He created one of the single most memorable moments in the history of professional wrestling, but his impact was much larger than that.
“Superfly” Jimmy Snuka
Real Name: James Reiher
Stats: 5′ 11″ 250 lbs.
By Steve Slagle
Throughout the long and storied history of professional wrestling, there have always been certain performers who, despite never winning the WWF and/or WCW-NWA World Heavyweight championship or enjoying a ten-year run as a promotion’s top wrestler, greatly impact the business as a whole by profoundly influencing the following generation of wrestling superstars.
Without question, one legend of the ring who falls into this special catagory is the risk-taking, high-flying yet incredibly powerful native of the Fiji Islands, the legendary “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka.
A performer who was undoubtedly one of the most popular wrestlers of his era and a genuine box-office attraction, the versatile Snuka was also a very believable, effective and dangerous heel who was involved in bitter feuds with some of the biggest names in pro wrestling. Yet, while his legendary career spanned nearly thirty years, The Superfly unquestionably made his biggest impact during his prime in the late seventies and early-mid eighties, when his innovative, dare-devilish wrestling style served as the blue print for many future ring aerialists…
Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka was born James Reiher in 1943, and the muscular South Pacific islander began his wrestling career in 1970. Prior to getting into the wrestling business, Snuka enjoyed a successful career as a professional bodybuilder; Mr. Hawaii, Mr. Wakiki and Mr. North Shore were among the titles he won while competing professionally. As a result of working out regularly at pro wrestler Dean Ho’s gym in Hawaii, Snuka was came into contact with many of the wrestlers who worked in the South Pacific region and, eventually, he decided to explore his options in the “sport.” Following his ring training, he worked short stints in several different territories until the potential-filled rookie finally settled in the N.W.A.’s Oregon-based Pacific Northwest territory during the early seventies. Almost immediately, the popular high-flyer from the Fiji islands became a staple of the territory and he enjoyed a great deal of success (as well as gaining a great deal of valuable ring experience) in the Northwestern promotion. Additionally, it was during his run in the Pacific Northwest that Snuka engaged in his first major feud (a program that would run for more than two years) against another young newcomer named Jesse Ventura.
In terms of championship gold, Jimmy Snuka’s run in the territory was incredibly successful; he wore the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight title a total of six times between 1973-1977, defeating the likes of Bull Ramos, Ripper Collins, Black Angus and Jesse Ventura for the prestigious regional championship. As if his numerous singles championship victories were not impressive enough, the young Snuka was equally successful in the tag team ranks and he formed a team with longtime partner Dutch Savage that was perhaps the most dominant in the long history of the NWA’s Pacific Northwest territory. Together, the team of Snuka & Savage won the region’s Tag Team championship on six separate occasions between 1973 through 1978, toppling Pac-Northwest championship duos such as Bull Ramos & Ripper Collins, Ramos & Hussein Arab (The Iron Sheik) and Jesse Ventura & Buddy Rose among others along the way.
After a few years of competing exclusive in the Pacific Northwest territory, Snuka eventually expanded his base of operations and began splitting his time between Oregon and other NWA territories. Not surprisingly, he did so with great success. While wrestling in Vancouver, BC, Snuka teamed with the legendary Don Leo Jonathan to win the N.W.A. Canadian Tag Team Title on April 12, 1976. Additionally, Snuka (who had already begun using his famous, spectacular flying body splash as his signature move) began appearing in Texas, and the muscular, bare-footed high-flyer became one of promoter Paul Bosch’s top draws. While wrestling in Bosch’s Houston-based promotion, the popular Superfly captured the prestigious Texas Heavyweight title (by defeating Scott Casey) and also the Texas Tag Team title (with partner Gino Hernandez), both in 1977.
Then, after having competed in the Pacific Northwest territory for nearly five years, and with successful tours of other major NWA promotions under his belt, Snuka made a career move by relocating to the East Coast, specifically to Jim Crockett’s wildly popular Mid Atlantic promotion…
During the late seventies, the Mid Atlantic region was virtually overflowing with future superstars who were just a few years aways from becoming household names, and the young (but now experienced) Snuka fit in well amongst the territory’s roster of up-and-coming young talent, which included Ric Flair, Greg Valentine, Rick Steamboat, Paul Orndorff and Dino Bravo among many others.
