Wrestling fans today sometimes do not know how easy it is to find out about certain wrestlers and other promotions, as opposed to in the pre-internet days. Most fans back then had to rely on the various wrestling magazines, or if they were lucky, tape trading with strangers.
I started watching wrestling on and off around 1984, but did not have access weekly until around 1986. I would occasionally get to see WWF Championship Wrestling show on channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio (WYTV). I remember seeing a few matches, such as Greg Valentine bashing the I-C title into the cage after losing it to Tito Santana, Andre The Giant getting his hair cut, and several wild matches with the first wrestler I ever saw on television, George “The Animal” Steele. It wasn’t until 1986 when the WWF show was held weekly, after the popularity of Hulk Hogan, where I got regularly aired programming.
Because of this, I missed out on the career, especially the WWF career, of Rocky Johnson. The only exposure I had to Johnson was via the wrestling magazines, where I would read on the past champions, knowing that he was tag team champions with Tony Atlas. Later on, of course, with the internet and his famous son being a huge wrestling star, I was able to see some of his matches.
SoulMan: The Rocky Johnson Story ( ECW Press, 2019) Johnson, along with Scott Teal, takes the reader through his career as one of the more popular African American wrestlers from the late ’60s -’80s.
When I requested the book to review, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the co-writer was Teal, who is a legendary wrestling historian and author. Any smart wrestling collector know Teals’ name, and his company Crowbar Press, from his work writing the books for Stan Hansen, J.J. Dillon, The Assassin, and Tony Atlas (along with the many historical books he has written and edited). When I took the book out of the packaging, I knew, when seeing Teal’s name on it, this will be a good (and historical accurate book).
The Forward, written by son Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, details how The Rock’s success was due to his father, and how as a young child, Dwayne would go to the matches, being exposed to the inside work of wrestling, including blading, how the matches were laid out, and keeping the kayfabe carnival mystery so the outsiders would not know what’s going on.
Rocky takes the book throughout his career, from his first love of wrestling as a fan getting autographs outside the arenas (and seeing one of the bad guy “heels” hiding in the backseat of the car with the good guys he just fought), to his various stints in the territories and the many bookers he had to work with before getting to the WWF.
Rocky’s childhood growing up in a not so happy environment in Canada, brings a heart filled aspect to the book, where he ended up having to leave in order to get a better life for himself. The reader has to have a respect for a man who did whatever he could to keep a steady job while wrestling, to provide for himself. This is not a story where (sometimes like today) where a wrestler is discovered at a gym and giving the golden keys to train somewhere. Johnson’s career starting out as a boxer, and then going into wrestling, where he was not told of how things worked even then, and just told to go out and figure it out is an unique journey.
The book has road stories and tales of the different promotions that he was involved in , with tales about “Whipper” Billy Watson, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Buddy Colt, Jerry “The King” Lawler, and more. There are tales about promoters Ole Anderson (who Johnson was not a fan of), Jerry Jarret, Nick Gulas, Jim Barnett, and Mike Lebell. Johnson discusses how some of the other black wrestlers constantly used the “race card” to cause problems with the promoters and, at times, preventing Johnson himself to succeed. There are funny stories about Freddy Blassie and Johnny Valentine’s practical jokes on other wrestlers, to the time The Iron Sheik ran out of his own match , thinking a fan had a gun at the shows. SoulMan also gives Johnson’s opinion on his son, and some early stories of him training young Dwayne in wrestling, along with his take on Dwayne’s movie career.
At first, I thought the book would be covered with many tales of Johnson’s time in the WWF, but I didn’t realize he was not in the WWF for a long time. There is one chapter about his time working with the McMahons .One part is mentioned that Johnson was wrestling in Struthers, Ohio, (not far from where I live and grew up) when he found out that McMahon SR. passed away. However, this chapter is very insightful, because Johnson discusses some of the things that were said about him in the book by Tony Atlas (also by Teal). I thought this was a neat aspect in the book , which gives the readers that have read the Atlas book, another side of the story. The fact that this section doesn’t turn into a gossip style bashing, and is done with respect to Atlas and his side of the breakup of their tag team, Johnson states his side of the story.
Some of my favorite stories in the book involves actor Jackie Gleason’s time in wrestling in Florida, how Jody Hamilton (“The Assassin”) would sing to wrestlers under his mask, and a story in Portland that involved Rocky’s fake death and a horse (NO SPOILERS here).
The book is a nice historical writing at the career and life of Johnson. There were several things I was not aware of before reading the book, including Johnson’s real name (he didn’t change it until years later), that he was Canadian, and how little time he spent in the WWF. The book has a undertone of a man who worked hard to not only achieve his dreams (along with giving back to others as a trainer), but to overcome biases of the time, to make a hall of fame career. Even though there was not much in the ways of his time in the WWF, the book has a ton of easy to read chapters that will not disappoint fans of the territory wrestling days.
This review copy was sent courtesy of ECW Press
Soul Man: The Rocky Johnson Story by Rocky Johnson with Scott Teal (ECW Press, 2019) ISBN: 978-1-77041-493-8 (softcover), 978-177305-413-1 (pdf), 978-1-77305-412-4 (EPUB) can be found at http://www.ecwpress.com.
For information about the author, go to : http://www.crowbarpress.com
Geared For: Ages 12 and Up
For Fans Of: Pro Wrestling, Sports Autobiographies, Sports, African American athletes