OBITUARY: Rocky Johnson (1944-2020)

It has been confirmed that “Soulman” Rocky Johnson, WWE Hall of Famer and member of the Anoa’i/Maivia wrestling dynasty, has died today.  He was 75.

Johnson was born Wayde Bowles in Amherst, NS.  As a teenager, he moved to Toronto, ON, and trained as both a boxer and wrestler.  In fact, his gym was used by heavyweight champions Muhammad Ali and George Foreman when they came to town; Bowles claimed to have been their sparring partners on occasion.  However, it was wrestling that was his first love, and at age 19 he made his debut in the southern Ontario territory, having been trained by the Polynesian legend High Chief Peter Maivia.

He was an instant star, considered a tag team master but also receiving NWA Championship opportunities.  Early in his career, he was known as Drew Glasteau; when fighting in the Memphis territory, Jerry Lawler put him under a mask and called him Sweet Ebony Diamond.  However, it was the Rocky Johnson moniker that stuck, and early in his career he legally changed his name so that he could be called Rocky Johnson everywhere.

During his early years, Johnson teamed with the High Chief in some of the territories, and while doing so, began a relationship with Ata Maivia, Peter’s daughter.  Although Peter was reluctant to give his blessing (Johnson said it was nothing personal, but that Maivia knew how tough wrestling wives had it), he relented and the two married in 1970.  Due to Maivia’s “blood brotherhood” with Amituanai Anoa’i (Afa and Sika’s father), Johnson officially married into the Anoa’i wrestling family.

Rocky Johnson’s signature move came about as a way to combat racist opponents.  As Johnson himself explained, during some “bump and feed” sequences, opponents who wanted to make him look bad would get up extremely slowly, hoping the inexperienced Johnson would be at a loss for ideas and the match would grind to a halt.  Johnson quickly adapted, using his boxing past to adjust his stance back and forth while waiting.  Eventually, this would morph into full-on dancing to fire up the crowd, called the Johnson Shuffle.  Wrestlers such as Virgil, Orlando Jordan, and most famously Shane McMahon would copy it during their own comebacks.

In 1982, Johnson signed on with the WWF and had singles matches against stars such as Don Muraco, Greg Valentine, and Iron Mike Sharpe.  He was later teamed with Tony Atlas as the Soul Patrol and, on November 15, 1983, they defeated Johnson’s brothers-in-law the Wild Samoans to become WWF Tag Team Champions.  Notably, Johnson and Atlas were the first all-black tag team champions at the world level.

Johnson retired in 1991 and became a trainer, including a stint in Ohio Valley Wrestling.  But it was the training of his son Dwayne that became his greatest legacy.  Dwayne debuted in November 1996 as Rocky Maivia, a tribute to both Johnson and the High Chief.  The young Maivia’s first WrestleMania match was at WrestleMania 13 against the Sultan (family member Rikishi Fatu in a mask), and after the match, a bitter Sultan and his manager Iron Sheik attacked.  Rocky Johnson made the save and, in one last moment of glory, gave the Iron Sheik a body slam.

Soon after, though, it became clear there wasn’t much demand for a “father’s son” wrestler in Maivia, and Rocky Johnson left active TV to see if Dwayne could sink or swim on his own.  Given that Dwayne became The Rock, this was a smart move.

Johnson’s list of belts include: 3-time NWA Florida champion; NWA Georgia champion; NWA Television Champion (lineally the WCW title); 2-time NWA Texas champion; NWA Americas (Hollywood) champion; NWA Southern (Memphis) champion; NWA Pacific Northwest champion; and no less than 18 tag team championships, including the aforementioned WWF Tag Team title reign.

In 2008, Johnson’s success was recognized by the wrestling world.  The Saint Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted him, as did the WWE Hall of Fame, where he was presented by The Rock.  In joining the WWE Hall of Fame, he stood alongside his tag partner Atlas (2006), his brothers-in-law the Wild Samoans (2007) and his father-in-law Peter Maivia (also 2008).  Family members Yokozuna (2012) and Rikishi (2015) have since been added.

Biographical information obtained from Wikipedia.