Eddie ‘Umaga’ Fatu Obituary
Eddie Fatu (28th March, 1973 – 4th December, 2009)
This past Friday, Eddie Fatu, known professionally as Jamal, Ekmo, and (most famously) Umaga passed away, aged 36, after suffering two heart attacks following him falling asleep watching television at his home in Spring, Texas.
I first read about this on the internet whilst waiting for Friday Night SmackDown! to start. At the time, details were sketchy. Originally announced as having passed away by various news sites, later updated to say he was in a life threatening condition. Highlighting the prevalence of Social Networking sites in 2009, fans read updates as his former WWE colleagues Jim Ross, Ken Kennedy, Val Venis, Candice Michelle, Chavo Guerrero, Torrie Wilson and Bobby Lashley (amongst others) offered support and prayers via their blogs or Twitter accounts. At one point, local newspaper, The Houston Examiner, announced that he had died (story later pulled). Shortly thereafter it was officially announced by the Wrestling Observer/Figure4Online who stated “Fatu passed away around 6 p.m. Eastern time after suffering a second heart attack while in the hospital.”
At present the exact cause and circumstances of his death are unknown. Ultimately we are not in possession of the facts and will not know the full story until information is made public. On the 4th December, Afa ‘The Wild Samoan’ released an official statement “regarding the sudden passing of Eki Fatu (aka Umaga)” which can be read elsewhere on the site in it he asked “for the fans and the press to respect the privacy of his family during this tough time. When there is more information to be made public, his family will do so. The worst thing that could happen would be to have false information about this horrible situation out there, only to make the situation even worse.” This article intends to respect that request.
I’m going to take Afa’s advice to “remember all the good times that we were able to share with him and the smiles on the millions of fans faces around the world when he walked to the ring to do what he loved most: wrestle.”
At a billed height and weight of 6’4” 360 lbs (25 ½ stone), with his trademark tribal face paint, dreadlocks, Samoan Spike finisher and the word ‘SAMOA’ tattooed across his stomach Umaga was an imposing figure.
A member of the legendary Samoan wrestling dynasty that includes the likes of Afa, Sika, The Tonga Kid, Samu, Rikishi, Rosey, Manu, Black Pearl, L.A. Smooth, the late Yokozuna (who also died of a heart attack at the start of the decade, aged 34), several top class American football players and heavyweight boxer David Tua it was only natural that the future ‘Samoan Bulldozer’ would take an interest in wrestling.
The younger brother of The Tonga Kid/Tama (Sam Fatu), and Headshrinker Fatu/Rikishi (Solofa Fatu Jr.), Eddie Fatu followed in the family tradition after training at The Wild Samoans Training Center run by uncles Afa and Sika Anoa’i (his mother is their sister) before debuting in Afa’s Northeast-based World Xtreme Wrestling in 1995. Less than a year into his career, the twenty two year-old was signed by the WWF alongside cousin Matt Anoa’i (ECW’s Matt E. Smalls/WWE’s Rosey/AJPW’s RO’Z). Given the gimmick of Samoan gangsters they would stand in the aisle whenever his big brother Fatu (Rikishi/Solofa Jr. who was wrestling under the family surname and doing an anti-drugs and gangs ‘Make a Difference’ gimmick), wrestled.
The gimmick was quickly dropped before it had the chance to lead anywhere and they were sent to Les Thatcher’s newly opened Heartland Wrestling Alliance (HWA) which had a working relationship as part of WWF’s ‘Farm System’ to improve their skills. Continuing to hone their craft they began working the independent scene both in the United States and Japan. It was in the latter, billed as Eddie Fatu and Matty Samu, The Samoans, that they enjoyed their first success trading FMW’s WEW (World Entertainment Wrestling) Hardcore Tag Team Titles with the team of Hideki Hosaka and Yoshinori Sasaki during 2000.
Returning to the States, they debuted in Memphis (another part of WWF’s ‘Developmental System’). Now known as Ekmo (Fatu) and Kimo (Matt), The Island Boyz, they held the Memphis Championship Wrestling Southern Tag Team Titles a record three times; winning, losing, regaining and then losing the belts again to The Haas Brothers (Charlie and the late Russ) and were ultimately the final holders of those Titles with a win over on-loan WWE talents The Acolyte Protection Agency.
