With the debut of WWE Icons series premiering on the Network, Matthew Roberts takes a look back at the WWE career of its first subject, two time World Champion Yokozuna.

    It’s probably no surprise in 2021 to learn that Rodney Anoa’i, the man behind the Yokozuna gimmick, was not Japanese.  Indeed he was a part of the Samoan family dynasty that is still a relevant part of the WWE’s main events to this day.  As a 12-year-old, I can’ really say I clocked on, as obvious as it looks now. 

    Anoa’i began his career in 1984, after beginning his training with his uncles The Wild Samoans (Afa and Sika) and had wrestled in Japan and Mexico before perhaps gaining most fame as Kokina Maximus in the AWA.  Billed as the “biggest Samoan wrestler of all time” it was actually under this gimmick that he made his WWE debut in 1992… wrestling one match as Kokina before Vince McMahon had his brainwave and turned him into Yokozuna. 

    At a time when being large and “foreign” was enough to be a top heel in the WWE, Yokozuna made quite an impact in quite a short amount of time.  Although his matches on TV followed the same basic formula (and would for years) the presentation was key.  The job boys got almost no offence in their matches.  His first “proper” opponent Virgil (at Survivor Series 1992) was allowed a plucky outmatched babyface attempt to knock Yoko down but got precisely nowhere. 

    Even with all that, and having to acknowledge the dearth of genuine top-line heels as 1993 came into view, most observers would not have imagined that he would walk away from the Royal Rumble early that year as the number one contender to the WWE World Title.  This was the first year that the now traditional prize of a WrestleMania title shot was on offer to the winner.  The final four in that match ended up as Rick Martel, Randy Savage, Bob Backlund and our boy Yoko which perhaps suggest the nature of the WWE’s talent roster at that time.  Years later yours truly would write a column for TWM re-booking the win for Savage, but by looking to establish a new main event heel at least this match tried to do something new. 

    There was little in the build-up for the WrestleMania IX main event beyond evil foreigner under the tutelage of Mr Fuji wanting to smash the (Canadian) babyface hero Bret Hart.  It went so well that during a match between kayfabe Japan and legit Canada the fans in attendance chanted “USA”.  Which was perhaps a portent of what was to come.  Yoko was never really built to put on thirty-minute classics but Bret Hart did his best to get something out of this eight-minute match, which is all the more worthy of respect when one considers that not only was Yoko going over, but a few minutes later he would drop the Championship to Hulk Hogan in an impromptu match.  Maybe on April 4, 1993, Bret still had visions of Hogan putting him over at Summerslam.  Yoko remains one of the quickest to get to the World Title from his WWE debut to this day, but his initial reign remains one of the shortest.

    With the slower pace of the WWE at that time, it would be June’s King of The Ring before Yoko would get a rematch with Hogan for the Championship.  Whilst Bret Hart busted his chops in three separate matches to become King of The Ring, Hogan and ‘Zuna battled for the title in a match that, watched today, isn’t actually that bad.  It’s slow, naturally, but it tells a good story and it does everything it can as a match to get Yoko over as THE heel in the company.  After all, our boy kicks out of the leg drop and even the creative finish (fire-bomb exploding camera flash to the face courtesy of, as it turned out but never officially storyline, Harvey Wippleman) comes off as sneaky and devious.  That Hogan was gone from WWE TV after this (taking nearly a decade to return) only cemented the historic nature of the win in the storyline. 

    The next challenge for Yokozuna perhaps gave us the reason for a “foreign” heel being so important in 1993.  It was July 4 of that year on the deck of the U.S.S Intrepid in New York City where Yokozuna had made the open challenge for anyone to bodyslam him.  The great and the good of the WWE, including Crush, Tatanka, Bob Backlund and Randy Savage, failed in their attempts and various NBA, NHL and NFL stars fared no better.  But when all seemed lost, Lex Luger flew in on a Helicopter to save the day, make the slam and book his spot as the top babyface in the promotion and contender to Yoko’s title at Summerslam. 

    It seemed inconceivable at the time that Lex Luger, aided by the Lex Express tour that had travelled the country, would fail to unseat Yoko at Summerslam but nevertheless that was what happened.  Sure, Luger won the match by count-out and got the glory but you don’t even need hindsight to realise that such a result and subsequent celebration for not winning the title just made Luger look idiotic.  At the time the plan was still for Luger to take the title from Yoko, but to do it at WrestleMania, presumably to make a bigger impact.  As we know, that was never to happen. 

    The All-Americans against The Foreign Fanatics at Survivor Series 1993 was designed to give Lex Luger more foreign menaces to battle (in the form of the “Finnish” environmentalist Ludwig Borga – they must have been running out of countries by now) and to set up a feud between our boy Yoko and The Undertaker who both got counted out in that one. 

