“Well, brutha, the most important thing is my wrestling. I love it. I enjoy it. I love to meet the people, especially when I travel around the world. The most important part of my wrestling career is that I love the business of it. I love it,” Jimmy Snuka once said.
The love was reciprocated, and with his death on Sunday at 73, plaudits will flow for a complicated man.
Few stars of the 1980s were as loved and iconic as Snuka, who was the number two babyface in the WWF at the height of its national expansion, behind only Hulk Hogan.
His daughter, WWE star Tamina, posted about her father’s passing on Sunday from stomach cancer on Twitter. “I LOVE YOU DAD #FOREVERMYDAD #RestWell #FamiliesAreForever #BestDad #SnukaLegacy” she wrote. On Instagram, she posted what appears to be her hand holding her father’s hand in hospital.
Snuka’s athletic moves and superfly splash from the top turnbuckle every night in the ’70s and ’80s were a forerunner of the high-flying style that took over in the 1990s. “Well, I guess I created it all for them, brutha, you know and I love it,” Snuka said. “I love it because I guess I’m a role model, you know, and everyone wants to follow you.”
The 6-foot, 250-pound Snuka was born James Reiher (since legally changed to Snuka) on May 18, 1943 on the island of Fiji in the South Pacific. His family migrated first to the Marshall Islands, then to Hawaii when he was 11 years old. Attending school for the first time, he struggled in his new home, entertaining tourists at the Polynesian Cultural Centre with his fire and knife dances and falling into the bodybuilding culture. While training for competitions, such as Mr. Hawaiian Island and Mr. Waikiki, and playing rugby, he met a lot of the wrestlers in Dean Higuchi’s gym, known at various times as Dean’s Gym, the Power House and the Health Studio of Hawaii.
His first territory was the Pacific Northwest, where the raw rookie did feats of strength, Fijian dances, and tricks like opening pop bottles with his teeth or arm wrestling over a burning candle to downplay his lack of training. Soon he was traveling from territory to territory, learning how to captivate (or enrage) a crowd like few others ever have.
The Snuka-Roddy Piper feud, which started with a unforgettable coconut to Snuka’s head during a Piper’s Pit segment, was a large part of the underlying excitement for the main event of the first WrestleMania, where Superfly was in the corner as Hulk Hogan and Mr. T battled Piper and Paul Orndorff, with Bob Orton in their corner.
In and out of the WWF/WWE throughout the decades, Snuka carved such a legacy that he was brought back, at age 64, to team with Steamboat and Piper against Chris Jericho in a legends match at Wrestlemania 25. Two of his own children took to the ring as well, with his son, Sim, working in the WWE as Deuce, and his daughter as Tamina.
That legacy, however, was tarnished in recent years, as an investigation into the 1983 death of Snuka’s girlfriend Nancy Argentino was re-opened, and he was eventually charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Snuka did appear in court on the charges a number of times, but just a few weeks ago, the judge deemed Snuka incompetent to stand trial. He had been battled dementia issues.