On Sunday came the news that ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka – former WWF (now WWE) star and an icon from the popular professional wrestling era of the 1980s – had passed away at the age of 73. Snuka had been battling stomach cancer as well as dementia, and in late 2016 had been given a maximum of six months to live.
The sad yet inevitable news comes beneath a dark cloud, however. One which Snuka may well have been harbouring for the last 33 years.
In 1983 Snuka’s girlfriend Nancy Argentino was found dead in a hotel room the two were sharing. There had already been domestic incidents involving the two, but Argentino opted not to press charges. Snuka claimed that Nancy had suffered a “fall” prior to entering the condition which prompted an ambulance call, but the medical evidence painted a different picture.
The autopsy highlighted a skull fracture and damage to the brain. It was noted that it was not consistent with a simple fall. Nancy also had thirty-nine other cuts and bruises to various other parts of her body. The coroner observed that these happened in the twenty-four hours before her death. The verdict on the coroner part was “homicide until proven otherwise” and the report specifically mentioned “mate abuse” as a possible explanation behind the head trauma.
Snuka’s own story regarding her “fall” changed. At one point, he claimed it was a slip along the side of a road after leaving their car to go to the bathroom. Then, she hit her head on a chair during “horseplay in the bedroom”.
Why wasn’t Snuka charged with murder, or even manslaughter, if there were such grounds for suspicion?
Forensic pathologist Isidore Mihalakis, who worked on the autopsy, has been reported as saying: “The clear-cut forensics weren’t there, but the suspicion was there. I did not have a clear-cut case.
“It was a very worrisome case. Obviously, there was enough there to arouse my suspicion but not enough to take it to trial. Just because she was beaten doesn’t mean she was beaten to death.”
The case remained open, and Nancy’s sister Lorraine Salome said the following “I feel like the police didn’t take it as far as they should have. The whole thing, for our family, is still up in the air. We still walk around wondering, ‘What the hell?’
“Nobody to this day really actually knows what happened. It’s just like they squashed it somehow. I don’t know how they did it. I don’t know what they did, but it was just like they squashed it.”
Snuka himself later had a quote in his book saying: “I dont know if they gave Nancy’s family money or anything.” What is known for sure is that WWE kingpin Vince McMahon accompanied Snuka to a second follow-up interview with detectives. “He was the mouthpiece, trying to direct the conversation,” Robert Steinberg, the assistant D.A said.
While not enough at the time to suggest Snuka’s employers had a hand with his lack of so much as an arrest despite being the lone ‘person of interest’ in the case, the 80s as a whole in professional wrestling would retroactively trigger a natural suspicion in anything related to the industry, when scandal after scandal proceeded to see the light of day.
The themes of suspected crimes, alleged cover-ups from above and the wrestlers themselves immersed in drug culture would reach a peak when McMahon stood trial for conspiracy to distribute steroids in 1994, not long after publicised accusations of sexual abuse towards some of Vince’s top lieutenants.
He would be found innocent by the jury, mostly because the prosecution failed to prove that McMahon himself had explicitly instructed his performers to take steroids to enhance their physiques, or that he was consciously responsible for the regular presence of George Zahorian – the jailed and disgraced doctor who sold alarming quantities of various meds to wrestlers, no questions asked, for years.
You may be more familiar with the Snuka-Argentino story over the last couple of years because continued work from investigative journalists and the family of Nancy almost found closure, three decades later when the case was reopened following a 2013 story by the Morning Call revealing an unseen autopsy report which actually labelled the mysterious case a homicide.
Despite being charged with third degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Snuka was declared unfit to stand trial at the start of this year due to his current condition.
As a child, my memories of Snuka were like many others. Completely oblivious to the Argentino death case, Snuka’s legacy was his famed ‘Superfly’ Splash from the top rope, popularised at a time when very few wrestlers did anything that could be considered remotely aerial or high-risk. It was also his wild brawls with other legends such as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and Bob Backlund.
In October 1983, Snuka’s most memorable moment occurred in world-famous fight sports hotbed Madison Square Garden, when he performed the ‘Superfly’ Splash onto Intercontinental champion Don Muraco from the top of a steel cage after their match inside it. In attendance were future wrestling stars Mick ‘Cactus Jack/Mankind’ Foley, Bubba Ray Dudley, The Sandman and Tommy Dreamer. All of them have since admitted that the dive off the cage sealed their determination to become wrestlers themselves.
The iconic dive came mere months after Argentino’s death. And with Snuka ultimately never standing trial, we may never discover the true story.
The Argentino family went after a civil case when criminal charges did not come, initially. They won a wrongful death suit against Snuka in 1985. That resulted in a judge ordering Snuka to pay $500,000 to the family. However, he never did pay any of this money. Because he was broke, and remained broke.
Snuka was an inspiration to many, and remains fondly remembered by many more than just his close relatives, including many a fellow wrestler on the famous Anoa’i family tree, including Hollywood megastar Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his daughter, current WWE performer Tamina Snuka.
And yet, one peek beneath the surface of his function as a live performer can be enough to change everything.
While this isn’t quite the harrowing case of 2007 when beloved ‘underdog’ grafter Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son before taking his own life in a drug-, depression- and concussion-fuelled stupor, there seems to be a strong chance that Snuka’s true story isn’t too far off.