Savio Vega: Secret History on the Original Boricua

Savio Vega recently made a surprise appearance at WWE Backlash in 2023, where he fought off Judgement Day alongside Bad Bunny and the LWO. With a bright spotlight shining back upon him, we share his lesser-known story, which wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Over the years, Puerto Rican wrestling great Juan Rivera established himself as a prominent figure in the professional wrestling industry by adopting different personas, including TNT, Kwang the Ninja, and, most notably, Savio Vega.
Over the years, Puerto Rican wrestling great Juan Rivera established himself as a prominent figure in the professional wrestling industry by adopting different personas, including TNT, Kwang the Ninja, and, most notably, Savio Vega. Photo Montage: Pro Wrestling Stories.

From his early success in Puerto Rico to his ongoing rivalry with Carlos Colon, the original Boricua held nothing back in his candid interview with Pro Wrestling Stories. Vega shares his heartbreaking memories of the Bruiser Brody murder, his troubles with Shawn Michaels and the Kliq during his time in the WWF, and lifts the veil about the BSK and what life was like once cameras weren’t around.


Hit play to listen to our full two-part 90-minute interview with Savio Vega and follow along with the article below!

YouTube video

YouTube video


Savio Vega – An Early Love For Wrestling

Juan Rivera’s interest in wrestling began when he was around ten.

While channel surfing on a lazy Sunday, he found the wild Argentinean wrestling promotion called Titanes en el Ring. The unique show hooked the mesmerized youngster from the start. Every Sunday, like clockwork, he couldn’t take his eyes off the television. The program incited a love for wrestling that is still burning strong today.

Later he discovered that Puerto Rico had a local wrestling scene too. So he watched them and eagerly attended the matches. He opportunely got a job working security with his cousin at the arenas.

A couple of years later, Juan took a liking to Taekwondo and the martial arts. So when one of his friends left the dojo, and he encountered him a year later, Juan was surprised to hear that his friend had taken up pro wrestling.

At first, Juan didn’t believe him. But he soon begged to be taken to where his friend had been training for the past year.

Juan then began mingling with some of the old-timers at the gym in Dorado, and they’d occasionally invite him to get into the ring.

He got potatoed for the first time courtesy of Chicky Starr, who caught Juan with an elbow while running the ropes because he wasn’t where instructed. Juan’s first baby steps into the wrestling world were at this small gym.

Although he didn’t have one formal trainer, he learned a little from everybody, including Isaac Rosario, who helped train Carlos Colon. Rosario made Juan’s acquaintance when he’d worked arena security for the World Wrestling Council (WWC), first established as Capital Sports Promotions.

Juan’s uncle helped him get that job when he needed, as Gorilla Monsoon would say, “intestinal fortitude” to work security to deal with the rowdy and passionate Puerto Rican fans.

Impressing the Old-Timers

The future Savio Vega’s big break came when wrestling at an independent show in Isaac Rosario’s hometown of Barceloneta.

Rosario was so impressed with Juan’s performance that he immediately began pulling strings to get him to work in Carlos Colon’s WWC by telling him, “I love the way you wrestle. You’re better than everybody else here. So I’m going to talk to Carlos because you’re what we need!”

Soon after, the still, very green Savio got scheduled to work at their next television tapings against “El Súper Médico” José Estrada. He also tagged with Smith Hart from the legendary Hart wrestling family.

While continuing to learn the ropes and usually doing jobs for his opponents, he recalls working with many foreign stars early in his career.

The WWC (founding name Capital Sports Promotions) was a sanctioned territory of the NWA. So, names like Afa and Sika of the famed Wild Samoans, Road Warriors Hawk and Animal, The Iron Sheik, The Great Kabuki, Terry and Dory Funk Jr., Super Black Ninja (Great Muta/Keiji Muto), and Abdullah The Butcher frequented the island.

Also, a man who still serves as a significant influence for countless wrestlers became his friend during this time: Frank Goodish, better known as Bruiser Brody, was one of them.

But the violent Sheepherders (who became The Bushwhackers in the WWF) got him to work in the United States with promoter Bill Watts’ Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) in Louisiana.

At first, the idea was to go to Tennessee, but he’s unsure why the plans fell through. Working with Bill Watts, he remembers stars like Jake Roberts, Ted DiBiase, Kamala, and Steve “Dr. Death” Williams.

