Before up-and-coming professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson officially became “The Rock,” he saw his future written in stone — "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, that is. “My first couple of years in the business I watched this guy Steve Austin ascend to the top and [achieve] this incredible popularity,” he recalls in the A&E documentary Biography: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. “I would just quietly watch in the shadows, study his behavior, and watch how he operated because that was a position I wanted to be in. And I think he knew that.”

Wrestling personality and manager Paul Heyman explains that, as Austin quickly rose to fame, new stars had to be brought in to help him achieve superstardom. “You needed someone that you could honestly look at and say this guy can measure up to 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin,” Heyman says. It soon became evident that Johnson was the right guy for the job.

The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin during a smackdown
The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin during a smackdown
Photo: Getty Images

Austin and Johnson were 'fighting for the exact same thing'

As WWE’s "Attitude Era" picked up steam in late 1997, Johnson recalls a “seismic shift” as professional wrestling moved “away from the cartoon era, the superhero era... into an edgier, reality-based program.” Austin, who’d been competing since 1989, was in his prime, but Johnson’s presence didn’t go unnoticed. “I just remember watching him starting to gain momentum and starting to establish a relationship with the crowd,” Austin remembers. “He’s starting to get over. There’s something here. I need to watch this.”

The native Texan said as much to Johnson, who shares that Austin told him “something to the effect of, 'There’s somethin’ there, kid.’” Although Johnson knew, at the time, that they were both “fighting for the exact same thing” — the top spot in the WWE — he adds that their intense competition “was out of so much love and so much respect” for one another. He even refers to Austin as “a big brother” further describing their chemistry as a “special thing that you just feel.” They even somehow knew exactly what each other was going to do at all times.

Austin hand-picked Johnson to be his final match

So when Austin eventually made the “tough decision” to step away from the ring in 2003, he handpicked Johnson to be his final opponent at March 2003’s WrestleMania XIX in Seattle. Very few people were in the loop that this would be Austin’s final match, and so his opponent had to hold in some “really mixed emotions” when he heard the news. Even today, Johnson admits he still gets emotional because it was “the ending of a career that has been so influential on, not only me but the world of wrestling that we love.”

Once Johnson officially won the match — and while both men were still lying in the middle of the ring — he lowered his head to Austin’s ear, told him he loved him and thanked him for all he’d done for him. “I felt like that was the time to tell Steve because there’s no other moment in our world where we are as raw, open and vulnerable than in that moment right there,” Johnson says. “When the 1-2-3 happens it’s just two men who have gone on this incredible journey.”

Austin, for his part, was equally emotional. “He knew that I didn’t want to go, and this was a hard decision for me to make,” the Steve Austin Show host recalls of Johnson. “I remember just laying there in front of 70,000, man, and I said, ‘Man, I love you too.’ I told him I loved him. Verbatim, I said, 'I love you, too.' Two big-ass, tough-ass guys telling each other that they love the other one in front of millions of people.”

Although Austin explains they “ran with different crowds,” whenever they do see each other, they’re able to pick up right where they left off, calling theirs “a friendship that is forever.” That camaraderie is one for which Johnson will always be grateful. As he sums up, “That decision to take me, if you will, under his wing, it changed my life.”