“In the end, all that mattered to me was that fans were happy they spent their money on a ticket and that I put on the best match possible.” — Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka
Some pro wrestlers live for the fame. Some live for the fortune.
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka lived for the danger.
The enduring image of Jimmy Snuka diving off the top of a 15-foot steel cage is one that Mick Foley will never forget. Foley was one of thousands in attendance that night in 1983 at Madison Square Garden when Snuka made the unforgettable leap.
That breathtaking flight from the cage to the mat would change the face of pro wrestling forever.
It also would provide Foley, a teenager at the time, with the impetus and inspiration to become a future generation’s Evel Knievel of the squared circle.
With his innovative, daredevil style of wrestling, Snuka helped reshape the look of the game, and had a profound influence on future performers such as The Hardy Boyz, Rob Van Dam and Rey Mysterio.
Thirty years later, Snuka looks back at his life and his career in a new book titled “Superfly: The Jimmy Snuka Story” (Triumph, $24.95).
With an introduction by Foley and foreword by Roddy Piper, the 213-page bio, co-written with Jon Chattman, is candid and, at times, brutally honest.
Snuka, now nearing the age of 70, doesn’t gloss over the more sordid aspects of his life, readily acknowledging the cheating, drinking and drugging that accompanied life on the road.
He openly talks about his cocaine addiction, his infidelity and his disparate feelings toward WWE owner Vince McMahon.
One gets the sense that Snuka, despite his failures, would go down the same path if given the chance to do it over again.
“I’ve been a bad boy trying to be a good man my whole life,” Snuka says in the book.
What can’t be denied is that Snuka was a major player in the wrestling business for a number of years.
He was fortunate enough to find himself at the center of two of wrestling’s most-talked about events of the ‘80s. His famous leap from the top of the cage became a Kodak moment for fans of that era. An angle a year later when Piper smashed a coconut over Snuka’s head during a segment of Piper’s Pit set WWE (then WWF) on fire.
“I still get headaches thinking about that, brudda,” laughs Snuka. “It hurts my brain every time someone mentions that.”
Snuka, the babyface, and Piper, the heel, were the perfect bookends for such an angle.
Despite his limited vocabulary, Snuka was able to get his point across without using an abundance of words. As Piper would later point out, it wasn’t what Snuka said, but rather his ability to get over using his eyes and his emotions.
Playing up his “jungle” roots, Snuka was able to convey great expression through his heartfelt connection with the audience. “It wasn’t what he said,” says Piper, “the whole magic of Jimmy was his heart and soul.”
As a babyface or heel, Snuka’s wild-eyed islander look could enthrall anyone paying attention.
“I really wanted the fans to look at my eyes,” says Snuka. “That’s the way I talk. When I say something, my eyes change in different ways.”
The two spent hours planning that famous edition of Piper’s Pit where Hot Rod brought in pineapples, bananas and coconuts to make Snuka feel like he was back on the island.
“ I remember telling Roddy, ‘This is it ... this is it.’ He didn’t want to hit me hard. I told him if he didn’t, I was going to turn around and hit him in the head with the coconut.”
Snuka had no idea at the time that “the coconut shot heard around the world” would be talked about 30 years later.
“But it was one heck of an idea. We sat down and talked about it and went over it. He thought I was kidding him. But I wasn’t. It was a great angle.”
As great as it was, says Snuka, the big blow-off match never materialized.
“We never finished what we were supposed to finish up with. The whole thing was a buildup for me to go in the cage and splash him.”
Snuka says he’s still unsure why it never happened. “They just stood us up. I don’t know why.”
Larger than life
Snuka was a survivor in a cold and unforgiving business that would chew up and spit out all but the toughest.
His upbringing prepared Snuka, born James Wiley Smith (since legally changed name to Snuka) in the Fiji Islands in 1943, for his future life as one of wrestling’s greatest risk-takers.
A real-life Tarzan who spent more time cliff diving in his native Fiji Islands than he did learning how to read, Snuka was fearless and lived life to the max. He wanted to swing tree to tree like Tarzan, but he would end up swinging rope to rope in a wrestling ring.
With good looks and a chiseled-from-granite physique, he became a larger-than-life figure in the wrestling business.
