This article looks back over 30 years to the coronation of King Haku. I can imagine that some people may not see the importance of this event; they may even find it foolish, so I will explain in detail the significance from my perspective; as a New Zealand-born Samoan. I also had the privilege of speaking with professional wrestlers, Tama Tonga, Toks Fale, Mana, Sonny Siaki, and Nui Tofiga. Each of these Pacific men shared how this auspicious landmark acted as a catalyst for their own journeys into professional wrestling.
The ‘King of Wrestling’ was a title created in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1986 and bestowed upon Harley Race after winning the King of the Ring tournament. The KOTR title would reset every year with a different winner, whereas the King of Wrestling served as a form of recognition to Race, a former eight-time NWA World Champion and a respected elder. The kingship was under the facilitating of Bobby Heenan and although it did not equate in terms of prestige to a championship belt, it was occasionally contested by the opposition and done so unsuccessfully.
In 1988, Race suffered a severe injury that put him out of action for most of the year. Bobby Heenan eventually took the crown from Race and went on a search of a new King; this brought us to the 9th of July, in the year of our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Eight! WWF’s villain community, congregated in the ring to await the announcement of the new ‘King of the World Wrestling Federation.
What I remember best about pro wrestling during my childhood was that it was simple to identify the heroes from the villains. The moment I saw the gathering of wrestlers in the ring, I knew that I was looking at a fraternity of rule breakers. The ‘boos’ from the crowd might have indicated that environment, however, the scenery was confirmed in the lost art of subtlety conveyed by the wrestler’s posture, mannerisms, and dress wear.
There were no smiles or friendly chit-chat from the guests despite the joyous occasion in their community. Distinguished attendees like the Big Boss Man, ‘Outlaw’ Ron Bass, Bad News Brown, and Demolition were equipped to spark fear and intimidate. While pompous figures such as the Honky Tonk Man, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, and the Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase gave the impression that no one else mattered but them. My favourite wrestling villain was the type that was unfazed by the crowd’s disapproval, this only made the fans hate them more.
This gathering was also a culturally diverse bunch; consisting of foreigners that held disdain for America. These international villains of the 1980s were normally stereotypes and represented nations that went to war with America and its allies. Such threats included Nikolai Volkoff and Boris Zhukov, the two staunch, burly Russians who wore the Soviet apparel with pride, Frenchy Martin, the French painter, and Mr. Fuji, the devious Japanese gentleman dressed in a tuxedo and bowler hat.
King Haku’s coronation ceremony commenced with words from the officiator, Bobby Heenan, assuring his community that the new king had arrived. Heenan then introduced everyone to the King of the World Wrestling Federation, and from the entranceway appeared Haku! I was surprised as I noticed that the new king was not just any foreigner, the new king resembled my Pacific features and brown skin! I learned of Haku’s identity through the glowing references by Jesse Ventura, the colour commentator that advocated for the antagonists. I also noticed how well Haku was received by the other villains, the mood changed to smiles and adoration as King Haku acknowledged his subjects with a smile and a wave.
I have watched this segment many times over the years, and I came to grasp the significance of this historic milestone. My childhood heroes in 1980s New Zealand were heavily influenced by American pop culture; names like Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, and even to broader parts of entertainment; Arnold, Van Dam, and Stallone were the biggest box office action heroes.
It did not matter what character Arnold played or what movie he led, in many Samoan homes the character’s name was ‘ARNOLD,’ and Sly Stallone was ‘RAMBO.’ My heroes were not Samoan or Pacific Islander/Polynesian like me; I did not resemble a likeness to Arnold or Van Dam, but I am certain like other Pacific children, I wanted to be like Arnold.
King Haku came close to being my first Pacific Island hero, it did not matter to me if he was a bad guy. King Haku was the first of the Pacific wrestlers I saw on television, and from that point on my perspective of the narrative had changed; King Haku was not a bad guy, the fans just misunderstood.
