July 16, 2005
Rocky Johnson returns homeThe Rock's dad comes back to Amherst after 44 years
By TOM McCOAG - Halifax Herald
AMHERST, N.S. - Two young boys timidly approach Rocky Johnson.
"Are you really The Rock's father?" they ask in unison as they stare up at the six-foot-four former wrestler towering over them.
"Yes, I am," he says as the boys' eyes grow wide.
"Wow!" is all one can say before they run off yelling, "We met The Rock's father!" to their friends.
Mr. Johnson chuckles.
The Amherst native has answered the same question and seen the same response countless times since his son Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock, became a famous wrestler and movie star.
"He is the pride of my life," said Mr. Johnson, 60, who is making his first visit to his birthplace since he defended his Canadian heavyweight championship at the Amherst Stadium in 1969. He'd left town eight years earlier in 1961 at age 16.
Growing up, Mr. Johnson was known as Wayde Bowles, and like most African-Canadians in Amherst at the time, he lived in an area of town known as Sandhill.
"The town sure has changed," he said as he walked down Church Street on his way to a workout at a health centre.
"None of this was here when I was a kid," he said, pointing to the businesses that dot the street. "Except Mansour's (menswear store) over there. It was here back then."
He has noticed other differences in the week he has been home.
"When I was a kid, black and white kids went to school together and maybe played hockey, but at the end of the day they went to their part of town and we went to ours. We didn't mingle.
"I notice now that blacks live in all parts of the town and it seems to me people here now judge a person by their character and not by their race. That's a good thing."
Earlier in the day, he'd run into lifelong friend Ronald (Sonny) Martin. The two hadn't seen each other in four years and they slapped each other on the back and tossed a few jabs at each other before hugging.
"He was always an athlete . . . and boy, could he swim," Mr. Martin said of his friend. "He was so good, I'm sure he could have made the Olympics if he'd tried.
"It's when we moved to Toronto way back when that we became close friends. We trained together at the gym."
Initially, Mr. Johnson trained to be a boxer. He sparred with the best, including Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, but it was wrestling that always drew his attention.
From his earliest memories, he recalls loving the sport. Occasionally, he paid 25 cents to go see the wrestling matches in Amherst. He watched it on TV when he could and was always wrestling with his friends, but it wasn't until he came home last week that he may have found out why wrestling has always fascinated him.
"I just learned from a relative that my great-grandfather was a wrestler," Mr. Johnson said. "He used to challenge people in the audience to wrestle him for five bucks, so I guess it was in the genes."
Mr. Johnson wrestled as the Soulman and as Sweet Ebony Diamond for nearly 30 years in a career that took him around the world. He faced everyone from Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant to Bulldog Brown. While he never won an individual world title, he earned several regional belts, including North American champion, NWA U.S. champion and several tag-team championships.
Wrestling has changed over the years, he said.
"When I first began, and for much of my career, we wore trunks and wrestled," Mr. Johnson said. "I think we actually had more wrestling talent. Today, it's those who have the wildest character, the most outlandish clothes, who are the big stars.
"It's more showmanship than wrestling today, but don't get me wrong, the sport is still physically demanding because they do many more things than we ever did, like jumping off the top rope, diving into the crowd, being hit by chairs."
Another major change is the money wrestlers make. Most earn a minimum of $300,000 a year, which is $80,000 more than Mr. Johnson made in his best year.
He credits his long career to his daily training regimen -- which he continues to this day, even though he retired from the ring in 1991 -- and "the simple fact I live and breathe wrestling."
After his retirement, he operated a couple of gyms in his current home of Davie, Fla. He also spent time training wrestlers for the organization now known as World Wrestling Entertainment.
Among those he trained was his son.
"I tried to discourage him, but he insisted and gave me 150 per cent," Mr. Johnson said. "It's what carried him to where he is today. He's what keeps me going."
Mr. Johnson, recently divorced, is now engaged again. He has sold his gyms and is taking a vacation.
"This is the first holiday I've ever really had," he said. "I decided to come back home to reconnect with relatives because family is so important."
Mr. Johnson will be staying in Amherst for another couple of weeks. He promises the visit won't be his last.
"I'll be back, and I may even bring The Rock with me the next time."