“I loved that era,” remembers Juan fondly of his early years in the business. “I was lucky to be able to work with so many legends of the ring.”

After four months with Watts, he returned to Puerto Rico but was soon shipped out to Mexico to hone his skills further, and there he worked as a masked wrestler called El Corsario. He fondly recalls teams like Los Brazos, Los Villanos, Perro Aguayo and Canek.

Once back on the island, Savio noticed that business was down remarkably. The WWC was spinning its wheels but believed that having a big-time heel would help generate interest from the fans once again. They were right.

TNT The Dynamite Man

In late 1987, the WWC soon bestowed upon Juan Rivera the character he’d become most famous for in Puerto Rico: the heel called TNT, El Hombre Dinamita, which translated into English as “The Dynamite Man.”

Before this, he worked under at least five characters, including his real name.

They paired him with a loud-mouthed manager called El Profe (Angel Pantoja) because, at first, the barrel-chested and menacing-looking TNT character was a man of a few words who dressed in a ninja jumpsuit and was purportedly a martial arts expert.

Later, he found his voice and became an emotional and very loud speaker during his promos.

Curiously his manager donned the masks and much of the attire Savio used in his previous trip to Mexico but would no longer need in Puerto Rico as the painted-faced and shaved-headed TNT.

They tested the character in front of the fans at the next TV tapings, and the mysterious heel was an immediate sensation. His potent chops, thrusting kicks, and Cobra Clutch finishing hold became feared throughout and recurrently applied on the babyfaces.

The long build-up to facing the Universal Champion, Carlos Colon, grew weekly. At the same time, Carlos Colon feuded with wrestlers like Stan Hansen, Terry Funk, “Sadistic” Steve Strong, Abdullah the Butcher, and Hercules Ayala. However, TNT continued to defeat everyone in his path and looked stronger as time passed.

In an infamous angle that finally set up their big stadium show, TNT choked out Carlos Colon in the middle of the ring with the Cobra Clutch, and El Profe then covered Colon’s face with a blanket signifying his supposed death.

The livid fans pelted the ring with various objects while TNT and El Profe relished the heat they’d generated.

Finally, with Colon foaming at the mouth and barely able to even sit, he retained the title via disqualification.

“I went almost a year undefeated. TNT was eating everyone alive,” recalled Savio in his October 2015 interview with Pro Wrestling Stories. “When I finally faced him for the title at one of the anniversary shows, we sold out the place.”

Carlos Colon and TNT Collide

In 1990, both Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium, where TNT and Colon clashed, and the Rubén Rodriguez Coliseum next door, which showed the match on closed-circuit TV, sold out. Savio estimates that between the two, at least 20,000 people witnessed the match. But unfortunately, Carlos Colon didn’t want to drop the title to the “new kid.”

Savio Vega as TNT with Carlos Colon. TNT and Colon had some formidable battles throughout the years and became two of Puerto Rico’s wrestling icons.
Savio Vega as TNT with Carlos Colon. TNT and Colon had some formidable battles throughout the years and became two of Puerto Rico’s wrestling icons.

“I remember Hugo Savinovich telling Colon that it was time to pass the baton and said, ‘Put the belt on the kid, hurt yourself [kayfabe] disappear for six months, and let’s throw more heat on the kid, so when you come back and have a rematch, we’ll have a hell of a house and make some money.'”

But Carlos Colon refused to consent to that finish, believing it was too soon. So the match ended in a grueling one-hour broadway (draw) where both bloodied wrestlers battled in a muddy ring after a storm had fallen.

Watch TNT demand another shot at Carlos Colon’s Universal title (Spanish):

YouTube video

And being a heel meant that Savio’s well-being was often under threat.

“At the time, the fans would throw at you whatever they had because they believed in the heels. So they’d throw batteries, shoes, sometimes beepers, rocks, balls-whatever they had in their hands.”

He continued, “Now people are more into the business, and maybe if one or two kids start throwing things, their parents or whatever quickly say, ‘Hey, don’t throw nothing!'”

“After the match, I went straight to the showers,” Savio remembers.

In another interview, he described himself and Carlos Colon looking like pigs and remembers fans filling paper cups with mud and hurling the dangerous projectiles at him.