Long before Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson broke barriers for Pacific people in pro wrestling and in Hollywood, Pacific Islanders were limited to depicting a stereotype – the barefoot, hard-headed (literally) island savage.
Through a western lens, the protagonist was humanised, domesticated, and well-spoken, but was never the main character. While the antagonist was a vilified savage as well as aggressive, and a threat to the hero of the story.
Fortunately, times have changed. Pacific wrestlers now have the freedom and the dignity to decide how they wish to be seen, though the island savage is still a relevant and celebrated character. King Haku was not an ordinary savage, he remained barefoot and antagonistic while most of the speaking was done on his behalf by his manager Bobby Heenan. However, King Haku was seen as civilised, and reserved, and when given the opportunity, he spoke with great authority. This may have been seen as colonialism, but it was an accurate depiction of the Pacific Island male.
Nui Tofiga explained Haku’s influence on him as a fan.
“Haku always held my attention when I was growing up,” Tofiga, a German-born Samoan, whose Samoan mother served in the military in Germany, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines before moving back to the United States when Tofiga was eight years old.
“When my relatives in Hawai’i would see Haku and other Polynesians on TV, they would feel proud and say, ‘that’s what a man looks like,” Tofiga explained.
“You tend to pick up on that and think that maybe I should make these guys my role models,” said Tofiga, an agile and athletic super heavyweight who credited Haku and other Polynesian wrestlers for the way he embraced his attributes and culture.
“I wasn’t going to change who I was to try and look like Hulk Hogan,” explained Tofiga. “Every Polynesian that I grew up watching in wrestling made me proud to be myself.”
Prior to becoming the king, Haku was a member of a tag team called the Islanders (along with Sam Fatu who wrestled under the name, Tama).
This chapter in Haku’s career caught the interest of Mana, who as a young boy, was drawn to the Islanders due to a connection he felt as a young Maori growing up in his native New Zealand.
The impact resonated so much with Mana, that once he was old enough, he left NZ to chase his wrestling aspirations at the Wild Samoan Training Center in Pennsylvania, USA.
“I remember watching Haku as the Islanders with Tama from the Anoa’i family,” said Mana. “The Islanders were one of my favourites and inspired me to become a wrestler.”
“Tama was like the cheeky uncle you had a laugh with and Haku was the quiet one you always feared,” Mana recalled with fondness.
Haku and Tama displayed a tag-team style that was ahead of its time. Tama’s speed and agility blended with Haku’s power and martial arts strikes.
“I still believe Haku’s Thrust/Superkick was as superior to any version I have seen in wrestling,” described Mana. “Even now, I loved his offense with the chops and martial arts thrusts. I always wanted to thank him for his accomplishments and inspiration to someone like me.”
Haku’s journey into the world of professional wrestling began in the 1970s while growing up in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. The young Tonga Uliuli Fifita was one of several teenagers that were selected to study the art of sumo wrestling in Japan.
Fifita was a successful competitor, however, his run was short-lived due to politics, and Fifita was forced to retire. Fifita remained in Japan and made the transition to professional wrestling where the legendary Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba trained him, competing for Baba’s promotion, All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW).
Fifita became so immersed in the culture and he remains an elder of the Japanese wrestling community.
Toks ‘Bad Luck’ Fale, the founder and Head Coach of Fale Dojo followed a similar journey to Haku. The Tongan-born big man from the village of Lapaha moved to New Zealand with his family at the age of seven. In 2001, Fale, an elite rugby union player in high school, moved from NZ to Japan in pursuit of furthering his aspirations. Fale remembered growing up as a young boy in south Auckland where he watched King Haku’s coronation on television.
“King Haku made me feel that as a Tongan, I can conquer the world,” explained Fale. “He was the first famous Tongan in my eyes and became the idol I aimed to become.”