While most grapplers of that era were making a living on the mat, Snuka was doing most of his best work above the ring, defying gravity in the process. The one-man highlight reel did so barefooted with leopard print tights and matching bandana.
His legendary finishing move, the Superfly Splash, had its roots back in the Pacific islands where Snuka dove off it steepest cliffs with the greatest of ease.
But with a limited vocabulary, unable to read or write, and a natural distrust for promoters, Snuka grew increasingly paranoid of those around him. He admits that it probably hurt him in the long run.
“I was never ashamed to ask people for information. I always asked if they could write it down for me. It was a headache for me, but I managed.”
Joining WWE in 1982 was a life-changing experience for Snuka.
“I was ready then, brudda,” he says. Snuka had been working in the Mid-Atlantic area for Crockett Promotions where he made a major impact. “But the word had started getting around to New York. And that’s when everything happened for me. It worked out very well.”
Snuka speaks in glowing terms of his relationship with the late Vince McMahon Sr.
“God bless him, but when Senior died and Junior took over, that’s when everything started going differently for me,” he says.
Snuka believes that some level of jealousy existed on the younger McMahon’s part. He points to a conversation he had with both McMahons and Andre The Giant shortly before the elder McMahon’s passing. He recalls McMahon Sr. telling his son to “take care” of Snuka and Andre.
“Vince Sr. looked at Vinnie and said: ‘Jimmy Snuka is just like a son to me.’ He (Vinnie) didn’t like that. I was staring at him when his father said that. But bless him, brah, I still love him.”
What could have been
Jimmy Snuka ran hard, even by pro wrestling standards.
He pulls no punches, however, talking about how his lifestyle was a big downfall in his never taking the next step in his career.
“I know I made mistakes, but that’s all said and done. I’m OK now and back to my normal Superfly Jimmy Snuka self. I’m happy and I’m hanging in there.”
At one time, he says, McMahon was considering putting him in the main event at Wrestlemania against Hulk Hogan. But Hogan, Snuka claims, didn’t want to work with him.
“He thought I was a crazy man,” says Snuka. “I didn’t like how things worked out, but it was just one of those things.”
Snuka served as a cornerman for Hogan and Mr. T when the duo faced Piper and Paul Orndorff at the first-ever Wrestlemania in 1985. Snuka feels he should have been in T’s spot for the main event. He still considers the snub a slap in the face.
“God bless Mr. T, he’s a good brudda, but he didn’t know anything about wrestling,” Snuka writes in his book. I just felt like it was payback, and started wondering what was going on. I should have been in the main event wrestling — not just in a corner with Hogan.”
Many friends agree that Snuka’s potential could have been unlimited. But, they add, McMahon simply couldn’t trust Snuka at that point in the wrestler’s career.
He was a hardcore partier prone to no-showing events.
“When he was main-evening everywhere and he just wouldn’t show up, it was hard for Vince to keep putting money into him,” writes WWE Hall of Famer Tito Santana. “I believe Vince had tried and tried and got tired with him. He was unreliable. Knowing Jimmy now, I think he realizes what drugs did to him.”
Most of it was his doing, admits Snuka.
“They promised I would be the main guy in the company, and then Hulk Hogan got all the attention. On the other hand, I had plenty of baggage of my own.”
Former WWF champion Bob Backlund, one of Snuka’s greatest opponents, even refused to let Snuka get in his car because of Snuka’s involvement with drugs.
“I was so very scared he had something in his bag, and if we were pulled over ... mentally I couldn’t take that. I had made a lot of promises. Young people have always been very important to me, and I was very protective of my active life, and living up to what I said I was.”
On an overseas tour of the Middle East, Snuka was caught with cocaine and jailed. His traveling partner, Rocky Johnson, eventually bailed him out. On another occasion, Snuka was caught with cocaine and sent to jail again. This time Johnson had to use his influence with a Saudi Arabian king to pull strings and free Snuka.
“Everything just started to go down for me,” says Snuka.
Snuka eventually left WWE, returned home to Hawaii, and quit the steroids and cocaine.
It was on the island that a teen-aged Snuka had first met wrestlers in Dean Higuchi’s gym and learned the art of professional wrestling.
