Remember Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
And if you don’t? It’s not his fault.
He’ll be 70 in May, but he hasn’t given up the one thing he loves more than anything else in this world, the one thing that made him a superstar: professional wrestling.
“I have a hard time trying to stay away from the business,” he says in a rasp that instantly brings you back to the glory days of the early '80s, when he was on television, wild-eyed and ranting about exacting revenge on fellow wrestlers Don Muraco and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Snuka last wrestled about a month ago, at a benefit in Michigan. The days of performing his acrobatic signature move, the “Superfly Splash,” from the top rope, are long gone. Now, thanks to a bum ankle, he can only leap from the second rope. But, he’s still the Superfly, and for fans who pay to see him, isn’t that really all that matters?
His is a life full of contradictions. He’s made his living—and admittedly, millions of dollars that came and went—in a business that boils down to one man or woman savagely beating another, even if the action is choreographed. Yet, Snuka detests conflict outside the ring, and does everything he can to avoid it. His body has been his living, yet he abused it for decades with booze, cigarettes, cocaine and steroids.
A 70th birthday is one even he probably never thought he’d see. Yet, here he is, with a new autobiography, Superfly: The Jimmy Snuka Story (Triumph Books), and no plans to retire from the ring. (Snuka co-wrote the book with frequent Huffington Post contributor Jon Chattman.)
Snuka, who lives in Atco, Camden County, will sign copies of the book 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26 at Barnes & Noble in Deptford.
The book intersperses Snuka’s stream-of-consciousness narrative with recollections from his family, friends and fellow wrestlers. Even the artist himself paints an often-unflattering self-portrait.
“My whole life, I’ve just been a bad boy trying to be a good man,” Snuka writes. “That’s the bottom line.”
Developing the 'Superfly'
Snuka was born James Wiley Smith on the Fiji islands, in the South Pacific. He didn’t know his biological father until much later in life, and says he suffered physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather growing up. A young Snuka found refuge in the tropical paradise, learning to dive off cliffs, which eventually helped him develop his signature move. An interest in bodybuilding led him to pro wrestling, and he came to the United States, spending the early part of his career working in the Pacific Northwest.
Although Snuka shifted between heel (bad guy, in wrestling speak) and face (good guy), fans took to him either way. He wrestled barefoot, and wore tiger-stripe wrestling trunks and seashell necklaces, a nod to his island heritage. His high-flying ring style—which would later influence a whole new generation of wrestlers—contrasted with the typical, one-dimensional brawling action of the era. Snuka never left the ring without flashing an “I love you” hand sign to his fans. In television spots, he punctuated almost every sentence with “brudda,” one of his favorite phrases.
During those years, grinding out match after match—sometimes seven or eight in a week—Snuka mastered the art of working a crowd, using ring psychology.
He was nearly 40 by the time he made it to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), which is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). He made his WWF debut in March 1982 as a heel. He feuded with champion Bob Backlund, culminating in a steel-cage match at Madison Square Garden in New York City that June. At the end of the match, Snuka leapt from the top of the steel cage and tried to splash Backlund, but missed. Snuka lost his shot at the title, but gained a whole new legion of fans and became a “face.”
But, Snuka’s rise to fame in the WWF wasn’t without tragedy.
In May 1983, his mistress and traveling companion, 23-year-old Nancy Argentino, died of a head injury near Allentown, PA. Snuka told police he’d returned to the couple’s motel room to find Argentino struggling to breathe. Earlier, he said, she’d slipped on a grassy patch and hit her head on the side of a highway when they’d stopped to relieve themselves. Although police questioned Snuka in Argentino’s death, he was never charged. Argentino’s family later won a default judgment against him in civil court. In his book, Snuka denies he caused Argentino’s death.
“I will say this about the whole thing, brudda—that night ruined my life,” he writes. “To this day, that is how I feel.”
The match with Muraco
The defining moment of Snuka’s career came later that year, in another steel-cage match at Madison Square Garden, this one with the heel Don Muraco. Snuka lost the match when Muraco was able to escape the cage first, but Snuka dragged him back in, climbed to the top of the 15-foot-high cage and dove onto a prone Muraco.
Among the future pro wrestlers in attendance that night at Madison Square Garden was Mick “Mankind” Foley.
“It was so much more than just the athletic feat of reaching the top of the cage,” Foley writes in the book’s introduction. “It was the anticipation of it, his timing, and the spectacle of it all—his slinging his hair back, putting up the ‘I love you’ sign, and launching into the air.”
If you don’t know Jimmy Snuka based on that moment, then you might remember him for the infamous coconut attack.
In June 1984, during a televised interview segment, the heel “Rowdy” Roddy Piper smashed Snuka in the head with a whole coconut, setting off a classic feud that proved to be Snuka’s swan song in the WWF.
Flush with fame, the married Snuka was partying hard: drinking, womanizing and snorting cocaine. He started missing matches, which didn’t endear him to WWF management. (During this period, Snuka and his family lived in Haddonfield.)
The first WrestleMania, in March 1985, should have been Snuka’s shining hour. Instead he was reduced to working as corner man for Hulk and Mr. T in their tag-team match against Piper and Paul Orndorff.
In his book, Snuka contends Vince McMahon Jr., the WWF’s owner, decided Hogan was going to be the organization’s new star, effectively casting Snuka aside.
Snuka left the WWF, but never stopped wrestling. He spent time in Hawaii and Japan before returning to the WWF in 1989 for about three years.
When his second act in the WWF ended, Snuka worked for various independent wrestling outfits, including Philadelphia-based Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW.) In 1992, Snuka became ECW’s first heavyweight champion.
Two of Snuka’s children, Jimmy Jr. and Sarona, followed their father’s barefoot-steps into the ring, each making their way to the WWE. Jimmy Jr. wrestled as Sim Snuka and Deuce; Sarona is the WWE diva known as Tamina Snuka.
Jimmy Snuka and McMahon eventually made amends. Snuka was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996, and he still appears from time to time on WWE pay-per-view events.
'He loves everybody'
Snuka doesn’t know where he’d be today without his third wife, Carole, who acts has his caretaker, confidant and manager.
They met in 1993 at the now-defunct Mulberry Street Bistro on the Black Horse Pike in Runnemede, when Snuka’s career seemed to be in its twilight.
“People always ask what he’s like, and they say, ‘He seems scary,’" said Carole Snuka, a Triton Regional High School graduate. “He’s actually nothing like you’d think. He’s the most giving person you’d ever want to meet. He’s the most patient. He’s gentle. He loves everybody. He doesn’t fly off the handle.”
Fans still come banging on the couple’s front door at all hours, mostly wide-eyed kids asking the same question: “Is Jimmy home?”
But Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka doesn’t mind at all. He has a bond with his fans that most performers will never understand.
“It’s like this: I know they love me and they know I love them, brudda,” he says.
Even now, as a septuagenarian forced to wear boots in the ring to protect his ankle, he’s willing to give everything to please the fans.
Despite all his flaws, all his wrong turns outside the ring over the years, he hopes you can respect that.
And if you don’t? It’s not his fault.
Do you have a favorite memory of meeting Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, or of watching him wrestle? Share it in the Comments section below.