Before WWE Hall of Famer Rocky Johnson made a name for himself in the world of professional wrestling — a name, by the way, that isn’t even the one he was given at birth — the father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson trained as a boxer in his home country of Canada and even used to spar with some of the greatest heavyweight fighters the world has ever known. But his true passion became pro wrestling and he went on to become one of the first Black champions in WWE history.
Rocky Johnson used to spar with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman
Rocky Johnson was born Wayne Douglas Bowles in Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1944 but moved west to Toronto a few years after losing his father to cancer just before his 13th birthday. His mother remarried but the man she wed was an abusive alcoholic and Bowles simply needed to get away.
He worked odd jobs to make ends meet but would spend his free time at a Toronto community center where he would lift weights and swim — he was apparently a phenomenal swimmer — while also learning how to box. Even after beginning his career as a professional wrestler, Bowles continued to box and even used to spar with the likes of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the early years of their respective careers, which is a pretty cool thing for anyone to say.
No, the man who would become Rocky Johnson wasn’t the future heavyweight champion of the world as he was often called in his early days in wrestling but he was said to have been a talented fighter that could have made something of himself in that world had he chosen to do so. But although he chose professional wrestling, boxing literally became a permanent part of his life.
He chose the ring name Rocky Johnson to honor his two favorite boxers and legally changed his name at the start of his wrestling career
As Wayne Bowles embarked on his career in pro wrestling, he decided he needed a ring name and decided on Rocky Johnson.
But that wasn’t just some random name he came up with. No, that’s the combination of his two favorite boxers, Rocky Marciano, who remains the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history, and Jack Johnson, who was the first Black man to become heavyweight champion.
Bowles liked the name so much he legally changed his name to Rocky Johnson in the mid-1960s. So Dwayne Johnson could have actually been Dwayne Boles if you think about it. Throw that out there at your next trivia night.
He and Tony Atlas became the first Black men to hold the WWE tag titles
Rocky Johnson enjoyed quite a bit of success in various NWA promotions throughout the 1970s and although he never won the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, the title that was later replaced with the Big Gold Belt, Johnson did become the first Black man to win the prestigious NWA Georgia Heavyweight Championship, a title that’s been held by the likes of Nick Bockwinkel, Freddie Blassie, Bill Watts, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, and Tony Atlas just to name a few.
In 1982, Johnson joined WWE, where he formed a tag team with Atlas known as “The Soul Patrol.” The following year, Johnson and Atlas made history by becoming the first Black men to win the WWE tag titles when they defeated The Wild Samoans. The duo went on to hold the belts for 154 days and both became members of the WWE Hall of Fame, Atlas in 2006 and Johnson in 2008.
Rocky Johnson passed away in January 2020 at the age of 75.