WWE issued a statement on Johnson’s death Wednesday night. Johnson and Tony Atlas became the first black world tag team champions in WWE history when they defeated The Wild Samoans on Dec. 10, 1983.
“A loss for every fan of @WWE, Rocky Johnson was a barrier-breaking performer. Our thoughts are with his family at this time,” WWE executive and wrestler Paul “Triple H” Levesque tweeted.
Johnson Helped Train His Son
Johnson later helped train his son, who adopted the Rocky moniker from his father. Johnson came to his son’s aid after a match at WrestleMania in 1997. The Rock inducted his father into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008.
Former professional wrestler Brian Blair, another 1980s WWE star, was friends with Johnson for decades and they still went to church together in the Tampa, Florida area. Blair told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Johnson had complained of an unspecified illness of late and had missed church that he attended with Blair and other former wrestlers. Blair said Johnson’s wife, Sheila, was distraught over her husband’s death.
“He was just under the weather, he thought he had the flu or something,” Blair said by phone. “I said, ‘You, need to get checked out, Rocky.’ He said he’d be OK. Then he missed this Sunday, a few days ago. When I talked to him again, he said he still wasn’t feeling good and he still missed church. He still didn’t get checked out. I talked to Sheila and she said he was just being stubborn. He died at home, today.”
Johnson was born Wayde Douglas Bowles and started his wrestling career in the mid-1960s. He spent the bulk of his career in the National Wrestling Alliance and later joined the then-World Wrestling Federation in the 1980s. He formed a tag team with Atlas known as “Soul Patrol” and became of one the popular teams of the era. Johnson retired in the early 1990s but helped introduce his son to officials at WWE.
‘Soul Man’ Wrestled in Fresno
Johnson wrestled in Fresno during the 1960s and early 1970s as part of the Big Time Wrestling circuit headquartered in San Francisco. He was the circuit’s U.S. heavyweight champion in 1971, winning the title from Paul DeMarco and later surrendering it to Pat Patterson.
(GV Wire contributed to this report.)