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Where the Soul of Man Never Dies

Pro wrestler Rocky Johnson forged a legacy that crossed national borders and wrestling eras, raising this generation’s most popular wrestler in the process

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Rocky Johnson—son-in-law of a wrestling legend, father of a wrestling legend, and himself a wrestling legend—died last week at age 75. Johnson, born Wayde Bowles in Amherst, Nova Scotia, came to connect his sport’s past and present much the way the Peace Bridge joins his birthplace and the country where he eventually settled and enjoyed his greatest success. Even his ring name, which his world-famous son Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson would borrow and modify, is steeped in history: It is meant to evoke Rocky Marciano, heavyweight boxing’s undefeated “great white hope,” and Jack Johnson, the sport’s first true African American superstar. Although a star performer in his own lifetime, Johnson’s lasting legacy is that of a connector, a trailblazer, a vital stage in the evolution of both wrestling and the popular culture that supported it.

Even when you start from humble beginnings, as Johnson did, you’re not working from a blank slate, but rather out of the historical circumstances in which your family finds itself. Johnson, like many other black Canadians, traced his ancestry back through freed American slaves and black loyalists who relocated to Nova Scotia in the wake of the Revolutionary War. His parents were dirt poor, and his father, a huge man who worked in a coal mine, died of lung cancer on the eve of Johnson’s 13th birthday. His mother remarried, wedding an abusive alcoholic, and a combination of unremitting abuse and lack of opportunity drove Johnson west, to Toronto.

From there, Johnson followed the script of so many poor kids trying to make good: He busted his hump at various blue-collar jobs, washing cars and delivering smoked fish, while he boxed and lifted weights at a Toronto community center. And Rocky was a good boxer—perhaps not the future professional champion he was sometimes billed as during his wrestling days, but good enough to throw a credible punch in the ring and, as his career progressed, spar with the likes of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. While training at the community center, Rocky Bollie, a local “enhancement” or “job” wrestler, taught Johnson the basics of the mat game and directed him to Jack Wentworth’s wrestling school in Hamilton. Between shifts on the smoked fish delivery route, Johnson made the 50-minute commute to Wentworth’s gym, where he learned from the man who had also tutored the likes of future WWF champion Ivan Koloff and big-time bad guy Killer Karl Krupp.

Rocky Johnson progressed quickly, developing signature moves like the dropkick and his ability to land on his feet after receiving a backdrop. He wasn’t a mountain of muscle then, as he would be in the twilight of his career, but he was big and athletic. He became adept at “taking bumps and selling for opponents,” as tag-team partner and sometime rival Tony Atlas noted in his autobiography. But Johnson’s big break, the break that got him in front of capacity crowds in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and brought him to the attention of other major wrestling promoters, didn’t happen because he was a good hand in the ring.

Rocky Johnson as sparring partner for George Foreman: a smart career move
Courtesy of The Soul Man Rocky Johnson, by John Crowther, Dell Barras, Andrew Pate

“I honestly believe it was because at the time I may have been the only black wrestler from Canada,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography. Toronto’s biggest star, former NWA world heavyweight champion “Whipper” Billy Watson, was branching out into politics and hoped elevating Johnson as his protégé would help him win some additional black votes in the East York borough of Toronto. Watson lost that election—he remained a pillar of the community, but never reached the political heights attained by Antonio Inoki or Jesse Ventura—but Johnson won big, getting an early push that laid the groundwork for successful runs in Detroit, Vancouver, San Francisco, Memphis, and eventually the WWF.

Johnson learned from the examples of pioneering black stars like Sweet Daddy Siki and Bobo Brazil, noting that his drawing power in a territory depended on remaining a good guy and occupying the slot as that promotion’s top black performer. In three decades of wrestling, he only ever competed as a heel in Japan. “We all want to cheer for our own kind,” Johnson wrote. “If I went to see a fight between a white boxer and a black boxer, and I didn’t have a stake in either man, I’d have to go with the brother. Likewise, the whites would go with the white guy.” And since promoters would have only one or two black wrestlers in their territory at a given time in those days, Johnson did whatever he had to do to protect his spot—short of “playing the race card,” something he repeatedly notes in his autobiography that he didn’t do and associates in a negative way with outspoken or disgruntled grapplers like Bearcat Wright, Thunderbolt Patterson, and Tony Atlas.