After McMahon ended his working relationship with MCW in June 2001, The Island Boyz along with the rest of the WWF signed talent (including The Haas Brothers, Lance Cade, Victoria and the late Steve Bradley) were relocated to HWA where they defeated former WCW Cruiserweight stars Evan Karagias and Shannon Moore for the HWA Tag Team Championship (which they lost to Bradley and Val Venis).
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“The bond that Chuck and Billy have is sacred and that will never change. It doesn’t matter if it lasts fifty years, sixteen months, or three minutes… Wait a minute! Did I just hear myself say THREE MINUTES?” (Eric Bischoff, cunningly disguised as a Justice Of The Peace, SmackDown! 12/09/2002)
In 2002, WWE decided it was time to reintroduce them to the major league. They made their debut on the 22nd July episode of Raw attacking D-Lo Brown and Shawn ‘Planet’ Stasiak after the time ran out in a match new Raw General Manager Eric Bischoff had allocated “three minutes”.
Repackaged as Rosey (Kimo) and Jamal (Ekmo), 3 Minute Warning, Bischoff’s super-heavyweight henchmen who would perform run-ins and beat up whoever was in the ring once ‘The Bisch’ deemed their “Three Minutes of Fame” was up. The random attacks proved winning gimmick and over the following weeks The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young, Mini-Dust, ring announcer Lillian Garcia, The Big Show, ‘Superfly’ Jimmy Snuka, Jeff Hardy, and even the two young women involved in the controversial ‘Hot Lesbian Action’ segment all found themselves the victims of 3 Minute Warning. If nothing else, they were non-discriminatory in their attacks on those ‘The Bisch’ deemed to be boring.
In their most memorable moment, they crashed Billy Gunn and Chuck Palumbo’s ‘Commitment Ceremony’ on the ‘Season Premier’of SmackDown!. After Chuck and Billy’s stylist Rico turned heel on his men, and the Justice of the Peace unmasked as ‘Uncle Eric’, the 3 Minute boys performed a run-in. Ekmo delivered Samoan Drops to Palumbo and SmackDown! GM Stephanie McMahon before the SD! locker room rushed the ring and the Raw ‘invaders’ retreated into the crowd. Two weeks later 3 Minute Warning marked their official debut by defeating Chuck and Billy in an ‘Inter-Promotional Match’ at Unforgiven (22nd September).
Tag Team Gold seemed to be on the horizon. Coming off such a big pre-debut push, with a distinct look and a cool theme tune (‘3 Minutes’ by 2 Skinnee J’s) all seemed to be going swimmingly until the 14th October Raw where a Jamal Samoan Drop left 64 year-old WWE Hall Of Famer Pat Patterson with a separated shoulder. From then the booking of 3 Minute Warning was varied, as seen when the three man team of Jamal, Rosey and Rico lost to The Big Show in a Handicap Match on the next week’s Raw, although they remained a key part of the show until around November. After defeating the teams of Bubba-Ray Dudley and Jeff Hardy (4th November) and Bubba-Ray and Spike Dudley (11th November) on back-to-back episodes of Raw the Jamal, Rosey and Rico trio lost to Hardy, Bubba-Ray and Spike Dudley in a fun Elimination Tables Match at Survivor Series (17th November) after a run-in from D-Von Dudley marked the reuniting of his team with Bubba-Ray. The next night all three Dudleys beat 3 Minute Warning and Rico in a regular six man tag.
Following their two losses in as many nights, 3 Minute Warning continued to feud with the natives of Dudleyville (mostly on the losing end) were loosely associated with Bischoff and his assistant Chief Morley (Val Venis) until the following May when they lost to The Dudley Boyz two consecutive Mondays (12th May and 19th May, 2003) the latter being their final appearance on Raw. After one final appearance, jobbing to the make-shift team of Maven & Tommy Dreamer on the 1st June episode of HeAT, 3 Minute Warning came to an end when Jamal was released by the company, supposedly due to his part in a night club brawl with an off-duty police officer.
Real In Japan
Reverting to his Ekmo persona, the big man turned up in NWA: TNA where he teamed with Sonny Siaki beginning on the 24th September, 2003 weekly pay-per-view. The duo rolled over the likes of Shark Boy and Mad Mikey (the late Mike ‘Crash Holly’ Lockwood), Danny Doring and Roadkill (the last ECW Tag Team Champions) and even America’s Most Wanted but came to an abrupt end when Ekmo decided to accept bookings from All Japan. Suffice it to say, TNA wasn’t happy with the decision and his final TNA appearance came on the 19th November pay-per-view in a 5:15 loss to CM Punk and Julio DeNiro after future WWE rival Punk pinned Ekmo.