Shortly after entering the territory, Snuka formed a team with another popular and muscular young newcomer, Paul Orndorff, and together they won the N.W.A. World Tag Team Title in December of 1978 by defeating Baron Von Raschke & Greg Valentine. Much like the Mid Atlantic territory itself, the team of Snuka & Orndorff (pictured) combined youth, power & athleticism and the two enjoyed the full support of the region’s fans. However, despite their popularity and talent, their reign as the World champions eventually came to an end when Snuka & Orndorff were defeated by the team of Von Raschke & Paul Jones. Still, despite the disappointing setback, Snuka continued on undaunted, battling the territory’s ‘bad guys’ and mezmorizing the fans with his spectacular moves.
Yet, despite being one of the most popular wrestlers in the region, it eventually became apparent to the viewers (in a rather shocking manner) that Snuka ‘believed’ he had been overlooked by the fans and lied to by the promotion’s top fan favorites. As a result, the once beloved Superfly transformed himself, virtually overnight, into one of the most vicious and despised performers in the history of the Mid Atlantic territory. Additionally, he took on the (then) hated former World champion-turned-manager, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, as his new mentor. The pairing of the ruthless former champ and his powerful & unpredictable young protégé was a truly formidable duo that immediately established themselves as the region’s most hated performers.
Under the tutelage of the original “Nature Boy,” Snuka defeated his new archrival and the territory’s #1 babyface, Rick Steamboat (pictured), in a tournament to fill the vacated NWA United States Heavyweight championship, which was, in terms of importance, overshadowed only by the NWA World Heavyweight championship itself. Having defeated Steamboat for the prestigious title on September 1, 1979, Snuka maintained an iron-clad grip on the U.S. belt for nearly eight full months. At the same time, the rulebreaking Superfly was defending his championship against some very capable challengers, including Steamboat, the massive 6′ 8″ 320 lb. Blackjack Mulligan and other top Mid Atlantic ‘good guys’. During The Superfly’s reign as the United States champion, his unique combination of speed and cat-like agility mixed with his nearly limitless strength and a genuinely vicious mean streak truly gelled, with Snuka emerging as one of the most intimidating and dangerous heels of his (or any other) era.
Other than Rick Steamboat, the primary challenger for “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka’s United States belt was a man who had, ironically enough, been the the region’s previous top heel, the controversial and flamboyant “Nature Boy” Ric Flair (pictured). Although he had once been the most reviled man in the territory, by the time he engaged in his bitter, bloody feud with Snuka, “Slick” Ric had undergone a transformation that resulted in him becoming perhaps the most popular wrestler in the history of the Mid Atlantic promotion. As a result of their standing as the two top men in the territory at the time, not to mention the great talent possessed by each highly gifted wrestler, the Snuka-Flair matchup was a natural moneymaker, and the Nature Boy’s chase after Snuka’s U.S. gold (which concluded when Flair won the title on April 19, 1980) was the Mid Atlantic’s primary storyline for several months.
When Buddy Rogers left the promotion, Snuka was recruited by Gene Anderson (who had retired from the ring and was embarking on a managerial career) and the former member of the Minnesota Wrecking Crew immediately paired his newest find with rugged veteran Ray “The Crippler” Stevens. Under the guidance of Anderson, Snuka and Stevens (pictured) quickly formed a superior tag team that steamrolled, by hook or crook as the saying goes, over every team placed before them. Not surprisingly, they soon earned a series of matches against the popular multi-time NWA World Tag Team champions, Rick Steamboat & Jay Youngblood. While the experienced, talented duo of Steamboat & Youngblood was initially able turn back the challenge of Snuka & Stevens, the champions eventually fell to Anderson’s lethal team on June 22, 1980.
Of course, Ray Stevens was one of the greatest wrestlers ever and part of several highly successful championship tag team combinations during his lengthy career. In his latest partner, The Crippler found a man capable of brawling or trading scientific holds and who was as at ease flying through the air as he was grappling on the mat. Naturally, with a legend like Stevens paired with a man as talented as Snuka, championship gold of some sort was only a matter of time. Although their styles were not terribly similar, they combined to make a devastating team and held their NWA World Tag Team championship for nearly a half year before finally losing the straps to the duo of The Masked Superstar & Paul Jones in Greensboro, N.C.
Having been a main player in the Mid Atlantic territory for nearly five years, and after battling virtually every top fan favorite in the region, The Superfly made his next career move by becoming involved in one of the biggest feuds of the day, which was taking place in the wrestling hotbed of Atlanta, GA. In the summer of 1981, Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy, two-thirds of the incredibly successful team known as the Fabulous Freebirds, were in the midst of a bitter falling out that had escalated into an all-out war between the two former teammates.
