Jimmy Snuka took a leap into wrestling history when he dove from the top of a cage in front of 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden in 1983. It was a special moment in time, an iconic image that would live on in wrestling lore for decades to come.
For one of those fans in attendance, it would profoundly affect the course of his life.
“Had it not been for this moment in time in October 1983, it's highly unlikely that I would have created any moments at all within the world of professional wrestling/sports entertainment,” said WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley, who was on hand that fateful night.
“He created that moment for me - a moment that was about so much more than just an athletic dive from the top of a cage,” Foley recalled of Snuka, who passed away on Jan. 15 at the age of 73. “It was professional wrestling as art, and Snuka that night was the consummate artist, painting on his own unique canvas in the most famous arena in the world.”
Snuka, whose high-flying, daredevil style inspired future superstars from Foley to The Hardy Boyz, will be remembered as a major figure in the wrestling business. While many historians will point to Hulk Hogan’s emergence in 1984 as igniting the transformation and the national expansion of the industry, it was Snuka’s phenomenal popularity during the early ‘80s that set the stage for what was to follow.
But, like many of the heroes of one’s youth, sometimes all that glitters is not gold. Sometimes those icons fall short of the idyllic standards set by their followers. Five months before Snuka made his death-defying dive at pro wrestling’s most storied arena, he was connected to a far more serious incident, one which involved the death of a 23-year-old woman who was romantically linked to Snuka.
Nancy Argentino, a native of Brooklyn and road companion of Snuka whom he referred to in his 2012 autobiography as his “East Coast girlfriend,” was pronounced dead just two hours after authorities were called to a hotel room she and the wrestler were sharing near Allentown, Pa., on May 10, 1983. An autopsy would turn up brain injuries consistent with a pattern of domestic abuse.
Snuka, 40 years old and married with a wife and four children in North Carolina at the time, reportedly offered several inconsistent accounts as to what could have caused her death. Although a pathologist recommended investigating the case as a homicide, no inquests were held, no one was charged and no evidence was presented to a grand jury. An audiotape that authorities said implicated Snuka reportedly was lost, and the wrestler’s explanation was enough to keep investigators off his trail.
Argentino’s family said her death came four months after a violent argument the couple had while staying at a motel in upstate New York. According to authorities, Snuka was charged with second- and third-degree assault for injuring Argentino and a responding officer in January 1983. According to the report, Snuka eventually pleaded guilty to harassment in a plea deal. In exchange, the other charges were dropped.
Snuka was the only person of interest in the case several months later, but he was never deemed an actual suspect or charged with any crime connected to Argentino’s death. That changed in September 2015 when he was charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter after new evidence had been brought to light on the 30th anniversary of the unsolved mystery. A Pennsylvania grand jury determined Snuka repeatedly assaulted Argentino at the motel and then left her in bed to die.
Those charges were dismissed on Jan. 3, 2017, when Snuka, whose condition had rapidly deteriorated due to stomach cancer and dementia, was deemed unfit to stand trial. “Justice suffers after 30 years because everything decays,” said presiding judge Kelly Banach.
Jimmy Snuka died 12 days later.
Many of Snuka’s closest followers, including Foley, will tend to remember the greatness that Snuka personified inside the squared circle. That night he saw the barefoot phenom in headband and leotard-printed garb make the famous dive off the cage onto a prone Don Muraco, he says, was “as real to me now as it was that night at The Garden over 30 years ago.”
He’ll remember the other highlight-reel material from Snuka’s career: the leap off the cage against Bob Backlund, Roddy Piper smashing a coconut over Snuka’s head during that infamous Piper’s Pit, the babyface turn on Rogers’ Corner.
But, like many of Snuka’s closest followers, he still struggles with the knowledge that Snuka may have been responsible for the death of a young woman in his motel room.
“Unfortunately,” says Foley, “the death of Nancy Argentino is inextricably entwined in the life story of Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka, making the celebration of his life and career so much more difficult.”
He says his own life most likely would have turned out differently had he never witnessed firsthand Snuka’s ring “masterpiece.”
“I would be a different man without the influence of Jimmy – a man without a dream; a man you likely would never have seen on your television screen. I remember vividly standing in all at MSG that night, hoping that one day I could do something that might make others feel the type of emotion I felt at that very moment. He was a true artist who inspired others to create moments that might stand the test of time – moments that might be remembered for years, decades even a lifetime. Thank you Jimmy Snuka for inspiring me.”
But Foley also understands the reality of the situation. That Snuka will likely be remembered as much for what allegedly took place on that terrible night as he will be for his remarkable career in a wrestling ring.
“I don't know how to reconcile this man's heroic feats inside our world, with the tragedy he likely played a role in outside of it, but I have always found wisdom and comfort in these simple words from Bruce Springsteen: ‘Trust the art, not the artist,’” Foley posted on his Facebook page.
Snuka’s importance to the business was undeniable.
“Well before there was Wrestlemanias, PPV’s, big-money guaranteed contracts, the internet or pro wrestling being coined ‘sports entertainment,’ it's hard to articulate how ‘on fire’ this man was in the early 80's and how much he impacted and electrified the wrestling business' bottom line,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Snuka’s nephew by marriage, posted on his Facebook page. “His wrestling promos had a quiet intensity that made you believe every word that came out of his mouth and you just knew that you had to run down to Madison Square Garden and buy your tickets because he was going to electrify that night. Another Garden sellout.”
“His dive off the top of the steel cage onto Don Muraco at Madison Square Garden as hundreds of flash bulbs went off will forever live as one of the most memorable moments in WWE history,” the organization said in a statement.
A few years ago I talked to Snuka about his legacy. He still thought 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,” Snuka said. “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.”
I also asked about him that other side of his legacy. He reiterated what he had written in his 2012 “tell-all.” The episode had been hard on him and his family. To that day he was receiving nasty notes and threats. But he maintained his innocence, claiming that he never hit Nancy Argentino or threatened her.
The incident, nonetheless, had a profound effect on Snuka.
“That night ruined my life,” he said. “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.”
While Jimmy Snuka will remain forever tied to Nancy Argentino’s untimely death, it must be noted that he was never convicted. Many critics, however, would argue that justice delayed was justice denied. Had Snuka been “fit” to stand trial, they argue, he most surely would have been found guilty.
Unfortunately, for those on both sides of the ledger, we’ll never know.