By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back, Bruthas and Sistas, as we learn the ropes of breaking into this crazy wrestling business, and hopefully a lesson or two along the way. In the last two weeks we’ve learned about what it takes to catch the eyes of a promotion in today’s market as compared to those of the yesteryear. We also found out why protecting the business and preserving it’s secrets were crucial to the success of professional wrestling from the territorial days, up until the explosion of the Internet. This week, I wanna look at the path a second generation wrestler took to achieve a dream, and help to cement the foundations that a Samoan Dynasty would be built on.
Sam Fatu was born in San Francisco, California in 1966. He is one of two twin sons that his mother, Elevera Anoa’i gave birth to. In his younger years, like so many teens, he chose the path of hanging around the wrong crowd and started finding himself getting into trouble and having scrapes with the law. His mother decided it would be best if he had more discipline in his life and sent him to Pensacola, Florida, into the hands of her brothers, Afa and Sika.
I asked him what it was like being trained by the Wild Samoans:
“When I got to Florida, it was me, and my cousin Sam being trained by Afa and Sika. He’s Afa’s son. They called him Big Sam, and me Little Sam. It was rough Brutha, but they taught us the right way to do things. The basics, you know. The rest we learned out there on the roads.”
It was on a trip to a WWF event one afternoon in Springfield, Massachusetts with his uncles, that set everything in motion for Sam. Salvatore Bellomo had some sort of problem, and failed to make it in time for his match. Pat Patterson approached Afa and Sika in the back dressing room, and asked them if their nephew could work. Afa gave Pat the nod and they went out to the front area to get Sam, who was watching the matches and picking up on the flow of the work in the ring. Sika told him to come to the back, that they wanted to talk to him. When he got back there they laid it on him that he would be competing for his first time in the ring. Not having any gear there of his own, he used Jimmy Snuka’s ring gear for the match. He went out to the ring, billed as the The Tonga Kid, to faced heel Johnny Rodz. He shared a great moment with me as he was about to head down to the ring for the first time:
“I remember I was nervous as Hell. It was a loaded card with Sgt. Slaughter, Andre the Giant, and Big John Studd. There were alot of big names on the card that day. I remember it was September 1st, and I had just turned seventeen. This Puerto Rican guy came up to me while I was standing there with Jimmy Snuka, and he tells me that he’s going to be working with me. I’m a small guy at that time, and he was twice my size. Afa and Sika slapped me like fifteen times each to psyche me up. Hard slaps, not them tv chops. Jimmy wasn’t on until the main event, so he let me use his tights, kneepads, and everything. I taped my hands up the way he did. He was my idol. I looked almost like Jimmy, but a younger Jimmy, you know what I mean. They told me just to listen to Johnny and do what he said.”
He followed Johnny’s lead in the ring and the match came off pretty well. The fans got behind the youngster, and the next thing he knew, he was on the road working with Rodz full time for the next year, as he learned the business. Also during this time, he was driving from town to town working on the ring crew with Gorilla Monsoon’s son, Joey Marella. After his initial match with Rodz, Pat Patterson insisted Vince McMahon Sr. take a look at the youngster and talk to him. Everything was rolling for the Tonga Kid after Vince saw him work.
Much of success in the wrestling business, and the world in general, is about being in the right place at the right time. This is the space that opportunity resides in, and when it comes knocking, failure to heed the call may result in not getting the chance to hear it again. With all the wrestlers that I’ve talked to over the years, this is always an underlying similarity. You can be the best worker around, but sometimes it’s just the matter of being there when your’e needed, to make it happen.
Not long after his time with Johnny Rodz, that opportunity came calling for Tonga. Jimmy Snuka was going through some problems, and Vince Sr. decided to cash in on the recent heat between Snuka and Roddy Piper, with Tonga facing Piper in a run of matches. I asked him about the chemistry between them and what it was like to experience the Piper interacting with the fans, and the heat he drew from them:
“Oh, it’s a rush. It’s a rush that you would never forget man, almost like winning the lotto. Hahaha. Rowdy Piper was a natural heel, everyone needs to understand that. The fans in Boston Garden were my favorite. It was a love from the fans for me as much as a hate for Piper. I loved to wrestle there more than anywhere else. Now they HATED Piper in the Philadelphia, and the Spectrum was always hot when we worked there. Piper was so good at what he did. I can hear the fans booing him still now. Main eventing these huge arenas at seventeen was an experience I’ll never forget.”
