August 20, 2003
Rocky Johnson: The unknown WWE trainer
By GREG OLIVER -- Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
After 30 years in the business, Rocky Johnson is more than happy to give back. As the boss of the WWE's 'finishing school' in Davie, Florida, Johnson has overseen the polishing of recent WWE arrivals like Brock Lesnar, Orlando Jordan and Sylvain Grenier. He's more than happy to do it.
"It takes up a lot of my time because I want it to. I enjoy it. I want to put something back in the business that I made a good living at all my life," Johnson told SLAM! Wrestling while on a recent trip through Toronto to visit family, including his brother Ricky Johnson.
The classes run four hours each day, from 10-12 noon, and 2-4 p.m., five days of the week, with Wednesdays and Sundays off. However, the students are welcome to use the facility to practice on their days off or on the off-hours.
To a veteran like Johnson, it's obvious who is putting the extra effort in, and who isn't. "I can see the ones who are training, and the ones who are just saying, 'Oh, well, I'm getting a paycheque,'" he said.
The wrestlers Johnson works with are under developmental contracts with the WWE, and most have already worked the Ohio Valley Wrestling promotion run by Jim Cornette in Louisville, KY. But Johnson stresses that it isn't a school for beginners. "It's really not a wrestling school. I get guys that have had experience in wrestling. They come out of Louisville, OVW. I teach them, more or less, the skills, teach them mainly psychology. You put a headlock on, now tell me why you put it on."
He has been at it for almost three years now, and before that, of course, he had a major hand in training his son, The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) for his wrestling career. Johnson also has run a weightlifting gym for 18 years.
As a trainer, there are both highs and lows. "My favourite part is watching them succeed and make it. It gives me a feeling that I can't describe. I watch these kids, how hard they train. It goes back to myself 30 years ago, and we never had the equipment and the stuff they have today, and the vitamins and the proteins. These kids today are bigger and stronger, coming at you 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, 18 years old. When I first started, if you weighed 250 pounds, you were a monster."
At any one time, he might have eight or 10 wrestlers around, usually for six months or so. Over the course of a year, he'll have a hand in the careers of about two-dozen grapplers. "Out of 20 to 25 guys, you might guy four that make it, and out of that four, you might get one or two that's a top, main eventer in a couple of years."
He feels a sense of failure when someone doesn't measure up to their promise. "I don't want to put six months to a year into them and they don't make it. They've lost and I feel that I've lost too," he said. "It's a personal loss. It's not money because I don't get paid by these kids." He has to establish an emotional disconnect--just because he might really like a student doesn't mean that they have all the tools to make it as a WWE superstar.
Johnson compiles charts of the progress of his students and files once a week to the talent department at the WWE. He has two assistants to help him with the training.
The academy starts up again in earnest in September, and while there are still wrestlers working out, Johnson is on a well-deserved vacation. Besides the stop in Toronto, he is driving out to his birthplace of Nova Scotia to see more family with his fiancee Sheila and his mother-in-law-to-be, Granny. (His divorce to Ata Maivia was finalized about six months ago.) Then, they will all drive back to Biloxi, MI, where Sheila lives and where Rocky keeps a couple of draft horses that he shows in competition.
The vacation has also meant a bit of shopping for his first granddaughter, who lives just a few doors down from his Florida condo. "That's my pride and joy, my little angel. I call her Precious," said a beaming Rocky Johnson.
Greg Oliver founded SLAM! Wrestling with John Powell way back in 1996, and has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. He is the author of the recently published book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians from ECW Press. The book includes a bio on Rocky Johnson and his very first promotional photo. Order it from Highspots.com. Greg can be emailed at email@example.com.