    This set up the infamous Casket Match at Royal Rumble 1994.  The records in their plainest form would show a win for Yokozuna and him retaining his title.  The actual match saw ten, TEN, guys interfere on behalf of Yoko (including such legends as Adam Bomb and Great Kabuki) and even then it was only by stealing the urn, knocking it over and dumping the ashes that the heels could get enough control to stuff Taker into a casket.  And that wasn’t all.  Taker’s spirit rose to heaven and Vince McMahon sold it as if we’d seen the “death” of The Undertaker.  So whilst Yoko retained and booked his place in the Mania main event that wasn’t really the focus of the entire thing at all. 

    Instead of dropping the Championship to Luger at WrestleMania X as apparently planned, Yoko defeated Luger there in his first match of the evening before the second of the joint winners of the 94 Rumble Bret Hart finally got revenge for his loss twelve months earlier by pinning Yoko to lift the WWE Title. 

    That a month later Yoko was losing a “Sumo Match” on Raw to Earthquake suggests that this was the end of his top-line run in the WWE. It’s true that he would never again reach the heights of a champion, but he was far from done.  Along with Crush, he had an unsuccessful World Tag Team Title shot against The Headshrinkers at King of The Ring 1994 before being left off the Summerslam card (presumably as that show was largely built around the lamentable Undertaker Vs Undertaker match) before dropping a Casket Match to The Undertaker at that year’s Survivor Series, the dead man getting his belated revenge in a match which saw Chuck Norris as a special enforcer. 

    Yoko took some time off, allegedly partly to put ON some more weight, before returning as Owen Hart’s mystery partner at WrestleMania XI as they unseated The Smoking Gunns to win the WWE World Tag Team Titles.  If it seemed as if Yoko would be used solely in a tag team role, partly to ease the stress and strain on his body, but he was a part of the 1995 King of The Ring, defeating Lex Luger by count-out to qualify, but losing to Savio Vega in the first round by the same manner to be eliminated.

    Title defenses against the likes of Razor Ramon & Savio Vega and Men on a Mission on Raw led to a match at In Your House 3 where ALL the gold was on the line against World Champion Diesel and Intercontinental Champion Shawn Michaels.  Owen Hart’s “transportation” issues led to him being replaced by Davey Boy Smith whilst WWE used the “Dusty” trick to seemingly switch the Tag Championships to the Dudes With Attitudes only to nullify the switch the next night.  The reprieve was brief though as Yoko & Owen dropped the title to the Smoking Gunns that same night on Raw. 

    A match with Mabel at In Your House 4 was as horrific as it sounds and by In Your House 5, our boy was on dark match duty, teaming with The Bodydonnas & Issac Yankem to lose to The Smoking Gunns, Hakushi and Barry Horrowitz which, if nothing else, must be up there as one of the oddest match combinations in history.

    1996 would prove to be his last year on-screen with the WWE.  He was a part of the Royal Rumble match and put over Shawn Michaels the next night at the Raw Tapings.  He would actually become a babyface after falling out with his Camp Cornette stablemates, picking up a DQ win over Davey Boy Smith at In Your House 6 before defeating Owen Hart & Davey Boy Smith in a Handicap match on Raw in February, then teaming with The Undertaker to defeat the same pairing the next month.  Defeats to Vader, Owen Hart and Shawn Michaels came on Raw that year too.  His final PPV singles match for the company was a loss to Vader at In Your House 8 before a loss to Steve Austin in less than two minutes on the Summerslam Free For All. 

    His final match for the company came at Survivor Series 1996 as he teamed with Flash Funk, Savio Vega and Yokozuna to take on Faarooq, Vader and the Fake Razor & Diesel.  It was a low-key ending for Yoko, with a Double DQ finish adding to the pointlessness of a match that couldn’t follow the classic Bret Hart/Steve Austin match that had preceded it.

    Rumours would abound about a return but Yoko at this stage weighed so much that he was denied medical clearance to return, even when apparently losing a large amount of weight.  His last “big” appearance came at the 1999 Heroes of Wrestling event, largely regarded as the worst PPV that wrestling has ever seen.  It was an ignominious end to Yoko’s career as far as on-screen appearances came. 

    Whilst on an independent European Tour in October 2000 Yokozuna was found dead in his hotel room in Liverpool, England.  The cause of death was diagnosed as Pulmonary edema, a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs. That the disease is linked to heart problems was sadly not much of a surprise to anyone.  He was only 34 years old. 

    Rodney Anoa’i spent less than five years in the WWE and didn’t have any real “mainstream” fame in any other promotions.  Yet the two time World Champion is still fondly remembered by many to this day.  It may be fair to say that he didn’t leave a “standout” match on his resume, although he did have several decent encounters on PPV.  Yet it’s worth remembering that that wasn’t the reason he was a WWE Superstar.  He was there to be the “foreign” menace and a look at his career unveils a man with surprising agility and speed for a man his size, especially in the early part of his WWE career. 

    And whilst it is no consolation to friends and family who lost a man at the age of 34 they can at least take solace in the knowledge that he left a legacy that is fondly remembered to this day.

    Photos courtesy of WWE.com