Wasting no time in making an impact, later that week he resurrected his Jamal name and made his AJPW debut teaming with fellow recent ex-WWE employee Justin Credible as part of AJPW’s prestigious annual round robin the Real World Tag League in 2003 (22nd November to 2nd December). The team came surprisingly close to winning the tournament, scoring wins over the legendary Toshiaki Kawada and Nobutaka Araya, and D-Lo Brown and TAKA Michinoku, before losing out to Kaz Hayashi and Satoshi Kojima in the Final.
He had more luck the following year alongside Hawaii’s AJPW veteran Taiyō Kea. Together they won the 28th Annual Real World Tag League (21st November to 1st December, 2004), in the first version of the tournament to utilize the multi-block (winners of ‘blocks’ A and B compete in finals) system. Dominating their Block, they built up an undefeated record as they bulldozed over Nobutaka Araya and Nobukazu Hirai (of TNA World X Cup fame) and Kensuke Sasaki and Katsuhiko Nakajima, and battled to draws with Storm Super (Love Machine Storm and Super Love Machine) and Toshiaki Kawada and Mitsuya Nagai, before defeating Kawada and Nagai in the Block B Finals and Block A Winners Kaz Hayashi and Satoshi Kojima in the final in the Grand Final, revenging last years loss for Jamal.
Nicknamed ‘The Samoan Typhoon’, his success wasn’t limited to tag team wrestling and for the first time in his almost decade-long career he started to branch out as a singles wrestler as Jamal developed into arguably the best Big Man-style worker in the business. The timing and execution of his springboard elbows and moonsaults, one-handed chokeslam, turnbuckle powerbomb, jumping Diamond Cutter, and Superfly-style Splash from the top rope was impeccable, especially for a man his size.
The 2004 Champions Carnival Tournament (10th-20th April) saw Jamal finish in third place in Block A with wins over Hayashi and Keiji Mutōh (The Great Muta). The next year (9th-20th April) he came perilously close to winning it as Jamal finished second in Block B, which included a win over Kawada, to score a place in the semi-finals. After outlasting Block A winner Kojima in the semis, he just fell short of Sasaki in the final. In his biggest singles match to that point, the 1st September saw ‘The Typhoon’ unsuccessfully challenge for Kojima’s Triple Crown.
Yet it was in the Jamal/Kea tag team that he had his most success. They were the highlight of TAKA Michinoku’s RO&D (Roughly Obsess & Destroy) stable which included former WWE colleagues Buchanan, D-Lo Brown and Rico. Their success was not confided to Japan. Earlier in 2004, the duo traveled to WWE Hall Of Famer Don Muraco and TV producer Linda Bade’s now defunct Hawai’i Championship Wrestling (a promotion that relied largely on international names from both the States and Japan, like Sting, The Great Muta, Masahiro Chono, Diamond Dallas Page, Rikishi, Jushin Liger, Samoa Joe and Yuji Nagata) where they captured the HCW Kekaulike Heritage Tag Team Championships from Kenjiro Katahira and Kenshin (replacing Kensuke Sasaki) on 17th January before losing them back to Katahira and Sasaki on 21st July.
On the 16th January, 2005 the duo won ‘The Big One’ by defeating Kendo Kashin and Yuji Nagata for the AJPW Unified World Tag Team Championships. They never lost the belts, holding them for the rest of the year until Jamal re-signed with WWE in December. His final singles match for AJPW was a win over Araya on 1st December 2005 and his last match for the company four days later when he teamed with Kea and Michinoku to defeat Sasaki, Nakajima and Akira Raijin.
The Samoan Bulldozer
Unlike other WWE signings Fatu wasn’t sent to Ohio Valley Wrestling to hone his craft, nor was his debut prefaced by a series of vignettes whilst he was booked in dark matches before TV tapings on a regular basis. In fact, other than a solitary one night only 3 Minute Warning reunion in which they squashed Trent Acid in a dark match before the 9th January 2006 Raw he didn’t wrestle at all.