“I just had to take a little break and go home. I sat down with Vince and explained to him that I had to get away,” says Snuka. “I wasn’t feeling good, things weren’t going well with me, and I asked him to sign my release so I could go home and relax. He cried and asked me to stay, but I told him to call me back in Hawaii later. He did eventually call me back and said he’d put me right back on top.”
Snuka enjoyed many highs during his wrestling career.
Outside the ring, though, life wasn’t always so glamorous. There was drug abuse and personal tragedy. Womanizing was rampant, and Snuka shrugs it off as a by-product of that generation.
As with most wrestling couples in those days, marriages didn’t last, and neither did Snuka’s relationship with the mother of his four children.
There was too much time on the road and not enough time at home. Family life suffered.
Snuka openly admits that he engaged in numerous relationships. There was infidelity on both sides, he says, and at times there was even physical violence.
“We would fight and fight and fight,” he says. “She pressed all of my buttons.”
The end, says Snuka, came about when he arrived home early one night and found his wife with another man.
“We just went at it. She hit me with frying pans, her hands and whatever else she could throw at me. I tried not to, but I have to admit, I hit her. It wasn’t hard — just enough to stop her. We hit each other and I feel bad we did it with the kids in the house.”
Shortly afterwards the two were divorced. He says it should have ended far earlier.
“We rushed into marriage and stayed in it too long.”
But, he adds, he always provided for his family financially.
“I had four kids, and they were the most important thing to me.”
One of his darkest hours still remains a mystery to many.
Although he was never charged with wrongdoing, a tragedy involving the death of a girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, in 1983 cast a pall over his career.
A section in the book gives Snuka’s account of the incident.
“Many terrible things have been written about me hurting Nancy and being responsible for her death, but they are not true,” Snuka writes. “This has been very hard on me and very hard on my family ... I never hit Nancy or threatened her. I never wanted to harm her.”
The incident, nonetheless, had a profound effect on Snuka.
“That night ruined my life. If I was guilty of anything, it was cheating on my wife, and that was it ... Nancy was a good girl. I will never forget what happened to her.”
Snuka, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996, says he decided to write the book while recovering from surgery on an ankle that had plagued him for nearly 30 years.
The time off allowed him to reassess his life — his highs, his lows, his failures and his regrets.
“It’s been bothering me after all those years of wrestling, and I finally had a good chance to take some time off — almost a whole year — to take care of it.”
“I’m a bionic Superfly right now,” he laughs. “I’m always ready to go, brah!”
Even the passage of time, however, has not healed every wound.
“Sometimes being trapped with my thoughts can be more painful than any injury I’ve suffered in the ring,” writes Snuka. But as I look back, I can also look ahead, and that takes the sting away.”
He feels he can still contribute to the wrestling business and firmly believes that he’s far from finished. He made a lot of money in the business, but says he still needs the work.
He’s had a couple of matches since recovering from surgery. He believes he can have more despite the years of wear and tear on his body.
“I’m not a negative guy about anything. I just go with the flow,” he says.
He is proud of the fact that two of his children, James Jr. (former WWE performer Deuce) and Sarona (current WWE diva Tamina), have made their mark in the business.
“They’re very smart kids. They went to college. They’ve got it made. My daughter’s wrestling now and Jimmy wrestled before. She’s doing very well. I’m very grateful for them.
“I told them when they were ready to get into the business, I’d teach them about the psychology of the business. I taught my son first. And he went on to win the WWE tag-team championship. And then I trained my daughter.
“I had my son splash me four times, and I took it. Then my daughter did it to me four times, and I knew she had it.”
Jimmy Jr. still wrestles independents, says Snuka, along with coaching volleyball and basketball in Arizona and serving as a personal trainer.
He’s also very proud of his “nephew,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “That kid’s something else. He’s a good kid and very talented.”
“As a child (Dwayne) was influenced by Jimmy diving off the top ropes. He loved to watch Jimmy and I wrestle, because we had two different styles, and he would go home and try to imitate Jimmy and me,” says Rocky Johnson.
Snuka says he would like to see The Rock make a movie out of his book.
“The Rock could play my part,” laughs Snuka, acknowledging that the wrestler-turned-Hollywood star might have to get a stunt double to do the aerial scenes.
“But I’m sure we could work it out.”