Even though he didn’t win the Universal Championship that night, he’d become one of the most decorated and memorable wrestlers the island has produced and is still active in wrestling to this day.

The incredible feud with Carlos Colon went on for years before record-setting crowds. Also, in the early 2000s, he joined Victor Quiñones’ International Wrestling Association (IWA) which ran opposition to Carlos Colon’s WWC for over a decade.

Savio Vega on his Relationship With Bruiser Brody and Being There on the Night of His Murder

Savio Vega remembers a scary situation involving his friend, the late Bruiser Brody, and how the big man potentially saved his life.

“Brody and I went into the stands, and of course, Brody was a real brawler. But once, he grabbed my neck and pushed me out of the way. Then, after I was on the other side, I realized why: There had been an old man behind me with a knife trying to cut me!”

“I was with Frank a little bit, and I enjoyed the time I was with him. And to be honest, he was the only wrestler’s style I liked. I really loved it,” he shared with Pro Wrestling Stories.

According to Savio, Brody suggested he try and work in the United States to make more money and not stay only working in Puerto Rico. He appreciated Brody taking the time to compliment him on his work in the ring, but he got murdered shortly after.

Bruiser Brody, seen here with Abdullah The Butcher. The death of Brody is a memory Savio Vega wishes he couldn’t remember. He hopes that one day that his family can find justice.
Bruiser Brody, seen here with Abdullah The Butcher. The death of Brody is a memory Savio Vega wishes he couldn’t remember. He hopes that one day that his family can find justice. [Photo: cagesideseats.com]
There are specific horrible memories that Savio Vega wishes he didn’t have “permanently recorded in his brain and in his heart’s hard disk,” as he says. But, as with fans in the United States, Puerto Rican fans also affectionately remember Brody.

Savio explained what he recalled about the nightmarish evening Bruiser Brody angered the volatile José González, Invader 1.

“People have so many stories [about Brody’s murder], but I know that even though he got stabbed there, he didn’t die there. He died during the night after his operation but eventually passed away due to internal bleeding in consequence of what that a**hole [José González] did.”

Savio continued, “I remember being between Tony Atlas and the Youngbloods (Mark and Chris). I saw Victor Jovica behind José, grabbing him by the waist, and José had Brody by his hair and holding his stomach. Carlos Colon was on Brody’s right side trying to pull him away, and José said, ‘Let me kill this son of a b***,’ with the knife in his hand with which he even cut Brody’s hair.”

“Brody got outside and tried to walk to the dugout area, but I told him not to because that’s where the ring was [set up]. I then went to call the police. We didn’t have cell phones back then, but I told a guy walking down the hallway (stadium worker) to call the police and an ambulance.”

The a**hole wanted to go inside to see what happened [probably thinking this was a work, i.e., part of the show]! So, I repeated angrily to do what I said. Menudo was playing in the facility next to the stadium, but it still took the ambulance 30 to 40 minutes to arrive!”

Several wrestlers, including Savio and Tony Atlas, helped place Brody on a stretcher and inside the ambulance. Both he and Atlas rode in the ambulance with Brody. But once the hospital door to the ER closed with Brody inside, losing tons of blood and agonizing, what happened later was anyone’s guess. Savio stayed outside.

“The next day, when we were in Mayaguez, I asked Isaac Rosario what the news on Brody was, and he told me he’d died. In the dressing room, Carlos, Victor Jovica and José were there. José was acting as if nothing had happened. Carlos acted normal too. I was like, ‘What the f***?’

“The show that day got canceled because the boys refused to work.”

“In the trial, it was only José because they never sent papers for anybody else to show up. I always felt that there was money involved in that. I don’t know if people like Dutch Mantell and Tony Atlas got paid [not to show up], but people within the court got money. I know.”

“We went to the Brody trial, and they found him not guilty. But I know, the guys there know, and the world knows that he [José Gonzalez] did it.

“I remember on the court date, I went to the bathroom, and José and his lawyer were behind me. I felt like they were watching me pee. When I turned around, José thanked me. And I told him that I said what I had to say [based on] what I saw and no more.”

Savio Vega: Signing With the WWF and Working With Bret Hart

Right before arriving in the then-WWF, Savio Vega worked in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) with wrestlers like Bam Bam Bigelow, Big Van Vader, Yokozuna (as Kokina), and Fatu (later known as Rikishi).