It wasn’t long before he got the chance to work with a friend that he made during a short run in Montreal just prior his WWF tenure. The dynamic at that time was beginning to shift the spotlight onto the growing tag team division. The Tonga Kid was just coming off his run with Piper and was quickly picked out to be part of that movement. His partner would be Tonga Fifita, better known as Haku, who had arrived in the WWF in the early Eighties, just after Tonga Kid. Putting them together was a natural fit. Tonga Kid changed his name to Tama , and the two began to set the tag team ranks on fire as The Islanders. He fondly looked back at that time as he remembered:
“I tell you what, there’s so many good moments in my life, but that one there is one that you can’t turn the clock back with. Back then, tag team was the shit, you know. When I babyfaced with Piper, I would draw the sympathy and look good, that’s all I had to do. Now that I’m a heel, I have to reverse the psychology. I have to think of a way to have people hate me. It was more fun, and I really enjoyed being the bad guy. But I didn’t realize that being a bad guy we had to take all these bumps, you know. The good thing about babyface is that you mostly sell, but when you’re a bad guy you got to take alotta damn bumps to make the matches, and that’s what we did.”
Once we began to talk about the tag team days, I kinda fell out of interviewer role and my inner fan crept out. The Islanders were one of my favorite tag teams from those days and I had to satiate that part of myself, and ask some questions about their run against The British Bulldogs, where they famously made a work of eating Matilda over a fire in full, crazed Islander style:
“That was so much fun and we ate chicken to sell that angle. We had to take that dog on the road with us, though. We took turns taking care of the dog, and the Bulldogs gave us a bag of food, the chain, and the bed the dog slept in. You gata walk him at the hotel and take him out. This was cutting in on my party life, you know. Hahaha. We had to take him everywhere we went. When we flew we had to get him at the gate, all that. You know how many rental cars that that dog pooped in, and we had to clean it up? It was like a kid we had to take care of. We’d go back to the hotel room and he’d poop all in there. It was a different experience to be in the ring, and take care of a dog. We didn’t know nuthin about a dog. He ate our wrestling gear and chewed up our trunks.”
He went on to lay me in the floor with a short story about being on the road with Matilda:
“Another funny one with the dog was when we were riding in the car. Haku was in the passenger seat and the dog was in the back. Jimmy, if I didn’t know any better I thought Andre the Giant was back there. This dog farted so loud. I kid you not, when some dogs or people fart it goes away, but not Matilda . We had a hundred and eighty miles to go and it stunk the whole damn way. Man, it was hard taking care of that dog.”
They had some classics against the Bulldogs, and with Heenan as their manager, the chaos was never far away. They were so evenly matched with both speed and power, much like another team they regularly faced, The Hart Foundation. They also faced the team of Rick Martel and Tito Santana, The Strike Force, on numerous occasions and even beat them for the Tag Team Titles in what was one of the shortest title reigns in WWF history, whether it is recorded in their annuls or not. They held the titles for thirty seconds, only to have the decision overturned by another referee, who ran in the ring and gave the titles back to Strike Force. The WWF sited interference by The Brain as the cause for the decision.
After his WWF run, Tama headed over to Puerto Rico and worked in Carlos Colon’s World Wrestling Council. He won the tag titles during his time at the WWC, but it was one event that he was on hand for that went down in professional wrestling lore and snuffed out the life of another of my favorite workers of all time. I asked Tama what it was like in the arena that night when Bruiser Brody was stabbed:
“I was there that night when it happened. All I remember was that something had went down and we weren’t sure what it was, but we knew it was bad. I was in the babyface side of the dressing room, and when we found out Brody got stabbed on the other side, everybody was nervous. I could see the worry in some of the wrestler’s eyes, and some of them were pacing back and forth in the dressing room. They were scared. We had to go on out there and keep working. We didn’t stop and we were in a stadium, with like thirty thousand screaming fans. I wanted to leave the island at that time. This happened on a Friday, and after we got our payout on Monday, I left I never went back again after that.”
