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Remembering Wrestler Rocky Johnson


When Rocky Johnson died last week, most headlines mentioned that he trained his son, wrestler-turned-Hollywood-star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. It's a fine legacy, but Rocky Johnson has other accomplishments.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Dropkick - another one. Rock with tremendous dropkicks. Over the head, kicked (unintelligible).


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: One, two and make it three.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're going to talk about those dropkicks in a moment. Rocky Johnson first brought them to the WWF, now known as the WWE, in the early 1980s. He'd been wrestling for two decades before he made his mark there as part of the first black world tag team champions.

Alfred Konuwa writes about wrestling for Forbes, and he joins me now to talk about Johnson's career. Good morning.

ALFRED KONUWA: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We must confess we went down a YouTube rabbit hole of wrestling matches from the early 1980s.

KONUWA: (Laughter) Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was a lot of fun watching Rocky Johnson against Roddy Piper, against Mr. Fuji, against the Black Demon. And he could really move. What made him different from all the other wrestlers during that time?

KONUWA: He absolutely could move, and that's part of what made him different, in addition to having such a bodybuilding, incredible, impeccable physique. At the time in the '70s, the conventional wrestler look was more of that kind of beer-belly tough guy look. That was the time of Ric Flair, the time of Dusty Rhodes and these old-school kind of big guys who just looked like tough guys you didn't want to mess with.

But Rocky - not only did he look like an athlete with that bodybuilder physique; he could jump high. He could run fast. And he was a good wrestler. That combination was very rare then, and it continues to be kind of rare now in that a guy with a big, muscular physique who can also deliver in the ring - and that's what made him so different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I promised we were going to talk about dropkicks. So you have to talk about the dropkicks.

KONUWA: Oh, we got to talk about those dropkicks. I was listening to him in the clip, and I could just see him in my head. The dropkick, to this day, is a very, very normal move. But he revolutionized it in that he would jump, like, 10 feet in the air and just kick his opponent.

And his dropkick was one of the ingredients of what's called a comeback, which is when the good guy comes back after getting beaten down by the bad guy. And he knew how to get the fans to care about him through getting up and clotheslining and throwing a big right hand. And then that dropkick was, like, the coup d'etat where, once he jumps up and kicks you - you heard those people going crazy. That's a move that he revolutionized.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did he get started in wrestling?

KONUWA: Well, he was born in Nova Scotia.


KONUWA: He actually started out as a boxer. I mean, he'll tell stories in that - I believe he claims that he taught Ali the Ali shuffle. So you take that for what it's worth. But eventually, he switched to wrestling. He, as a wrestler, met a woman named Ata Maivia, who would be his second wife. And that's the woman who he would go on to have his son Dwayne Johnson with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the other thing that really caught my eye about him was that he said that he refused to go along with some of the things promoters wanted him to do. You know, there is - and this is an understatement - a lot of theater in professional wrestling and stereotyping based on race and ethnicity.

KONUWA: Yeah. I will go a step further and say that wrestling has a deep-rooted, ugly history of racism that, still, you can see to this day. And I really do wish we were talking about Rocky Johnson under different circumstances, but it is very fitting that we are honoring him on MLK weekend because he was a trailblazer for African Americans in wrestling.

He was one of the first people who, when he went to a promoter and they wanted him to do a stereotype - for example, there was an interview he did on Hannibal TV where he said that a promoter wanted him to be whipped like a slave on TV as part of a storyline. And he would always say, no; if you want to use me, I'm an athlete. I'm 6-foot-2. I'm 260 pounds. I'm cut to shreds. I could make you a lot of money on the basis of my athleticism. So you use me as an athlete.

And that mindset alone was so powerful because you were able to see somebody come in as an African American with no silly gimmick and become popular on the merits of his own athleticism. That paved the way for The Rock, his son - half black, half Samoan. He was never a racial stereotype character. He was just a guy who was a great athlete. That's what they saw in him. And it worked fantastically.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look at The Rock now, when you see him on-screen, do you recognize things that he must have learned from his dad?

KONUWA: Oh, absolutely. And that's - when you see The Rock, his charisma - if you ever saw Soul Man Rocky Johnson - like, you have to really, really be cool to earn a name like Soul Man (inaudible) Johnson. And boy, did he earn it. You look at him talking, and he's just got this smooth delivery. And it's funny that these old YouTube clips - he's got the sunglasses on. He's got the kind of Hawaiian shirt on. And that's what The Rock did early in his career to really get popular with the crowd. He kind of created this affected character that would talk in a certain voice. But I always felt like he was doing an impression of his dad, and that's what kind of helped him connect with the crowd.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alfred Konuwa - he writes about wrestling for Forbes, and he's helping us remember today Rocky Johnson, who died last week at the age of 75.

Thank you very much.

KONUWA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.