Editor’s note: Rocky Johnson died in January 2020 from a blood clot, a friend told us. This is our profile on him from late 2019.
LUTZ — More than four decades ago, Rocky Johnson made history in Tampa as Florida’s first African-American pro wrestling heavyweight champion.
Now, packing a new autobiography already optioned by his son for film, the father of Hollywood actor and producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is moving back here.
He hopes the book, Soulman: The Rocky Johnson Story, serves as an inspiration to others.
“My family had to overcome a lot of roadblocks,” Johnson, 72, said at the $800,000 Lutz home his son bought him four months ago. “But here we are. If we did it, anyone can."
A descendant of slaves who had escaped into Canada, Johnson was born Wayde Bowles in rural Nova Scotia.
He was 12 when his dad died. Two years later, he hitchhiked to Toronto to train as a boxer but chose professional wrestling after watching locals learning the ropes.
“There was a different athleticism to it,” he said. “I knew I could do it.”
Still, boxing remained important to his wrestling persona.
“Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion, so I took part of his name,” Johnson said. “I admired Rocky Marciano, so I took part of his name."
Rocky Johnson later became his legal name.
Johnson was best known for his drop kick — leaping off the ground and slamming both feet into an opponent’s chest or face.
But he also excited crowds with legitimate boxing skills like jabs and footwork.
“He was so electric," said Barry Rose, 56, of Philadelphia, who was a kid growing up in South Florida when he served as president of the Rocky Johnson Fan Club in the 1970s.
Today, Rose promotes Legends Fan Fests in Lutz, where wrestling fans can meet wrestling icons. Johnson will be among those featured at the next event, Nov. 9.
“He had the best drop kick and punches and was a good interview," Rose said. "He was the entire package. That’s what allowed him to connect with crowds and become a trailblazer in places still experiencing issues regarding race.”
In the 1970s, before World Wrestling Entertainment came to dominate the industry worldwide, states and regions had their own promotions.
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Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion in the history of Texas, Georgia and Florida, winning the Florida title in 1975 at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. The Tampa wrestling mecca is close to the neighborhood where Johnson lived while he performed with Championship Wrestling From Florida.
Later, he teamed with Tony Atlas to become the WWE’s first black tag-team world champions.
Winners are determined beforehand in the scripted entertainment that is pro wrestling, but it was still an accomplishment to become champion, Johnson said. It meant that promoters trusted him to draw crowds, including white fans in the Deep South.
“I was the guy who could break down those walls because I was credible,” Johnson said.
“In those days the promoters wanted the black wrestlers to dance and eat fried chicken and be a stereotype. I refused to do that. I was coming in as an athlete and I was leaving as an athlete. So that is how fans saw me — as an athlete."
Still, he experienced racism, he said. Some fellow wrestlers hated him and some fans booed him because of the color of his skin.
He remained confident that his athleticism would win people over, said Johnson, who stands 6-foot-2, weighed around 260 pounds in his prime and could bench press 505 pounds.
“Rocky had undeniable charisma," Rose said. "It’s why wherever he worked, he was on top. He was never in the middle of the card.”
Crowds would chant his name.
“Rocky, Rocky, Rocky,” Johnson said. “There was nothing like it.”
The chant continued through the next generation. In homage to his father, Dwayne Johnson took on the name “The Rock” as a wrestler before achieving fame in popular movies such as the Scorpion King, the Fast & Furious franchise and Jumanji.
Father and son lived in the same South Florida neighborhood until the son moved recently to Georgia. Rocky Johnson said his ex-wife Ata Johnson also lives in Georgia in a home their son also bought her.
Rocky Johnson opted for the north Hillsborough County community of Lutz, a popular destination for professional wrestlers past and present. Among others living here is Thaddeus Bullard, known in the WWE as Titus O’Neil.
“Georgia is too cold and wet for me,” Johnson said. “I have knee problems and hip problems. I broke my neck. They call Florida the wrestling graveyard because it’s where we all end up. The weather is easier on us here."
Still, Johnson said, he has no regrets about his career, even on those days when old injuries resurface.
“I accomplished a lot, but my son has taken it to another level. My grandkids will take it to a whole other level. I am proud of my family.”