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Pro wrestling’s ‘Soulman’ Rocky Johnson, The Rock's dad, fought the odds and won

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Rocky Johnson was a true pioneer in the wrestling business. WWE Photo

“I was the boy sitting in the seats, watching and adoring you, my hero from afar … I’m in pain, but we both know it’s just pain and it’ll pass … I love you Dad and I’ll always be your proud and grateful son. Go rest high.– Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

He will forever be known as The Rock’s dad.

But he was much more than that.

Rocky “Soulman” Johnson, who passed away Jan. 15 at the age of 75, was a trailblazer who leaves an indelible mark on the wrestling business and a legacy that stretches across all promotions.

A barrier-breaking figure, Johnson held numerous titles across North America over the course of a career that spanned nearly 30 years. Through grit and determination, he never gave up on pursuing his dream of being a big-time professional wrestler.

His son, wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, revealed that his dad died of a massive heart attack.

“He had not been feeling well, had been battling a cold and infection and on Tuesday he had what’s called a deep vein thrombosis, which is essentially a clot in the leg. It was a big old blood clot that broke free, traveled up his body and went right to his lung, clotted his lung and he died very quickly from a massive heart attack, just like that,” he said.

Longtime friend Brian Blair told the Tampa Bay Times that Johnson had complained of an unspecified illness of late and had missed church that he attended with Blair and other former wrestlers.

“He was just under the weather, he thought he had the flu or something. I said, ‘You, need to get checked out, Rocky.’ He said he’d be OK. Then he missed this Sunday, a few days ago. When I talked to him again, he said he still wasn’t feeling good and he still missed church. He still didn’t get checked out. I talked to (Johnson’s wife) Sheila and she said he was just being stubborn. He died at home.”

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Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson inducted his father, Rocky Johnson, into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008. WWE Photo

Fought for respect

Despite his many accolades and accomplishments over the years, Johnson had to overcome a number of obstacles on his journey. He left a troubled home as a young teen, battled racism early on and broke into a profession that was not always kind to black performers.

“Now it’s more covered up,” Johnson told thehannibaltv.com in a 2017 interview. “But there was a lot.”

Especially in the South, said Johnson, who refused to be racially stereotyped and take part in some of the more degrading performances that were common in the business during the early days of his career.

“I was headstrong,” he said. “I kept myself in shape, and the stuff they were doing in the South, I wouldn’t go for. They wanted to whip me on TV, like they used to do with the slaves and all that. I said, ‘No. I came in as an athlete, and I’ll leave as an athlete.’ And they respected me for that.”

Celebrated wrestling trainer and longtime pro Dr. Tom Prichard recalled Johnson as an inspiration.

“As a kid, I took pictures at ringside. One night in Houston, world champion Terry Funk defended his title against Texas champion Rocky Johnson. Rocky asked me to take a picture with him and Terry holding their belts before the match. It had a big match feel. That picture is in Rock’s book,” he said.

“The guys from the 1960s to late ‘70s were a different breed of cat. Those are the guys who made my generation want to be wrestlers,” Prichard added. “No pyro, lights, glitz, glamour or music! Darken the house, turn the ring lights on, introduce the participants and ring the bell! It was up to the guys in the ring to captivate and keep your attention.

“They had to perform and draw anywhere from 6 to 7 days a week, twice on Sunday, you know the drill. And they loved every minute of it. Even the bad times could be considered better than the alternative. Unless you grew up with that culture during a time in the business when there were larger than life, real-life action heroes that came to your area every week, it’s hard to describe.”

And Rocky Johnson was one of the best.

“Rocky Johnson was an action figure come to life,” said Prichard. “You can’t teach charisma or passion. It’s got to be in your blood. It flowed in Rocky.”

A former trainer at Ohio Valley Wrestling, Johnson was always willing to help younger wrestlers develop their skills.

He was the inspiration for son Dwayne to become a professional wrestler. When his son showed an interest in wrestling, Rocky offered to train him.

“I’m going to train you 150 percent,” Rocky recalled telling Dwayne. “And I was hard on him. But he never gave up.”

When Dwayne Johnson first debuted in WWE, he was given the name of his father and grandfather, Samoan legend “High Chief” Peter Maivia, in order to reference his lineage, and was known as Rocky Maivia, eventually morphing into The Rock.

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Rocky Johnson held numerous titles across North America over the course of a career that spanned nearly 30 years. WWE Photo

Championship caliber

Born Wayde Douglas Bowles, a descendant of slaves who had escaped into Canada, Johnson began his career in the mid-1960s. He changed his name to Rocky Johnson, although not legally until 1986 when he became a U.S. citizen, but his new moniker seemed to fit him to a tee.

