The Rock came to the WWF as Rocky Maivia in late 1996, honoring his father, Rocky Johnson, and his grandfather, Peter Maivia. At the Survivor Series, he was the sole survivor of his team. With just a few wins over guys like Salvatore Sincere and T.L. Hopper, he won the IC title from Hunter Hearst Helmsley in February 1997. He defended the belt against all comers, including The Sultan who he beat at WrestleMania XIII. In May, he lost the belt on Raw to Owen Hart.
After that, he feuded briefly with The Headbangers, with Flash Funk as his partner. He suffered a knee injury and was out for six weeks. When he came back, he wasted no time in joining the Nation of Domination, helping Faarooq beat Chainz. He seemed to be forgotten in the WWF, until after the Survivor Series, where he stole the IC belt from Steve Austin and pretended to be the IC Champ. He lost to Austin at IYH: D-generation X, but when Austin refused to wrestle him the next night, he was awarded the title. He wrestled Ken Shamrock at the Royal Rumble, hitting him with brass knuckles and putting them in Shamrock's tights. When Ken won, the ref saw the knucks and reversed his decision. That night, The Rock drew no. 4 in the Royal Rumble and lasted until the end when he was eliminated by Steve Austin. He started having leadership disputes for the Nation with Faarooq. When he was beat up by Shamrock at WrestleMania XIV, Faarooq was the only Nation member that didn't try to help him.
On Raw the next night, The Nation turned against Faarooq and proclaimed The Rock "The Ruler of the Nation."
"Faarooq, the Rock's fixin' to lay the smack down on you, and there's only two things you can do about it: Nothing, and like it."
He took on a co-ruler in the Nation, Owen Hart, and beat Faarooq at IYH: Over the Edge. He entered the King of the Ring, beating Vader, Triple H, and Dan Severn before losing to Ken Shamrock in the finals. Because of the Owen Hart thing, The Nation was now feuding with DX, and The Rock went to a 30 minute time limit draw with Triple H at IYH: Fully Loaded, but dropped the belt to him at SummerSlam. He then won a Triple Threat Cage Match at IYH: Breakdown, and was booted out of the Nation by D'lo and Mark Henry. In an upset, he lost to Henry at IYH: Judgement Day.
The Rock was then targeted by Vince McMahon, who said he had a problem with the people, and therefore, The Peoples' Champion. McMahon said if The Rock couldn't beat Ken Shamrock for the IC belt, he would be banned from the WWF Title tournament. The Rock won by DQ, but was out of the tourney. Then McMahon raised the stakes and said if he beat Mark Henry, he was back in, but if he lost, he forfeited his WWF career. The Rock beat Henry, and also beat The Big Bossman, Ken Shamrock, and The Undertaker (by DQ) to get to the finals and face Mankind. He put Mankind in the Sharpshooter, and McMahon called for the bell, awarding the title to The Rock! It was revealed that The Rock and McMahon had been plotting this from the beginning, and McMahon formed Team Corporate around his Corporate Champion. The Rock lost to Mankind via The Mandible Sock at IYH: Rock Bottom, but McMahon reversed the decision. In a rematch on 12/29 at Raw, Mankind beat the Rock for the title. But, The Rock challenged Mankind to an "I Quit" Match at the Royal Rumble for the belt. He won when a recording of Mankind saying "I Quit!" from earlier in the evening was played over the PA by Shane McMahon.
He lost the belt two nights later to Mankind, in a match that was aired during halftime of the Super Bowl on Heat. He went to a no-contest with Mankind at IYH: St. Valentine's Day Massacre, but won the title back the next night in a Ladder Match. He held the belt until WrestleMania XV, where he lost it to Steve Austin. After failing to win it back in a rematch at IYH: Backlash, he left the Corporation. After being thrown off the ramp by Triple H, they had a match at Over the Edge, and the Rock won by DQ. He challenged the Undertaker to a title match at King of the Ring, but was unsuccessful. He feuded with Billy Gunn and beat him at SummerSlam. When The British Bulldog attacked him as the ref between him and Triple H, The Rock feuded with him in the fall and beat him at No Mercy in October. He also teamed with Mankind to form the Rock and Sock Connection and they won the tag team titles on three occasions. They broke up when Mankind thought Rock threw his copy of Mankind's autobiography away, but when he revealed he had actually read the book, The Rock & Sock Connection was reformed. Al Snow took exception to this, and revealed it was he who threw away the book because Mankind was his friend and he didn't like the Rock. Because of him, they were unsuccessful against the Outlaws at Armageddon.
