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The Soaring, Unsettling Life of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka

Marked by cage-scaling highs and disturbing lows, the late high-flying wrestler will be remembered as an exhilarating and complicated figure

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

In June, WrestleCon announced that Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka would be signing autographs at its convention during WrestleMania weekend in April 2017. In another year, or with another wrestler, this would have been a nonstory. What made this announcement noteworthy was that just weeks before, Snuka had been deemed mentally unfit to stand trial on charges of third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the killing of his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, in 1983.

The questions ask themselves. How could he be fit to sign autographs if he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial? But pro wrestlers aren’t known to countenance personal wellness in their scheduling, and wrestling fans will line up for their onetime idols no matter their state.

In 2008, Snuka appeared in the Royal Rumble, squaring off against his old foe Rowdy Roddy Piper. Snuka was in his 60s, Piper — who died in 2015 — was in his 50s. They stared each other down, the other wrestlers parted like the Red Sea to give them the spotlight, they brawled, and the crowd went wild. It was a lumbering, clumsy reminiscence of violence past. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was a moment. For Snuka, it was the last in a string of high-profile high dives.

The first was against Bob Backlund in 1982, when Snuka was a villain managed by Lou Albano, a quarrelsome slob who then was the go-to for South Pacific imports. Against Backlund, Snuka climbed to the top of the (relatively short) steel cage surrounding the ring and flung himself toward a prone Backlund, but Backlund moved and escaped the ring while Snuka recovered from the missed attempt. It was that sort of spectacle, that willingness to sacrifice himself for the crowd, that would soon win fans over, and when Superfly became a hero, he formalized his turn in a cage match against Albano (who would also be a fan favorite when the then-WWF reached its heyday a couple of years later). Their match was a bloody gag reel, a comic inversion of the Backlund match, which saw Snuka’s head become a bloody mess. By the time of his legendary match against Don Muraco in 1983, the bloodletting had left Snuka’s forehead a gravel road. In their match at Madison Square Garden (all three of these bouts were there, as most prominent WWF shows in those days were), Snuka dove off the (higher) cage and onto Muraco, and the crowd exploded. The fans were seeing something they’d never seen before.

As pro wrestling evolved, and with a generation of wrestlers influenced by Snuka at the fore, there were fewer and fewer things the fans hadn’t seen. Mick Foley, who was in the crowd the night of the Muraco match, was inspired to embark on a career of death-defying plummets, as were many of the stalwarts of ECW, the alt-wrestling home of ’90s in-ring brutality. When Snuka was jumping off the top of the cage, he was undeniably one of the biggest stars in the WWF. In 1982, he was second only to Backlund in drawing crowds for the company, according to Dave Meltzer.

On May 10, 1983, Snuka’s mistress, Nancy Argentino, was found unconscious at the George Washington Motor Lodge in Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania. She was taken to a hospital, where she died from a head injury. Snuka, who maintained his innocence, told seven different stories about how the injury occurred, according to court documents. The autopsy report said the death should be investigated as a homicide, but the investigation stalled after a follow-up interview with Snuka and Lehigh Valley authorities that was attended by Vince McMahon, according to The Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call. The Argentino family won $500,000 in a wrongful death civil suit, but Snuka didn’t face any criminal charges at the time (nor, according to reports, did he ever pay the civil fine). It wasn’t until a 2013 investigation — which you should read in full — by The Morning Call that the case was reopened. Thirty-two years after Argentino’s death, Snuka was charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in September 2015.

Snuka’s greatest fame came in the era of Hulkamania. Perhaps the Snuka moment most remembered by today’s fans was his visit to Piper’s Pit, where Roddy Piper made fun of his South Pacific heritage and, to underscore that, hit him over the head with a coconut. At his debut, he was presented as a crazed savage, but by his babyface run he was a semi-eloquent pro athlete. He had given his body and blood to win the fans’ admiration, but the WWF’s heyday cost him his dignity, positing him as a (literal) cartoon islander — a reversion to his original trope, this time for the entertainment of kids around the world.

Maybe it was the specter of the killing that turned Snuka into a comedy act, maybe it was the necessities of the WWF’s new mainstream image. Snuka acted as Hulk Hogan’s cornerman at WrestleMania I, and then, four months later, left the company. He was survived there by his caricature; the Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling cartoon premiered in September of that year, and Snuka was a featured player.

Snuka continued wrestling around the world for the remainder of his life. He made a number of returns to the WWF/WWE, including several late in life, relishing the spotlight he’d helped create decades prior. He wrestled in other countries, such as Japan; in other American organizations, such as the AWA; and in smaller federations, including Eastern Championship Wrestling, which would eventually transform into the aforementioned ECW.

And he kept going as long as he could. When he was charged with murder, his attorneys sought to have him ruled incompetent to stand trial. The prosecution disputed the contention, pointing to a match Snuka had worked a year prior in May 2015.

Nevertheless, in June he was ruled incompetent. The presiding judge, Kelly Banach, remarked that "justice suffers after 30 years because everything decays." On January 3, the trial was dismissed due to Snuka’s failing health, and he died on January 15.

Snuka’s daughter, the wrestler Tamina Snuka, Instagrammed about Snuka’s passing, and the Rock tweeted as the representative of the Samoan wrestling family tree to which Snuka is tenuously attached. Meanwhile, lots of wrestling fans justifiably focused on the tragedy of Argentino’s death. On YouTube, under the videos of him jumping off the top of the cage, there were messages like "Rest in peace brotha $uperfly! " and "Thank you for the memories. "

Those are the fans who would have lined up for his autograph. Whether they don’t know about his complicated past or don’t care is an interesting question, but it’s irrelevant. For them, what Jimmy Snuka did in the ring in the ’80s is good enough to warrant a kind eulogy. What he did in the real world is immaterial.

It’s impossible to separate these two strands. To a fan like me who loves both the simplicity of the faux contest and the deeper world of the unreal narrative construction, it’s hard to reconcile the morality play as escapism from, well, human morality. Real life isn’t an allegory, and death isn’t a work. But that’s the fine line that pro wrestling regularly walks. Nancy Argentino wasn’t part of a wrestling story line, but our willingness to reckon with real tragedy — with reality — is built into the product. The fake world taking precedence over the real world: That’s pro wrestling in a nutshell.

According to the New York Daily News, at the mental fitness hearing in December, Snuka’s wife told the judge that his condition had gotten dire. The family could barely keep him from wandering out of the house during his bouts of psychosis. He’d always try to leave, thinking there was a wrestling match somewhere that he was late for.