the match and win over the crowd.
The fans, however, didn't care for Rocky.
"That night, 20,000 fans started chanting, 'Rocky sucks,'" Johnson says during an interview for "Oprah's Master Class," now chuckling. "That was a sobering moment. And that was the beginning of the end of my initial run in the WWE."
A few weeks later, Johnson suffered a knee injury and was out of wrestling for the rest of the summer. Before returning to the ring, he had a realization.
"It wasn't me personally that they didn't like," Johnson says of the hostile fans. "It's that I wasn't being me. I wasn't being real. I wasn't being authentic. Who is this guy in wrestling who's smiling when he's getting beat?"
That's when WWE head Vince McMahon proposed that Johnson shed the "good guy" image and turn heel, becoming one of wrestling's big villains.
"He said, 'When you come back, we could continue to shove you down people's throats, or we could turn you heel because they want to boo you anyway,'" Johnson recalls. "I said, 'I think it's a great idea.'"
He just had one request: Give him two minutes to address the audience on live TV before the match starts. McMahon agreed.
“In that moment, The Rock was born. A month later, I was the hottest heel in the company.”
In August of 1997, Johnson appeared on Monday Night Raw and spoke to the crowd amid a chorus of jeers.
"I grabbed the microphone. Fans were already booing. They started chanting, 'Rocky sucks,'" Johnson says. "I said, 'I may be a lot of things, but sucks isn't one of them.'"
Those few minutes marked a pivotal moment in Johnson's wrestling career.
"In that moment, The Rock was born," he says. "A month later, I was the hottest heel in the company."
To the thrill of many, Johnson returns to WrestleMania this Saturday. Though his first appearance at the event was nearly two decades ago, the lesson he learned from it still seems as fresh as ever.
"The greatest lesson about that is: Be you," Johnson says. "Be yourself. Whether it's in entertainment, whether it's out in public, whether you're a celebrity or not… The most powerful thing you can be is yourself."