Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka died yesterday, January 15, 2017 at the age of 73. That is the simple fact. The story of Jimmy Snuka is far more complicated, tragic, and controversial than that. Superfly Snuka is a stark reminder of a seedy underbelly of pro wrestling that we, as fans, like to forget existed. It's a story that makes the most salacious ID channel true crime special look tame. It involves fame, fortune, drugs, racial stereotyping, and death. The real story of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka is a complicated one.
In 2017, we have became sadly accustomed to our childhood heroes and legends tumbling for a fall. When Bill Cosby dies, the conversation will no longer be about the clean, family friendly, funniest man in America, with a squeaky clean reputation, who famously reprimanded Eddie Murphy for his vulgarity. No, it will be an altogether different conversation.
If you were a fan of professional wrestling from the late 1970's to the mid-1980's you certainly knew of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. He was one of the most popular wrestlers in the United States and Japan. If you are deep enough into the "inside" wrestling news business you may even known that the character of Jimmy Snuka was played by James Reiher (born under the even less "savage" name of James Wiley Smith).
Here in 2017 it's hard to look back at Jimmy Snuka and remember him as a muscular babyface superstar, famous for his multiple leaps off of the top of steel cages, inspiring a generation of wrestling daredevils. In 2017 it's hard to ignore that his "jungle savage" character was overtly stereotypical and lowbrow. It's hard to ignore that a wrestler who many times used borderline racial slurs in his act once hit him over the head with a coconut in a "serious" skit. It's hard to ignore that we now have a pretty good idea how someone gets that type of body. It's hard to ignore that Jimmy Snuka was indicted and arrested in September 2015 on third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges for the May 1983 death of his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino but never stood trial due to his deteriorating health due to stomach cancer and, ultimately, his death. It's hard to ignore that he was never originally charged due to a seeming cover-up due to his fame and lazy police work.
James Wiley Smith-Reiher, let's call him Jimmy Snuka for simplicity sake, was born in Fiji on May 18, 1943 to Louisa Smith and Charles Thomas. So, at least the part about being from the Fiji Islands was true. Even Snuka's birth was a complicated affair as his father Charlie Thomas was married to another woman while his mother Louisa Smith was engaged to Bernard Reiher leading to the complex and confusing naming of Snuka. Before Jimmy Snuka was born, his mother married Bernard Reiher despite all this.
Jimmy Snuka was involved in bodybuilding in Hawaii during the 1960s and even earned the titles of Mr. Hawaii, Mr. Waikiki and Mr. North Shore. Snuka maintained an incredibly muscular body well into his 60's.
I could write many paragraphs about the man known for the Superfly Splash, the wrestling hero, and what he may have really been like. However, one person has done much more research on Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka than I have, journalist Irv Muchnick. This is what Muchnick had to say about Snuka in an article detailing the renewed investigation of the Nancy Argentino death, "The World Wrestling Federation's [now known as WWE] second-most-popular star in the early eighties, [Jimmy] Snuka was an illiterate immigrant from Fiji, prone to bouts with the law that threatened his green card, and a drug abuser who often missed bookings. During a Middle East tour in the summer of 1985, fellow wrestlers say, customs officials in Kuwait caught him with controlled substances taped to his body, and he was allowed to leave the country only after some fancy footwork." Hardly the portrait of a hero considering this was only two years after apparently getting away with murder.
Jimmy Snuka began fading out of relevancy by the end of the 1980's. During the 1990's he would occasionally be paraded out by an upstart like ECW as a "legend" or, even later, be brought out as a special attraction by companies like WCW looking for one more big pop from the crowd. Or, worse yet, being honored in a Hall of Fame, the owners of which, knowing all this.
Yesterday, January 15, 2017, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka died of stomach cancer at the age of 73. Like Bill Cosby, he was a star during my childhood... and I think I'll leave it at that.
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