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- Rodney Anoia, who was the heaviest superstar in the history of pro wrestling and a two-time WWF champion under the name Yokozuna, passed away suddenly on 10/23 in a Liverpool, England hotel room a few weeks after his 34th birthday.
- Anoia was the most successful of the huge Samoan clan of wrestlers started by Afa & Sika Anoia, his uncles, when they began wrestling in the early 1970s. He was one of the biggest stars in the business around the world during his WWF run, which lasted from late 1992 through 1996.
- Whether Anoia was the heaviest man ever to perform in the world of pro wrestling is a matter of conjecture. It is believed that Anoia weighed close to, if not, 800 pounds in late 1996, at about the time the WWF stopped using him because of his weight problem. He never was actually weighed during this period. The "Guiness Book of World Records" for years listed Happy Humphrey, real name Bill Cobb, who wrestled in the late 50s and early 60s but was never a major star, as the heaviest wrestler of all-time at 802 pounds. Judging from photos and accounts from wrestling historians, while Cobb was easily the heaviest man of his era, he was not that tall, and the belief is that the 800-pound billing, like Haystacks Calhoun at 601-pounds (he was closer to 450 to 500 pounds) and Andre the Giant at 7-foot-4, was much typical pro wrestling exaggeration. There were twin brothers, Billy and Benny McCrary, who wrestled as the McGuire Twins in the early 70s, who legitimately weighed 745 and 765 pounds apiece, and likely still hold the record as being the world's heaviest twins. They did some wrestling, but also were never big stars and only wrestled on occasion, with their most famous bout being in Japan where they lost a handicap match to Antonio Inoki. But with the exception of Calhoun, who was likely around 500 pounds for most of his career, Big Show, who at his heaviest in WCW was 505 pounds, and Andre, whose weight likely peaked at 530 to 550 pounds at the tail end of his career, and perhaps Nelson Frazier as Mabel or Viscera, none of the legitimately 500 pound wrestlers had anything resembling serious success.
- Anoia was clearly the heaviest man in the history of the WWF (Humphrey and the McGuire Twins never worked for the WWWF), as he clearly far outweighed Calhoun, Andre or Big Show, and heaviest man ever to be a long-term main eventer.
- He was found by the driver of the tour bus for Brian Dixon's All-Star Promotions in England when he didn't answer the door to his room on 10/23 at the Moat Hotel in Liverpool, as they were headed to a show that night in Stockport, Cheshire. He appeared to have passed away in his sleep from what was believed to have been a heart attack. Reports were that he was drinking heavily the night before. The previous day he had a lengthy phone call from his first cousin, Solofa Fatu, who wrestles as Rikishi, telling him how proud he was of him because he was in the main event for the first time on a PPV. He was on something of a WWF reunion tour, billed as Wrestlemania U.K., built around him as the top attraction. Also on the tour were Greg Valentine, Marty Jannetty and Steve Keirn as Skinner among others (Shinjiro Otani of New Japan also worked on many of the same dates) after the promotion did strong business for a tour built around John Tenta as Earthquake. While the period Yokozuna headlined was a down period in North America, it was a strong period for exposure in the U.K.
- On the tour, he almost looked like he had mismatched parts. His upper body was considerably smaller than in the WWF days, looking like about a 375-pound man. But from the waist down, he had hips, butt and thighs that looked like they belonged on a man who weighed 700 pounds.
