Pioneer black wrestler will be honored, BY JIM VARSALLONE - The Miami Herald - 23rd March 2008
A Pembroke Pines man and former professional wrestler will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his son, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.
A former pro wrestler who helped pave the way for blacks to enter the field -- and who endured racism, abuse, even death threats -- will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on Saturday at Amway Arena in Orlando.
Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson will do the honors, inducting both his father, Rocky ''Soulman'' Johnson, 63, who lives in Pembroke Pines, and his late grandfather, Peter ''High Chief'' Maivia (1937-82).
Dwayne Johnson credits both men for his success in football, professional wrestling and the movies.
The World Wrestling Entertainment honors will take place during WrestleMania weekend in Orlando.
Rocky Johnson started wrestling in the 1960s during tense times of prejudice and racial tension, especially in the South.
''Some guys didn't want to wrestle me because I was black,'' Johnson said. ``Others would try to make me look bad.''
Johnson was a ''babyface,'' or good guy, who competed against ''heels,'' who played the role of bad guys.
Still, because of his color, he endured plenty of abuse from pro wrestling fans.
''It was very different for me when I first started wrestling,'' said Johnson, who was born in 1944 in Nova Scotia. ``The biggest change for me was going to the South. I would always walk with my head up, never put my head down. There were things promoters wanted me to do because I was black, and I wouldn't do it.''
In the 1960s, there were probably five well-known black wrestlers in the United States -- Bobo Brazil, Sweet Daddy Sika, the Black Panther, Bearcat Wright, and Johnson. Most worked in the North.
The South was a good region for professional wrestling, but some Southern promoters refused to hire black wrestlers.
In pro wrestling, combatants are supposed to protect each other in the ring while making the action and tension appear believable. Some of Johnson's opponents would hit him for real.
''They wanted to hurt me,'' he said. ``They wanted me to leave the area and quit the business. They didn't want me to go over because of my color.''
With his amateur boxing background -- he sparred with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman -- Johnson was able to handle himself if things got out of hand in a match.
But a black man wrestling in the South in those years took a real risk.
Some promoters in places like Alabama told Johnson he would never be a champion. So he just left and worked elsewhere.
In Tennessee, white promoters and wrestlers ridiculed black combatants on TV by making them eat chicken and watermelon, Johnson said. They referred to them as ''Sambo'' and ''boy.'' They made them walk like a monkey or act like a gorilla.
TOOK A STAND
Black leaders eventually took a stand, forcing a TV station in Memphis to pull a wrestling show after a scripted tar-and-feather skit.
''To get respect, you have to give it,'' Johnson said. ``I was not going to respect them if they were not going to respect me.''
Following the famous Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki boxer-versus-wrestler match in Japan, Jerry Lawler wanted Rocky to face him in Memphis, billed as a boxer-versus-wrestler matchup.
Johnson was reluctant but eventually agreed.
Johnson versus Lawler sold out the Memphis Coliseum -- actually turning away 5,000 people, which nearly led to a riot.
''Since I was 17, I wanted to be a pro wrestler,'' Johnson said. ``My sister-in-law [Audrey Jones] told me to be like Martin Luther King and follow your dreams.''
Johnson's muscular physique and quick hands and feet excited fans.
In the 1970s, Johnson overcame color barriers to become the first black champion in Texas and later won belts in Georgia and Florida. One of the most decorated black wrestlers in history, he was the first African American to win the U.S. title in San Francisco.
Most notably, Johnson teamed with WWE Hall of Famer Tony Atlas in 1983, and they were the first black tag team champs in the North-based World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE.
Ron Simmons officially became the first African-American world champion in 1992 in World Championship Wrestling.
Bobo Brazil actually won the NWA world title in 1962, but it was not recognized. In 1998, Johnson's son, The Rock, became the first African-American world champ in WWE history.
Where Rocky Johnson helped pave the way for African-American wrestlers, the late Peter ''High Chief'' Maivia did the same for Samoans.
Maivia, who was born in 1937, was a Samoan professional wrestler who debuted in 1963, wrestling throughout the South Pacific and Hawaii before moving to the continental United States. He won the National Wrestling Alliance tag team championship and the U.S. title and the Texas title.
He also had a part in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice.
Rocky Johnson married Maivia's daughter, Ata. Their son is Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson.
''It's fantastic to be inducted with my father-in-law [Maivia], who helped train me,'' Johnson said. ``I'm very, very proud of that. He also went though a lot, and he opened the door for the Samoan wrestlers.''
The WWE Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of the sports entertainment business, similar to a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Media Man Australia