Wrestler blazed trail for next gen­er­a­tion

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - IN MEMORY - By Michael Tsai mt­sai@starad­ver­tiser.com

In his ground-break­ing ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional wrestler, “Prince” Neff Ma­iava sur­vived bru­tal ex­changes with such ur­sine fig­ures as Gene LeBelle, Fritz Von Erich and Killer Kowal­ski.

By his own ac­count, how­ever, noth­ing could have prop­erly pre­pared him for the even­ing he faced an ac­tual bear in the ring.

Dur­ing one National Wrestling Al­liance match, it was de­cided that the top wrestlers would draw names to de­ter­mine the card for the even­ing. When it was his turn, Ma­iava drew the bear — whose ap­pear­ance was a one-time pro­mo­tional stunt — much to the amuse­ment of the rest of the locker room.

At 6-feet and 285 pounds, Ma­iava cut a men­ac­ing fig­ure, but even he

was dwarfed by the mas­sive, lum­ber­ing an­i­mal. Ma­iava gamely jabbed and feinted with the bear to start the match be­fore ex­e­cut­ing his win­ning gam­bit: slather­ing honey on his chest and ly­ing down on the can­vas while the bear hap­pily licked it off, even­tu­ally flip­ping the dis­tracted bear over for the pin. For Ma­iava’s le­gions of fans, the stunt demon­strated once and for all that the Prince’s suc­cess in the ring was owed as much to sweet­ness and guile as it was through brute phys­i­cal­ity.

Ma­iava died April 21 at the age of 93. He is sur­vived by his brother Salesa Ma­iava; sons Richard, Neff Jr., Pis­aga, Scott Ma­honey and Calvin Kanoa; and daugh­ters Pamela, Anona, Sri Ma­iava Rus­den, and Michele Pou­vave.

“He was a very col­or­ful man,” said daugh­ter Pamela Ma­iava. “He was also the nicest man I’ve ever known. So many of his friends have told me how much he helped other peo­ple.”

Born in Samoa and raised in Laie, Neff Ma­iava was among the first Poly­ne­sian pro­fes­sional wrestlers to achieve wide suc­cess and ac­claim, es­sen­tially set­ting the tem­plate for suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of Samoan, Ton­gan and Hawai­ian wrestlers, from Peter Maivia (whose stage name was de­rived from “Ma­iava”) to the Wild Samoans to cur­rent stars like the Usos and the Rock.

An elite draw

In the decades be­fore re­gional pro­mo­tions were con­sol­i­dated into the likes of ex­pan­sive, national en­ti­ties like the World Wrestling Fed­er­a­tion and World Cham­pi­onship Wrestling, and long be­fore pro­fes­sional wrestling was re­branded as “sports en­ter­tain­ment,” Ma­iava es­tab­lished him­self as an elite draw with a com­bi­na­tion of ath­letic abil­ity, com­edy and ex­otic flair the likes of which might send to­day’s more cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive view­ers to the faint­ing couch.

Be­fore matches, Ma­iava some­times would work the crowd by break­ing wooden boards over his head, walk­ing on a real board of nails and per­form­ing a fire knife dance. He was of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by his man­ager Co­conut Wil­lie, whom op­po­nents ac­cused of us­ing a drum to send in­struc­tions to Ma­iava.

The “hard head” stereo­type for Poly­ne­sian wrestlers has its ori­gins to Ma­iava’s in­fa­mous “co­conut head-butt,” a move Ma­iava re­port­edly de­vel­oped af­ter he and Bobo Brazil col­lided head-to-head while bounc­ing off the ropes. Ma­iava was also known for his wild mane, which he would use to “cut” the hands of op­po­nents who dared try to grab it.

Like other for­eign or other­wise ex­otic char­ac­ters, Ma­iava was of­ten pre­sented as prim­i­tive and non-ver­bal. Fol­low­ing the strict “kay­fabe” ethic of the day, Ma­iava was care­ful not to break char­ac­ter in public, so much so that he made it a point never to speak English while trav­el­ing out­side of Hawaii.

Four-decade ca­reer

Ma­iava’s wrestling ca­reer spanned some four decades, with his peak com­ing in the 1960s, when he held the NWA Hawaii heavy­weight cham­pi­onship and teamed with Lord James “Tally-Ho” Blears to win the NWA Hawaii tag team ti­tle.

Ma­iava was so skilled with his in-ring sto­ry­telling, and his fans so in­vested in the out­comes of his matches, that when he “lost” to Curtis “The Bull” Iaukea at a 1961 event at the old Civic Au­di­to­rium on King Street, a riot broke out out­side of the venue. Ac­cord­ing to a Honolulu Po­lice Depart­ment ac­count of the in­ci­dent, eight peo­ple were ar­rested and four po­lice of­fi­cers were in­jured.

Af­ter re­tir­ing, Ma­iava started a suc­cess­ful tree-trim­ming busi­ness and lever­aged his earn­ings to pur­chase sev­eral rental prop­er­ties on Oahu. He also wrote sev­eral chil­dren’s books, in­clud­ing “Da Grouchy Moocher Boo­gie Man,” pub­lished by Is­land Her­itage.

Fam­ily prankster

Pamela Ma­iava said her fa­ther’s comedic per­for­mances in the ring were a reflection of his ac­tual per­son­al­ity. A re­cal­ci­trant jokester, Neff Ma­iava of­ten saved his best pranks for his fam­ily.

“One Satur­day, he woke us up and said, ‘Hey, come down­stairs. I made you break­fast,’” Pamela Ma­iava said. “So I went down, and he was serv­ing pan­cakes from the pan. He never did that. But then we saw the lit­tle pack­ets of but­ter on the ta­ble so we looked in the garbage and saw the (take-out) bags from the res­tau­rant. And we had to wash the pans!”

An­other time, Ma­iava’s aunt re­cov­ered a car that had ear­lier been stolen. The aunt drove home and rushed into the house to tell her mother the good news. While she was in­side, Neff Ma­iava re­turned home with his sons. Notic­ing that the stolen car was back, he in­structed his sons to push the car out of the drive­way and out of sight up the block.

“My aunt went out­side and was shocked,” Pamela Ma­iava said. “She was like, ‘Where’d my car go?’”

Ma­iava said her fa­ther re­tained his warmth and hu­mor through his fi­nal days, charm­ing the nurses at his care fa­cil­ity and feign­ing heart at­tacks, Fred San­ford-style, to avoid his sched­uled ex­er­cise ses­sions.

The night be­fore he died, Pamela Ma­iava said her fa­ther said “aloha,” and thanked his doc­tors, nurses, fam­ily and ev­ery­one who had come to visit him.

“He died in his sleep,” Ma­iava said, “gra­cious to the end.”

STAR-ADVERTISER PHO­TOS

STAR-ADVERTIASER / 1997

Ma­iava, born in Samoa and raised in Laie, was among the first Poly­ne­sian pro­fes­sional wrestlers to achieve wide suc­cess. Ma­iava, above, wrote sev­eral chil­dren’s books in­clud­ing

“Da Grouchy Moocher Boo­gie Man.”

Neff Ma­iava once wres­tled a bear in a National Wrestling Al­liance match

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