Enter The Superfly…
When Snuka appeared, completely unexpectedly, as Gordy’s new partner it became clear immediately that the highly talented Superfly was not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, with the arrival of the ultra-violent Jimmy Snuka as Gordy’s new partner, it was apparent that Hayes, who had alienated virtually every one of Georgia’s ‘good guys’ during his days as a Freebird, was a marked man, indeed.
Meanwhile, without a duo able to match their combination of strength, skill and violence, the team of Snuka & Gordy quickly captured the region’s top prize, the NWA National Tag Team championship, on July 6, 1981 by defeating the reigning champs, Ted Dibiase & Steve Olsonowski in Augusta, GA. At the same time, the rugged yet talented duo continued their two-on-one war against Michael Hayes. Two-on-one, that is, until Hayes enlisted the (substantial) aid of the seven-foot, five hundred pounder known as Otis Sistrunk. In the lovable (yet truly gargantuan) hillbilly, Hayes found his equalizer, and on September 27, 1981, the unlikely duo of Hayes & Sistrunk finally ended Snuka & Gordy’s nearly four-month reign as the National Tag Team champions.
Following his impressive run in Georgia, Snuka (as usual) chose to leave the territory while still on top. Next up for the nomadic high-flyer was to test his skills against the top Asian competitors, and The Superfly embarked on his first tour of All Japan Pro Wrestling in the Fall of 1981. Once there, the high-flying brawler greatly impressed the Japanese audiences and, in addition to excelling in the AJPW singles ranks, Snuka formed a legitimate ‘dream team’ with legendary wildman Bruiser Brody.
As had been the case with former partners Savage, Stevens & Gordy, when The Superfly teamed up with Bruiser Brody (pictured), Fiji’s most famous son once again became one-half of a truly remarkable tag team. However, in contrast with his previous teams, when it came to his Japanese pairing with Brody, the twitching, snarling Snuka was actually the more stable member of the combo. Snuka & Brody’s overwhelming size and strength alone was more than most teams could handle. Yet, when you factor in both men’s superlative brawling abilities, their ability to both give and take incredible amounts of punishment and the fluidity of their teamwork, one begins to realize just how great of a team they made during their time in All Japan and, later, New Japan.
In December of 1981, Snuka & Brody overcame a formidable series of opponents to win All Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual ‘Real World Tag Team Championship’ tournament. Several years later, following both men’s jump to New Japan, the barbaric yet highly skilled on-again-off-again duo steamrolled over their competition en route to the finals of the innaugural IWGP World Tag Team tournament, where they would face the team of Inoki and Sakaguchi. True to form, though, the unpredictable Snuka & Brody no-showed the event, which enabled their replacements, Tatsumi Fujinami & Kengo Kimura, to become the first-ever IWGP World Tag Team champions on December 12, 1985.
Following his first tour of Japan, Snuka returned to the United States and unknowingly made a career move that would forever change his life. In 1982, following months of speculation that he would join the promotion, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka entered the World Wrestling Federation. Under the guidance of manager Captain Lou Albano, the lethal Superfly systematically overcame each challenger as he quickly rose to the top of the WWF rankings. At the same time, he greatly impressed the WWF fans, who had not seen such spectacular moves by a man so agile since the legendary Mil Mascaras. Unlike the noble Mascaras, though, Snuka portrayed himself as a bloodthirsty savage, albeit a very talented one, and he was perhaps the most feared rulebreaker in the WWF during this period of time. Meanwhile, the desired end result of Snuka and Albano’s rampage was clear: a title shot against WWF champion Bob Backlund…
In the powerful, agile, vicious and completely unpredictable Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Bob Backlund found a challenger unlike virtually any other he had faced during his lengthy stint as the WWF champion, one that genuinely posed a very serious threat to his title reign. At the same time, WWF promoters were able to capitalize on the public’s perception of Snuka being a wrestler who could possbily defeat the champion, and they exploited it flawlessly…
In addition to selling out Madison Square Garden no less than four consecutive times during the Spring of `82, Snuka and Backlund squared off against each other in cities all along the east coast, with The Superfly often winning the bout, but not Backlund’s title. After months of bloody, intense battling, the epic Snuka-Backlund feud finally culminated with their legendary steel cage match at The Garden. Although the match itself was memorable enough, the highlight of the bout was its finish, which was perhaps the most spectacular in WWF history up to that point. Following a hard-fought, exciting contest, Snuka gained control of the match, to the point where The Superfly had the nearly unconscious champion in position for his patented flying body press. Snuka mounted the top turnbuckle, preparing to deliver the spectacular move…but then, as the frenzied MSG fans watched on in disbelief, the barefooted, blood-soaked islander continued upward, scaling the wire mesh until he stood atop the fifteen-foot tall steel cage. The Superfly then truly lived up to his name as he sprung from the cage top, sailing gracefully through the air nearly twenty feet high before descending down upon on his opponent below. But then, at the last possible moment, Backlund rolled away just as Snuka came crashing to the mat. Of course, gaining the pinfall was just a formality for Backlund, as Snuka had rendered himself unconscious following the incredible dive.