Johnson had initially trained to be a boxer, sparring with such greats as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but it was wrestling that lured him to a career. Using his boxing background and incredible agility in the ring, he went on to claim a slew of regional singles and tag-team titles across the country.

Known for his sculpted physique, picture-perfect dropkick and the “Rocky shuffle,” which he incorporated during his more than a hundred rounds of sparring sessions with Ali, Johnson became a crowd-pleasing performer.

Johnson first drew major attention in California teaming with Pat Patterson. The two held the NWA world tag-team title on three occasions; Johnson also held the tag straps once with Pepper Gomez.

Facing everyone from Andre The Giant to Ric Flair to Hulk Hogan, Johnson was a perennial main-event attraction. Donning a mask as Sweet Ebony Diamond, he was a beloved headliner in the Mid-Atlantic territory during the late ‘70s, holding the Mid-Atlantic TV title on two occasions.

A multi-time Florida heavyweight champion, Johnson was also a favorite in the Sunshine State, holding the state’s TV title and brass knuckles crown, and the Florida tag-team title with Pedro Morales.

Longtime sportswriter and Florida wrestling pundit Larry Hamel considered Johnson one of the best.

“He was one of the most exciting wrestlers of that time, at a different level athletically than the great majority of guys he worked against,” says Hamel. “Johnson shot into the air like a coiled spring on his dropkicks after doing his trademark two-step shuffle. Absolutely no disrespect intended for Dwayne Johnson, but I never thought The Rock was as good in the ring as his dad.”

Working for Georgia Championship Wrestling, Johnson was a two-time state champion and held the Georgia tag-team title with Jerry Brisco.

Johnson also became a champion in Tennessee and Texas, as well as other states across the country and in Canada.

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Dwayne Johnson with father Rocky Johnson and mother Ata Johnson at The Rock’s Hands and Footprints ceremony held at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in 2015. AP Photo

Breaking barriers

Johnson would enjoy another level of success when he began his WWE (then WWF) tenure in 1983 and joined “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas as a team known as The Soul Patrol.

The two became the first black world tag-team champions in WWE history when they defeated The Wild Samoans (Afa and Sika) on Dec. 10, 1983.

Atlas was one of many friends and colleagues who expressed deep sadness over Johnson’s passing.

“We changed wrestling by paving a new path, knocking down doors while showing what movin’ n groovin’ is all about! It takes two and I never would’ve done it without you. It showed me a lot while learning more. I pray for The Rock and his family. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

While Johnson and Atlas had their differences, the two had patched things up in recent years.

“I said some things about him that I regret now,” Atlas said in an interview on thehannibaltv.com, admitting that his drug addiction led him to being unreliable.

Johnson had been asked by Vince McMahon Sr. to keep tabs on his partner, making sure he made all his dates and didn’t miss any bookings.

For a while, the team clicked, with Johnson doing his high spots and Atlas doing his power moves. But Atlas’ dalliance with drugs and erratic behavior wore thin with Johnson, and the partnership eventually dissolved.

Atlas, at a low point early in his career, recalled how he wanted to leave the profession and go back to his hometown, but Johnson stopped him and inspired him to become a wrestler.

“I love Rocky, and Rocky loved me too … Rocky Johnson was a man’s man. He loved his family. He was a great father. The world has lost a wonderful person.

“He was a very proud man. He didn’t like for someone taking advantage of anybody. Rocky never did anything wrong to anybody his whole life. Rocky loved wrestling.”

Former mat great Buddy Colt, who shared the Georgia tag-team title with Johnson during the ‘70s, also expressed his sadness on social media.

“I am very saddened by the loss of my good friend Rocky Johnson,” posted Colt. “He was a great worker and a wonderful person. I can’t count the number of times we worked together and always packed the house. He was my brother and I miss him very much.”

“He’d want to be remembered as someone who wrestled around the world, fought segregation, fought through many trials and tribulations,” added Brian Blair, “and still won.”

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Rocky Johnson with a young Dwayne Johnson. Photo provided

Full circle

Johnson, then in his mid-40s, retired full-time from the business in 1991. The thousands of high-flying dropkicks and pounding to the body had taken their toll on his back and knees, his shoulders and hip, so he turned his attention to training wrestlers and other various non-wrestling-related jobs.

