Long before he was known as “The Rock’s father,” Rocky Johnson was a high-flying heavyweight who dazzled the fans with his high-elevation dropkicks, lightning-like fists, a powerful physique, and an undeniable coolness. Having grown up watching “The Soul Man” during the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was saddened to learn of his recent passing. While “The Rock’s” success eclipsed that of his father, Rocky Johnson was far more than “The People’s Father, he had a celebrated career in the squared circle, working in a variety of territories, and winning many regional titles. In 2008 the WWE recognized his contributions to the industry by inducting him into its Hall of Fame, an honor that, unlike some inductions, was well-deserved.
Born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1944, Wayde Bowles trained as a boxer, working as a sparring partner for boxing greats Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. In 1966, Bowles would enter the squared circle working under the name “Soul Man” Rocky Johnson. Johnson had a fabulous physique, speed, and incorporated his boxing skills into his matches. It didn’t take long for the personable performer to rise in the ranks of the squared circle.
Like most wrestlers of his era, Rocky Johnson traveled from territory to territory, perfecting his skills and winning over the fans. It didn’t take the “Soul Man” long to win his first championship belt. In 1967 he teamed with the legendary Don Leo Jonathon to win the Vancouver promotion’s National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Canadian Tag Team titles. Johnson continued showcasing his skills as a tag team wrestler by winning two more tag team titles in the next three years. In 1969, Johnson captured his first world championship, winning the Detroit promotion’s version of the NWA World Tag Team titles with partner Ben Justice. At the time, there were several versions of “World Tag Team titles” in the NWA, with various promotions recognizing theirs as the only one. Rocky traveled to the Los Angeles promotion, where he won the Americas Tag Team title with Earl Maynard. In 1970, the “Soul Man” won his first singles championship, defeating Great Kojika to win the Americas Heavyweight title, his second championship in the NWA’s Los Angeles territory.
California proved to be successful for Johnson during the early 1970’s. After a good run in Los Angeles, he worked for the NWA’s San Francisco territory. Once again, he found singles and tag team success, winning the promotion’s version of the NWA World Tag Team title on three occasions and its version of the United States Heavyweight title. Like the World Tag Team Championship, several NWA territories had their own versions of the United States heavyweight title. Success followed Johnson wherever he went.
As Johnson’s star rose higher and higher, he began getting title matches against the NWA World Heavyweight champion. Rocky wrestled Terry Funk and Harley Race during their reigns, and while Johnson did not win the belt, his performances in the ring built his reputation even more. “The Soul Man’s” standing as a perennial contender for wrestling’s most prestigious prize spoke volumes to his drawing capabilities.
In a time when there were dozens of promotions to work for, few wrestlers stayed in one territory for too long. It was unwise to wear out your welcome, and success in one area could lead to lucrative offers from other promoters. After several years in California, Johnson began working in the South, working in Georgia, Florida, and Texas. As usual, Johnson’s abilities earned him singles and tag team belts. He teamed up with formidable partners and defeated tough opponents. Given Johnson’s background as a boxer, it should come as no surprise that he won the Brass Knuckles titles in Texas and Florida. Johnson’s lightning-fast hands, along with a remarkable ability to sustain punishment led to success in matches where wrestlers were more likely to get hurt, despite the industry’s worked nature.
It isn’t very easy to come up with any one program that stood out in Rocky’s career, simply because he was involved in so many memorable storylines throughout his career. Let’s take a look at three, beginning with Johnson’s run in Memphis, Tennessee’s Championship Wrestling Association (CWA). There, Johnson worked against the territory’s top heel Jerry “The King” Lawler in a much-remembered program involving Lawler’s prized possession, the king’s crown he carried everywhere with him. Lawler did not take kindly to Johnson capturing the crown, or when Johnson taunted Lawler with his former showpiece. Eventually, Lawler would regain his prized possession, but Johnson established himself in yet another promotion.
The second program involved Rocky’s stint in Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). JCP’s Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling was the first wrestling show that I ever watched. Ironically, I did not see Rocky Johnson wrestling, rather I saw his masked alter-ego “Sweet Ebony Diamond”. Sweet Ebony Diamond was billed as a friend of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Flair was having all sorts of problems with the area’s heels after arch-rival Greg “The Hammer” Valentine broke it, and Flair had to contend with Valentine’s allies the Iron Sheik and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
Sweet Ebony Diamond had everything that endeared him to wrestling fans, including yours truly. His mask was impressive and more importantly, he was exciting to watch in the ring (it didn’t hurt that Diamond was the first masked babyface wrestler I’d ever seen). Diamond had a fantastic dropkick, high praise given the fact that Jim Brunzell (who arguably had the greatest dropkick in the modern era) worked in JCP as well. Diamond’s smooth interviews and masked man mystique made him one of my first favorites.