Following the cage match with Backlund and his brave & spectacular leap, the fans’ perception of Snuka began to change, and he slowly but surely started receiving more than his fair share of cheers. Picking up on this, WWF officials created a storyline that transformed the previously despised Snuka into a full-fledged babyface
In the early (pre Hulk-a-mania) eighties, Buddy Rogers, the legendary former NWA and WWWF World champion, was the host of a popular fixture on WWF programming, an interview segment called Rogers’ Corner.
Rogers interviewed Snuka and his manager Lou Albano in the weeks following his cage match with Backlund, and during the segment, the respected veteran made a shocking disclosure about his former protégé’s relationship with his current manager. Rogers claimed that the entire time Snuka had been wrestling in the WWF, Albano had actually been cheating Snuka out of tens of thousands of dollars via an unfair contract. Holding a copy of the document in his hand, Rogers then informed Snuka that he had found a loophole in the agreement, and that he was no longer bound to the abusive, dishonest Albano. Later, Snuka asked his former mentor from years earlier to once again become his manager, and Rogers agreed. Under Rogers’ guidance, The Superfly saw his popularity skyrocket to the point where he was, arguably, more ‘over’ with the fans than Backlund himself.
Snuka’s next major feud came against the reigning Inter-Continental champion, “Magnificent” Don Muraco (pictured), and the two natives of the South Pacific (Muraco hailed from Honolulu, Hawaii) engaged in one of the most brutal and intense programs in Federation history. More than just a feud over the I-C belt, Muraco and Snuka’s wars were personal, and their ‘hatred’ for each other grew with each encounter. The two battled up and down the east coast, with Muraco usually emerging as the beaten man…yet always managing to maintain a grasp on his championship belt. With Snuka continually getting the best of Muraco, yet repeatedly being cheated out of the Inter-Continental championship, it became clear that there was only one way to settle the bitter feud; a Steel Cage showdown at Madison Square Garden.
During the bout, both men pummelled and bloodied each other mercilessly, yet as the match progressed, it became clear the Snuka was gaining the advantage. Yet, just as his first WWF championship seemed just moments away, The Superfly delivered a crushing headbutt that propelled Muraco backwards…all the way through the cage door. The bloody, nearly unconscious Muraco, who looked anything but “magnificent,” was declared the winner, and, once again, Jimmy Snuka was robbed of his victory. In a fit of rage, The Superfly pulled Muraco back into the cage and then delivered a bone-crushing bodyslam, which was generally the set-up move for his big Superfly Splash finisher. As he approached the corner of the ring and began to climb to the top turnbauckle, the sold-out MSG audience cheered in anticipation of what was about to happen. Yet, when Snuka didn’t stop at the last turnbuckle, and instead continued climbing up the cage, the 22,000 in attendance nearly erupted…Snuka was going to the top of the cage, and this time around, every single person just knew that he wasn’t going to miss, as had been the case a year earlier against Backlund. The bloody, enraged Superfly didn’t disappoint, and, after standing high atop the wire cage and soaking in the once-in-a-lifetime roar of the Madison Square Garden crowd, The Superfly completed his most famous leap ever…one that would go on to influence a generation of wrestlers who came after him. In perhaps the most spectacular ‘high spot’ ever attempted in the WWF up to that point, Snuka sailed some twenty-five feet through the air before crashing down upon Muraco with an incredible impact that literally crushed the muscular Hawaiian. In another highly memorable moment, a disgusted Snuka then grabbed Muraco’s I-C belt, looked at it for a moment, and threw it down on the fallen champion’s chest. The beloved Superfly may have lost the match, but there was absolutely no question in anyone’s mind as to who the real winner was.
As Hulk-a-Mania spread like wildfire throughout the WWF in the early eighties, “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka continued on as one of the Federation’s top attractions, particularly in his bitter, main-event feud with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. However, behind the scenes, some very serious personal issues were catching up with Snuka, and by the middle of the decade, he had parted ways with the WWF after a very successful tenure.