Writing the book has been a catharsis of sorts for Snuka. He developed a close relationship with co-author Chattman in the process.
“What a sweetheart of a guy. I’m very grateful for him. He came up to me and asked me if I wanted to write a book. As soon as he said that, everything just kicked off. It was like turning on the light.”
The entire book, says Snuka, was completed in just four months.
Legend of Superfly
Among his wrestling fraternity, past and present, the legend of “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka only grows with the passage of time.
“There has never been anybody like him,” says Olympic gold medalist and pro great Kurt Angle. “The Jeff Hardys and RVDs are awesome wrestlers, but there will never be another Jimmy Snuka. He’s one of a kind.”
“He started something, and I’ve made my living off of it,” adds TNA champ Jeff Hardy.
“I love it, brudda,” Snuka says of the role he played as a trend-setter in the business and an inspiration to others. “I even wrestled against some of these kids. I told them to relax and not be nervous. Everything’s going to be all right.”
One of those youngsters was Mark Calaway who, as The Undertaker, had his first Wrestlemania match against Snuka in 1991, beginning one of wrestling’s most famous streaks on “The Grandest Stage of Them All.”
“Vince came in asked me if I could take care of the brudda,” Snuka recalls. “I just looked up at him and rubbed a couple of fingers together,” hinting at a possible payday bump for doing the honors. “Vince cracked up. I was just having fun with him.”
“It was a pleasure for me to do that for that kid,” says Snuka.
“I might have to finish up that streak, brah,” jokes Snuka. “But I don’t know if he could handle that.”
New lease on life
Snuka returned to the ring at Taboo Tuesday in 2003, stood in Sgt. Slaughter’s corner for 2007’s Vengeance: Night of Champions and, at the age of 64, was brought back to team with Piper and Ricky Steamboat against Chris Jericho at the 25th anniversary of Wrestlemania — a quarter of a century after Snuka stood in Hogan’s corner at the inaugural Wrestlemania.
Snuka has quit drugs. His womanizing days, he says, are in the past.
With the help of his wife, Carole, whom he credits with saving his life, he has found some measure of solace.
“I was way down low, man,” he says. “When I met this beautiful lady, she saved my life and everything. At one point I was almost dead. I had a bleeding ulcer. I was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, and the guy who was working on me told the driver that they were losing me.”
The next thing Snuka heard was his wife screaming, “Don’t you dare leave me!”
“And then I woke up,” he says.
The two, who live in the South Jersey area, were married in 2004.
Life with Snuka, says his wife, isn’t exactly what one might expect.
“He’s very patient, quiet guy. He just likes to do his yard work, take care of his dog, play on his computer, watch his Westerns and work out. He likes to talk to people. All the neighbors stop in all the time. Sometimes when he’s out doing the yard, he forgets where his property stops and the neighbors’ begins. So they’ll come home and see that their yard is done too.”
“Jimmy likes to find good in everything,” says Carole Snuka. “He enjoys just about everything. He’s a very giving person.”
“I try to get along with everybody. I love ‘em all,” echoes Snuka.
The Superfly still thinks about those glory days when his name was on the marquee at Madison Square Garden where thousands of adoring fans chanted his name and watched him soar like an eagle.
“That was the top of the line for me. New York City ... Madison Square Garden. Oh my Lord! I loved it so much brudda. I was so excited. It was the first time I had been in such a big building. It was sold out upstairs and downstairs. You can just imagine what people were thinking.”
That feeling brought back the emotions of Snuka diving off one of those cliffs. Except 20 thousand people were watching him now.
“Thinking back to that match, I know I have another moment like that in me. I’m not done yet.”
Snuka is sincere when he makes the statement. In his mind, at least, he’s still the risk-taker who surfed on rocky waters and walked over hot coals back on the islands.
In fact, he’s planning to make a return to Fiji next year for a family reunion.
“I told him he’d better start saving his money if he wants to go,” his wife adds.
“When we go to Fiji, there’s going to be three tickets,” says the Superfly. “The two-way ticket is for her, and the one-way ticket is for me.”
“I call him King Kong,” laughs Carole Snuka. “King Kong’s got to go back to the jungle. They came and took him out of the jungle and put him up at Madison Square Garden. Now they have to send him back home again.”