'I’m so proud': WWE star reflects on Samoans' deep wrestling history

·9-min read
Jimmy and Jey Uso have found a balance between honoring Samoan tradition and making their characters their own.
Jimmy and Jey Uso have found a balance between honoring Samoan tradition and making their characters their own.

When looking at the history of professional wrestling, WWE in particular, it would be neglectful not to examine and honor the immense impact that Samoans have had on the industry. For decades, Samoan wrestlers have captivated crowds, reached some of the highest peaks in the business and paved the way for future generations.

“I think the Samoan people have made wrestling,” Joshua Fatu, better known as Jey Uso, told Yahoo Sports. “Pro wrestling is right down our alley, we’re just physical people, strong, quick. I feel like we were just made to do this. Being a part of it now and seeing all of the blood that has been laid before me, the whole family tree, it’s very humbling and I’m so proud I am part of this.”

Fatu and his twin brother Jonathan make up The Usos tag team in WWE, but long before the 35-year-olds ever stepped foot in a ring, professional wrestling and Samoan heritage were intensely intertwined.

Starting with the High Chief Peter Maivia in the 1960s, Samoans have been a constant in professional wrestling. Maivia, the maternal grandfather of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, wrestled across the globe and in several different promotions, including the National Wrestling Alliance, World Class Championship Wrestling and the American Wrestling Association before eventually making his way to the World Wrestling Federation in the late 1970s.

Maivia was the first taste of Samoan wrestling for many WWF fans at the time. Maivia wrestled barefoot and was tattooed from his torso to his knees, a tradition of his Samoan people. Few, if any, wrestling stars were tattooed at the time, let alone to the extent that Maivia was.

'High Chief' Peter Maivia was the first to display his traditional Pe'a tattoos. (Pro Wrestling Illustrated/WWE)
'High Chief' Peter Maivia was the first to display his traditional Pe'a tattoos. (Pro Wrestling Illustrated/WWE)

“As I’m a part of the business now and as a man, you see Peter Maivia rocking the traditional Samoan tattoo, known as the Pe’a, right there, my mind is already blown because at that time they probably looked at him like he was crazy,” Fatu said. “That was telling me that he wasn’t afraid to show people who he was. The heritage, being proud of who he was. The tattoos, that’s our thing, we wear the markings on the skin to show the world who we are, what we are and how we are.”

'That’s what Samoan people are, period'

Maivia’s brief but successful run in the WWF opened the door for other Polynesian stars, namely Afa and Sika Anoa’i, better known as the Wild Samoans. The Wild Samoans held the WWF tag team titles three times during their time with the company, and overall in their decorated careers have held 20 championships as a team.

Afa and Sika Anoa'i were known as the Wild Samoans tag team in WWE.
Afa and Sika Anoa'i were known as the Wild Samoans tag team in WWE.

In the early 1990s, Afa began to manage his son Samu and his nephew Solofa Fatu Jr. in a tag team known as the Headshrinkers. Much like the Wild Samoans before them, the Headshrinkers were portrayed somewhat as savages, playing into stereotypes of Pacific Islanders. At this time, Rodney Anoa’i, another of Afa’s nephews, was also in the WWF, wrestling as Yokozuna.

As the WWF shifted gears in the late 1990s in what is now looked back on as the “Attitude Era,” the perception of Samoans changed, due in large part to the rise of two stars, one from the Maivia family tree and another from the Anoa’i clan.

Maivia’s grandson, The Rock, and Fatu Jr. — working now as Rikishi — simultaneously got over with fans and became two of the most popular wrestlers of that period. The Rock and Rikishi together helped break stereotypes for Samoan wrestling characters and shed light on another side of Polynesian people.

“The cool thing is that my dad was part of those stereotypes when he was with the Headshrinkers,” Fatu said. “When my dad gets with Too Cool and dyes his hair blonde, now he’s adding layers to his character. Now he starts dancing, now he’s got these hip-hop guys with him. That was a feel good moment. Same thing with The Rock. He was so witty and when he started cutting those promos, the way he talked and looked, you wanted to be around him.

“These guys gave off great energy and that’s what Samoan people are, period. We’re happy people. We’re very, very family oriented. I think that’s what resonated with people and it started to bleed through the screen, to the point where people started to realize that these were fun, cool dudes.”

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is among the most famous Samoans to ever wrestle.
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is among the most famous Samoans to ever wrestle.