- Anoia was living in Los Angeles, away from most of the rest of his family, which was scattered around San Francisco, Allentown, PA and Pensacola, FL, with his two children as a single father at the time of his death. The death was doubly tragic to his famous family, which had already been devastated earlier this year when on 1/7 had lost another member with the death of Gary Albright, in the ring on a show promoted by Afa and in the arms of Samu, in Hazelton, PA, at the age of 36. Albright had married Rodney Anoia's first cousin, Monica Anoia, a few years back. In recent years, he had been living in Las Vegas and was associated with the Buffalo Jim wrestling school, but left Vegas when that didn't work out. He was not allowed to wrestle in states that licensed wrestlers because of his weight being considered too high a risk factor and heart problems by the New York State Athletic Commission, a suspension that technically is supposed to be honored by all states with commissions that regulate wrestling. The WWF had considered using him, although they were adamant for him to get his weight down to 400 pounds, but their hands were tied because they weren't going to sign a wrestler who couldn't perform in more than 20 states, including New York, where they run so frequently. Still, WCW made a strong offer for him to return in February of 1999, wanting him to do a run-in on the SuperBrawl PPV show, but the deal was never completed and the sides never talked again. In recent years, he had wrestled infrequently on independent shows, including in some commission states where they ran shows without commission approval, or where the commissions simply weren't aware of his New York suspension. He had also done some international touring, largely based on the name made during his WWF run and using the Yokozuna name, but with his weight ranging from 600 to 750 pounds, he had been largely immobile in the ring over the past four plus years.
- Anoia was well liked among the wrestlers, and respected because, before the weight had gotten out of control and when he was young, he was very mobile for a man of his size, and was on top for nine months straight as champion, which is still the second longest heel title run (Superstar Billy Graham in the late 70s held it for ten months) in the history of the company. His death was mentioned later that night on both Raw, with Vince McMahon calling him the greatest big man in the history of wrestling, which is debatable, although he was respected as being a very good worker for his size during his peak years, and Nitro, where announcers Tony Schiavone, Mark Madden and Stevie Ray said largely the same thing. At first, the decision was made not to mention his name on Nitro since he never worked for WCW, but pressure from the wrestlers themselves who knew him led to the decision being changed.
- Rodney Anoia was born October 2, 1966 and grew up in San Francisco. By the time he was a child, his two uncles, Afa & Sika, had already started in pro wrestling, and Peter Maivia, whose success inspired the clan to get into pro wrestling first as fans, was an area headliner. Because of his size and agility, he was trained by his uncles and cousins (Sam Fatu and Samula Anoia) who had already started wrestling, as a teenager. He broke in under the name Kokina Anoia, and later, The Great Kokina, while only 18 years of age in the summer of 1985 and already being about 400 pounds. The gimmick of the huge Samoan from his other successful family members was well established, and he played a similar role, working heel in some smaller territories in Alabama, the WOW, an outlaw Alabama promotion, and Continental Wrestling, where he was involved in a short feud with Lord Humongous (Sid Eudy under a mask) and also worked USWA for a short period early in his career. He actually became an attraction first internationally, for the UWA in Mexico, when it was a major force and where the promotion often relied on bringing giant foreigners in to feud with Canek as its big money program. By the age of 21, had his first tour with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
- One of his favorite stories from Mexico was apparently very early in his career, he was in a six-man, where one of his partners was Andre and two of their opponents were Badnews Allen and Bam Bam Bigelow at the huge El Toreo de Cuatro Caminos. This didn't actually involve him directly, but as legend had it, Andre went to do his sit down splash, which, due to all his injuries by this point, had become his finisher, on Badnews. Apparently, at the moment of impact, Andre lost control of his bowels all over Badnews, and worse, due to his physical condition, couldn't get up.
- CAREER TITLE HISTORY
- Source: Wrestling Title Histories Fourth Edition
- WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION HEAVYWEIGHT: def. Bret Hart April 4, 1993 Las Vegas; lost to Hulk Hogan April 4, 1993 Las Vegas; def. Hulk Hogan June 13, 1993 Dayton, OH; lost to Bret Hart March 20, 1994 New York
- WORLD WRESTLING FEDERATION TAG TEAM: w/Owen Hart def. Billy & Bart Gunn April 2, 1995 Hartford, CT; lost to Diesel & Shawn Michaels September 24, 1995 Saginaw, MI; Belts returned to Hart & Yokozuna because Yokozuna & Davey Boy Smith had started the match as a team; lost to Billy & Bart Gunn September 25, 1995 Grand Rapids, MI
- He worked in the typical large foreign heel role for New Japan. Since he wasn't a big-name wrestler, he'd usually work in tags on top or in the middle as a single, doing 13 tours between 1988 and 1992. He debuted on the August 1988 tour, and was often used as a monster tag team partner for Big Van Vader, and as the guy who would do the job in headline matches against the Japanese. His first major match was January 31, 1990 teaming with Vader to lose to IWGP tag team champions Masa Saito & Shinya Hashimoto. By the summer, they brought his cousin Samula Anoia in as The Wild Samoan to form a regular tag team. On July 19, 1990, the two lost when challenging for the IWGP tag team title against Keiji Muto & Masahiro Chono.