In January 1994, Juan went from the blood-splattered rings in Puerto Rico to sports entertainment in the then-WWF as Kwang The Ninja, a masked martial artist billed from the orient and managed by Harvey Wippleman.

Scott Hall was instrumental in helping Savio Vega work for the WWF because he suggested that Vince McMahon give him a look and told him how he and Savio had worked together in Puerto Rico.

As Kwang the Ninja, Savio Vega had some success in the WWF. He used the green-mist gimmick like other more authentic Asian characters.
As Kwang the Ninja, Savio Vega had some success in the WWF. He used the green-mist gimmick like other more authentic Asian characters. [Photo: WWE.com]
“Kwang was TNT with a mask, so they saved me the trouble of painting my face“, Savio admitted.

“I was thinking that I was a brown Puerto Rican with a Chinese name like Kwang. Okay then, let’s do it!

“I knew the character was pretty strong when I had a match with Bret Hart on a Monday Night Raw, and we broke the record for ratings (around a 3.5, according to Vega). People believed that Kwang could maybe beat Bret Hart. I loved that character. I don’t know why they didn’t push it a little more.”

He remembers Bret always being late for the shows. And once he finally arrived, Savio recalls Hart lacing up his boots and adamantly telling him, “No chops.”

The conversation went back and forth, with Savio finally persuading Bret to let him do at least one chop because, after all, Kwang was a martial artist.

Savio Vega Emerges

After creative shelved the Kwang character, he became Savio Vega.

Billed from the Bronx, he got introduced to the fans after saving his “friend” Razor Ramon.

The WWF tried to position Savio as a positive role model for kids, with the message of not doing drugs and not dropping out of school.

In addition, they wanted to demonstrate that even someone like Savio Vega, who supposedly grew up in a tough neighborhood like the South Bronx, could become successful.

Fans took well to Savio Vega’s no-nonsense wrestling style. He emerged as a giant killer, facing all comers during the WWF’s “New Generation” and even handing The Rock and Steve Austin’s first losses. [Photo: WWE.com]
In King of the Ring ’95, he was a last-minute replacement for Razor Ramon, who got injured in a ladder match against Jeff Jarrett. Savio defeated IRS, Yokozuna, “The Road Dogg,” Jesse James and reached the finals against Mabel, just falling short of a win.

“My agent at the time, Blackjack Lanza told me that I was going to wrestle four times that evening, and I was, of course, up for the challenge,” remembers Savio Vega.

Against IRS, in the first match of the evening, he hurt his rib cage when thrown outside the ring. However, despite this impairment, he bravely continued until the tournament finals.

Savio Vega on His Close Friendship With Yokozuna

When asked about Yokozuna, he did not hide how much he cared for and respected the giant Samoan.

“I loved Yoko, and I get goosebumps all over my body when I say that. I met him in Puerto Rico, where he used the name Kokina, and we worked together in NJPW too. I had a lot of fun with him and Fatu (Rikishi), his cousin.”

Yokozuna and Savio Vega cultivated a close friendship that even cut through wrestling’s sometimes heavily secretive curtain wall.
Yokozuna and Savio Vega cultivated a close friendship that cut through wrestling’s sometimes heavily secretive curtain wall. [Photo: twm.news]
Savio remembers the challenges of sharing a room with the huge Yokozuna.

His booming snores were troublesome and deprived everyone of much-needed shut-eye. He was possibly also afflicted with sleep apnea. And because of his massive body, he’d often stop breathing, which scared Savio half to death.

The bond between Yoko and Savio extended beyond the ring to situations only true brothers could understand.

He reminisced about a unique plight involving him and Fatu, having to help Yoko go to the bathroom in the back of the plane because the plane’s bathroom was too narrow for him to squeeze inside. So, they sealed off the area, and Yoko had difficulty cleaning himself. The whole unbelievable ordeal took about an hour.

Yoko paid Savio back by taking care of him when they worked in the Los Angeles area. Here Yokozuna cooked delicious meals, and Savio had a great time meeting Yokozuna’s family.

“Yoko is a guy I miss big time. I remember Lani (Yoko’s widow) and his kid too. The Samoans always treated me with respect, ever since meeting Afa and Sika in Puerto Rico. Always gentlemen with me. Never had any negativity with them. They’re like brothers. I met all their kids, and now they’re all in wrestling too.”