He went on to talk about being in the ring with Bruiser Brody:
“When I wrestled, I’ve been hit with chairs and gone through tables. But When Brody kicked me in the head with that boot, he kicked me so hard I kissed the damn canvas. That’s how hard Brody kicked me. I won’t ever forget that kick. It was like getting clotheslined by Stan Hansen. When those guys hit you….they HIT YOU! You don’t put your neck up or they’ll take your head off.”
Once he left there, he headed to WCW to reunite with his twin brother, Fatu, and their cousin The Great Samu in another tag team unit that would terrorize their opponents and lay waste to anyone that crossed their paths. The Samoan Swat Team, or SST to fans of their work, were a joy to watch in the ring for any fan of heel wrestling. He worked under the name of The Samoan Savage at that time, one that his son would take on in his own career later in life. After his cousin, Big Sam stepped aside, the two brothers continued on as the New Wild Samoans, but that was short lived and they soon left for Mexico.
After arriving south of the border in the UWA, the added another cousin to their team who had been making a name for himself in Japan as the Great Kokina. The three held the Trios Championship for a month while they were before the business took them in different directions. His twin brother went on to the WWF with a run as The Sultan before he finally landed the gimmick that would carry him through the rest of his career, as the stink-facing, light footed big man with rhythm to spare, Rikishi. The Great Kokina made quite a name for himself in the WWF in the early Nineties as well, also donning a mawashi, but under the name of Yokozuna.
It was these men, along with Haku, mentored by their uncles Afa and Sika that laid the groundwork that would solidify into the foundations of the Samoan Dynasty that we know today. Had it not been for their sacrifices out on the road, and across the world, the door may not have been so easily opened for The Usos, Roman Reigns, Umaga, Rosey, or The Rock.
He laid it on the line about the legacy of his family and where things are headed for the future:
“The Samoan Dynasty will never die. I think we’re the largest wrestling family in the world. You also have the Armstrongs who I met in Alabama. I love them, and they are another really great wrestling family. We are still good friends to this day and they are friends of all the Samoan Family. Once you prove yourself a friend to the Samoan People, or my family, that’s for life Jim. This goes all the way back to Peter Maivia, Afa and Sika, and we have all of us and our kids are getting into it now. I believe we have nineteen family members working in the business right now. It’s really a great thing.”
Sam had twin sons that have carried on the family name and chosen to represent the Dynasty. Journey has taken up his father’s old moniker of The Samoan Savage, and his other son Jacob works under the name of the Samoan Werewolf. It is only a matter of time before they follow their cousins, The Usos into the WWE, or take the path of Haku’s three sons and head overseas to NJPW to cut their teeth. Either way, I expect to see them break into the mainstream wrestling scene, sooner than later.
I want to thank the Tonga Kid, for taking the time to talk with me this past week. For an old school guy like myself, being able to hear the stories from a time in the business that I truly cherish, is quite priceless, and it meant so much to me to be able to talk to him, and look into a window of that time. I hope that as I move more towards the West Coast, and build relationships in the wrestling business there, that I can get to the Bay area and pay Sam a visit. That would be something very special for a lifelong fan like myself.
I had a friend tell me not so long ago that “these are just wrestlers, they’re not Gods”, but for me, the moment that I lose the spark of a fan and the little kid inside me begins to take things a little too seriously, I hope somewhere there is a heel there waiting to boot me in the guts and remind me why I love this thing. It’s that sprinkling of magical wrestling dust that makes me pop, as I’m drawn into the thing I love so much. While it may not “still be real to me dammit!”, when I think about teams like The Islanders, a smile still comes to my face.
Well that does it for another week, until next time; Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace