Rocky Johnson: Rags to riches pioneer for black wrestlers
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s father changed the industry when he broke through
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (c) with his mother Ata and father Rocky. Photo: Michael Tran/FilmMagic
There was a time in America when black men trying to turn a buck in professional wrestling might be expected to dress as pimps or to quaff watermelon and fried chicken for television commercials about forthcoming bouts. In Tennessee, one promoter liked to smear their bare torsos with honey so he could throw white feathers on them during contests. Farther south, it was not uncommon for a contract to stipulate African-American grapplers could be chained up and whipped by a plantation owner in a rebellious slave/punitive master storyline as part of the evening’s entertainment.
This was the tawdry world Rocky Johnson entered when he moved south from Canada in search of a living. A black wrestler in a predominantly white workplace, he traversed the continent throughout the 1960s and 1970s, flinging himself off ropes in arenas great and small. Wherever the job took him, whatever the money on offer, there was only one constant. There would be no racially-loaded costumes, no pandering to prejudicial tropes of any kind. He could play heel or hero on a given night but demanded and usually received the same respect afforded his white counterparts.
“He was the first black wrestler to insist on being intelligent in front of the camera,” said his son Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, following his death earlier this month. “When he cut his promos, there would be no jive in his voice. He took pride in cutting promos that were clean and articulate, promos that were smart! And when he stepped through the ropes there was no bullshit funky strut or anything like that. When people saw him perform, it was an awakening. He was a fearless man who welcomed the chance to break down barriers.”
While his son being one of the most bankable movie stars of the moment ensured his passing garnered headlines, Johnson’s own biography contains multitudes. A throwback to when every territory had independent and often lawless wrestling promotions, he was a one-time tag team partner for Andre the Giant and, as an amateur boxer, sparred with Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and George Chuvalo from the golden age of heavyweights. A racial pioneer, he teamed up with Tony Atlas in Soul Patrol to become the first black performers to be awarded a WWF belt in 1983. Notable footnotes in any personal history, his life in between those feats was quite something too.
Born Wayde Douglas Bowles, he was the son of a six foot seven coal miner in Nova Scotia. His father died young from lung cancer and, at 14, having taken a shovel to his mother’s abusive boyfriend, he was thrown out of the house. Homeless, he hitchhiked 1,600 miles to Toronto with two dollars in his pocket and a cardboard suitcase under his arm, got a job washing cars for 90 cents an hour and started to build a life. Among other things, he drove a fish truck and briefly chased a boxing dream under his new name Rocky Johnson, an amalgam of his fistic heroes Rocky Marciano and Jack Johnson.
Invited to give wrestling a go in a gym one night, he took off the gloves and never left the mat. Soon, he was paying $1 to sit in the nosebleed seats at the Maple Leaf Gardens, watching the wrestling cards on Thursday nights. Turning pro at 17, he made his name initially on the Canadian circuit, often fighting as Sweet Ebony Diamond. When he moved to California, he saw Mexican luchadores half his size performing black flips off the top rope and decided being six foot two and carrying 17 stone of muscle need not prevent him acquiring that skill for his own repertoire.
That kind of athleticism and dedication to the craft kept him in the game for 27 years, surviving even after Vince McMahon began the corporatisation of the business in the 1980s and staying relevant long enough for his son to watch from ringside. Young Dwayne was often so perturbed by the sight of his father taking a “beating” that Rocky developed a system to send him reassuring signals when he was prone on the canvas. Like too many wrestlers, retirement was precipitously difficult to navigate, and, one day in 1991, Dwayne came home from the University of Miami to find his father passed out on the floor drunk.
He gave up drinking then, and when his son’s burgeoning grid-iron career eventually ground to a halt, Rocky put him through intense training before he took his shot at making it to the show. The elder Johnson subsequently had a supporting role at WrestleMania 13 when the fledgling Rocky Maivia (Dwayne initially fought under a name that paid tribute to his mother’s Samoan family who were also pro wrestlers) clashed with The Sultan. The kid had morphed into “The Rock” when, in a very meta 1999 episode of “That 70s Show”, he played the part of his father.
As Eric Forman and his dad Red get backstage to ask their hero Rocky for an autograph, “The Rock”, as Johnson senior, tells them, “I have a son who one day will become the most electrifying figure in sports entertainment.” The gag got a huge laugh. Two decades later, “The Rock” earns $23 million per film and, as head of his own studio, has enough movies and television shows in production to be routinely described as a Hollywood mogul. Extraordinary story. Just like his father’s.