On Wednesday, the industry learned of the passing of Rocky Johnson, who most will instantly link as the father of one of the biggest worldwide movie stars but does not do his legacy justice.
Johnson’s story is one tailor-made for the silver screen with a childhood of hardship that saw him out on his own at the age of 13 and developing a love for the sport of boxing, and later professional wrestling.
Born Wayde Douglas Bowles in Amherst, Nova Scotia, his family had migrated to the eastern coast of Canada where he was brought up.
The story of his exit from Nova Scotia was shared by son Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in 2016 following a Christmas gift from son to father.
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Bought my dad a Christmas gift and surprised him. He’s had a hard life. This one felt good. My dad, Rocky Johnson is a minimalist. Always has been. Never asks me for much and over the years his needs are always the barest. Crazy story, my dad’s dad died when he was 13yrs old. That Christmas, my dad’s mom had her new boyfriend over for Christmas dinner. Her boyfriend got drunk and pissed on the turkey. My dad went outside, got a shovel, drew a line in the snow and said if you cross that line I’ll kill you. The drunk crossed it and my dad laid him out cold as a block of ice. Cops were called. They told my dad’s mom that when her boyfriend regains consciousness, he’s gonna kill your son so one of them has got to go. In front of the entire family, my dad’s mom looked at him and said get out. He was 13yrs old and now homeless. That f*cked up true story happened in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1954. He needed the bare minimum then, just like does now. Over the years, I’ve moved him into a big home, got him trucks to drive – which he’ll literally drive into the ground until I get him something else. Hell, I’ll get him anything he wants, but the SOB just won’t ask;). Every Christmas, I always think about that story and my dad having every odd stacked against him at 13, but he fought thru it and still made something of himself. 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 and say “If you’re gonna throw up, go outside.. and if you’re gonna cry, then go home to your mother”. I hated it then, but I embrace it now. Made a man outta me. Without pissing on my turkey. 😂👍🏾. Just a small way of saying thank you dad and Merry Christmas! #DwantaClaus🎅🏾
According to Dwayne, his father had an altercation with his mother’s boyfriend (Rocky’s father had passed away earlier that year) and struck the man with a shovel and knocked him unconscious. The police arrived and it was Rocky that had to leave and found himself homeless at the age of 13 and off to Toronto.
It was there that he began training to become a boxer and mentioned over the years of working alongside Muhammad Ali, who fought George Chuvalo in Toronto in March 1966 for the first of their two fights. Johnson would later state he also sparred with George Foreman and would work with Chuvalo, as well.
His entryway into professional wrestling came through training at Jack Wentworth’s gym in nearby Hamilton, Ontario and would debut in 1964. He would also make his way to Calgary for additional tutelage under Stu Hart at The Dungeon.
The name Rocky Johnson, which he legally had changed, came from boxers Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano, who were fighters he looked up to. Another moniker he wrestled under was ‘Sweet Ebony Diamond’ when he was wrestling in Mid-Atlantic.
Johnson was a star in most of the territories he ventured to. His first major championship was the NWA Canadian tag titles that he won with Don Leo Jonathan in April 1967 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The duo defeated Chris & John Tolos but only held them for three weeks before losing them back to the Tolos’.
In 1969, he had a big year moving forward in his career first in Detroit where he teamed with Ben Justice and feuded with Ron & Paul Dupree for their tag titles. But the big break was going to the Los Angeles territory later that year.
In quick fashion, Johnson was sprung into a headline position becoming the NWA Americas champion on January 16, 1970. He defeated The Great Kojika (Shinya Kojika) and would feud with Freddie Blassie and drew well together.
During his time in Los Angeles, he teamed with Earl Maynard and the duo would win their version of the tag titles in September 1970. Johnson went to San Francisco for a sustained run throughout the first half of the ‘70s.
In San Francisco, he was paired with area legends Pepper Gomez and Pat Patterson for various reigns with the tag titles. Johnson & Gomez first won the titles in September 1971 from Superstar Billy Graham & Pat Patterson that lasted until May 1972.