The Rock set his sights on winning the Royal Rumble, and eliminated The Big Show to win it. However, footage was shown that The Rock's feet touched the floor before the Big Show's, and a match was ordered for No Way Out. The Rock lost to the Big Show when Shane McMahon interfered. When Vince McMahon finally came back, he sided with The Rock and made a Triple Threat match for the title at WrestleMania. Linda McMahon brought back Mick Foley for one night to compete, so it was a Fatal Four Way. The Rock was the last to be eliminated when Vince turned on him and sided with Triple H. HHH put the title up against the Rock at Backlash, and the Rock won the belt. However, at Judgment Day, HHH won it back in an Iron Man Match when a returning Undertaker chokeslammed HHH, drawing a DQ and breaking the tie. The Undertaker, The Rock, and Kane were pitted against Vince and Shane McMahon and HHH at King of the Ring. If anyone on HHH's team was pinned, the title would go to the person who made the pin. The Rock won the title once again by pinning Vince. He beat Chris Benoit at Fully Loaded and retained in a Triple Threat Match at SummerSlam against HHH and Kurt Angle. He also won a Fatal Four Way at Unforgiven against Kane, Undertaker, and Benoit. When his friend and relative Rikishi was revealed as the driver who ran over Steve Austin, he claimed he did it for The Rock. However, the Rock wanted nothing to do with Rikishi. Rikishi tried to help the Rock at No Mercy, but ended up costing him the WWF Tilte to Kurt Angle. He was then revealed as just a hired henchman of Triple H, and The Rock beat his friend at Survivor Series. Rock participated in a six-man Hell in a Cell Match at Armageddon against HHH, Angle, Austin, Rikishi, and The Underteaker, but was unsuccessful.
The Rock almost won the Royal Rumble, but then became the no. 1 contender to the WWF title. He beat Kurt Angle for the title at No Way Out. Since Austin won the Rumble, that meant they would face each other at WrestleMania. Vince McMahon tried to stir trouble by making Austin's wife Debra the Rock's manager. At WrestleMania, Rock lost the belt to Austin when it was revealed that McMahon and Austin had been in it together for quite some time. Rock demanded a rematch the next night, and beat compliance out of McMahon. It was a cage match, and McMahon entedred as Rock was winning to save Austin. Triple H, who had been upset at not being told about the alliance, came out seemingly to help the Rock. However, he hit the Rock with a sledgehammer, and he, Austin and McMahon put the boots to him. On the following Smackdown, McMahon stated the Rock was "suspended indefinitely." However, when the Alliance invaded, he begged the Rock to come back to the WWF and help. The Rock sided with the WWF, after giving Vince the Rock Bottom. Shane McMahon fashioned Booker T as his version of the Rock, calling him "The Book." Rock beat Booker for the WCW Title at SummerSlam and beat Shane and Booker in a handicap match at Unforgiven. He lost the belt to Chris Jericho at No Mercy, but regained it a few weeks later. His feud with Jericho grew personal, and it nearly cost the WWF the winner-take-all match at Survivor Series. Rock beat Austin in the match to banish the Alliance. He, Austin, Kurt Angle and Jericho wrestled in a mini-tourney at Vengeance, to crown an Undisputed Champion. However, interference cost Rock the WCW Title against Jericho in the first round.
Rock failed to win the title from Jericho at the Royal Rumble. He ended up infuriating the Undertaker, and lost to him at No Way Out. Backstage, he got into it with the returning nWo, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash and Hulk Hogan. He took exception to Hogan's claim to be the greatest wrestler in WWF history and challenged him to a match at WrestleMania the next night on Raw. After Hogan accepted, the nWo beat down the Rock, forcing him to leave in an ambulance. However, Hogan blocked the ambulance's departure with a semi truck, and used the truck to ram the Rock's ambulance. The Rock returned just in time for WrestleMania, and beat Hogan. Hall and Nash turned on Hogan at the event, and Rock helped him out. They became allies, but the Rock soon took some time off from wrestling to promote his new movie the Scorpion King. He returned just before King of the Ring, after Steve Austin walked out on the company. He said he'd be at King of the Ring, and showed up to watch the World Title match between Triple H and the Undertaker. Rock ended up getting involved, and was instrumental in Undertaker getting the victory. Rock became the number one contender, but Kurt Angle interjected himself to make the main event at Vengeance a Triple Threat match. Rock won the title, but then had to deal with Brock Lesnar, who had won the King of the Ring tournament and a title shot at SummerSlam. Brock played mind games with Rock over the next few weeks, and then beat him for the title at SummerSlam. Rock took another hiatus to film another movie.
He made his return in February 2003, but a it was a different, more cocky Rock. He had a rematch with Hulk Hogan at No Way Out, and Rock won thanks to a sham ref assigned by Vince McMahon. Rock left Smackdown and went to the Raw brand, rekindling his rivalry with Steve Austin. Rock finally beat Austin at WrestleMania XIX, but was confronted the next night by Bill Goldberg, who had just arrived in WWE. They met at Backlash, and Goldberg beat the People's Champ.