Yet Johnson, always interested in the bottom line, wasn’t afraid to work a racial angle if it juiced business. Longtime main eventer Bugsy McGraw, a king-sized heavyweight who worked as both a vicious bad guy and a clownish good guy during his career, had a notable feud with Johnson in the early 1970s. While both were working for Roy Shire’s San Francisco promotion, McGraw went on TV and told Johnson he should be picking cotton or working as a janitor. Both men made good money off that incident, and Johnson even contributed the foreword to McGraw’s autobiography, noting how he appreciated that McGraw would do anything to draw fans to the ticket office.

In a racist society, Johnson was happy to benefit whenever his race might help him pay his bills. “I only had to compete with the other black wrestlers,” Johnson wrote. “If a promoter had two black wrestlers in a territory, he would give one a big push, and the other would languish lower down on the cards. My style was different from that of any other black wrestler, so I usually got the push.”

Johnson got his nickname, “Soulman,” after cutting a rug on the dance show Soul Brothers. He developed a signature shuffling boxing stance in the ring, claiming that he taught it to Muhammad Ali when the two trained together. And when Jerry Lawler needed his own black boxing superstar for a June 1976 boxer-versus-wrestler angle he could promote to tap into fan interest being generated by the upcoming Antonio Inoki–Ali supercard, he turned to Johnson, whose publicity photos sparring with George Foreman were put to good use to establish his boxing bona fides.

But when Memphis wrestling promoter Nick Gulas, who called everyone “boy,” tried to call Johnson his “boy,” Johnson forcefully instructed Gulas to call him by his first name. And when Lawler suggested an angle in which Johnson was held down and whipped with a strap, Johnson rudely rejected it. He even tried to counsel Burrhead Jones and Bearcat Brown, two longtime Memphis wrestlers whose characters Johnson described as very stereotypical “Stepin Fetchit blacks who ate fried chicken, chitterlings, and watermelons at every meal,” to advocate for higher wages than the paltry $40 to $50 a night Lawler and copromoter Jerry Jarrett paid them. When it came to performing those standard black wrestler comedy bits, Johnson wrote that he “wasn’t going to let anyone stereotype me in that fashion.”

But no matter the regional titles he held and the money he drew at the box office, Johnson will be best remembered for three signal achievements. The first was a personal one, falling in love with legendarily tough Samoan pro wrestler Peter Maivia’s daughter, Ata. Johnson was still married to his first wife, Una, at the time—she refused to give him a divorce—and, like Ata’s father Peter, Johnson admitted to being something of a womanizer when he was on the road. But he and Ata had a son, Dwayne, tying Johnson into a legendary wrestling family. The trio traveled together while Dwayne came of age, giving the young boy a bird’s-eye view of the business.

Johnson’s second accomplishment was winning the WWF tag-team titles with Tony Atlas, in the process becoming the first all-African American world tag champions. They won the straps from the Wild Samoans Afa and Sika Anoa’i, Johnson’s relatives by marriage, in an exciting television match. But even though both Johnson and Atlas agreed that their styles were complementary, with Johnson doing the selling and high spots and the incredibly strong Atlas doing the power moves, their partnership was a difficult one. Atlas claimed in his autobiography that “any black wrestler in the territory was a threat to Rocky Johnson,” and Johnson, who worked with the same coauthor, pointed out that Atlas was an unmanageable loose cannon obsessed with Hulk Hogan’s main event push.

Johnson’s work in the WWF, which concluded with a long and losing feud against Roddy Piper after he had split up with Atlas, came to an end after his knees and back could no longer take the punishment of his signature high-altitude dropkicks and dramatic selling. He was incredibly muscular at this point, looking more like fellow aging grappler Ivan Putski, an immobile strongman, than the athletic superstar he had been in his youth. It was this incarnation of Johnson that I and other fans of my generation dimly remember, another presence on the way out as the WWF evolved into the cartoonish monolith it became by the end of the 1980s.

