BOOK REVIEW: Soulman – The Rocky Johnson Story

By: Brandon Sears 

Soulman is the memoir of professional wrestler, “Soulman” Rocky Johnson.

Born Wayde Bowles in the small Nova Scotia town of Amherst (a short four-hour drive from my own hometown), Johnson left home at age fourteen to pursue a life in Toronto.  After a short stint as a boxer (a frequent sparring partner of George Foreman), Bowles found himself falling into professional wrestling.  Johnson would travel all over Canada working for Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto, Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling in the Maritimes and Stampede Wrestling in Calgary.

Already a popular performer in Canada, Johnson’s popularity would explode when he began working the territory system in the U.S. Rocky would spend time in California, Hawaii, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee among other spots.  He would even travel overseas working in Japan and Korea. Everywhere he went, he would prove to be a valuable asset given his exciting style and ability to work well with nearly everyone he shared the ring with. His desire to avoid backstage politics helped to endear him to promoters even if he would occasionally stand his ground when he felt he was being wronged or used incorrectly.

Throughout the book, Rocky is very honest about much of the racism he had to deal with over his career. While he said he refused to use the “race card” if someone received preferential treatment over him, the number of times Rocky would be asked to be shown eating watermelon and fried chicken in interviews would be shocking if you didn’t remember that the bulk of his career took place in the 60s and 70s. Rocky’s steadfast persistence to be treated as an athlete first and foremost kept him from being involved in some truly horrendous gimmicks and stereotypical roles.  He recalls one instance in Memphis in the 70s where Jerry “The King” Lawler wanted to garner heel heat by whipping him with a strap in the middle of the ring; something Rocky noted would have been a cheap way to get heat.

Aside from a few offhand remarks about his son, Rocky doesn’t really talk about Dwayne until about three-quarters of the way through the book. He touches on the troubles Dwayne had finding a character before morphing into the ultra-confident heel character that would propel him to the next level. I’m glad he didn’t spend a whole lot of time here because even though The Rock tends to overshadow Johnson himself, it would have detracted from Johnson’s own personal story – we already have many books and documentaries about The Rock.

The book wraps up with Johnson’s time in Mid-Atlantic territory working under a mask as Sweet Ebony Diamond before a brief appearance in WWE teaming with Tony Atlas where the two would go on to become the first black tag team champions in the promotion’s history. Despite their success, their time together was tumultuous as it was marred by Tony’s reckless actions outside the ring. Vince McMahon assigned Johnson as Tony’s defacto babysitter but there’s only so much you can do for someone who is unwilling to change before you lose control of your own life.  Johnson spends a few pages near the end picking apart a few of the negative things Tony had said about him in his own book. This had the potential to be petty, but Johnson is more concerned with clearing his name and less about retaliating with mudslinging.

Soulman is an anomaly in the world of pro-wrestling books in that it isn’t bursting with crazy road stories nor does it feature a retired wrestler with an ax to grind. That’s not a complaint nor is it a mark against the book, but rather a refreshing experience. Often overshadowed by his mega-successful son, Rocky Johnson still has a story worth telling, especially when geared toward those who want to read and learn more about the territorial wrestling system at its absolute height.

Soulman: The Rocky Johnson Story by Johnson and co-author Scott Teal is available for pre-order through ECW Press.