- It was in Japan, when the gimmick that changed his career surfaced. In 1992, Anoia, then maybe 440 pounds, was introduced to Konishiki, a 580-pound Samoan sumo wrestler who at the time was one of the biggest celebrities in Japan because he was an Ozeki in sumo, which is the position right under Yokozuna. Photos of the meeting showed Anoia to be far smaller than the Japanese sumo superstar. Anoia looked somewhat like Konishiki and was actually outside of wrestling often confused with being Konishiki because of the sumo gimmick he used in pro wrestling. The Yokozuna position in sumo is carefully guarded, like entrance into the Hall of Fame in sports, and at that point in time, Konishiki regarded as someone of perhaps Yokozuna level prowess inside the sumo circle, had been denied access to such a promotion, with charges being it was because of his Samoan/Hawaiian heritage, as only Japanese had been promoted to such a level at that point in the history of sumo (that is no longer the case). At the same time, he was getting his first major exposure in the United States during the dying days of the AWA promotion, given the name Kokina Maximus, the last name because of his unusually large weight distribution in his Gluteus Maximus.
- The meeting with Konishiki led to the creation of Yokozuna, a character based on Konishiki, and perhaps in its own way, his early demise.
- When Vince McMahon brought him in, it was as the ultimate monster heel. He'd be Yokozuna, billed as Japanese, and the greatest sumo champion, a man who couldn't even be knocked off his feet, which was the trademark of sumos who, because of their size and lower body power, are hard to move or take off their feet. McMahon wanted him to get much bigger at first, probably whether consciously or unconsciously because of the look of Konishiki, to make him an unbelievably huge monster. He quickly gained weight to well over 500 pounds. Because of all the pressure on the company from the steroid scandal, it was very difficult to bring in monsters, which the company had always liked their top heels to be. Anoia had the ability to get to monstrous proportions, particularly his thighs and butt, which were emphasized in a sumo-like costume, and at that point in his life, still maintain enough mobility to have a decent match. Unfortunately, many close to him blame the habits he picked up during the huge weight gain spurt for the role, were those he was never later able to lick, and his weight became a problem for him ever since. When the problem get well out of control and his weight likely had topped 650 pounds in 1996, the WWF did take serious action. They attempted to enroll him in a Duke University weight loss program, but he only lasted a weekend, not liking their attempts to cold turkey change his lifestyle, rebelled, and wound up returning even heavier. They took him off the road, but kept him under contract, encouraging him to exercise and drop weight. As his weight appeared to hover around the 750 to 800 pound mark in late 1996, at a time when he was being sparingly used, he was dropped from the active roster completely and later upon an attempt to bring him back, failed the New York State Athletic Commission physical, with a report saying that his continuing wrestling posed a health risk due to his weight and heart irregularities. He remained under contract with the company for some time after that. Even after his contract ran out and wasn't renewed, and even as recently as a few weeks ago, had talks about returning. The hold-up would have been, as it had always been the past four years, that he never got his weight under control which would have made it impossible to use him in many states. Even without regulation, he was a health risk in a business already lined with tragedies.
