There was a new WWE Icons documentary that debuted on WWE Network today covering the career of WWE Hall of Famer Yokozuna. Here’s my review.
Yokozuna growing up
Rodney Anoaʻi was the oldest in his family, growing up in Los Angeles as his father who was in the service as a Marine. While getting an education was important to his parents, Anoa’i did not graduate high school. With his father wanting him to do something with his life, Rodney was sent to Pensacola, Florida to live with his uncles, Afa and Sika, better known as the Wild Samoans. At his uncles’ training facility, he would develop his love for professional wrestling. Anoa’i would then get his start on the indies as Kokina Maximus, and stood out quickly for his agility and athleticism at his size. At 21, Rodney became a father with the birth of his daughter named Keilani and then his son the following year. Having to look after his family, The Wild Samoans would introduce Rodney to Gerald Briscoe and Bruce Prichard. Impressed by what they saw, they gave a tryout to Rodney that led to him being signed. Originally, Anoa’i was supposed to be a part of the Headshrinkers but a cut on his leg that got infected led to his cousin Rikishi replacing him.
The Creation of Yokozuna
Rodney would later debut as Kokina, however, his character was not working so they had to change it up. Sgt. Slaughter would then be the one to come up with the sumo wrestler character. He was given the name “Yokozuna” which means “highest rank sumo wrestler” and paired him with Mr. Fuji as his manager. On October 31st, 1992, Yokozuna made his debut on WWE Superstars and quickly impressed many, even The Undertaker who requested to work with him. At the time, Yokozuna was the monster heel WWE needed and thus led to his victory at the 1993 Royal Rumble.
Yokozuna’s first WWE championship run
His Royal Rumble win would set him up for a WWE Championship match against then-champion Bret Hart at Wrestlemania IX. It was a big deal for Yokozuna to be in the main event at Wrestlemania as many of his relatives flew down for the major event with Reigns describing it as bigger than the Super Bowl for him. Bret spoke about the match, revealing there were two parts to the match. While the first part was good, Bret tells that the second part never happened as he thinks Yoko might have run out of gas, which led to them going straight to the finish. Hart described the difficultly of holding Yokozuna’s large legs into the Sharpshooter and having to wait for Mr. Fuji to throw the salt into his face. The match would end with Yokozuna defeating Bret Hart for the WWE championship and followed by Hogan ending. According to WWE’s Bruce Prichard, the original plan was for Yoko to leave Wrestlemania as champion, however, things changed during the weekend of the event. Hogan spoke about convincing Vince to put him in the Wrestlemania main event, have him win the championship, and then face Yokozuna at the next pay-per-view. The Hulkster would leave Wrestlemania as WWE champion with Prichard explaining that the decision came with the international tour being Hogan’s farewell tour. As far as Yokozuna, while he was not overjoyed about losing the championship but he did not mind being champion for a minute and was happy being in a program with Hulk, according to Bruce.
Yokozuna’s second championship run and his followed success
At King of the Ring 1993, with a lot of press and pressure, Yokozuna would defeat Hulk Hogan to become a two-time WWE champion. The moment was a big accomplishment for him and his family which led Yokozuna to become a megastar. Many of his peers shared the same sentiments about Yoko, saying he remained a very likable and respectable person throughout his success. Yokozuna would use his success to take care of his family, making sure everyone was well. Rikishi spoke about a time when he moved into a new home but did not have money to install a new heating system. Yokozuna would give him a signed blank check to help him install a new heating system for his new home. Many of his relatives said money was never an issue for Yokozuna and also separated who Rodney Anoa’I was from Yokozuna when he was home.
At 26, Yokozuna was the youngest WWE Champion and held the title for 280 consecutive days. He would go on to defend his championship at Wrestlemania X, losing it to Bret Hart. Jim Cornette says it was special to see a heel like him be that dominant with the title with Rikishi adding there would have been more Wrestlemania like this if he could bump.
