If you missed the short-lived WWE Network series Icons, which premiered in 2021 and ran for only three episodes, A&E has some good news for you: the second of this week’s hour-long Biography episodes, focusing on Yokozuna, is just the truncated version of the two-hour Icons show which also told the tale of Rodney Anoa’i.
As it is such an impactful, emotional story, the general audience that didn’t get much of a chance to view the original episode of Icons comes out better for the opportunity to see it unfold on Biography, but it’s a cheeky sleight-of-hand to present it as a new episode. Here’s how it unfolds.
Solofa Fatu (aka Rikishi) starts us off by talking about the rough neighbourhood where Rodney Anoa’i grew up under the tough hand of his father. His sister, Elevera Anoa’i Sanz, explains that Rodney was skipping classes and it cost him his chance at graduation, so their father set him up with his uncles Afa and Sika, The Wild Samoans, at their wrestling academy.
Fatu recalls how Rodney took to it immediately, and was soon wrestling for Southern Professional Wrestling in April of 1987 as Kokina Maximus with a speed that belied his size. At 21 years old, Rodney has two children, a son and a daughter, and is looking out for his future. Gerald Brisco and Bruce Prichard describe what the WWF was looking for at the time: big, attraction-based wrestlers, and Rodney fit the part.
He’s invited for a WWF try-out and gets a non-televised match in 1992 as Kokina, but it just wasn’t quite clicking with the crowd. Sgt. Slaughter remembers presenting the idea of Rodney as a sumo wrestler, and the previously non-verbal, grunting Maximus is now seen in backstage footage having his hair tied in a bun and warning of agonizing defeat — though he didn’t speak in the ring that much, either.
October of 1992 is Yokozuna’s debut alongside Mr. Fuji, and Rodney wows the crowd simply by taking off his robe. Undertaker, Steve Austin, Bret Hart and others describe Yokozuna’s agility and presence, matching people like André the Giant and King Kong Bundy in their larger-than-life stature.
Backstage, though, Rodney was nothing like Yokozuna, seemingly always in a good mood. His eating exploits are legendary, exemplified by a segment shot for TV with Yokozuna at a restaurant, where Prichard figures they cooked enough for twenty people just for Rodney to eat.
Yokozuna’s star rises quickly, winning the 1993 Royal Rumble and, briefly, the WWF Championship from Hart at WrestleMania IX. It was brief, because Hulk Hogan took the title from him minutes later in an impromptu match. Yokozuna regained the belt from Hogan later that year, in about as clean a win as you’re ever going to get against Hogan (they don’t show the exploding camera which led to Hogan’s downfall, so you’ll have to look that up yourself).
Rodney’s son Justin reveals that his dad had given him the nickname Busty as a kid, and sometimes Yokozuna would yell that instead of Banzai before dropping his finishing move on an opponent. His daughter Keilani says that he was her best friend. Rikishi then credits Rodney with giving everything he could to anyone in their family that was in need.
Professionally, Yokozuna had main-evented two WrestleManias in a row, but was continuing to get bigger, slower in the ring, and starting to face challenges in travel. Prichard explains that the WWF stepped in to pull him from the ring and set him up with a program to get him back in shape, but it didn’t work. Friends like Juan Rivera (Savio Vega) and Charles Wright (Kama at the time) tried to help out, but Rodney wasn’t doing the work himself to get better.
Keith Elliot Greenberg says the WWF was left with no choice but to release him after the New York State Athletic Commission required Rodney to pass a physical, which he couldn’t. He went onto the independent circuit and opened a school in Las Vegas, where he was still looking to help anyone in need. He toured the UK with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, who said he bonded with Rodney immediately, calling him “a gem.”
At the end of the tour, Rodney called his children and others in his family before going to sleep and not waking up again. Valentine had been waiting to meet up with Rodney when he was found in his hotel room. Everybody, family and friends alike, chokes up talking about Rodney’s final days, overcome with emotion no matter how much time has passed.
His career is looked back on with respect, but it’s Rodney as a father, son, uncle, cousin, nephew, brother, friend, and more who is missed and loved, and though it saddens people to talk about him, they love to share stories of how much he meant to them.
- Oct. 24, 2000: Yokozuna: From the AWA to the top
- Oct. 23, 2000: Yokozuna dead at 34
- Slam Wrestling’s WWE on A&E archive