The pro wrestling community is mourning the loss of WWE star Roman Reigns’ older brother, Matt Anoa’i, who died last week at the age of 47.
A member of the renowned Samoan wrestling family, Anoa’i was the son of WWE Hall of Famer Sika Anoa’i, one half of the Wild Samoans tag team of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the older brother of three-time WWE world champion Reigns (Joe Anoa’i).
No official cause of death was given, but Anoa’i had suffered from congestive heart failure in recent years. A health scare involving atrial fibrillation had hospitalized him in 2014.
The Anoa’i family issued a statement following Matt’s passing.
“The Anoa’i family is mourning the loss of Sika’s son, Matt aka Rosey, due to an untimely death. We want to let his fans know that he loved them and the wrestling world so much. In his passing, he left three beautiful young children and a heartbroken family. Please respect the privacy of his children and family as they mourn the loss of this kind, loving, gentle man, who was a father, son, brother and a superhero to us all. Our family appreciates your prayers and continued support during this very difficult time.”
Known to friends and family as “Uce” (Samoan slang for brother), Matthew Tapunu’u Anoa’i was a high school football standout in Florida, blocking for future NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith at Pensacola’s Escambia High, and earned a scholarship to the University of Hawaii.
A leg injury, though, would force the lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan to give up the sport and dash his dreams of a possible NFL career. Working as a bouncer in New Orleans, Anoa’i decided to follow the footsteps of many of his family members and join them in the wrestling business.
“I sat there one night and was looking at the bartender,” he told WWE.com in 2012. “He was probably in his 60s. It just dawned on me that I needed to get out of this town and pursue a career. Wrestling became the glove that fit.”
Anoa’i, along with cousins Eddie Fatu and Lloyd Anoa’i, was trained at the Wild Samoan Training Center, which was run by Afa Anoa’i, in Allentown, Pa. He turned pro in 1995 and polished his skills at his uncle’s World Xtreme Wrestling promotion.
His first big break in the business was working for the original ECW in 1996 as Mack Daddy Kane, one half of The Samoan Gangsta Party with Sammy Silk (cousin Samula “Samu” Anoa’i). The two engaged in memorable bouts with The Eliminators (John Kronus and Perry Saturn) and The Gangstas (New Jack and Mustafa Saed), but were gone from the promotion by the end of the year.
With the help of his family’s strong connections in the business, Anoa’I found ample work all over the world, including Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling in Japan, where he and cousin Eddie Fatu won the FMAW tag-team title, and in Puerto Rico, where he and L.A. Smooth (cousin Lloyd Anoa’i) captured that promotions tag-team title.
Rosey and The Hurricane
Anoa’i and Fatu reached the next level in 2001 when the two were signed to WWF developmental deals.
Working out of the developmental territory Heartland Wrestling Association based in Cincinnati, the cousins teamed as The Island Boyz to win the HWA tag-team title.
Veteran trainer Les Thatcher praised Anoia’s work ethic while in developmental and mourned his former student’s passing.
“Known as ‘Rosey’ to so many, but to my wife and I a dear friend and world class human being,” Thatcher posted on his Facebook page. “Matt spent a year with me in WWE developmental. His work ethic was such that every training morning I knew when I heard the front door of the gym open it was Mattie first through the door and ready to work as hard as needed.
“Matt gave my wife Alice away at our wedding at her request 15 years ago. He was a part of our extended family, and will remain so in our thoughts and prayers. All of us touched by his friendship are better for it. Go with God my dear friend and we will remember your time with us with fondness, love and respect. You have left us with a lifetime of wonderful memories.”
Anoa’i, along with Fatu (then known as Jamal), was signed to the main roster a year later. Then-Raw general manager and former WCW president Eric Bischoff put the former Island Boyz together as a pair of thug enforcers known as Three Minute Warning. With Bischoff issuing a “three minute warning” to random wrestlers, the two burly Samoans were used as “muscle” to take out whomever Bischoff deemed boring in the ring.
It was following Fatu’s release in 2003 that Matt Anoa’i perhaps gained his greatest notoriety. Donning a mask and dubbed “Super Hero in Training,” he was paired with “Hurricane” Gregory (Shane) Helms as a mid-card comedy act that would eventually include popular WWE diva Stacy Keibler in a female superhero role.
With a sizable following that included mostly children and younger fans, Rosey and The Hurricane reached their WWE pinnacle with a four-month run as WWE world tag-team champions.
Initially, Helms told Bill Apter of 1.wrestling.com last week, he wasn’t receptive to the idea. The two had been put together by Raw head writer Brian Gewirtz, and Helms was far from sold on the gimmick.
“I had done that with Mighty Molly (Molly Holly),” said Helms. “It was kind of like doing the same idea, but this time with a guy. I didn’t want to rehash anything. But I liked Matty so much that I said OK and would give it a shot. Like everything in my career, I was going to do it the best I could. And once we started teaming, we just immediately clicked in the ring and started having a lot of fun with it.”
