Friday, March 13, 2009

Wrestlers of Yore: Superfly Jimmy Snuka

Jimmy Snuka. The guy who flew off the steel cage to beat Don Muraco in 1982. The guy who had the coconut smashed on his head during Piper's Pit. The guy who taught us the "I love you" hand signal way before we met that deaf kid in college. The man to teach us that Fiji was not just a catalog from which your parents sent their coworkers meat and cheese platters, but rather an actual island where people wore leopard-skin underwear.

However, there's a darker side to Jimmy Snuka that the public doesn't know. The side that did so many drugs that Vince McMahon didn't trust him with the company's top babyface role, giving it to a newcomer named Hulk Hogan instead. The one whose microphone skills were so limited that it was joked that the only word he knew was "brother." And the one who, on a fateful night in 1983, according to many reports, threw his girlfriend off a hotel balcony, killing her instantly. Yes, years before Chris Benoit, Superfly Jimmy Snuka was the first wrestler to murder his significant other.

James Reiher was born in Fiji, but started wrestling in Hawaii in 1969. His high-flying aerial wrestling style would soon be all the rage during stops in promotions in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia through the 1970s. In fact, in those days, most promoters banned moves off the top rope, for fear of their wrestlers getting injured, but would relax this rule for Snuka because his flying maneuvers often drew large crowds.

Snuka would then sign a contract with the World Wrestling Federation in 1982. Despite being a fan favorite for years, Snuka was originally brought in as a heel (bad guy) challenger to WWF champion Bob Backlund. Fans however started to cheer Snuka, so the decision was made to turn him babyface (good guy), one that stuck with him for the rest of his career. The fans cheered Snuka so much that Vince McMahon Jr., the new owner of the WWF, considered making him the top babyface star, but he didn't consider Snuka reliable enough (read: rampant drug problems and run-ins with the law often caused him to miss shows) to be the face of the company. McMahon then decided to hire AWA wrestler Hulk Hogan to fill the "face of the company" role, and the rest is obviously history.

1983 was both the best and worst year of Snuka's career. The worst happened on May 10 in Pennsylvania, when his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, died of head injuries. Snuka claimed that the couple had stopped by the side of the road to piss, where Argentino slipped and hit her head, fracturing her skull. Snuka's story then claims that he returned to their hotel room hours later to find her gasping for air, and eventually dead.

Various reports, including one from the first police officer on the scene, state otherwise. The officer felt that Snuka had pushed Argentino off the hotel balcony, causing the skull fracture and subsequent death. Snuka's history with Argentino seemed to back this up - only months earlier Snuka had been arrested and plead guilty to violent felony assault on Argentino in a Syracuse hotel room. But despite the evidence, and the fact that the coroner recommended that Argentino's death be ruled a homicide, Snuka was never charged. One investigator said that Snuka allowed McMahon to be his mouthpiece, playing up the dumb jungle-boy image that he portrayed on television, and therefore one unable to have motive to murder a woman. Others have argued that the powerful McMahon pulled strings within the Pennsylvania legal system, with which he had much pull during those days, to get Snuka off the hook. Nonetheless, Snuka got off scot-free, and was able to have his famous cage match (and 15-foot cage dive) with Don Muraco months later, one which inspired such youngsters watching the match such as Mick Foley and Tommy Dreamer to enter the wrestling world.

Snuka would then feud with Piper, which culminated in the famous coconut-smashing scene during a 1984 Piper's Pit segment. Piper brought bananas and coconuts to the set to make the "savage" Snuka feel "more at home" and started asking him to climb trees like a monkey. Piper then smashed a real coconut over Snuka's head in what is still to this day one of the most memorable out-of-ring segments the WWF has ever produced. Snuka however would soon be out of the WWF due to drug problems, leading to no real retribution towards Piper.

Snuka would spend the next few years bouncing in and out of wrestling promotions and rehab facilities, staying in neither long enough to change his ways. He would reemerge in the WWF in the early 1990s, becoming the first victim of the Undertaker's now 17-win Wrestlemania streak. He would also become the first ECW champion, back when the promotion was called Eastern Championship Wrestling and wasn't owned by Paul Heyman. Snuka would be among the first inductees to the WWF Hall of Fame in 1996, and has continued to wrestle the occasional independent show, even now at the age of 65. Just two weeks ago, Snuka appeared on Monday Night Raw as one of the "Legends" to be attacked by Chris Jericho.

Jimmy Snuka was, above all else, a trendsetter. He was the first Fijian wrestler to become popular in the U.S. He was one of the first to utilize off-the-top-rope maneuvers in his matches. He was the first to jump off the top of a steel cage. He was the first to get fruit smashed over his head on national television. And, sadly, he was the first (but sadly not the last) wrestler to kill his significant other. I just wonder if he gave her the "I love you" hand signal after he did it.


Pepster said...

Snuka was my favorite wrestler back when I was young enough to care about wrestling. I never knew the incident with his girlfriend ever happened.

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Kevin said...

That POS Snuka, how some people could get away with heinous acts such as these is beyond me. Always new Vince was human garbage - but his involvement in this is something else. Hope they both rot in hell real soon.


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Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The only reason that murderer Snuka was not convicted and sent to jail for the murder of Nancy Argentino a decent naive
23 year old girl was McMahon had enough
legal juice to bring a halt to inquiry and investigation,
The case is still open and conisidered a cold case that needs to be reopened.
To all the skeptics every horrible thing you read about this mysterious murder is true.
YES in this case he did get away with murder.

Anonymous said...

I was there at that Hotel at that time on that night, Nancy was there by herself,she didn't come to the matches that nite with the rest of us, Jimmy wasn't even there with her. She was in distress when he returned. Don't speak unless you know the facts. I was dating another wrestler at the time, Jimmy is no murderer, Nancy was the love of his life and her death crushed him and forever changed his life.

Anonymous said...

Do you know exactly how Nancy received the blow to the back of her head that killed her? Even the DA said it was an altercation.

Anonymous said...

Seems like a clear cut case of domestic abuse/violence to the extreme. A loss of life of a young 23 year old girl.
Irv Muchnick sums it up
in the new ebook Justice Denied in response to Snuka's recent new book with a chapter that refers to the late Nancy Argentino in a negative fashion.

I love you Bruddah said...

Even after 47 years, Jimmy Snuka was and still is one of my childhood heroes. However, by his own admission, he was a walking drugstore (massive quantities of steroids, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, pain killers, etc.). Add to that he had a history of abusing women, and I'm sure that snake McMahon would have done anything to protect his investment. I've read Snuka was worth about $20 million per year to the WWWF at that time. Considering this and the evidence at the scene, if justice is allowed to be served, then Jimmy Snuka should pay for what appears to be murder.