Weight issues and his downfall
Yokozuna’s weight started to become an issue as his gains were becoming noticeable. He was becoming slower in the ring., even being out of breath walking back to the Gorilla position. Many knew he was not doing well as the weight issues became obvious, especially affecting his stamina. They essentially put him in a tag team with Owen because his performance was declining. In an interview, when asked what he likes and dislikes about the business, Yokozuna answered that he loves the people but hated the travel. Yokozuna’s size was an issue when traveling to where he had to sit in two coach seats. Many spoke to Yokozuna about losing weight but the two-time WWE champion believed he could still go and did not want to talk about his weight. At one point, he weighed 641 pounds so they put him on a diet and workout routine. However, Yokozuna did not do follow through with the weight loss pain. The next step by WWE was to take him to Duke University which had a weight loss program. Not wanting to North Carolina, he said he would do the weight loss plan at home. Being off for three months to complete the program, Yokozuna would come back bigger than before. It was becoming more of a concern as Rikishi would notice Yoko dozing off during mid-conversation. WWE pushed for Yoko to go to Duke University which he did but it did not work out. His weight got worse to where, in 1997, he was not able to pass a physical exam given by the New York State Athletic Commission and subsequently released by WWE. Vince hoped the release would help Yoko reevaluate himself to lose weight. In 1998, Yokozuna returned to the independent circuit, however, depression set in. Some believed Yokozuna felt as if he left his family down after being the one who supported his family. In 1999, Yokozuna moved to Las Vegas to help start a wrestling school, even taking in kids with nowhere to stay and mentored them.
The passing of Yokozuna and his legacy
In October 2000, Yokozuna traveled to England for a month-long wrestling tour. To his sister, she believes wrestling felt like a way out of what was going on in his life and was just happy doing what he loved. On October 23, 2000, Yokozuna finished a show and went back to the hotel saying he felt really tired and was not feeling well. Unfortunately, at 34, Yokozuna passed away in his sleep. Rikishi described the numb feeling he had working the next day on Raw with his mind not being there. He says a lot of the boys took it hard with Hart adding that there was some frustration and sadness because they were not sure what else they could have done to save their friend. A year later, a memorial show at WXW was held in honor of the late Yokozuna which his friends such as Taker, Kane, and cousin Rikishi took part in. In 2012, with his family members accepting the honor, Yokozuna was introduced into the WWE Hall of Fame. The documentary closes with the highlights of the Samoan legacy, many of them thanking Yokozuna for helping open the door for the next generation of Polynesian wrestlers and for being remembered as one of the greatest big men ever.
Aneil’s Thoughts: When WWE announced the new WWE Icons’ series, the Yokozuna episode was one I looked forward to. Yokozuna was one of the superstars I grew up watching WWF as a kid along with Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Razor Ramon, Bret Hart, and a few others. I just remember seeing him on TV, wondering who could beat this giant. I would be so terrified for his opponents whenever they were on the receiving side of the Banzai drop, believing he could crush them. I also remember my cousin picking him whenever they played WWF Wrestlemania on Sega Genesis. It was interesting to get an in-depth look at who Yokozuna was, the meteoric rise of his career, and his unfortunate downfall. The documentary shows that while Yokozuna was this monster on TV, he was far from it backstage which can be vouched by his peer. He was beloved by many and was willing to do whatever he could for those he loved. As for his wrestling career, I saw a fascinating tweet by Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful.com that Yokozuna won the Royal Rumble three months after his debut. You knew he was going to be a special talent after being put in that position that quickly.
Yokozuna was an absolute spectacle of a superstar, but his weight issue was his unfortunate downfall. While he was always a big man, you could see the noticeable weight gains throughout the documentary. From the documentary, you could tell his family and friends, even his employer tried to save Yokozuna, but it was up to the two-time champion to help himself. I thought it was great to have Yokozuna be a part of the WWE Icons series because he truly was an icon especially for the generations of Samoan wrestlers and big men after him.