My relationship with professional wrestling is very complicated at best. I watched my first wrestling match sometime around 1983, and the larger than life characters were literal comic books that had exploded in front of me. Like most other kids in the ’80s, I wanted more. I begged my mom to buy me wrestling magazines, toys, and watched every Saturday morning.
I loved guys like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage, but I remember my eyes widening every time there was a Black or Brown face on my screen. So naturally I had an affinity for characters like The Junkyard Dog, Koko B Ware. But what really turned me on to wrestling was a tag team called The Soul Patrol.
Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas were two JACKED African American athletes, who didn’t dance, sing or bark like JYD and Koko. These guys just got down to business. Their matches were high energy, intense, and fun. In December of 1983, The Soul Patrol became the first black tag team champions, taking down Afa and Sika — known as the Wild Samoans — who seemed pretty unbeatable at the time.
A few years earlier, Rocky Johnson and Ata Maivia gave birth to Dwayne, who would later go on to become one of the biggest megastars in the universe, The Rock. Rocky’s relationship would make him an integral part of a long bloodline of professional wrestling greats — such as Yokozuna, Rikishi, and Roman Reigns — known as the Samoan Dynasty.
A few days ago, when I heard that Mr. Johnson had passed at 75, I was saddened, because he and Tony Atlas were the first Black faces I’d seen on my screen during pro wrestling that let me know that I belonged. As a child, being able to see yourself on a TV screen is probably the most important thing ever. It strengthened my bond to pro wrestling even more.
I say my relationship is complicated because it is. Nowadays, the more I learn about my favorite wrestlers, it seems harder and harder to profess blind loyalty to wrestling, but I know one thing, when it’s done right, it’s more emotional, more heart-tugging and more real than anything in life. That was shown this past year during Kofi Kingston’s improbable Wrestlemania run. I love and respect the hard work that goes into being a top-level pro wrestler, and that won’t change.
So, after Rocky’s passing, I was inspired to write a few lines about the Soulman, as part of my daily writing activity… gotta keep the sword sharp, you know.
The song went:
Before the amazing, eyebrow raising
most electrifying man would ever grace stages
His pop duke would hit the road to try make wages
a Black Canadian, well before Drake was in
See back in the days to escape being slaves
It wasn’t enough for negroes to leave the state
They had to change the culture,
So the Underground Railroad took his folks to Nova Scotia
Later Moved to T-Dot, learned how to box
transitioned to wrestling
Nothing handed to him, guess he would have to invest in
Himself, championship shots but never any belts,
Feuded with legends but he clearly needed some help
He would tag with Tony Atlas
Soul Patrol, unapologetic blackness
Excellence when they toppled Afa and Sika
First black tag team champs I’m a believer
In the soul man
not just Rocky’s old man
Showed the people’s champ how to hold his hands
Who could do it like the Soulman
Rest in Peace
I recorded a short in-studio video and shared on twitter, because I was proud of the work and wanted to share some awareness of Rocky Johnson. Many people have messaged me appreciating the bits of knowledge about Rocky’s career that they hadn’t known. I felt good.
Then I woke up this morning to see that The Rock himself watched and appreciated the video, and posted that the Soulman would be laid to rest today.
I’m honored that he was able to see it and approved of it, but man, do I wish it were under better circumstances. My prayers and condolences go out to the families hurting today.