It’s been decades since I cared about wrestling. But for a good stretch of my childhood and early teens, I’d be glued to the TV every Saturday morning to watch the WWF (née WWWF) and the incredible Von Erich brothers on WCCW. And there were certain guys I was a huge fan of, so much so that even today I get a little smile on my face when I hear their name or see an old clip on social media. The dynamic and jacked tag team duo known as Soul Patrol, Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas, were two such guys. Sadly, Johnson passed away yesterday at 75.
Born Wayde Douglas Bowles, the Nova Scotia native took the performer name Rocky Johnson to honor both Rocky Marciano and Jack Johnson and broke in with the NWA in the ’60s. Despite being with the outfit until the early ’80s, it was his time in the WWF that made him a wrestling legend. An absolute physical specimen, the charismatic Johnson was a fantastic grappler known for one of the best drop-kicks ever seen in a squared circle and had epic battles with the major stars of his era: the Magnificent Muraco, Adrian Adonis, and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, among others.
But it was his pairing with Atlas that broke barriers as they became the first black tag team champions in WWF history when they defeated the Wild Samoans. Back in the day, they were arguably the most popular tandem in wrestling due to their likability and ring performances. Whether it was Atlas lifting a 300-lb. opponent over his head or Johnson floating horizontally in the air, the Soul Patrol put asses in the seats before making those same asses rise in unison after witnessing the pair’s latest athletic maneuver in the ring.
It wasn’t all fun for Johnson as he battled prejudice and racism that was much more prevalent and blatant 40 years ago; he once refused to allow himself to be whipped for a segment. But through it all, Johnson kept his dignity, his integrity, and his ability to put on a hell of a show. In the process, he became a pioneer and broke down doors for the many black wrestlers who followed in his wake.
He retired from wrestling in 1991 and shortly thereafter began to train his son Dwayne, who wanted to follow in his father’s legendary footsteps. In 2008, he was inducted into the WWE (née WWF) Hall of Fame with his father-in-law High Chief Peter Maivia by the son he trained and would himself go onto WWE superstardom, The Rock. My condolences to his family, many friends, and rasslin’ co-workers.