Words: Carlos Nobleza Posas
Photos: Courtesy of the Anoa’i Family
You can’t mention Samoan sons in professional wrestling without yawping, “Anoa’i!” (That’s pronounced ah no AH ee.) While universally credited with making massive agility a must in the ring, members of the Anoa’i family have for generations wrestled with a dual identity. In the blue corner is their legendary work ethic, jaw-dropping athleticism and God-given charisma. In the red corner is their exotic island appeal, often pigeonholing their characters as savage or degrading.
The name Solofa Fatu Jr. is synonymous with the Banzai Drop, i.e., a thunderous butt drop from the second turnbuckle. Known in the ring as Rikishi–a sumo-inspired character similar to his late cousin Rodney Anoa’i’s Yokozuna–Jr. racked up four title belts in the WWE. “We love the competition,” he says, understandably proud of his family. “We’re the type of people who love to work hard and, when it comes to contact sports, this is kind of where we fit in. We’re taught to go out there and steal the show–whether you’re on first match or the middle match or the main event. Basically, it’s balls to the walls.”
But what about the fact that Jr. and his uncles got their start portraying their people as raw turkey eating, no English speaking, barefooted islanders who yank each other by the hair in the middle of a match? “Keep in mind, wrestling is entertainment,” he warns, adding that any given character is nothing but a cog in the storyline machine. “As the era changes, so does our character.”
Jr. cites the success of his cousin, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. “Now people see Samoans and say, ‘Damn, they can talk.’ They see that we’re not savages. We’re not animals. We’re the best at what we do. When you love something, you can’t stop talent.”
Trust that Jr. never takes his work home with him. “When I leave the arena, I leave Rikishi in the arena.” He goes home to be a father, a brother, and a husband, who is “able to instill in my family the custom of Samoa.” This means quality time with the family, faith in God and professional dedication. These values are passed on from generation to generation, much like their innate talent and irresistible passion for wrestling. “Me, personally, I thought I was gonna go into the NFL,” Jr. recalls. “But once I got into that ring I felt that fever, that itch.”
Fortunately, his day job hasn’t stopped Jr. from dabbling in his childhood hobby, hip-hop. “One day I came to visit my brother Tonga Kid in Sacramento, and Ganxsta Ridd [a member of Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.] was at his house. After lunch, they took me to the studio. And there Ridd says, ‘‘Kishi, can you rap?’ He ended up having his producers slap out a beat, Ridd wrote out the lyrics, and me and him start spitting on this demo . . . It might be a keeper or a dropper.”
Jr. jokingly calls his cousin, Reno Anoa’i (a.k.a. Black Pearl), ‘youngblood,’ and ‘the rookie,’ due to his relative inexperience in the game. But in this family, “relative inexperience” means that, three years ago, Reno became the first world heavyweight champion of New Wrestling Evolution — an independent promotion based in Italy and flourishing throughout western Europe. Jr. happens to be the commissioner. Nepotism it is not, but rather, just another day at the office for the Anoa’i. “Wrestling, to our family, is like a family business,” Reno explains.
It started in the late 1970s when Reno’s uncles, Afa and Sika, became The Wild Samoans, “a character that worked for the company, that worked for the business [in terms of marketing],” Reno says, referring to the image of the savage Samoan.
On tour in Europe, Reno picked up a moniker that was both sophisticated and euro-friendly: the Count of California. “To have a Count from California wasn’t something in their books,” Reno says. “I don’t want people to portray me eating raw fish and walking around downtown hittin’ my head with coconuts. I’d like to think there’s a different side to being a Samoan in this business.”
But on the road, an infamous Anoa’i tradition involves gathering the kin (Kishi and Tonga Kid, for example) and hosting a legit Samoan potluck on hotel grounds: wa’u (raw tuna) procured from the hotel kitchen and thrown in soy sauce, corned beef, taro (plant), palusami (banana leaves and banana in coconut milk), and cold beer. “Other wrestlers ask, ‘How the hell did you get this food over here?’ and then never touch it,” Reno laughs.