It turned out they had big plans for him judging by his (re)debut. On the 3rd April, 2006 the night after WrestleMania 22 debuting manager Armando Alejandro Estrada introduced the legendary Ric Flair to his new client … Umaga who went on to destroy the ‘Nature Boy’ setting up his first feud. Initial reactions to his new name, presumably a tribute to former New Zealand All Blacks captain Tama Umaga, and gimmick were largely negative. In his Umaga persona, the former-Jamal now wrestled barefoot and borrowed many stereotypical mannerisms popularised by his uncles The Wild Samoans back in the Seventies, yet from his in-ring debut (where he squashed Colt Cabana on the next week’s Raw) he was able to make the derivative gimmick work and slowly win the fans over week after week. Of course, also had the coolest nickname in the biz – ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’.
On April 30th his 03:29 Backlash destruction job of the former sixteen-time World Champion marked the first step in his climb to the top as ‘The Bulldozer’ built up an impressive undefeated streak and ploughed through the competition including wins over both a variety of local jobbers and established main eventers Triple H, Shawn Michaels, then WWE Champion John Cena and Kane – the latter of whom he had some really entertaining ‘Big Man’ matches with. In fact, Umaga was ultimately responsible for sending ‘The Big Red Machine’ packing to SmackDown! after he beat him in a ‘Loser Leaves Raw Match’on the 9th October special three hour Raw.
Having beaten the competition on Raw, Cyber Sunday (5th November) saw Kane voted in (ahead of ECW’s The Sandman and SmackDown!’s Chris Benoit) as an Inter-promotional Mystery Opponent for Umaga with the big Samoan again coming out on top, following two Samoan Spikes in what was by far the best match on the card. One night later, John Cena played ‘knight in shining armour’ to Maria (whom a vindictive Acting GM Eric Bischoff had booked in an inter-gender match with Umaga) setting up the big man’s next feud. Sure enough, Cena and Umaga found themselves on opposite sides at the next pay-per-view Survivor Series (26th November). Before much interaction could occur, ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’ (who was on The Big Show’s team) was disqualified 58 seconds into the bout when he started hitting the members of Team Cena with a television monitor. The next night Estrada issued a challenge to the WWE Champ and the former Jamal ended 2006 still ‘undefeated’ (unpinned or submitted) and poised as the next challenger to Cena’s title.
By this point WWE had gone out of their way to make Umaga appear even more dangerous and unstable as on the 11th December Raw he defeated Jeff Hardy (whom he also beat on the annual Tribute To The Troops from Iraq) via referee stoppageonly for him to deliver a Samoan Spikes to both the referee and an unconscious Hardy. By this point Umaga’s routine was one of the most familiar and over in the company. From late 2006 to early 2007, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him one of the most valuable guys on the roster. Whilst Umaga might never have had the merchandising potential of a John Cena or Rey Mysterio or the legacy of a Shawn Michaels or Undertaker he was over and had been consistently featured in the upper half of the card. The Umaga/Estrada double act had tremendous chemistry as well, which played out during their matches. Before the end of every match, Estrada would remove a Cuban cigar from his suit jacket and break it in half which served as the signal for Umaga to deliver the Samoan Spike.
That he had been able to get the outdated ‘savage’ character and the often clichéd ‘Undefeated Streak’ gimmicks over in the Twenty First Century was a compliment to his abilities. Eddie Fatu took a seemingly limited Umaga gimmick and was able to make it work showing just the right balance of domination and vulnerability to make his matches exciting. This was most evident when he finally met Cena on pay-per-view.
Having cost Cena an embarrassing loss to the ‘ex-Mr. Britney Spears’ Kevin Federline on the first Raw of the New Year (1st January, 2007), ‘The Samoan Wrecking Machine’ went on to beat Cena from pillar to post in the main event of New Year’s Revolution (07/01/07) only to lose via a well-timed roll-up. The match itself was surprisingly good in the way it was able to give Cena the (expected) win without taking away from Umaga’s Monster aura, which many feared would disappear after he suffered his first loss. Instead it turned out the timing was perfect as by this point Umaga had become established enough to look strong even when he did lose.
Seeking revenge for his protégé’s first loss, manager Armando Alexandra Estrada persuaded Acting GM Jonathon Coachman to let him choose the stipulation for their rematch and picked a ‘Last Man Standing’ Match. During the live contract signing on Raw, Cena showed some fire when he jumped the table to attack Estrada and Umaga but, paid the price on the January 22nd episode of Raw where he suffered ‘abdominal injuries’ after being attacked b ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’ during Cena’s handicap match with Coachman and Estrada, when Umaga to Superfly Splashed him through a table.
