A lot of people may only know Rocky Johnson as the father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but he is so much more. The grandson of a slave who left home at the age of fourteen was a hall of fame wrestler in his own right. Soulman: The Rocky Johnson Story tells his story.
Going in, admittedly I did not know a lot about Rocky Johnson’s life or career. I knew that he had spent some time in the California territory, and that is what most drew me to the book. Once I started reading the book, I was almost instantly hooked. Not only has Johnson led an interesting life but his outlook was refreshing. Johnson never comes across as if he has any sort of axe to grind.
Johnson was born as Wayde Bowles in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada. After leaving home at the age of fourteen due to his mother’s boyfriend, he went to Toronto to live with his brothers, only to realize he didn’t know their addresses. He began working, had a stint as a boxer, and then fell into the world of professional wrestling. Johnson traveled all over Canada working for promotions such as Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto, Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, and Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling among others.
While wrestling in the Vancouver territory, Johnson had his first match in the United States in 1968. Then in May 1969, Johnson was brought into Southern California to team with Bobo Brazil and his popularity exploded. Within his first month in Los Angeles he held three titles at the same time, the Americas heavyweight (the main title in the territory), the Americas tag (with Earl Maynard), and the Beat the Champ TV title. He also won the first annual Los Angeles 22-man battle royal, an event that would become one of the biggest annual events in the territory.
From Southern California Johnson went to Japan. He also spent time in territories such as Detroit, Hawaii, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and others.
In the South Johnson broke racial barriers. He was the first Black wrestler to win the Southern, Georgia, and Florida heavyweight titles. Throughout the book Johnson refuses to use the “race card” is someone received preferential treatment over him, but there were times when he faced overt racism, such as being asked to eat watermelon or fried chicken in promos.
Johnson spent a brief period of time in the WWF teaming with Tony Atlas, and the two became the first all-Black WWF tag team champions. Vince McMahon put the two together in the hopes that Johnson could help keep Atlas under control, but Johnson only had limited success in that regard. Years later Atlas wrote his own book where he said some less than flattering things about Johnson. Towards the end of Soulman, Johnson spends a few pages to refute the negative things Atlas said. Johnson doesn’t come across bitter or angry, and never takes the low road with his corrections.
If you are looking for a lot of stories about The Rock, you might be disappointed in this book. Dwayne doesn’t get mentioned much until about 75% of the way into the book. There is a funny story of Johnson teaming with his son in the Bahamas while Dwayne was still in training and talk about how Dwayne had trouble coming up with a character in WWE. I was glad the book didn’t spend a ton of time on The Rock. There are enough places to read his story.
In all I thought this was a good book and a great look at pro-wrestling in the 1970s. There isn’t a lot of dirt if that is what you are looking for (he even has nice things to say about Mil Mascaras), but the story of a man who became one of the top stars in pro-wrestling at a time when the deck was stacked against him is enough.
Rocky Johnson and Scott Teal did a great job and I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of pro-wrestling and its history.
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