More Than A Trailblazer: The Life And Times Of Rocky Johnson

Boxers typically don't make good professional wrestlers. Boxing as a sport is too focused on speed and execution; its athletes struggle to adjust to the showy nature of professional wrestling. Most boxers that have dabbled in pro wrestling were disappointments; unfamiliar with throwing a worked punch, their "real" punches were too fast to properly resonate with pro wrestling fans.


However, nobody took the sweet science further in pro wrestling than Rocky Johnson. Johnson was a naturally gifted amateur boxer, and during the height of his career he would actually work as a training partner for Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and other elite boxers. As a wrestler, boxing was Johnson's calling card, pummeling opponents with flurries of rights and lefts that managed to look fairly legitimate while also playing to the crowd.

Johnson is best known today for his run in the WWF, where he tagged with Tony Atlas, winning the WWF Tag Team Championship in 1983. Johnson and Atlas were the first two black men to hold titles in the WWF, which would earn him a mention during every Black History month update from WWE, probably for the rest of time.


However, that title reign with Atlas would last only 154 days, and while that is what most people remember when it comes to Johnson's wrestling career because the winners write the history books, Johnson actually accomplished far more outside of a WWF ring than in it. A headliner around the country, Johnson had a long and esteemed run as a singles star and was a legitimate drawing card for nearly two decades before he made it to the WWF.

When The Rock was a regular performer in WWE, he would often mention how great it was to be in his hometown. It didn't exactly matter where the show was, it could be in Miami, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco or Honolulu, The Rock always had a story about growing up in that community. Most people thought it was shtick, that The Rock obviously was not really from all these different places. However, as the son of a headlining wrestler during the peak of the territory days, The Rock was telling the truth; he really did grow up in all of those places.

Rocky Johnson was born in Nova Scotia (that's right, The Rock is Canadian) and started wrestling in 1964, working throughout Eastern Canada, a scene that was thriving during most of the 1960s and 70s. Johnson was a natural athlete, and was a prototype for future wrestlers with his thick, bodybuilder physique but also possessing great quickness and agility. In addition to his boxing, his signature move was a dropkick sequence where he would hit three in quick succession.


Possessing a charisma that would be inherited by his son, Johnson would become a main event performer in promotions all over the United States and Canada in the 1970s. In 1970 he would emerge as the top babyface in Los Angeles and become entangled in a long, money-making feud with area legend Freddie Blassie. When Blassie would turn babyface, Johnson would form a babyface super tag team that dominated the territory.

Johnson would also become a big star in Northern California, finding major success in Roy Shire's Big Time Wrestling promotion. It was in San Francisco that Johnson began teaming with Peter Maivia, an area legend. Through working with Peter, he met his daughter, Ata Maivia. Wrestling fans know the rest of the story, in 1972 the couple had a child, Dwyane Johnson, who would go on to become The Rock, one of the true great icons of the professional wrestling industry and later, the movie industry as well.

While most younger fans know Rocky Johnson as being simply The Rock's dad, Dwayne's old man was a major star in his own right. Perhaps his best run came in the Memphis territory where similar to his run in LA, he worked a program an area legend, this time with Jerry Lawler.


In a program that would never be able to take place today, Johnson was brought into the Memphis territory with the gimmick being that he was a top-ten ranked boxer who had never wrestled before. Before the internet or cable television, it was possible to actually pull this off since most Memphis wrestling fans would not have seen Johnson in other territories, and Johnson was tremendous athlete that threw "real" looking punches.

His feud with Lawler would be one of the most famous in the history of the territory; a territory that was known for its athletic style and wild brawls, two things that Johnson excelled at. At one point, he "won" Lawler's crown and was the King of Memphis for a period of time.

Johnson would also find title success in various other promotions from coast to coast, winning the regional versions of the world title in Portland, Georgia and Florida. He was the first black wrestler to hold the Georgia Heavyweight Championship in 1975. Johnson also got plenty of shots at the big title, the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, wrestling Terry Funk a number of times throughout Texas.

In the early 1980s, Johnson's career was winding down and he made it to New York City and the WWF. It was there where he was paired with Tony Atlas as the tag team known as The Soul Patrol. The team would end up winning the tag team titles from The Wild Samoans in 1983, holding onto the titles until April 1984 when they dropped the titles to Adrian Adonis and Dick Murdoch.


While the two men will forever be linked for their accomplishment in the WWF, in reality they didn't get along. Johnson was an accomplished, seasoned veteran and Atlas was still relatively new to the business and getting the push of his life thanks to his herculean physique. Soon after they dropped the titles Johnson would leave the territory, and Atlas would then fall out of the WWF due to a drug problem.

After leaving the WWF, Johnson wrestle sporadically for the next few years before quietly retiring in 1988. In 1995 after his attempts to make it in professional football failed, Dwayne begged his father to teach him how to wrestle, and while Rocky was negative on it at first, he agreed to help train him.

Due to his friendship with WWF executive Pat Patterson, who Rocky knew from his days in California, Johnson got Patterson to take a look at his son. According to Dave Meltzer, Patterson came back to Vince McMahon saying that Dwayne Johnson was the best young wrestling prospect he had ever seen in his life, and that the WWF had to sign him immediately. With the success of his son, McMahon was convinced Rocky Johnson knew a thing or two about coaching talent, and he began working in Ohio Valley Wrestling as a trainer for WWE's developmental product.


Modern fans recognize Rocky Johnson as The Rock's dad, and perhaps they also know about his tag team with Tony Atlas. However, Johnson had a very long and a successful wrestling career before any of that stuff happened. Johnson was a legit drawing card in nearly every territory in the country at one time or another, and towards the end he made a little history and his son turned into one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. He may be known for the latter, but the former was just as, if not more, impressive and noteworthy.