Moving his family back to Florida after living for several years in Bethlehem, Pa., partially because of his wife’s desire to be closer to Dwayne, now a football player at the University of Miami, Johnson found himself jobless.

When Dwayne came home one day to find his father lying on the floor with a hangover, the look of disappointment on his son’s face had a profound effect on Rocky, who vowed never to touch alcohol again. And, true to his word, he never did.

Things would come full circle in 2008 when Dwayne Johnson inducted his father and grandfather, “High Chief” Peter Maivia, into the WWE Hall of Fame. Dwayne, known then as “Little Dewey,” recalled the many wrestling trips his dad would take him on as a child.

In 1978, Johnson married Ata Maivia, daughter of Samoan wrestling great Peter Maivia, a revered member of wrestling royalty, being part of the Anoa'i family of wrestlers.

Although Rocky and Ata would eventually divorce in 2003, with Johnson later remarrying, the two remained close and active in their son’s life.

And years later, when Dwayne wanted to give wrestling a try after a failed career in pro football, he was reluctant to use his real name, feeling like he would be taking advantage of his pedigree. Nor did Rocky make it easy for his son, wanting him to work hard and earn it.

“I tried to discourage him, but he insisted and gave me 150 percent,” Rocky Johnson would later say. “It’s what carried him to where he is today. He’s what keeps me going.”

It wouldn’t be long, though, before Dwayne Johnson reinvented himself as the larger-than-life Rock, “the “most electrifying man in sports entertainment” and later the No. 1 box-office attraction in Hollywood.

With all of Rocky Johnson’s accomplishments in the wrestling business, it would be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at the top of the list.

“No one ever talks about the color of Dwayne’s skin,” Rocky Johnson said in a 2013 interview. “That is what makes what I did so important to me. I like to think I proved a wrestler’s skin color doesn't matter. I’m glad my son doesn’t have to be labeled black or Samoan or mixed. He has instead been labeled as the best.”

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Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson posted a picture of himself and his dad, Rocky Johnson, standing in front of a brand new Ford Explorer that Dwayne surprised his dad with for Christmas several years ago. Photo provided

Proud son, father

Dwayne Johnson has previously opened up about his father’s turbulent upbringing in Canada, revealing that Rocky was homeless at a tender age after his mother kicked him out over a dispute with her boyfriend.

“He’s a weathered soul and like all weathered souls, there’s often a harsh storied path that got them there,” Dwayne Johnson posted on Instagram last year when he shared the news that he told his dad he was buying him a house.

“Well for my pops that path started at 13 years old when his mom kicked him out of his house on Christmas day and forced him to live on the streets ... so his reality of compassion and love was forged through pain and toughness.”

His childhood made him appreciate his father’s hard work and struggle, as well as all the times he would push him in the gym

“Every Christmas, I always think about that story and my dad having every odd stacked against him at 13, but he fought through it and still made something of himself,” Johnson said in a 2016 Instagram post. “Makes me appreciate his struggle and hard work. Also, makes me appreciate the fun times he would beat my ass in the gym so bad when I was 13 … I hated it then, but I embrace it now. Made a man outta me.”

In an Instagram post from June 2018, Dwayne posted a heartfelt Father’s Day message, expressing his gratitude for the tough love his father gave him.

“Little boys by nature look up to and idolize their old man. They want to be just like ‘em, do whatever they do and are always looking for their approval. Funny thing is the day I stopped looking for that approval was the day I understood what it meant to be man and more importantly, a father.”

Johnson, who also eulogized his dad on social media and in an emotional Instagram message, revealed he didn’t get to say goodbye to his father before he passed away.

“Dad, I wish I had one more shot to tell you, I love you, before you crossed over to the other side,” Johnson wrote. “But you were ripped away from me so fast without warning. Gone in an instant and no coming back. I’m in pain. But we both know it’s just pain and it’ll pass.”

Johnson said he was relieved that his father would no longer be in pain and that he could “'rest his soul,” finally.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

Dwayne’s wife, Lauren Hashian, posted a touching tribute of her own to her father-in-law.

“Thank you for always being so warm and kind to me (and) my family. Your son has one heck of an angel now watching over him. And without you his path would’ve been a very different one.

“How lucky to have a father and grandfather to pass on their family business and the culture and the work ethic, and carry that torch with the greatest respect and honor for what you did before him. Rest in Love.”

Although Rocky Johnson helped pave the way for many other wrestlers of color to wear world title gold around their waists, he’d be the first to tell you what he was ultimately most proud of.

“I’m proud to be known as The Rock’s dad.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com

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