As It Happens

Rocky Johnson was a champion for black equality, says tag-team partner Tony Atlas

To some, he's best known as the father of wrestler-turned-movie star Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. But to wrestling fans, Rocky Johnson was a legend all his own. 

The legendary Nova Scotia-born wrestler died at the age of 75

In this undated photo, Mean Gene Okerlund interviews Rocky (Soulman) Johnson. (WWE, Inc. via The Associated Press)


To some, he's best known as the father of wrestler-turned-movie star Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. But to wrestling fans, Rocky Johnson was a legend all his own. 

The Nova Scotia-born champion died at the age of 75, the WWE confirmed on Wednesday. 

During his years in the ring, Johnson — also known as Soulman — made history as a Hall of Famer. And he did it alongside Tony Atlas.

Together, the pair made up pro-wrestling's first all-black championship tag team The Soul Patrol. And Atlas says their partnership was just one of many ways Johnson broke barriers. 

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. 

It feels like I didn't lose a friend. It feels like I lost a brother. 

I met Rocky in Florida for the first time [in 1975] ... and I wanted to fight everybody, so nobody wanted to get near me. So Rocky came and started talking to me and said, "What's the problem?"

And I said ... "I'm getting tired [because] every time I walk in the dressing room, somebody calls me a n----r.'"

He said, "I had to go through all that stuff too. ... You have to stand up for yourself."

Rocky had to fight racism his whole life. You know, you watch the way that man wrestles, you look at the way he was built ... he never got the push that the Caucasian wrestler got. 

[Rocky's] mother basically showed him the door when he was about 13 and he had to do it all on his own. What did he teach you? What was the most important lesson you got from Rocky? 

I left home when I was 14. So we pretty much had the same type of upbringing. 

Rocky was the type of guy who would stand up for himself. With me, I let it build and build and build until I can't handle it anymore and then I would explode, which got me in a lot of trouble. But Rocky, he always spoke up for himself. Sometimes he'd wrestle a guy in a main event. ... They'd give Rocky $500 and they'd give the guy that Rocky wrestled $1,500. 

All he ever wanted in this business was ... equality for black wrestlers. 

You and Rocky were the first all-black tag-team world champs. What was he like in the ring? Tell us a bit more about the way he wrestled — his style, his skill. 

If you look at a match of Rocky Johnson and then look at a match of Dwayne Johnson, it's like you're looking at the same person. Dwayne moves like his father. He wrestles like his father. He acts like his father. He's got that same pride that his father had. So Dwayne is like a chip off the old block. He's just bigger and better looking. But other than that, he wrestles just like his dad. 

Rocky was the type of guy who did his job. He never took his problems to the ring. He was very professional — very professional. Very, very fan-friendly. You only need to [ask] people that got his autograph and met him. You know, Rocky would ... hold you at that table for hours. You know, he loved his fans. He was a great guy. He was probably one of the best African-American wrestlers to ever have been in this business. 

Tony Atlas says Johnson always stood up for himself. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images/WWE)

You mentioned Rocky's son Dwayne — known as The Rock — Dwayne Johnson. A movie star and a wrestler, quite extraordinary. What did Rocky think of the success that his son had? 

He was very, very proud of his boy. [But] he'd never use his son's success for his own gains. You know, he went on his own merits. He'd never try to use his son to get bookings or to do anything. 

Rocky's wife used to call me to help get Rocky booked. And I must have got ... at least 20 or 30 phone calls [today]. And I told my wife — just before you guys called me — I said, "That's a damn shame. When that man was alive nobody paid him any attention. They ignored him."

It's a shame. 

Johnson, right, is shown with his son, Dwayne Johnson, centre, and Ata Johnson in 2015. (Jim Smeal/BEI/Shutterstock)

Is there any particular memory of him ... some image — some moment you cherish — that you'll remember? 

What I cherish about Rocky Johnson is that he stood up for himself as a man. And that was [unthinkable] in the '60s and the '70s for a black man to stand up for himself.

So, if you could take Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King and put them together, you've got Rocky Johnson. 

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Interview with Tony Atlas produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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