Rocky Johnson remembered by son as a wrestler who shattered racial barriers
75-year-old Canadian wrestling legend died Wednesday
Curtis Bowles Johnson grew up among giants.
As a child he watched his father, Rocky (Soul Man) Johnson, take on racism and smash through plenty of opponents during his decorated wrestling career.
"He shattered a lot of barriers, racial barriers," explained Bowles Johnson, adding he believes his father's legacy will echo for years to come even though the sound of the ring bell from his final match has long since faded.
Johnson died on Wednesday. He was 75.
The Nova Scotia-born wrestler, and father of movie star Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, started his journey to the ring here in Ontario.
In the early 1960s Bowles Johnson says his father was driving a fish truck in Toronto and heading to Jack Wentworth's training school in Hamilton three or four times a week to learn to wrestle.
"He told me how much he enjoyed the training with the guys and how much he learned and how much he loved the city of Hamilton," said Bowles Johnson, who currently lives in the city. CBC spoke to him in October about plans to turn his father's life story into a movie.
"[Rocky] knew that he wanted to do something with his life, knew he wanted to box, or some kind of athletics," he explained.
Hamilton was where his dad met a Canadian professional wrestler named "Whipper" Billy Watson and discovered a way he could embrace his full athletic potential beyond simply throwing punches.
"In wrestling you can do drop kicks, backflips … he liked that idea of being able to be more flexible, more athletic and move more," explained Bowles Johnson.
Rocky Johnson was a natural, but the wins didn't come easy. On his way to becoming the first black champion in places like Georgia and Texas, Bowles Johnson said his father sometimes had to work with wrestlers who were racist.
"Wrestling is choreographed but some of the guys would stiff him — that means hit him for real with harder shots than should have been — just because of his race," he explained.
But that wasn't enough to keep the Soul Man down.
"Once he realized who these guys were and what it was about then he'd hit back twice as hard ... just to let him know that's not going to happen," said Bowles Johnson.
The men his father faced in the ring weren't his only opponents, he added.
"There were times when promoters wanted you to do the jive or the 'black thing' and my dad would tell them 'No, I'm an athlete. I'm not going to act a certain way to please you.'"
Bowles Johnson said his dad always handled himself with grace and wanted to leave a legacy as not just a good black wrestler, but a great athlete period.
Eventually, he teamed with Tony Atlas as The Soul Patrol and the two men became the first black World Tag Team Champions in WWE history when they defeated The Wild Samoans on Dec. 10, 1983.
Johnson was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008.
He was "proud of shattering barriers and making it easier for the other black wrestlers to come behind him," said his son.
Today Bowles Johnson stands six foot five inches tall and weighs about 250 pounds, but growing up he was surrounded by titans of the wrestling world, from Abdullah the Butcher to André the Giant.
"Being a little guy, these guys were giants … heroes, idols to me growing up," he recalled, adding to this day he's tough to impress when it comes to commenting on the physique of other guys working out at the gym.
"Huge to me was André the Giant … or my dad. That was huge," said Bowles Johnson. "You see things in a different perspective when you … grow up with larger than life figures."
Paving the way for the future wrestlers
He thinks of his father as someone who was incredibly determined, grounded and always found a way to do the right thing.
"I've seen him work hard all his life," said Bowles Johnson. "I've seen him held down at certain times until he had to work twice as hard because of racial barriers."
When he looks at wrestling today, Johnson said he sees evidence his father's fight wasn't in vain.
"Like any sport it evolves. Guys of yesterday paved the road so it can be like today.," he explained. "They endured the hardships and went through all that … so it could be what it is today."
To Bowles Johnson, his father was more than a wrestling icon.
"It's funny because through all the fame and all the titles ... he was always just dad to me."
with files from the Canadian Press