Debuting with WWE in fall 1992, Yokozuna exploded on the scene with the brute force of a Banzai Drop, marking the beginning of an abbreviated yet sensational career. Hailing from the same wrestling family that produced stars like The Wild Samoans, Rikishi and Roman Reigns, and flanked by manager Mr. Fuji, the former Rodney Anoa’i’s Japanese sumo wrestler gimmick was (literally) a huge roster addition as a true main event-caliber villain.
Following a major build-up that included victories over Macho Man Randy Savage, Earthquake, and The Big Bossman, Yokozuna reached the pinnacle as a head-liner by toppling Bret Hart for the WWE championship at 1993’s Wrestlemania IX. However, in unprecedented fashion, he immediately lost the belt in a same-day impromptu title defense to Hulk Hogan.
After resuming a feud with frequent adversary Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Yokozuna upended Hogan in June to become champ a second time. The then-550 pound competitor held off a variety of challengers, including a new nemesis, Lex Luger, the first rival to body-slam Yokozuna in a much-publicized event. Much of the action in fall ‘93 consisted of encounters against Hart and The Undertaker. At the 1994 Royal Rumble, Yokozuna, with considerable outside interference, outlasted The Undertaker in a casket match, putting the Deadman out of action for months. Bret Hart, though, earned redemption over Yokozuna with a title win at Wrestlemania X. And the returning Undertaker would also avenge his setback, during a series of rematches against Big Yoko.
Following a brief hiatus, the rejuvenated yet still massive Yokozuna made an important in-ring transition in mid-1995 from singles’ star, joining forces with Owen Hart (and manager Jim Cornette) in a program against The Smoking Gunns for the tag-team titles. The duos traded championship wins. Yokozuna also earned a number of opportunities to retake the WWE belt in battles versus Diesel (Kevin Nash), yet came up on the losing end.
1996 represented the last hurrah for Yokozuna with the company. For the first time, he heard cheers, working as a fan favorite by turning on Cornette, and tussling with opponents like Davey Boy Smith, Vader and Goldust (Dustin Rhodes). However, at Summer Slam, he fell to the emerging Stone Cold Steve Austin in short order, and was soon gone. Yokozuna’s considerable girth had been a source of concern to the WWE brass for a long period, and the accompanying lack of conditioning ended his status as an active performer. He would make one more high-profile appearance - at a 1999 “Heroes of Wrestling” pay-per-view in a tag bout.
Sadly, Rodney Anoa’i died in 2000 at age 34, the victim of pulmonary edema. To commemorate his impressive accomplishments, he was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012, with his cousins, The Usos and Rikishi, overseeing the honors.
- Kenneth Mihalik