The team of Johnson & Patterson took shape in 1972 and Patterson would have an enormous impact years later when Rocky’s son Dwayne would decide to enter the industry. The two were tag champions on three occasions beginning in December 1972 and traded the titles with the Great Mephisto (Frankie Cain) & Kinji Shibuya, The Interns, and won them the final time in November 1973 and lost them to The von Brauners in March 1974.
During Johnson’s time in San Francisco, he had his third child and first with wife Ata Maivia. In a previous marriage, he had a son named Curtis and daughter Wanda. Dwayne Johnson was born on May 2, 1972.
His next stop was with Georgia Championship Wrestling and won their heavyweight title in December 1974 after the belt was held up and he defeated Buddy Colt to become the new champion. Several weeks later, he added the Georgia tag titles teaming with Jerry Brisco to defeat Colt & Roger Kirby.
Florida Championship Wrestling was a regular territory for Johnson throughout the latter half the ‘70s. He won the Florida heavyweight title three times beginning in July 1975 when he defeated Bob Roop. His last run as champion began in March 1978 defeating Killer Karl Kox but was a brief five-day reign and lost it to Roop. He also teamed with Pedro Morales in Florida as well as winning their version of the Television title and the Brass Knuckles championship.
One of his most fondly remembered programs came in Memphis where he was brought in as a ranked boxer to fight Jerry Lawler in 1976. This coincided with the large-scale production of Muhammad Ali’s match with Antonio Inoki that ran on closed circuit in the United States (with Rocky Johnson challenging NWA champion Terry Funk that night in Houston with Ali vs. Inoki on closed circuit) and Jerry Jarrett looked to draw from that dynamic.
They presented Johnson as strictly a boxer even though he had been wrestling for over a decade.
In Oregon, he won the Pacific Northwest heavyweight title from Rip Oliver in July 1982 along with their tag titles on two occasions with partners Iceman King Parsons and Brett Sawyer. He also feuded with area legend Buddy Rose, including a steel cage match between the two on Christmas night in 1981.
The portion of his career that is most well known is from the early ‘80s and his team with Tony Atlas. As the Soul Patrol, they became WWF tag champions on November 15, 1983, defeating The Wild Samoans and were champions for five-months. They lost the belts to Adrian Adonis & Dick Murdoch in April 1984 right as the company was going national.
Johnson would continue to wrestle throughout the ‘80s and largely winded down by 1991.
Johnson was vocal in later years regarding his steadfast refusal to engage in any racist portrayals that were utilized in certain territories. He saw himself as a tremendous athlete and was not going to take part in anything degrading that was, sadly, commonplace for black wrestlers.
It was in 1996 that his son Dwayne followed a failed attempt at a football career, entered the industry. Rocky was reportedly against the idea of his son entering the industry. Despite that opinion, he helped train Dwayne and it was Pat Patterson that was brought to see Dwayne and was impressed with what he saw. Jim Ross has shared the story many times of meeting a young Dwayne Johnson, buying him lunch and being impressed with his natural charisma with those inside the restaurant and was the one to sign Johnson.
In the early presentation of Dwayne, he was billed as ‘Rocky Maivia’ as an ode to his father and grandfather, ‘High Chief’ Peter Maivia. Rocky was incorporated into various segments with his son and did a run-in at WrestleMania 13 to assist his son and clean house on The Sultan.
Dwayne moved away from the Rocky Maivia tag and took on the persona of The Rock becoming one of the largest draws in the industry of the business and a worldwide movie star.
Rocky Johnson briefly served as a trainer for the WWE based out of Davie, Florida and assisted in the development of Sylvan Grenier and Orlando Jordan.
He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in March 2008 alongside Peter Maivia with Dwayne inducting the two. That same year, he was part of the class entering the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame alongside Jack Brisco, Dory Funk Jr., Joe Garagiola, Buddy Rogers, and Lee Warren.
Rocky’s brother, Ricky Johnson also became a professional wrestler and the two teamed together in Hawaii.
It is believed that Rocky Johnson was 75 years old at the time of his passing, although in Dwayne Johnson’s Instagram post from 2016, he stated Rocky was 13 years old when he left Nova Scotia in 1954, which would peg his birth year at 1941 and make him 78.