- For the first several months in the WWF in late 1992, Yokozuna, managed by Mr. Fuji, was promoted as the strongest monster heel the company had pushed since the untalented Zeus coming off the "No Holds Barred" movie was given a quick push for two gimmick PPV shows. He squashed everyone, never even selling early, then just staggering against higher level opponents, but never going off his feet. It was a WWF gimmick from the distant past, as some 22 years earlier, Bruno Sammartino had drawn two straight crowds of more than 20,000 fans to Madison Square Garden when McMahon's father had brought in Crusher Verdu, an untalented wrestler who never was a great success anywhere else, but given the gimmick that nobody could ever even knock him off his feet. The first Sammartino-Verdu match broke a 50-year-old gate record for the building. It wasn't until months later, in likely the last great, at least by the standards of the moment, match of Jim Duggan's career, that Duggan actually knocked him off his feet, which led to a major program between the two. He was so hot that just a few months after his debut, on January 24, 1993 in Sacramento, CA, he won the Royal Rumble, and thus was primed to win the WWF championship from Bret Hart at Wrestlemania.
- The reign lasted less than one minute. Business was in the toilet during this period. It was the aftermath of the steroid and sex scandals that broke in early 1992, combined with some of the worst booking period including a lame Papa Shango voodoo angle as a headliner. Many of the company's biggest names, including Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, The Legion of Doom, Davey Boy Smith, Sid Vicious as Sid Justice all left the promotion for a variety of reasons publicly, but it was during the period there was great pressure on the WWF to clean the company's steroid problem up.
- McMahon brought back Hogan, who hadn't wrestled since the previous years' Wrestlemania when he teased a retirement to build up the gate, which was more McMahon wanting Hogan out of the public eye because he was a lightning rod of negative publicity, to make a big return at Wrestlemania IX on April 4, 1993 in Las Vegas. After Hart lost to Yokozuna in 8:55, Hogan stepped in and pinned Yokozuna, handing him his first loss in the company, with a legdrop in just 21 seconds.
- But business stayed poor with Hogan as champion. McMahon's idea was to build around Hart, giving Hart the credibility of having been the man Hogan passed the torch to as the young new champion, and keeping Hogan around in the Bruno Sammartino role after Sammartino had dropped the title, as the veteran legend to come back to spike gates but no longer be the focal point of the main events. Hogan didn't go for being phased down, nor, because of the big man mind set that was prevalent throughout the 80s in wrestling, of losing to a 235-pound babyface. He instead picked the much larger Yokozuna to drop the title to, at the first King of the Ring PPV event on June 13, 1993 in Dayton, OH, even allowing Yokozuna, after Hogan was blinded by outside interference, to get pinned by his own finisher, the legdrop. The idea was to build up big money rematches with Hogan as challenger, but the gates remained very disappointing and Hogan less than two months later quit the WWF to work in television and continue working major shows with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
- Yokozuna became the focal point of the WWF for about one year as its champion. With Hogan gone, apparently for good this time, McMahon's idea was to create a new Hogan, picking Lex Luger. Yokozuna was billed as the man who defeated Hogan and who nobody could get off his feet, as Hogan failed to slam him in the Dayton match, preferring to at that point save it for a rematch that never happened where he would use the slam to get his win back. This led to a bodyslam challenge on July 4, 1993, the nation's birthday, on the USS Entrepid, where the huge foreigner, pushed as the man even Hogan couldn't slam, dared everyone to attempt to take him off his feet and slam him. All the top babyfaces were there and failed. Suddenly, at the last minute, Luger, who had been a heel, performed the slam, not an impressive slam, but a slam nonetheless. Luger was promoted as the new shining star of the company with a bus tour to transform his image. Even Hogan was never given such a major promotion behind him. Nearly everyone expected Luger to win the title at Summer Slam, on August 30, 1993 in Auburn Hills, MI, but instead, in a weak finish, Luger won via count out. The decision was made to hold off the title change until Wrestlemania, with the old chase being more lucrative than the capture mentality. But in this case, that didn't seem to work. Luger's momentum fizzled when he didn't win the title. He remained popular, but the edge between a top guy and the top guy who means big business wasn't in him any longer, if it had ever been there in his career, even with McMahon's strong promotion of him as the new American hero all summer.
