In the world of wrestling, many a famous name has been born in the ring. From Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, The Undertaker, to the handlebar facial hair of Hulk Hogan, it was in the ring that such personalities were broadcast, infiltrating living rooms and family homes; audiences delighted in the theatrics of the wrestling stage, but they also became invested in the players behind the spandex shorts and withering stares. One such man that became the target of global affection was pro-wrestler Rocky Johnson.
Before the name Johnson became synonymous with The Rock and his cheat day meals that would scare someone out of a junk food stupor, it belonged to the wrestler who came to be known as Soul Man.
Born in a small town in Nova Scotia, Johnson rose to fame in the ‘80s as a muscular wrestler who called himself “the king of the drop-kick,” a nod to his ability to finish off opponents with the singular flourish of foot work.
His story is one that credits unwavering motivation, a drive to succeed, and compassionate persona, as Johnson went on to train his son following his retirement. But as the Hollywood script often reads, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Johnson. Rather, his life was punctuated by various hardships that he overcame by sheer strength of character.
And after the devastating news of Johnson’s passing at 75-years-old, we are looking back at the numerous accomplishments the pro-wrestler made throughout his career.
Battles with racism
Despite his success and becoming one of the biggest names in international wrestling, Johnson battled with racism throughout his career, particularly in the early stages.
In an interview with thehannibaltv.com, the professional wrestler recalled the racism endemic to the sport, saying it was the same “then as it is now.” Johnson added, “Now it’s more covered up. But there was a lot.”
The racism Johnson experienced saw him refuse to take part in certain shows and performances, due to the fact he found them to be degrading and shameful. In the same interview, he shared:
“I was headstrong. 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.”
Johnson had an incredibly successful career in the WWE as a professional wrestler, with his alter-ego Soul Man being adored by fans around the world. During his time in the sport, Johnson came up against renowned professionals like Greg (the Hammer) Valentine, Don Muraco and Adrian Adonis.
But despite these big names, Johnson is perhaps best known for the tag team he created with another black wrestler, Tony Atlas, with the pair becoming known as the Soul Patrol. The two became the first black world tag team champions in W.W.E. history when they defeated the Wild Samoans on December 10, 1983.
Training The Rock
Johnson retired from W.W.E in 1991.When his son, The Rock, began to take interest in wrestling, Johnson offered to train him. Interviews see Johnson recall this time, with the wrestler saying he was hard on Dwayne but that his son never gave up.
When The Rock eventually did make his W.W.E debut in 1996, his father became a frequent part of his act. As the New York Times recalls, Johnson would be “leaping into the ring and defending his son when he looked to be in trouble.”
W.W.E Hall of Fame
In 2008, Johnson was inducted into the W.W.E. Hall of Fame, with his son Dwayne Johnson there to honour his father’s incredible career and prowess in the sport. The W.W.E. said of the occasion, Johnson will “be forever enshrined as one of the sports-entertainment’s most influential performers.”
Following his death, a number of tributes have been paid to Johnson from those in the wrestling world and beyond. The NWA posted via Twitter, “His legacy stretches across every promotion. He was a champion everywhere he went including holding the NWA Georgia Championship.” Wrestler Paul “Triple H” Levesque tweeted: “A loss for every fan of WWE, Rocky Johnson was a barrier-breaking performer. Our thought s are with his family at this time.”
My prayers and deepest remorse goes out to the @TheRock and the family of @wwe HOF Soul Man Rocky Johnson. He helped paved the way for so many African Americans in this business. You will be missed . R.I.P pic.twitter.com/g4se9S8awT— D-von Dudley (@TestifyDVon) 15 January 2020