Following his long run with the WWF, the veteran Snuka began wrestling for Verne Gagne’s AWA promotion, which was broadcast nationally on ESPN. In the American Wrestling Association, which was nearing the end of its existence at the time, the world-famous Superfly enjoyed a ‘big fish in a small pond’ type situation and he was immediately positioned at the top of the card. Snuka enjoyed main-event feuds against the AWA’s top heels, including “The Living Legend” Larry Zbysko (pictured), as well as the controversial ‘racist’ South African, Col. DeBeers (Ed Wiskowski).
While in the AWA, Snuka also formed an occasional team with Greg Gagne, and the unlikely duo wrestled their biggest match together at the promotion’s annual supercard, WrestleRock `86. In front of a capacity card at Minneapolis’ Metrodome, Snuka & Gagne faced the imposing team of Bruiser Brody & Nord the Barbarian…inside of a steel cage. Despite the overwhelming differences in size & power between the two teams, Snuka & Gagne somehow managed to defeat their unruly opponents…which, according to the pre-match stipulations, allowed Greg’s father, the legendary Verne Gagne, to have ten minutes alone inside of the cage with Brody & Nord’s hated manager, Shiek Adnan Al-Kaissie.
After a few years in the AWA, and following a short stay in Memphis (where he won the International Tag Team Title with J.T. Southern in 1987) Snuka eventually returned “home” to the WWF. However, unlike his previous stay in the Federation, this time The Superfly was positioned not at the top of the card, but rather, somewhere closer to the middle. Indeed, despite his obvious talent and name value, it was not at all uncommon for Snuka to wrestle in the opening matches during his second run in the Federation. Few storylines came his way, and eventually, he left the WWF once again.
By the early nineties, pro wrestling had changed a great deal since Snuka originally broke into the business some twenty years earlier. Having left the WWF, the veteran was left with few options in terms of places to find full-time employment, especially with the AWA having ceased operations in 1991. Yet, in 1992, Snuka joined a new Philadelphia-based promotion called Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW) and unknowingly wrote himself into the history books once again. Although the ECW that Snuka competed in was still a few years away from going ‘extreme,’ the no-frills, hard-hitting and bloody brand of action that Eastern Championship Wrestling delivered was still a major (and welcomed) change of pace from the WWF and, to a lesser degree, WCW. On April 25, 1992, after both men had won seperate ‘qualifier’ Battle Royals, Snuka faced off against Salvatore Bellomo in a match to determine the first-ever ECW World Heavyweight champion. Snuka won the match, yet, the very next night he was defeated by up-and-coming indy worker Johnny Hot Body. Undaunted, the popular Superfly continued to compete in ECW, and eventually worked his way back into the World title picture. On July 14, 1992, Snuka met and defeated Johnny to become a two-time ECW World champion. He then went on to defend his championship (while, at the same time, further establishing the new “World” title) for several months before losing the belt to his early-eighties archrival from the WWF, Don “The Rock” Muraco, on September 30, 1992.
On March 12, 1993, in Radnor, PA., the two-time former ECW World champion added to his title resume by defeating Glen Osbourne in the finals of a tournament to determine the E.C.W. World Television champion. The Superfly then went on to hold the promotion’s secondary title for over a half-year before losing it to another famous veteran who was also trying hard to help establish ECW as a legitimate promotion, Terry Funk. In fact, along with the Funker, Jimmy Snuka was a primary source of credibility for the new promotion during its early days, and he truly helped establish ECW as a major promotion even when, in reality, it was not quite there yet. Without Snuka, though, it’s debatable as to whether the struggling young group would have lasted long enough to finally become the cult hit that it did. Unquestionably, he was a big part of the early success of ECW, and will forever be remembered as such.
Following his lengthy run in ECW during the early & mid-nineties, Snuka continued working for several east coast independents as his incredible career finally began to wind down after nearly thirty years. Towards the end of the decade, the legendary Superfly also made a pair of high-profile, very memorable special ‘guest appearances’ in both the WWF and WCW.
For more than a quarter century, The Superfly was a major player within the wrestling business and during his prime, he was among the “sport’s” elite names. More importantly, through his unique combination of agility, speed and strength, not to mention his spectacular arsenal of high-flying, high-impact moves, the dare devilish “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka genuinely helped reshape the look of pro wrestling. Additionally, he had a profound influence some of wrestling’s top performers in several different eras, from Kevin Von Erich to Mick Foley, Sabu to The Hardy Boyz, Chris Benoit to Rey Mysterio, Jr. and many, many others in between.
Truly, The Superfly was one of the most important, influential and well-known figures of the late twentieth century, and we at HistoryofWrestling.com are proud to induct the former two-time ECW World Heavyweight champion and a true wrestling icon, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, into the H.O.W. Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame…..