Wrestling icon flexes his faith to help aspiring wrestlers reach their dreams.
Photos: Anthony Rao
A group of spandex-clad warriors gather around 77-year-old Afa Anoa’i, whom they affectionately call ‘Pop.’ One can hear a pin drop as he delivers a straight-from-the-heart message.
“I want you to go out there and give it your best,” he tells them. “I love you guys. Please don’t get hurt, because if you get hurt, then I’ll get hurt.”
This is Afa’s ministry. This is how he fulfills the dream of his father, who wanted Afa to follow in his footsteps and become a priest.
But this isn’t church. His pulpit is a wrestling ring. His sheep are a group of young men and women with chiseled bodies. And instead of wearing a clergy robe, Afa wears his faith behind a black t-shirt with gold letters “WXW.”
WXW stands for World X-Treme Wrestling, a professional organization the legendary wrestler formed to showcase the skills of young men and women hoping to become stars. The organization, which is an extension of Afa’s longstanding business, The Wild Samoan Training Center, features live matches that attract fans to Minneola City Hall from as far away as Miami and Tampa.
Did you know?
Afa trained actor Mickey Rourke to prepare for his role in the widely acclaimed film, “The Wrestler.”
Matches resemble ones that air weekly on television. Men deliver forceful chops that echo throughout the building. Threats are screamed. High-flying aerial moves are performed off the top corner rope. Afa keeps the acts in the ring rated PG. There is no cussing. No middle fingers. No degrading women.
But the most important lessons come outside the ring. Some of his students come from broken homes and low-income families. Afa serves as a father figure, providing guidance and structure while instilling the virtues of discipline and respect. Before a show, Afa gathers with his wrestlers for a group prayer. After the show, they congregate at his Minneola home for food, conversation, and camaraderie.
“Kids who were living in cars have come to me for help,” Afa says. “I love helping them not only improve as wrestlers but as people as well. I thank God for this opportunity.”
Such humility is likely unrecognizable to fans who only know him for his long run as one of wrestling’s baddest bad boys. Afa was one-half of the legendary tag team known as The Wild Samoans. Along with his brother, Sika, their in-ring characters portrayed savage Pacific Islanders who grunted in a primitive dialect and devoured raw fish during live interviews. Then they’d step into the ring and devour their opponents.
Their hair was as wild as their antics. The decision to sport giant afros that grew up and out was made after a nasty brush with ignorance.
“In the 1970s, Afa and Sika went to a barbershop in Louisiana,” says Afa’s wife, Lynn. “They were chased out because the barber said he didn’t cut their kind of hair. They were hurt and upset after being treated like that and vowed to never have their hair cut again.”
Turns out, that encounter was a blessing in disguise. The big hair led to big results and enhanced their image and popularity as primitive wild men. Together, Afa and Sika held 21 tag team titles and became the first tag team to hold the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) tag team belts three times. In 2007, on the eve of WrestleMania 23, the brothers were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Afa left an indelible stamp on professional wrestling. He trained some of the youngest stars of the 1970s and 1980s, including Hulk Hogan, Michael Hayes of the Freebirds, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, Junkyard Dog, and Beth Phoenix, three-time WWW women’s champion. In addition, three generations of the Anoa’i bloodline have chosen professional wrestling as a career. They include Afa’s nephew, wrestler and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Tonga Kid, and Sean Maluta.
“We call it the Samoan Dynasty,” Afa says. “I’m the head of it.”
After retiring from the sport, Afa opened the Wild Samoan Training Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was there where the ruthless warrior became a gentle giant.
“The school was located in a bad neighborhood and every now and then a 14-year-old boy who was involved with gangs and drugs would peep through the window to see what was going on,” Lynn says. “Afa promised him that if he quits gangs and drugs he would take the boy off the street and train him for free. The boy graduated from high school and attended college. Today, he has his own business.”
That powerful moment gave new meaning to Afa’s life. He started the Usos Foundation to provide scholarship money for students who could not afford training. In Samoan, Usos means “we are brothers.”
“The normal tuition to attend my program is $4,000, but to at-risk kids that amount seems like $1 million,” Afa says. “I came from a poor country and moved to the U.S. when I was 16. It was rough. I see myself in a lot of these kids and that’s why it’s in my heart to help them out any way I can.”
Afa moved the Wild Samoan Training Center and Usos Foundation to Minneola in 2008. Although the foundation was disbanded several years ago, Afa continues helping young men and women who have experienced life’s hardships.
“All these kids have stories,” Afa says. “Some live their cars because they have no place to go. We make them part of us. I do my best to help them advance in their wrestling careers. I cannot guarantee anything, but I can open that door so they can fulfill the same dream I did.”
Years have softened Afa’s once-sculpted body. The giant afro is gone, leaving him with a mostly bald head. But the respect he commands from wrestlers like Tony Ice remains strong as ever.
In 2014, Tony was homeless, sleeping under a bridge, and dealing with a host of family issues. That same year, a friend encouraged him to join the Wild Samoan Training Center. He eventually received a scholarship and has been a regular participant in World X-Treme Wrestling matches.
“I love the Anoa’i family. They’rethe most down-to-earth, generous people. They leave their door open to their friends 24/7.”
—Diana Hart, sister of popular wrestler Bret “The Hitman” Hart who attended a World X-Treme Wrestling match in April.
Tony has learned valuable lessons that go well beyond properly executing shoulder tosses, body slams, and headlocks.
“Coming here turned my life around,” says Tony, 30. “This place has kept me from roaming the streets and landing in jail. Me and some other guys here have screwed up. Pop’s heart is open to giving us a second chance. He identifies our weaknesses and gets us to realize those weaknesses. He’s hard on us. He doesn’t cut corners. His tough love has made us all better men.”
Of course, not all students come from dire circumstances. Lindsey and Laurie Carlson, World X-Treme Wrestling’s current female tag team title holders, played college basketball together and currently own a health business in Tampa. The 33-year-old twins drive to Minneola each month to compete in matches. To them, Afa represents wrestling royalty.
“There is no place we could go to get better training than right here,” Laurie says. “Training under one of the sport’s legends helps you become the best wrestler you can be. His advice is gold.”
Amid the sounds of cheers, jeers, and body slams, World X-Treme Wrestling allows students to gain crowd exposure and television experience through live events. The crowd, ranging from retired veterans to young couples with small children, are engaged. Fans chant “shut your mouth” to boisterous villains and “you’re too slow” to referees after a wrestler fails to pin his opponent. Matches take place inside a ring given to Afa by WWE chief executive officer Vince McMahon.
“Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant have both wrestled inside this ring,” Afa says with child-like enthusiasm.
Afa’s daughter, Vale Anoa’i, helps promote the family friendly wrestling events and refers to herself as “the central nervous system of the company.” Actually, she’s been promoting him for a long time. As a young girl, she brought Afa and Sika to her school for show and tell.
“The reaction I got from my classmates was priceless,” Vale recalls. “They were in awe.”
Today, Afa continues awing people with his kind heart and generosity.
His ring persona was hardly fit for a halo, but in the eyes of his students, Pop is a true saint.