As you probably know, the ‘Last Man Standing’ war took place at Royal Rumble 2007 (28th January) less than a month after their first PPV collision. Going into the match, I expected them to build on their previous collision, make good use of all manner of short-cuts available to them and play off Cena’s injuries with a much more intense ‘all-out war’ type of match. It was one of those occasions where the match actually surpassed expectations.
From the nice little pre-match touches of having Estrada psych-up Umaga whilst he waited in the ring and the slow stare-down that saw them go literally nose-to-nose to the convincing false finishes and breath-taking action which included ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’ missing his running hip-attack into the ring-steps, Cena attempting an FU only for his bad ribs to catch up with him as he collapsed face-first hitting his head on the steps (and using this an opportunity to blade) and (most memorably) Umaga sprinting along the tops of the Raw and SmackDown! tables before missing a splash through the ECW Announce Table, they took us on a tour de force right up until Cena used the ropes to choke the big man out.
For my money, this was a career-defining match for both Cena and Umaga and a strong argument can be made for calling it the best match of either of their careers. Not only a strong ‘Match of the Year Contender’, but easily one of the better WWE Title matches of the decade.
It wasn’t just his matches with Cena that received rave reviews. His chemistry with Jeff Hardy was off the charts as evidenced by their cracker at The Great American Bash (22nd July 2007) which was one of the best mid-card matches I’ve seen in years as they worked your classic Monster vs. underdog match done to perfection with the way the heel dominated almost the entire match but Jeff was able to get in little hope spots now and then… but only after Umaga made mistakes (landing with Jeff’s knees between his legs, missing a second rope headbutt, missing that running hip bump, etc.). A previous match, on the 19th February Raw, saw ‘The Samoan Wrecking Machine’ absolutely destroy Jeff en route to his first of two Intercontinental Title reigns.
At the time he won this first singles title, Umaga was associated with Vince McMahon and embroiled in his feud with Donald Trump. WrestleMania XXIII’s ‘Battle Of The Billionaires’ saw McMahon and Trump put their hair on the line in a match between Intercontinental Champion Umaga and ECW Champion Bobby Lashley.It wasn’t the main event but it was the match that received the most exposure and (more importantly) the most credit for drawing people to purchase the show. The emphasis was clearly on the two corner men in the “Ego versus ego, Hair versus hair” build-up to the event which saw the likes of Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks Owner), Tony Hawk (the skateboarder), Ricki Lake (the tabloid talk show host), Richard Karn (Al from Home Improvement / the host of Family Feud), Will Sasso (MADtv), William Shatner (Star Trek), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation), John Travolta, Cena’s old buddy, Kevin Federline, and even some guy called The Rock chip in to offer their tuppence on who needed a haircut. In fact, the publicity generated by Trump went beyond the usual 18-35 year-old male demographic, bringing WWE into the lifestyle magazines to the extent “Donald Trump” was the most searched name on the world wide web the week leading into WrestleMania.
Whilst the actual wrestling itself was (unsurprisingly) overshadowed by the collection of offbeat shenanigans and extracurricular activities involving Vince and Shane McMahon, ‘The Donald’, and Special Guest Referee Steve Austin (even the barber’s chair has its own entrance and theme tune!) that’s not to say it was bad. Umaga again showed off his ability to make his opponents look better than they are before the inevitable loss (the ending might have been the single most predictable result of all time).
Equally importantly the McMahon-Trump angle was a huge success financially. Drawing $5.38 million in ticket sales alone (making it the highest grossing one day live gate in WWE history) and a massive 1.2 pay-per-view buyrate, WrestleMania XIII became the highest-grossing pay-per-view in WWE history. Whilst it would be silly to suggest that Umaga was responsible for that it is nice to know he played his part in it well.
Good Or Evil?