Finding balance: 'We just have to keep it going and keep evolving'

The same way Peter Maivia, Afa and Sika Anoa’i opened a door for Johnson and Fatu Jr., The Rock and Rikishi paved the way for a new generation of Samoan WWE stars in the Usos (Fatu Jr.’s sons) and Roman Reigns (Sika Anoai’s son).

The Usos made their WWE television debut in 2010, donning traditional Samoan Sarongs, Pe’a tattoos and performing the Siva Tau, the Samoan version of the Haka.

In addition to their look and entrance, the Usos’ style in the ring was traditionally Samoan as well, with one move in particular that has belonged to performers of Samoan heritage for decades.

“I think our style is really in our blood. Hard-hitting, real gritty,” Fatu said. “We can jump off ropes, we can stay on the ground, we can be powerful, we can do it all. I feel like me and my brother are the lightest Samoans ever. I like to keep it original, but there’s of course the Samoan Drop."

"That move has been handed down generation to generation and I like that. No one is taking that from us. That’s a special move. You can do a Superkick, everyone does the Superkick, but it used to be called the Savate kick back in the day when the Samoans were hitting it. There’s the splash, the Superfly Splash or the Samoan Splash, people use that too, but that Samoan Drop, that’s in the vault.”

The Usos’ overall success also helped bring some of their culture into mainstream WWE, most notably their one-word catchphrase. 

“I knew we were on to something when we went on tour in Europe as we just started to get rolling,” Fatu said. “Fans would come up to us and say ‘What’s up Uce?’ It just clicked and we kept it. Everyone’s an Uce now. If you meet any Polynesian, Samoan, Tongan, if you hit them with that, it’s automatic respect.”

After several years working primarily as a babyface tag team, The Usos overhauled their look and characters. Dressing modern and showing off their skills on the microphone created an entirely different persona for the team, much like what The Rock and Rikishi did nearly two decades prior.

“I think we did the Samoan thing and the fans knew our heritage and what we represented,” Fatu said. “[The change] allowed us to be more of the real version of ourselves. You start to let people in and see that we are modernized, we can talk, we’re not just two happy dudes and they can see the struggle in us. It all blends in. Now, we’re at the point where when I walk out, you know where I am from, what family I belong to. We just have to keep it going and keep evolving.”

A bright future in wrestling, for both Samoan men and women

Reigns, who has been among the biggest stars in WWE since his television debut in 2012, took the opposite approach. After debuting as a member of The Shield, Reigns mostly stayed away from referencing his Samoan heritage on WWE programming, despite the obvious connection to the Anoa’i family and his Pe’a tattoo.

It wasn’t until his most recent run, alongside Paul Heyman as the “Tribal Chief,” was Reigns’s heritage on full display. After defeating his cousin Jey Uso (Fatu) at the Hell in a Cell last October, Reigns was christened the leader of the Anoa’i clan by The Wild Samoans.

Now, Reigns and The Usos are in the middle of one of the best storylines in recent memory.

“My cousin is on the way to greatness right now,” Fatu said. “I’m so proud of him as Joe. He’s killing the game. I’m so happy we’re on this roller coaster together. You know how when you grow up, you probably had little cousins that you were rocking with every single day and then life hits you and you’re separated. Before you realize it, it’s two or three years before you see each other. I’m grateful that I’m still there with them. I get to go to work with them every week, I still see them every single week. I like that part, it’s like we’re still kids in our mind. It’s a blessing to me.”

Although the history of Samoans in wrestling has been largely dominated by male stars, Tamina Snuka and Nia Jax have risen to stardom in WWE and are opening doors for women on Polynesian heritage as well.

Snuka, daughter of the late Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, has been with WWE since 2010 and recently won her first major championship in the company alongside Natalya. Jax, who is cousins with Johnson, is a multi-time champion in the company since debuting in 2014.

“They’re the first Polynesian women doing pro wrestling at this level,” Fatu said. “We’re so used to the men. I hope they do know the impact they have. I hope they know how many little girls on that island, who look like them, are being inspired. They’re not petit, but they are in shape. Samoans we don’t always have six packs and stuff, but we have that power.”

Decades after Maivia and the Wild Samoans, the impact of the two families remains immense in WWE, and it’s not just with their own relatives. Afa Anoa’i continues to train wrestlers and hold events at the Wild Samoan Training Center in Florida while Rikishi trains aspiring stars at KnokX Pro Entertainment in California.

Simply put, you can always count on there being Samoans in professional wrestling.

“We have so many cousins,” Fatu said. “The wrestling world has no idea how deep we really are. I know they think we’re deep now, but ten years from now we’re going to be talking about our children being WWE champions.”

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