Johnson wrestled in the main event of the first wrestling house show I ever attended, which only adds to his place in my personal wrestling hall of fame. Diamond teamed with “Nature Boy” Ric Flair to defeat the team of Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and the Iron Sheik at Buffalo, New York’s Memorial Auditorium.
As we’ve seen, Johnson won championship gold pretty much everywhere he went, and his time in JCP was no different. In 1981, he worked his way through a tournament to win the Mid-Atlantic TV title, defeating Greg “The Hammer” Valentine for the belt. Valentine would score a measure of revenge, unmasking Diamond.
Rocky Johnson continued his travels across North America, working in the NWA’s Pacific Northwest territory. The “Soul Man” would win both the promotion’s Pacific Northwest Tag Team title and the Pacific Northwest Heavyweight title. Johnson worked against the area’s top heels, including Rip Oliver, Buddy Rose, and Matt Borne.
Rocky Johnson’s winning ways led him to challenge any of the WWF’s champions. It didn’t take long for him to earn a title shot against Intercontinental champion Don “The Magnificent” Muraco. While Johnson won his fair share of matches, the wily Muraco managed to keep his shoulders from being pinned for a three count or being forced to submit (a mean feat given Johnson’s skill at applying the abdominal stretch and the Boston Crab). Given Johnson’s history as a tag team specialist, he teamed up with other WWF faces both in tag team and six-man tag team matches. One of Johnson’s most frequent tag team partners was Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. The pairing proved to be successful, but the team failed to win championship gold.
A third example of Rocky’s incredible career saw him achieve tag team gold yet again. In 1983, Rocky Johnson teamed up with “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and the duo became known as “The Soul Patrol”. The two men quickly rose to the top of the tag team ranks and earned a WWF Tag Team title match against the reigning champions, the Wild Samoans (Afa & Sika). The Samoans were a vicious team who had proven their skills at tag team wrestling by an unprecedented three WWF Tag Team title reigns. The Samoans also had the added advantage of manager “Captain” Lou Albano, who was never afraid to interfere on behalf of his men. Nonetheless, “The Soul Patrol” eventually triumphed over the Samoans, becoming the first black tag team to win the WWF Tag Team Championship (Johnson is African-Canadian while Atlas is African-American). Ultimately, the team dropped the belts to the “North-South Connection” of Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis (in his pre-“Adorable” days)
The Soul Patrol didn’t stick around long after dropping the tag belts, but they made their mark in the WWF. Johnson left the WWF and spent the last few years of his career working in territories such as NWA Polynesian Wrestling and Memphis’ Championship Wrestling Association. Johnson would win the Polynesian Pacific Tag Team titles on two occasions with Ricky Johnson. He would win the AWA Southern Tag Team title with Soul Train Jones (who would move to the WWF and become Ted “Million Dollar Man” DiBiase’s bodyguard Virgil) and the CWA International Tag Team title with “Superstar” Bill Dundee.
In 1991, Rocky Johnson hung up the boots for good. With a career spanning four separate decades, Johnson accomplished much. He would help future generations of wrestlers by training them, first and foremost, his son Dwayne Johnson. Rocky was reluctant to see his son enter the world of professional wrestling, but eventually, Rocky gave in, and he (along with Pat Patterson) trained Dwayne Johnson. While Dwayne (who took the name Rocky Maivia to honor his father and grandfather) would have a bumpy road at first, he eventually became one of the biggest stars in the history of professional wrestling. Although Rocky Johnson had left the WWF before the first Wrestlemania, he appeared at Wrestlemania XIII when Rocky Maivia battled the Sultan (aka Rikishi). After the match, the Sultan’s entourage laid a beatdown on young Rocky, but things changed when the elder Rocky came out and helped his son clean house.
Later on, Rocky Johnson worked as a trainer in the WWE’s Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental territory. In 2008 he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his son, “The Rock.” Rocky Johnson will always hold a special place in my heart as one of wrestling’s most exciting athletes who possessed the right combination of athletics and personality to keep the fans entertained whenever he appeared.