He appreciated Yokozuna sticking up for him when he overheard members of the backstage group headed by Shawn Michaels and Triple H known as The Kliq, masterminding how they planned to get Savio Vega fired.

Savio isn’t exactly sure why he never had a championship run in the then-WWF, but his theory is that The Kliq had a hand in it. He claims that he could’ve become tag champions with Razor Ramon, but Razor believed that tag teams weren’t as valued as single competitors in the organization and wasn’t interested.

Bone Street Krew

It’s important to mention another backstage group, the Bone Street Krew, founded by Yokozuna, where Savio Vega was a member. Yoko and The Undertaker had the final say on who could join. Other members were The Godfather, Brian Adams (Crush), Rikishi, The Godwinns, Mr. Fuji, and Paul Bearer.

They hung out and took care of each other in and out of the ring. Many even got “BSK” tattooed somewhere on their bodies.

When asked specifics about the group, Savio answered with a laugh, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you!” and added that “it was more than family.”

Helping Others Succeed

Savio Vega was a solid mid-carder in WWE who became known as a complete worker, able to adapt to many styles and with the ability to put over his opponent.

He remembers how he helped get the androgynous Goldust character over by convincing Dustin to be a little more over-the-top in the ring and overcoming his fear of acting more sexually. Savio believes not putting Goldust and Savio Vega on a pay-per-view was a missed opportunity.

As the first person to receive Steve Austin’s Stone Cold Stunner, he takes pride in helping other wrestlers reach success.

Steve Austin admits that he has a lot of respect for Savio Vega and praised his ring work, saying that he could really go.

“He’s old school like lots of those Puerto Ricans are,” says Steve Austin, who calls Savio Vega “Primo.”

“Savio is one hell of a worker and could go with the best of them. I loved working with him.”

Many fans recall their match at WrestleMania XII and the brutal Caribbean Strap Match they had on Monday Night Raw in early ’96.

In 1997, Savio turned heel and joined Farooq and Crush in the first incarnation of the Nation of Domination. Although he loved being a heel and did anything needed to get heat, one thing he refused to do even when ordered by Vince McMahon was defacing the Puerto Rican flag.

Los Boricuas

After being dispelled from the Nation of Domination, Savio Vega formed Los Boricuas (a popular nickname for Puerto Ricans), comprised of three second-generation wrestlers, Miguel Pérez, José Estrada, Jesus “Huracán” Castillo, and of course himself. They all sported matching tank tops, sunglasses, and straw fedoras.

Savio Vega and Los Boricuas.
Savio Vega and Los Boricuas.

Life after WWE

By the end of 1999, the then-WWF released Savio Vega when creative told him, “We’ve got nothing for you.”

Even though Undertaker offered to help see if Savio could get two more years, Savio decided to leave because he had a project lined up in Puerto Rico.

In 2000, he joined Puerto Rico’s International Wrestling Association, headed by Víctor Quiñones, who had previously helped form Japan’s W*ING (Wrestling International New Generations) promotion.

He continued working in the various independent promotions in Puerto Rico and has recently helped revive the IWA, where there is now also a branch in the Orlando, Florida area called IWA Florida (related in name only to the original in Puerto Rico) where his protégé Sr. C/Mr. C of the Controversial Inc faction is heavily involved.

A recent photo of Savio Vega.
Savio Vega in recent years. [Photo: mlw.com]
As of late 2020, he and IWA Puerto Rico president Juan M. Riviera were in talks with Major League Wrestling (MLW) to have a talent exchange and a big show in the Caribbean or Hawaii. And in early 2022, both IWA Puerto Rico and MLW extended their strategic partnership.

Savio Vega has had and continues to have a stellar career, garnering fans’ and peers’ respect. We wish him all the success and thank him for being our website’s second-ever interview.

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https://popcultureretrorama.wordpress.com/author/javierojst/

Javier Ojst is an old-school wrestling enthusiast currently residing in El Salvador. He's been a frequent guest on several podcasts and has a few bylines on TheLogBook.com, where he shares stories of pop culture and retro-related awesomeness. He has also been published on Slam Wrestling and in G-FAN Magazine.