Diving Into Darkness: Remembering All of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka

Jimmy Snuka died of cancer at the age of 73. The wrestler spent the last few years of his life facing criminal charges for the murder of his girlfriend more than 30 years ago.

Jan 17 2017, 4:46pm

Photo by Flickr user swiftwj

Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka is dead. He had been battling stomach cancer for some time. His daughter, Tamina, posted a photo of her holding her father's hand one last time to Instagram on Monday. He was 73 years old. He was a wrestling star in the 1980s, particularly just prior to the Hulkamania years.

Snuka also may have murdered someone. This is not the asterisk on his career. It is the lead, and where we must start, because that is what a responsible accounting of his life demands.

On the night of May 10, 1983, Snuka called for help after finding his girlfriend, Nancy Argentino, lying unresponsive on the bed in an Allentown hotel room. She was barely breathing, and yellow fluid oozed from her mouth and nose. Doctors couldn't save her, and she died of head trauma that evening. She was 23 years old.

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Snuka, who according to records was the only person in the hotel room with Argentino that night, claimed that she fell. Then that he pushed her. Then clammed up. He wasn't charged, with dark insinuations (and they were only insinuations, mostly made by Snuka himself in his autobiography) that Vince McMahon showed up to personally bribe away the investigation. He was found liable for Argentino's death in a $500,000 civil suit brought by her family in 1985, but the criminal investigation remained open.

Snuka went on to continue wrestling for many, many years. In the ring, he was out of step with the times: where wrestling still plodded, Snuka wanted to fly. So he did—his scaling a cage in Madison Square Garden to dive onto mortal enemy Don Muraco has the quality of myth to it now, the sort of groundbreaking move that set the stage for so many dangerous dives after, from Mick Foley's to Rob Van Dam's. Kids saw that dive and they wanted to do it, and when the times demanded it, they did it bigger, better, more dangerously.

Holding championships was never really Snuka's bag, despite his prominence. He never held a title in WWE and, before that, was limited to minor belts when he came up through Georgia and the Carolinas. Rather, Snuka was a presence. For all that he was billed as a daredevil with that top rope dive, he had a massive frame of pure muscle.

In the largely white world of American pro wrestling, the Fijian Snuka occupied an odd place as one of the most prominent "safe" island wrestlers. Fiji and Samoa have a long pro wrestling history of their own, but in the U.S. Pacific Islanders were shunted off to gimmicks that were tired even 30 years ago: headhunters, cannibals, and savages. Snuka had those gimmicks, too, but he eventually became a babyface after feuding with Lou Albano; he stayed face after that.

The catalyst for his sustained babyface heat was always race. Snuka was the victim of racist wrestlers in an inversion of the expected islander gimmicks, which were a trope of pro wrestling for decades. In a brief run in the AWA, he ran afoul of Colonel DeBeers, a pro-apartheid Afrikaner heel. Snuka was simply Snuka, while DeBeers ran him down in explicitly racist terms. There was no ambiguity there; Snuka was the face because racism was bad.

Most famous, of course, was his feud with Roddy Piper. Piper hosted a fake talk show, called Piper's Pit. He'd jaw at whoever came on, running them down and furthering his feuds. Piper tapped racial material on a regular basis but never as overtly as with Snuka. Piper insisted on making Snuka "feel at home" by giving him coconuts and pineapple, getting more and more agitated while Snuka sat stoically and took it, the model of white expectations of dignity in the face of racist onslaught. Then Piper hit him in the head so hard the coconut busted open before grinding bananas in Snuka's face.

It's one of the iconic angles of the Hulkamania era and could've carried both men to headlining feuds had Snuka not entered rehab. The heat was there. Snuka's capacity to keep it together, however, was not, and this would be something of a calling card.

In 2015, 32 years after the fact, Snuka was charged with third-degree murder. The precipitating event was a remarkable bit of local journalism by the Morning Call out of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Two reporters uncovered the autopsy report from 1983, which quite clearly stated that Argentino's death had all the marks of homicide, and that her body had injuries consistent with victims of "mate abuse."

The case never really took off. Snuka was, after years of head trauma from his career, mentally incapable of doing much of anything. It must be noted that he was a plaintiff in the lawsuit against WWE on grounds that they covered up the link between pro wrestling and brain damage, with a side that classifying wrestlers as independent contractors lets the company elide its responsibilities to employees. At the end, Snuka—or more likely people close to him—had some awareness of the probable origin of his brain damage.

Snuka's mental capacity was so poor that the judge in the reopened case decided he was unfit to stand trial. Just as Snuka's role in Argentino's murder must be forcefully placed at the front of his pro wrestling career, it must be made clear what happened in the reopening of the case: Snuka was not acquitted. It was not thrown out for lack of evidence. There was no mistrial. The charges were thrown out earlier this month because a judge could not, in good faith, ask a dying, befuddled man to testify or serve out his remaining days when he couldn't even remember his family's names consistently.

Death rests uneasily in pro wrestling, but fame does, too. Already, people are looking the other way. The fandom is too strong, the memories too delightful. We already suspend so much of our disbelief when we watch pro wrestling—it is, in fact, a requirement in enjoying it unlike even television or movies—that it's easy to slip into just a little more disbelief. And so Nancy Argentino becomes a footnote, with Snuka the same hero taking on Roddy Piper he was in 1984, just as you'll hear echoes in the corners of pro wrestling asking for a reappraisal of Chris Benoit.

We cannot look away from this and we cannot pause. Nancy Argentino didn't get to. If pro wrestling's history demands respect, if it wants to trade on a century of stories and tradition, it has to be a total history, one that lets you remember that leap while never, ever forgetting who was doing the leaping.

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