The hardscrabble story behind Canadian wrestling legend Rocky ‘Soulman’ Johnson

HALIFAX—Growing up in northern Nova Scotia in the 1950s, Wayde Bowles once spent 25 cents to watch wrestlers like “The Beast” compete at the Bailey Arena in Amherst.

“It’s hard to say exactly what captured my interest, but I was hooked before the end of the first match,” he recalled in a recent memoir that documents his rise from an abusive family life in rural Nova Scotia to a wildly successful professional wrestling career under the name Rocky “Soulman” Johnson.

“I lived for the day wrestling came to our town.”

Johnson, who is perhaps best known as the father of wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, died this week in Florida at the age of 75.

His book, “Soulman: The Rocky Johnson Story,” includes a moving introduction from his A-list son.

“I would have never been able to do the things I have … had it not been for both professional wrestling and my father — Rocky Johnson — who was ‘The Rock’ many years before I was born,” the younger Johnson says in the book.

“Rocky Johnson is responsible for everything I’ve done in wrestling, the movies, TV shows and overall business opportunities …. In my eyes Dad was one of the greatest wrestlers to ever set foot into the squared circle.”

The book, co-written with Scott Teal, recounts how at the age of 13, Rocky Johnson — then Wayde Bowles — lost his father to lung cancer.

“My dad was a big man — six-foot-seven and 300 pounds — and very strong,” Johnson says in the book. “In Amherst, the best job you could get was in the coal mine, and that’s what killed him.”

Johnson’s mother got by on a widow’s pension and by working as a nurse’s aide and a house cleaner.

When he was 14, his mother started a relationship with a man who would drink heavily and beat her and Johnson’s brother Mervyn. During one particularly nasty confrontation, Johnson recalled how the man charged at the two boys, but Johnson spotted a coal shovel just in time.

“I grabbed it and slammed it down over (his) head, knocking him cold as a wedge,” he said.

However, the ugly altercation resulted in a call to the police, who told Johnson’s mother that either her son or her boyfriend had to leave town.

“Mom looked at me and said, ‘Wayde, you’d better leave,” Johnson wrote. “I packed my clothes in a cardboard suitcase and hitchhiked the 1,600 miles to Toronto with just two dollars in my pocket.”

The book chronicles Johnson’s hardscrabble life in the big city before exploring his transformation from fish-truck driver to professional wrestler, a career that would take him across southern Ontario and eventually to the U.S.-based National Wrestling Alliance in the mid-1960s and World Wrestling Federation in the 1980s.

Johnson, who stood 6-2 and weighed 260 pounds, eventually became part of a famous wrestling duo with Tony Atlas. Together, they were known as the Soul Patrol.

The pair became the first African-American World Tag Team Champions in World Wrestling Federation history when they defeated The Wild Samoans on Dec. 10, 1983.

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After retiring from wrestling in 1991, Johnson eventually turned to training his son “The Rock” — a nickname that is partly in tribute to his father.

Rocky Johnson was inducted by his son into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2008.

TORONTO STAR