In 2009, Fale transitioned from rugby to professional wrestling, gaining success with New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) as the first non-Japanese to graduate from the NJPW Dojo. Fale’s willingness to be immersed in the Japanese culture gave him favour within New Japan. Fale assured NJPW that they could invest in him. Shortly after, Fale was joined by Tama Tonga, the son of King Haku.
“I just remembered how huge he was,” recalled Fale after meeting Haku for the first time in 2014. “Haku is the most feared wrestler in and out of the ring but he’s the most kind-hearted guy you’ll ever meet.”
In 2016, Haku visited New Zealand, during his stay, he gave an in-depth interview with an Auckland radio station. A key theme that resonated with Haku was his support for all Pacific Islanders across the world. Haku shared that he was inspired by NZ’s multicultural society, and he was especially pleased to see how well the different Pacific cultures existed as a community. Haku also expressed his passion for hospitality and was comforted knowing that Pacific communities exist beyond the Pacific.
Former World Championship Wrestling (WCW) star Sonny Siaki was a recipient of Haku’s generosity.
“I first met Haku in 1998 when I was at the WCW Power Plant training as a wrestler,” recalled Siaki who was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa before his family moved to the United States when he was three years old.
“He’s huge and very intimidating in person but he took me in like his own ‘cause I am Samoan and of course, we all stick together like a family,” Siaki remembered of his interaction with Haku.
“Haku definitely made a huge impact on me along with the Rock, Rikishi, Afa, Sika, Umaga, and many other islanders who came before me,” Siaki noted of the influence that Haku and other Pacific wrestlers had on his career. “Haku is definitely one of the first wrestlers to put our culture on the map.”
Siaki added: “When I first started training at the WCW Power Plant, Haku gave me much advice and a pep talk before walking out. He had an old school mentality and had great in-ring psychology.”
Haku’s son Tama Tonga recounted his first memories of his father.
“I was adopted, and I came here to America from Tonga in 1991,” said Tonga who was born on the island of Nuku’alofa. “Basically, I saw my dad on TV a lot, and it made me realize that he was the first Tongan at least to my knowledge to make a name for Tongans. I thought that was really cool.”
Tonga and his two brothers Tanga Loa and Hikuleo (Fale Dojo graduate) eventually followed in their father’s footsteps to the squared circle. The Fifita brothers have since become top-tier members of the New Japan Pro-Wrestling roster.
“Seeing my dad on TV had a big impact on me as a Tongan,” stated Tonga. “My dad came to America for a better life, and he always tried to set an example for me and my siblings to never give up and keep moving towards achieving our goals.”
“My dad is that guy who’s proud of any Polynesian that he sees playing sports,” Tonga shared an intimate side of his father’s love for his Pacific people. “Just seeing them representing where they come from, makes him proud. He’s continuously trying to be a good role model and dad,” stated Tonga.
“He’s always rooting for the Tongans that play rugby regardless of what country they play for,” he added. “Even when he sees Polys playing football like the Samoans and Fijians, he’s always got love for everybody.”
After reading my perspective and the stories of the wrestlers who were inspired by King Haku, I hope you now can understand the influence that King Haku has had on his people, and to a great extent, on the professional wrestling landscape.
King Haku may have just been a character that was brought to life by Tonga Fifita, but I would suggest that Fifita has displayed the fruits of a kind and generous ruler.
To his family, Haku was a loving provider; inspired by principles and values founded upon a love for his people. As a teacher, he offered words of wisdom and guidance to a young Samoan wrestler who was making his way into the wrestling profession. On the radio, Haku delivered encouraging messages of support to all the Pacific people he saw chasing their dreams in the public eye; he encouraged the young to pursue higher education and has a passion for Pacific communities.
To me, King Haku was the first prominent Pacific character to be shown on an international screen; his ascension was a dramatic yet profound demonstration of how Pacific wrestlers that followed could achieve their goals without compromising their cultural identity.
Article originally published in 2018.