“It’s going to take a miracle for Santino to win but Umaga’s not gonna give him time to pray” (Jerry Lawler, WWE Vengeance: Night Of Champions, 24/06/2007)
A fortnight after WrestleMania, the first Raw broadcast from Italy saw Umaga lose the Intercontinental Title to the debuting Santino Marella (who accepted Vince McMahon’s open challenge to the crowd) in what was dubbed the ‘Milan Miracle’. When the experiment to get Santino over as smiley underdog babyface failed, Umaga reclaimed the title in a brutal squash match on the 2nd July episode of Raw much to the crowds approval. Indeed if the chants of “One More Time!” not only during that match but at Vengeance a week earlier were anything to go by the crowd loved ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’. In a confusing piece of booking, Umaga seemed to be in the process of turning babyface as he began feuds with heels Carlito and Mr. Kennedy (defeating both in a Triple Threat Match at SummerSlam 2007), even teaming with old rival Cena to defeat Carlito and Randy Orton in the main event of the 13th August Raw from Madison Square Garden.
On the 27th August Raw, Umaga’s heel status was reaffirmed when he attacked Jeff Hardy (then returning from a Wellness Program induced suspension) during Hardy’s comeback match with Kennedy. At that point noone could have foreseen the scandal that would rock WWE just three days later. Before their feud could resume, Umaga himself being suspended after being listed as one of the customers of Signature Pharmacy bust which forced WWE to suspend ten wrestlers. The story was picked up by the New York Daily News, The Washington Post, ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
On the next week’s episode of Raw, Umaga was written out of the storylines dropping the Intercontinental Title to Jeff Hardy and then later on the same show teaming with Carlito to lose a handicap match to Triple H. After the match, Hunter continued to beat up Umaga with a steel chair before nailing him with a sledgehammer thus providing the storyline explanation for his thirty day absence. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be his last Wellness Program violation.
Upon his return the once unbeatable ‘Samoan Bulldozer’ seemed to lose momentum after being pinned by Triple H in two consecutive pay-per-views (No Mercy 2007, Cyber Sunday 2007). ‘Team Umaga’ also came out on the losing end of their Traditional Survivor Series Elimination Match with ‘Team Triple H’ (Survivor Series 2007) after Umaga fell victim to Jeff Hardy’s Swaton Bomb. In fairness he was made to look competitive in these confrontations but the general feeling amongst fans was that the once invincible ‘Samoan Smashing Machine’ was more vulnerable than ever.
“You say ‘Umaga’, William Regal says ‘Umanga’. Either way he is ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’: he’s called that because he literally has bulldozed over the competition on Raw” (Jerry Lawler, WrestleMania XXIV)
Umaga kicked off the New Year by putting over Hardy again, this time in a thrilling Cage Match on the 7th January Raw that turned out to be one of the better matches of the year. A strong performances in 2008’s Royal Rumble (27th January,) in January, followed by Raw The Umaga Show (as ‘The Samoan Bulldozer’ was once again made to look like a star, particularly his elimination following each of the babyface’s finishers) in Raw’s Elimination Chamber Match (Umaga vs. Jeff Hardy vs. Chris Jericho vs. Shawn Michaels vs. HHH vs. JBL) at the following month’s No Way Out (17th February)
It seemed the character was being rehabilitated as an unstoppable monster. It didn’t last. Being selected by Raw GM William Regal to represent Raw resulted in him doing the job to Batista in a Raw ‘Inter-promotional Match’ versus SmackDown!’s Batistaat WrestleMania XXIV in a disappointing match during which Batista seemed peeved at the crowd’s football (soccer) stadium-style “Ooo Ooo Ooo-Mag-Ahh” chant.
The Samoan’s post-WrestleMania career saw the return of the Hardy-Umaga dynamic which climaxed with ‘The Rainbow-haired Warrior’ blasting him with a Swanton Bomb from the top of a production truck at One Night Stand (1st June).
The June 23rd ‘2008 Draft Special’ episode of Raw resulted in all three brands looking very different by the end of the night and Umaga on a new show. At the time I wrote that moving Umaga to SmackDown! was “the least surprising move, Umaga had needed this for a while. The only disappointing thing is that they didn’t move him a year ago.” Whilst the move of regular opponents Jeff Hardy and Triple H took away from the novelty a bit I was positive moving to the ‘Blue Brand’ would reinvigorate him and give the writing team a chance to rebuild him at a time when the character needed re-establishing and protecting. Not least because he had “a fresh set of undercarders to smash his way through in weekly squash matches… Then there is the big one: Umaga versus The Undertaker.”