Johnson won regional titles in many different promotions
Courtesy of The Soul Man Rocky Johnson, by John Crowther, Dell Barras, and Andrew Pate

With the end of Johnson’s active career came the genesis of his third, and arguably most well-known, accomplishment: launching the career of Dwayne Johnson, who had spent his own teen years as a prep football star, his college years as a backup to future NFL Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp for the perennial powerhouse Miami Hurricanes, and his early 20s washing out of the Canadian Football League. Dwayne called Rocky in hopes of entering the squared circle, so all the accounts go, and this son and grandson of wrestling legends was fast-tracked into the WWF as the company lurched uneasily toward its Attitude Era.

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I love you. You broke color barriers, became a ring legend and trail blazed your way thru this world. I was the boy sitting in the seats, watching and adoring you, my hero from afar. The boy you raised to always be proud of our cultures and proud of who and what I am. The boy you raised with the toughest of love. The intense work. The hard hand. The adoring boy who wanted to know only your best qualities. Who then grew to become a man realizing you had other deeply complicated sides that needed to be held and understood. Son to father. Man to man. That’s when my adoration turned to respect. And my empathy turned to gratitude. Grateful that you gave me life. Grateful you gave me life’s invaluable lessons. Dad, I wish I had one more shot to tell you, I love you, before you crossed over to the other side. But you were ripped away from me so fast without warning. Gone in an instant and no coming back. Im in pain. But we both know it’s just pain and it’ll pass. Now I’ll carry your mana and work ethic with me, as it’s time to move on because I have my family to feed and work to accomplish. Finally, I want you to rest your trailblazing soul, Soulman. Pain free, regret free, satisfied and at ease. You lived a very full, very hard, barrier breaking life and left it all in the ring. I love you dad and I’ll always be your proud and grateful son. Go rest high. #ripsoulman #rockyjohnson

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Much like his father, Dwayne entered the ring as an unfinished product whose ring name was a mash-up recalling proud historical traditions. But this “Rocky” was his father, not Marciano, and “Maivia” was a nod to his hard-hitting grandfather Peter, who among innumerable tough-guy exploits had held his own against noted British amateur wrestler Billy Robinson. Of course, I knew very little of all this at the time, and disliked the boring babyface Rocky Maivia like most of the other fans. Rocky Johnson’s presence alongside Dwayne during this period, even alongside him in the ring in what Rocky called “the greatest day of my personal and professional life,” meant little to me.

But it meant plenty to Dwayne, who has repeatedly said that Rocky taught him everything that he knows. Even as he discarded the Rocky Maivia gimmick in favor of “the Rock,” a cocky heel persona that grew into a catchphrase-spouting superstar, he honored his old man’s legacy. Rocky Johnson was the mold: well-built, articulate, interested in the bottom line above all else. And Dwayne didn’t so much break that mold as emerge from it like a cocoon, the Super Saiyan form of several generations of wrestling experience. Rocky Johnson had come from nothing and went on to fill the Cow Palace and Maple Leaf Gardens to capacity; Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson followed in his dad’s footsteps and wound up filling movie theaters and HD screens across the world.

“Little boys, by nature, look up to and idolize their old man,” Dwayne wrote on Instagram two years ago. “They want to be just like ’em, do whatever they do and are always looking for their approval.”

Yet in Rocky’s final years, his comic book biographer John Crowther tells me that the father looked up to and idolized his son. “When we were together, Rocky was always talking about how Dwayne was making sure he ate right, worked out, took care of himself,” Crowther says. “I’m certain it was the other way around for many years, but at the end, Rocky really admired and counted on Dwayne.”

And that’s surely enough for Rocky Johnson: a fiercely independent man whose legacy bridged wrestling’s exclusionary past and its inclusive present, a proud black wrestling champion whose most famous child is so universally popular that he very nearly transcends race and culture in a way that few celebrities ever have.

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at oliverbateman.com.