To wrestling aficionados, Rocky Johnson was Sweet Ebony Diamond, one half of the championship-winning tag-team duo The Soul Patrol and future World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Famer. But Johnson – born Wayde Douglas Bowles in Nova Scotia in 1944 – was also the man who spawned megastar actor, producer and, yes, former wrestling champ Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. (He also had two other children from his first marriage, both of whom live in Toronto.) Johnson’s death was announced by the WWE on Wednesday. He was 75.
The Globe and Mail talked to Johnson from his home near Tampa in the fall, around the launch of his autobiography, Soulman: The Rocky Johnson Story, published by ECW Press and co-written by Scott Teal, who has written more than 100 books about professional wrestling. Soulman was pulled by publisher ECW Press early this year. The marketing director said that “issues with the text have come to light, so we made the decision to proactively pull the book," but wouldn’t provide further details.
I broke down a lot of barriers, especially in the wrestling business. I was the first Afro-American or black or whatever-you-want-to-call-it Canadian champion. I became the first black southern champion. I want to let kids today know, you can’t beat determination.
Growing up in Amherst, Nova Scotia, if you didn’t like somebody, it wasn’t because of their race, colour or creed – it was because they didn’t like you. I’m not saying there wasn’t racial prejudice; there probably was. But I was young then, and I didn’t know, and probably a lot of it was hidden.
When I was 14, I went up to Toronto. I got a job washing cars making 90 cents an hour, but I knew there was something better out there.
I fooled around with boxing for a while, and I took the name Rocky Johnson. Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion of the world, and Rocky Marciano was the champion of the world. So I combined them. I knew if they could be world champions, one being black, one being Italian, I could do it. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.
When I met George Foreman, he wasn’t a world champion. Then he went to Kingston, Jamaica, and beat Joe Frazier. I thought, what has he got that I haven’t got? He was probably faster than me and better than me and hit harder than me, but I didn’t look at any of that – I just focused on what I could do.
I met Muhammad Ali in Toronto, when he was still Cassius Clay. We met at the gym when he was getting ready to fight George Chuvalo. We became good friends. That’s how we got the shuffle going. We got a piece of plywood, and we’d put on James Brown’s Night Train, and we’d start dancing to it and throwing punches and jabs. He got to calling it the Ali Shuffle. When I started wrestling, I put it into my routine and called it the Rocky Shuffle.
One night at the gym, there was a big snowstorm, and this wrestler had nobody to work out with. I was hitting a punching bag, and he said, “Hey, kid, come on in.” Something just clicked.
Every Thursday night, I’d pay a dollar to sit in the nosebleeds at Maple Leaf Gardens, watching wrestlers like Whipper Billy Watson and Fred Atkins. I said, “I know I can do that.” I’d stand in front of a mirror and do interviews as though I were a wrestler. I went pro when I was 17.
Even when I was champion, I never stopped learning. When I went to Los Angeles and saw these 150-pound Mexican wrestlers doing back flips off the top rope, I said, “I can do that, too.” So I went to the swimming pool and did back flips off the diving board until I could land on my feet. Then I went to the ring to practise until I could do it from the top rope. There I was, 250 pounds, landing on my feet. But no one saw how times I missed and smacked myself in the face. But I never quit.
When I started, there were only three or four blacks in the business, and a lot of white wrestlers didn’t want to wrestle with us. Some would try to hurt you real bad. So many times, I’d go into a hotel and they’d tell me, “We have no rooms.” Then a white wrestler would come in, and suddenly they’d have rooms. I’d have to sleep in my van.
One of the craziest things that ever happened to me in the ring was one of the guys put itching powder in my trunks. Once you start sweating, it starts burning. Finally, I had to leave the ring and jump in a cold shower. Guys did that. If you got mad, they’d make it worse the next time.
Nowadays, if you’re with the WWE, you wrestle two or three times a week. I was on the road all the time. Once, I went nine months without a day off.
My wife, Ata, understood, because her father was a wrestler. People don’t realize it’s very hard on the family. You know how many baseball games and boxing matches I missed? But I had to make a living and take care of my family.
One day, I woke up and my knees were hurting, my back, my hip. I was in my 40s, and I just couldn’t do it any more. I opened a successful cleaning business in Bethlehem, Penn., but when Dwayne went to the University of Miami, his mother couldn’t cut the apron strings, so we moved to Florida. I tried to open the cleaning business, but nobody knew me.
When Dwayne came home from college and said, “Dad, I want to be a wrestler,” I did my best to discourage him. I didn’t want him to have to go through what I went through.
I said, okay, I’m gonna train you until you’re 200 per cent. I was very hard on him, but he was a natural athlete. He played baseball, football, I had him in karate and gymnastics. That’s how he turned out to be The Rock.
I only helped train him for three months, and anybody else – I’m not saying this because he’s my son – but anybody else, it would’ve taken a lot longer. He went to New York, and the rest is history.
We were down on our luck, and I started drinking. Then my boy came home from college, and I was laying on the floor with a hangover. He reached down and took my hand, and I got electricity all through my body. I’ll never forget it. I haven’t had a drink from that day to this one, and that was 1991. I was the best man at Dwayne’s wedding. When we toasted with champagne, I was holding a glass of water.
I’m proud of the success I had, but I’m more proud of my boy. He has the same kind of determination I had. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t become a big movie star, but I think it’s that drive, you know?
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