“It wasn’t like the company was giving us the greatest of pushes at that time, but no matter how much they beat us, the fans still liked us and we still stayed popular,” Helms added. “We just kept working hard at it. We worked really, really hard to get that gimmick over. My favorite title win ever was me and Rosey winning those tag-team titles. It’s like the company had no choice but to give them to us because we earned them. We deserved to be in that spot at that time. It was a really special moment to me.”
With the act eventually running its course, a breakup was staged where Helms turned on his partner after dropping the belts, setting up a brief program between the two. While Helms would later move over to the Smackdown brand where he would enjoy a record-setting reign as cruiserweight champion, Anoa’i practically disappeared from WWE programming.
With his weight ballooning to nearly 400 pounds during a period of inactivity with the company, Anoa’i was released from his WWE contract in 2006. He returned to the independent scene, appearing for various promotions, including ones owned by his family. He also was part of a number of business ventures, including owning a Samoan restaurant in Cincinnati called Island Boi BBQ.
In 2007, Anoa'i, billed at 6-3 and 386 pounds, participated in a weight loss program on the ABC reality series “Fat March.” The show featured a group of overweight contestants trekking across the country in an effort to shed pounds and take home a share of a $1.2 million grand prize.
A press release for the show stated that Anoa’i was participating because “it wasn't safe for him to compete” as a professional wrestler, and he needed to “lose weight to return to his career.” Due to knee injuries that had plagued him for much of his wrestling career, he never finished the season, quitting during the show’s fifth episode.
Anoa’i would briefly return to WWE for a few dark matches and a handful of bouts in Ohio Valley where he again teamed with cousin Lloyd as a duo dubbed The Sons of Samoa.
Former Three Minute Warning partner Jamal (cousin Eddie Fatu), meanwhile, would later return to WWE repackaged as “Samoan Savage” Umaga for the biggest run of his career. A two-time Intercontinental champ, he headlined Wrestlemania 23 in the Battle of the Billionaires involving Vince McMahon and Donald Trump before leaving WWE in June 2009 following a second violation of the company’s wellness policy. He tragically died several months later at the age of 36.
Anoa’i had recently helped run a wrestling promotion called Epic Championship Wrestling back in Pensacola with father Sika. He and cousin Samu had inducted The Wild Samoans (Sika and Afa) into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007.
Matt’s extended wrestling family also included Solofa Fatu Jr. (aka Rikishi), Sam Fatu (aka Tonga Kid), the late Rodney Anoa’i (aka Yokozuna) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
While he had the opportunity to team with many of his family members during his career, one of his biggest regrets was that he never got to team with younger brother Joe (Roman Reigns). Fifteen years apart in age, Matt’s career was all but over by the time Joe’s career began in 2010.
Like older brother Matt, Joe also had dreamed of an NFL career, starring at Georgia Tech as an all-conference defensive end and getting noticed by pro scouts. Making it briefly to the NFL before trying the CFL and giving it up, Joe also eventually joined the family business.
Matt Anoa’i is survived by his three children, Madison, Koa and Jordan; father Leati Sika Anoa'i; mother Patricia “Lisa” Anoa’i; four sisters; younger brother Joe Anoa’i; and numerous cousins.
His ex-wife, Amanda Schall, spoke of the love he had for his children and thanked his fans for their support over the years in a Facebook post.
“I thank all of you for loving him so much over the past years, new friends and old friends. My babies are so thankful he was so loved and treated so great by so many outstanding people. That he felt love from everyone and supported by all.
“Thank you so much for being there for him in times he needed it most. May God watch over our babies on this new chapter of life without him on Earth. Pray for our babies and pray for me to lead them correctly with faith and trust in God’s master plan because right now I am having a hard time understanding it all.”
Anoa’i also was fondly remembered by many of his former colleagues in the business.
“Very sorry to hear of the passing of a kind, gentle and talented man. My heartfelt condolences to the Anoa'i family. RIP Matt (Rosey) Anoa’i,” tweeted Eric Bischoff.
“So sad to hear about the passing of Rosey. A great performer and person,” tweeted Booker T.
“My condolences to the entire Anoa'i family. Matty was a great guy and a joy to work, party and cry with. You are missed UCE,” wrote Shelton Benjamin.
Ex-teammate Emmitt Smith also paid respects to his friend on social media.
“Saddened by the news of my high school teammate, Matt ‘Rosey’ Anoa’i’s passing. My thoughts and prayers are with his family,” the NFL’s all-time leading rusher tweeted.
Helms said that he was heartbroken by his former partner’s passing. The two had done their final match together late last year.
“His spirits were good but he wasn’t very healthy. I had a bad feeling about that,” said Helms.
Dealing with continuing issues regarding his weight and overall health, Anoa’i was said to have been “too weak” to attend a fan convention last month. His weight reportedly had gone up as high as 450 pounds and he was in need of kidney dialysis.
Still, said friends, Anoa’i remained positive and upbeat.
“Matt was a really good dude,” said Helms. “He was a really good guy with a big heart and a genuine soul. I was blessed to be his friend.”
What will he remember most about the gentle giant?
“That smile,” said Helms, choking back tears.