Just like Jr., Reno hears the family mojo, brewed into his genes, as a call to the ring. “It’s real to me,” he affirms. “I literally believe this is my calling.” A Cal State Chico grad with a degree in criminal justice, Reno originally wanted to become a cop. “But as soon as I got out in front of 10,000 people and started feeling the moment,” he says, “I felt like it was something I was supposed to do.”
“My Uncle Afa’s Wild Samoan Training Center [WSTC] is known within the wrestling community as the Harvard of wrestling schools,” Reno says. “You graduate from there, and you can get a job from pretty much any promotion.” Afa Anoa’i, the self-proclaimed “best trainer in the world,” couldn’t agree more. His protégés include legends like his nephew Yokozuna, Bam Bam Bigelow, current superstars like Batista, and his nephew Umaga.
Realness is the hallmark of this particular Anoa’i, the one who basically started it all. “What you see is what I am,” he says. “That is, we live this character.” Following in the footsteps of his uncle, High Chief Peter Maivía, Afa thought wrestling could fulfill his childhood dream. “I always wanted to do things to have our people be recognized as just as good as anybody if given the chance,” he says. “As a kid, I said to myself, if one day I’ll be given the chance, maybe we’ll be able to put our people on the map.”
Afa has done so by bringing the old-school Samoan into the ring with gobs of primal flare. Does that include eating raw poultry and marine life? “I happen to enjoy all of that; in fact, I just ate a lunch of some raw fish I just got at the market, where I chewed on it right there and then,” Afa laughs. “We’re not acting, and we’re not pretending. . . I teach my sons and nephews the way I was brought up, to be honest with the people and to give it all you got. In training, or in the ring, whatever. In life? Same thing. That’s the Anoa’i blood.”
The WSTC started up in Afa’s backyard, toward the end of the ‘70s, when he set up a ring at his house so his kids and kin could train under his watchful eye. A lot has changed in the industry since then, including the attitude of would-be wrestlers. “Coming in, they believe it’s a Hollywood thing,” he insists, emphasizing that he specializes in how to take realistic falls. “The average trainer says, ‘Pretend like you’re crying, pretend like you’re falling, now pretend like you got hit in the face.’ No, I will hit you in the face.”
Ironically enough, Hollywood itself has come calling. Upcoming release The Wrestler hired Afa to train Nicholas Cage in the ways of the square circle. “He lasted two days,” Afa says. “He wasn’t cut out to be what the director [Requiem For A Dream helmsman, Darren Aronofsky] expected him to be. A nice guy, though. Offered to take me out in his boat and go fishing.” Cage’s replacement, perennial bad-ass Mickey Rourke, fit the bill. “Now that’s a crazy character. I swore this guy was a wrestler. In fact he should be a wrestler because he’s nutty like us.”
The Saga Continues
Samu Anoa’i claims Afa as father and trainer without flinching. “I had to do 100 push-ups before I could go out and play,” Samu remembers. Not surprisingly, the former Headshrinker (one of two along with his cousin, Jr.) is now the top guru at the WSTC’s original faction in Pennsylvania. Afa named him to carry on tradition before leaving to start a WSTC up in Florida.
When asked about his family’s impact on Samoan identity and wrestling, Samu replied, “We let Samoan people know that there was other Samoans out there, and not to be afraid to put yourself out there in the spotlight.” Regardless of whether that spotlight is worth exoticizing one’s people, Samu sees Samoan savagery as nothing more than a gimmick — a realistic and “natural” one at that. “Everybody has their own gimmick; people aren’t gonna pay money to see somebody they can go to 7-11 and look at.”
He also says that pigeonholing the Anoa’i family and Samoans as wrestlers is unfair, because they’re extraordinarily well-rounded athletes. They play football, they play baseball, they even box at a competitive level. (The name David Tua ring a bell?)
Samu admits they also love to fish. “Night fishing especially, where it’s just you, a spear, a hook, and your vision,” he says, smiling. “There’s nothing like sneaking up on a sleeping fish that’s as big as your whole body.”
Whether they’re spearing fish or spearing quarterbacks, the Anoa’i go back to a profession they’re born to dominate. “Wrestling’s always gonna be there, it’s not going anywhere,” Samu always tells his son, Lance. “Go ahead and pursue your education and baseball career, and you know, after all that’s done and you’ve lived your life, you can always come back to wrestling.”