- At the January 22, 1994 Royal Rumble in Providence, RI, Yokozuna beat Undertaker in a casket match when approximately a dozen wrestlers interfered, and they basically portrayed Undertaker as having died and gone to heaven, since he was taking nearly a year off for personal reasons. The Royal Rumble was to be a tie with Hart and Luger, leading to Luger eventually beating Yokozuna at Wrestlemania. However, the fan response to Hart was far stronger than to Luger when they were the final two, and the WWF hedged its best, making Wrestlemania into a series of matches on March 20, 1994 in Madison Square Garden, with Yokozuna beating Luger via DQ in the first match, but losing to Hart in 10:38 in a match with Roddy Piper as referee.
- While this was going on, because he had used a Japanese gimmick to become one of pro wrestling's biggest stars, Anoia had received huge publicity and was somewhat controversial back in Japan. The Japanese Sumo Association had been upset at someone using the name Yokozuna, feeling it was defacing sumo with an impostor that had never been competed in sumo claiming the honor, similar to an actor who had never played football claiming to be a Super Bowl MVP. Nevertheless, the fans had interest in seeing him. But as the main attraction of the WWF's May 1994 tour of Japan, which turned into a flop, it was the WWF's lack of understanding Japan that was evident in the booking. First, Undertaker beat Yokozuna via count out, leading to fans hating the non-finish. Even worse, the next night, against Genichiro Tenryu, the two went to a double count out, which left an even stronger negative reaction in a country where fans had grown to expect all matches to have clean finishes. On the final night of the tour, in a title match against Hart, Yokozuna lost via DQ due to outside interference of Mr. Fuji, leading to a similar reaction.
- By the fall, he feuded with Undertaker in his comeback matches, but those were poor draws, and that, combined with his lack of stamina and mobility to work singles matches, led to putting him with Owen Hart, a great worker, in a tag team with Jim Cornette as the mouthpiece. The two won the WWF tag titles from The Smoking Gunns (Billy & Bart Gunn, the latter now All Japan's Mike Barton) at Wrestlemania XI on April 2, 1995 in Hartford. By the King of the Ring PPV on June 25, 1995, he lost in the first match of the show via count out to Savio Vega. They dropped the belts on September 25, 1995 at Raw in Grand Rapids, MI back to the Smoking Gunns.
- His contract was running out in early 1996 as he was being phased down the cards. Hogan, never having gotten his win back from the Dayton match, at a time when people actually cared about such things, made a big play to bring him into WCW for that purpose, just as he later did with Ultimate Warrior, the other wrestler he had never gotten his win back in the WWF from. A play was made to bring the entire Samoan clan in, with Afa (who had been friends with Hogan dating back to the late 70s) as the leader, with Yokozuna, Fatu (whose contract was also expiring). McMahon got wind of it, and before Scott Hall and Kevin Nash made themselves into bigger stars and turned WCW around with their jump, McMahon quelled this one and offered Yokozuna and Fatu major pushes as singles babyfaces. They were given roles, but neither got over in role and the big pushes never materialized. Yokozuna feuded with Cornette's stable of Vader, Hart and Davey Boy Smith, but it was more his role to put Vader over. By the end of the summer, he was no longer a factor due to his weight, including losing to Steve Austin at the SummerSlam PPV in just 1:52 in a match where they gimmicked the ropes collapsing under his weight and his final appearance in the WWF was in Madison Square Garden at Survivor Series on November 17, 1996 in a throwaway match teaming with Flash Funk (Too Cold Scorpio), Jimmy Snuka and Vega losing to Faarooq & Vader & the new Razor Ramon (Rick Bogner) & the new Diesel (Glen Jacobs, now Kane). The match ended up with everyone in the match disqualified at once. Yokozuna may have been 800 pounds by this point and could do almost nothing in the ring. At the age of 30, his career for all real purposes, was over.
- He was eventually released by the WWF in 1997 due to his weight problems, wrestling on rare occasions on indie shows. His last major appearance was one many would rather forget, the embarrassing main event at the October 10, 1999 Heroes of Wrestling PPV from Bay St. Louis, MS where he, looking to be about 600 pounds, teamed with Jake Roberts, putting over King Kong Bundy and Jim Neidhart.
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