Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Great Moments in Wrestling: Jimmy Snuka's Baptism of Blood

Many cultures throughout history have recognized the ritual of baptism. While most people think of the Christian purification ritual known as baptism, it is a practice also associated with other cultures, sometimes for purification, sometimes for initiation, and sometimes for both. Practices vary based on culture and they have evolved over time to include meanings not originally meant. For example, the phrase baptism of fire is often used to refer to someone initiated into a group (often a military or paramilitary organization) by his or her first exposure to combat.

In 1982, wrestler Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka underwent a baptism of sorts himself. Years before fans routinely cheered heels, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka won the cheers of WWF fans despite beating up some of their biggest babyfaces (including his famous program with WWF champion Bob Backlund that culminated in Snuka's dive off of a steel cage). With his chiseled physique and death-defying "Superfly Splash", Snuka won the hearts of WWF fans. For all intents and purposes, he was a babyface but like any good promotion would do, the WWF had to stage an angle to officially turn Snuka from heel to face. Otherwise, what good was a turn if it couldn't be used to play with the fans' emotions and increase ticket sales? In Snuka's case, he would undergo an initiation into the ranks of the company's babyfaces through a baptism of blood.

Enter "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, the first man to hold both the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) World Heavyweight Championships hosted a talk segment known as "Rogers' Corner". The interview segment featured Rogers interviewing wrestlers, helping to get them over through their interaction with Rogers.

Snuka appeared on Rogers' show, accompanied by his manager Captain Lou Albano. Rogers was no stranger to Snuka, having managed him in Jim Crockett Promotions. When Rogers had learned that his former charge was being managed by the heel Albano, he immediately grew suspicious and promised to investigate Snuka's finances as well as his contract. Now, the day of reckoning had come for Albano. Little did he know it but Snuka would have his own day of reckoning as well.

During the segment, Rogers revealed that Albano had no contract with Snuka. Unfortunately for "The Superfly", Snuka's money was gone (with the implication being that the shady Albano had robbed Snuka blind). An angry Albano stormed off the show, shouting at Rogers and calling him a liar. Rogers told Snuka he was now a free man. The downside though was that Snuka's money was gone. Rogers shook Snuka's hand and hugged him, proclaiming to the fans that "This man is a free man". Snuka shook his head with approval. Snuka then told Rogers he normally didn't say a lot but he had a question for Rogers- would he be his manager? No doubt happy to be reunited with his former client, Rogers embraced Snuka but reserved decision. Rogers was too caught up in the moment to answer Snuka. Just then, Lou Albano returned to the scene, shouting at Rogers until the former world champion chased him off.

The fans cheered, happy that Snuka was now free of Albano's influence. However the happy moment would soon be ruined as Snuka walked to the ring for a previously scheduled match against Ray "The Crippler" Stevens. Managed by "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Stevens was a seasoned veteran who Snuka had teamed with him in Jim Crockett Promotions to win the NWA World Tag Team Championship. Thanks to the fortunes of the squared circle, they were now opponents. Snuka would need to be on his "A" game against Stevens, especially with Blassie in "The Crippler's" corner.

If Snuka had counted on Albano to counteract Blassie's potential interference, he was in for a rude awakening. Although Albano was in the ring with Snuka, he had no intention of helping him. Instead, he began shouting at "The Superfly" and shoving him. The self-proclaimed "Manager of Champions" (although Albano gave himself the moniker, it was nonetheless a well-deserved one given the record-setting number of teams he guided to the WWF Tag Team Championship) then got into Snuka's face, shoving Snuka and then punching him. Snuka fired back a blow of his own but from there, things quickly deteriorated as Ray Stevens jumped in, choking Snuka with Blassie's cane and holding his opponent as Albano unloaded with punches of his own. Although Albano was now a manager, he had enjoyed a successful career as a wrestler and he was still capable of dishing out punishment (as Snuka soon found out). Stevens joined in on the melee, punching away at Snuka while Blassie directed traffic in the ring. A bloodied "Superfly" soon found himself thrown out of the ring by Albano and Stevens but the beat down was just beginning.

Following his former champion tag partner outside of the ring, Stevens picked up Snuka and delivered a bone-crushing piledriver, driving Snuka's already bloody skull into the concrete floor. As the chaos continued, color commentator Bruno Sammartino predicted that "we're not going to see Superfly Snuka for a long time to come". Snuka was clearly done but not Stevens. Stevens lifted Snuka one more time to deliver a second, devastating piledriver. Snuka's body spasmed as Stevens left the scene of the crime. Then, in a reaffirmation of his heelish nature, Lou Albano returned to the scene of the mugging to kick Snuka while he was down.

The beatdown was violent and bloody, one of the most brutal ever seen on WWF television at the time. It looked as if Snuka had bled all over the floor, his life-giving fluids splashed in and out of the ring in a blood-soaked baptism signifying his transformation from heel to face. However a careful review of the footage shows that while Snuka was busted open, someone threw a cup full of fluid (possibly beer or soda) onto the concrete just as Snuka was thrown out of the ring. Whether this was the act of an angry fan showing his discontent with what was occurring in the ring or a carefully orchestrated move to make the beat down look even bloodier, it had the effect of making it appear as if Snuka had bled buckets onto the floor.

Despite the savage attack, Snuka would return to the ring. Now managed by Buddy Rogers, Snuka would exact his revenge on Albano and Stevens, both in singles matches and in tag matches with Rogers as his partner. WWF fans wasted no time embracing Snuka as one of their own with his official turn onto the side of the angels. Although Rogers' run as Snuka's manager would be short-lived, big things awaited "The Superfly". Snuka's star would continue to rise as he worked two epic feuds, the first with Intercontinental Champion Don "The Magnificent" Muraco and the second, the historic feud against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Snuka's transformation into a face began with a bloody beating but it soon translated into incredible success for the amazing athlete from the Fiji Islands.

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