Instead not much happened. One week after ‘The Draft’ he lost his SmackDown! debut to Batista (who was leaving for Raw) via disqualification, then he squashed some squash boys, worked a brief feud with Kennedy (another former Raw rival) and then seemed to be heading for a program with The Big Show until he suffered a torn PCL which kept him off the main roster for the remainder of 2008. Between rehabbing and working with the youngsters in WWE’s ‘Developmental Territory’ Florida Championship Wrestling, Umaga made his comeback on the 30th January SmackDown! squashed some more jobbers, and then disappeared for a while again after battling Triple H to a no contest on the 6th March SmackDown!.
On 8th June, 2009 Fatu was released from WWE. At first glance the decision seemed a strange one since he had only recently returned to television (by attacking CM Punk as he was about to cash in his ‘Money In The Bank’ briefcase on the 1st May SmackDown!), had just been involved in a program with Punk (the two met on pay-per-view at Judgment Day and Extreme Rules) and was scheduled to feud with The Undertaker later in the year.
It was later revealed that the decision was based on a second Wellness Program violation and Fatu’s subsequent refusal to enter rehabilitation. The delay in releasing this information was due to the fact he didn’t technically break WWE’s ‘three strikes’ rule (a second failing actually carries a sixty day suspension). According to a statement WWE sent The Sun “consistent with the practice of announcing wellness policy violations, it should be noted that Umaga’s termination was due to his second violation of the WWE Wellness Program and his subsequent refusal to attend a rehabilitation facility.”
Having parted company with WWE rumours abounded that the big man was en route to TNA. Whilst this may well have happened eventually, Fatu’s first notable post-WWE appearance was on 11th July when he defeated Mr. Ken Anderson (aka Mr. Kennedy) at a World Wrestling Council show in Puerto Rico.
From an outsider’s perspective it seemed he was biding his time before signing with a major company (be it in the States or Japan) and according to JR’s barbeque blog he had lost some weight (“This is a huge shock to me as I thought Eddie was doing well and had lost some weight over the past several months.”).
His final matches came last week worked as part of Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan’s HulkaMania tour of Australia. Alongside Hogan, brother Rikishi and former WWE co-workers Ric Flair, Val Venis, and Mr. Anderson, Umaga worked shows in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. In the latter he again defeated Anderson (again!) in what turned out to be his final match. In a morbid trivia note, in 2005 Anderson (as Kennedy) wrestled the late great Eddie Guerrero in his final match.
Outside the ring, Fatu seems to have been genuinely well liked and the outpouring of support he received in death, the photos of his trip to Australia and the stories about him being respected and loved in the locker (supposedly Randy Orton once stood up for him after Umaga was accused of ‘wearing tights that were in Triple H’s colours’) are testament to how highly he was regarded by his peers. TNA’s D’Angelo ‘The Pope’ Dinero(former WWE coworker Elijah Burke) posted an article on his website describing him as “one of the most gentle and nicest upper card superstars that Pope had ever crossed paths with, whose name was Eddie Fatu. Eddie immediately accepted Pope as a brother in the bond and treated Pope with the same respect that Pope gave him. Not one time did he ever get the big head. Not one time did he ever look down upon those whom he surpassed on his way to super stardom. Eddie was ALWAYS Eddie. Laughing, joking, and having fun was always a part of Eddie’s daily work routine, and more importantly he was just a great guy.”
For someone who still follows wrestling closely I don’t really have that many favourite wrestlers anymore, but Umaga was easily one of them in recent years. I thought he had potential in 3 Minute Warning, then he went to AJPW and got really, really good. It was nice to see him come back to the States and get over as well as he did, especially with a gimmick so many were initially willing to dismiss. Whether it be squashing Shannon Moore or Val Venis (who always seemed to be the designated jobber when they wanted to rebuild Umaga), teaming with Taiyō Kea or wrestling for the WWE Title in an epic brawls he was one of the best in the business at what he did. I honestly consider that LMS match with Cena at the 2007 Rumble to be one of the best WWE matches of the decade. Big, fast, agile and aggressive – as a worker he really embodied a lot of the qualities I like in a wrestler. Even after the circumstances of his release, he was young and talented enough that I was fully expecting him to return to WWE at some point in the future.
So as someone who liked watching the big man it’s sad news to hear about another premature death in wrestling (36 is no age to go) and obviously much more than that for those who actually knew him particularly as he leaves behind a wife and young family.
My sincere condolences to his entire family and friends for their loss.
RIP Big Man.