When Yokozuna won his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship at just 26, he made history as the then-youngest champion in company history. But what happened next was unexpected, and his reign was bittersweet and short-lived.
Find out more about Yokozuna’s 14-month run on top of the then WWF and the challenges he faced along the way.
Lead-Up to Yokozuna’s First WWE Championship Run
With each passing year, the Royal Rumble event has a habit of stirring up memories of great Rumble matches and moments of the past.
From the intense Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior staredown in 1990, Ric Flair’s historic win against the backdrop of Bobby Heenan’s incredible commentary in 1992, the memorable draw between Bret Hart and Lex Luger in 1994, through to the star-filled 2001 match, and historic returns of Edge and John Cena from injury in later years, everyone has their list of favorite Royal Rumble memories.
However, one Royal Rumble typically doesn’t conjure up much pleasant nostalgia – the 1993 edition.
This offering from Sacramento, California, was historic for other reasons than the match itself, as it began the memorable (and at times unusual) main event run of its 505-pound victor, Yokozuna. Here is the story of that time in the WWF.
Post-Steroid Era WWF
In their place was reigning champion, long-time mid-carder Bret Hart, enjoying his first title run. Hart had won the championship from Ric Flair, who was soon heading back south and departing the WWF. Shawn Michaels was still finding his footing as a singles competitor, while more long-term stars like Randy Savage and Ted DiBiase were seen as a little over the hill by higher-ups.
Vince McMahon and the WWF desperately needed an injection of new talent into their main event picture and found it with a man named Rodney Anoa’i.
The Debut of Yokozuna in the WWF
Born into the famous Anoa’i Samoan wrestling family on October 2nd, 1966, young Rodney Anoa’i was trained by his uncles, The Wild Samoans, Afa, and Sika.
After learning his trade in Japan and Mexico, Anoa’i worked for the failing AWA for a short time before signing with the WWF. Making his debut as "Yokozuna" in October 1992, Anoa’i portrayed a grand sumo champion, despite not being of Japanese descent.
He was accompanied to the ring by Mr. Fuji, complete with the Japanese flag, Geisha girls, and a salt bucket. According to Bruce Prichard on his podcast Something to Wrestle, the large Anoa’i was not comfortable wearing just the sumo gear and had longer tights underneath added to his look.
Watch the WWF Debut of Yokozuna on October 31, 1992:
Yokozuna would run through opponents displaying great athleticism for a man his size. An impressive leg drop, superkick, and belly-to-belly suplex were all part of his arsenal that would lead to his crushing "Banzai Drop" finisher.
At Survivor Series 1992, Yokozuna made his pay-per-view debut, quickly squashing Virgil. Interestingly, this was also the first pay-per-view event new WWF Champion Bret Hart was to headline, battling Shawn Michaels in a very underrated contest worth another look.
The 1993 Royal Rumble
As the 1993 Royal Rumble approached, with the traditional WrestleMania number one contender for the title up for grabs for the first time, many new talents and more prominent names seemed to be working in other contests as opposed to the 30-man showpiece.
Hart defended his title against newcomer Scott "Razor Ramon" Hall in another excellent championship match.
All of this meant that the Rumble match itself seemed quite thin on the ground for good options to go on and headline WrestleMania 9 in a few short months.
The Royal Rumble match itself started well with the previous year’s winner Ric Flair coming out at number 1. It would prove to be Flair’s last WWF pay-per-view appearance for quite some time.
He would lose to Mr. Perfect the following night on Raw with the stipulation that only the victor would remain in the WWF.
Out of these names, only Backlund would last anywhere close to the finish. Fan-favorite The Undertaker arrived as entrant number 15 before being eliminated by the debuting Giant Gonzalez to set up their WrestleMania contest.
Up until Yokozuna himself arrived at the number 27 stage, the Rumble was filled with lower card talent and tag teams. The main exception to this, which was lost on many casual fans at the time, was Puerto Rican legend Carlos Colon entered the fray.
Eventually, the Rumble match came down to Yokozuna and number 30 entrant "Macho Man" Randy Savage.
In another unusual moment, Savage got eliminated when he went to cover Yokozuna for a pinfall (yes, in the Royal Rumble) and was then bench-pressed over the top rope by Anoa’i. Less than four months after his television debut, Yokozuna had won the Royal Rumble and was on his way to WrestleMania’s main event.
Yokozuna and His Lead-Up to WrestleMania 9
Throughout the months leading to the year’s biggest event, Yokozuna continued to squash opponents on television. He entered into a short program with "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, which resulted in a striking visual of Duggan coughing up blood and suffering from kayfabe internal injuries after being crushed by several Banzai Drops.
This visual added further to the aura around the vast challenger. He quickly and easily destroyed a very recognizable name in Duggan and left a vivid meta-image in the mind of many young fans at the time (this writer included).
Yokozuna Wins His First WWF Championship Followed By a "Screwjob" Finish
WrestleMania 9 proved to be bittersweet for Yokozuna. Aided by Mr. Fuji and a handful of salt in the main event, he defeated Bret Hart to win his first WWF Championship. However, what followed his victory again showed the potential panic in WWF booking meetings over a lack of main event names.
As "The Hitman" struggled with salt in his eyes, he received support from an unlikely ally, a returning Hulk Hogan.
At this point, Hogan, who was at WrestleMania to work a match with Brutus Beefcake for the tag titles, was challenged by Mr. Fuji, who declared that "Big Man" Hogan could not defeat "his Yokozuna."
With Hart’s on-screen consent (but not off-screen blessing), Hogan rushed the ring and defeated Yokozuna in a matter of minutes. The formidable Samoan’s rapid ascent up the card had stalled for the first time, as Vince McMahon went back to what he knew in the yellow and red-clad hero.
Yokozuna is Champ Again: His Second WWF Title Reign
A rematch for the title was quickly arranged and would occur at the inaugural King of the Ring pay-per-view event on June 13th, 1993 (the original King of the Ring tournaments from 1985-1989 and again in 1991 were not PPV events).
At the culmination of his match against Hogan, Yokozuna recaptured the title after a Japanese photographer (actually Harvey Wippleman in costume) climbed onto the apron. A fireball from his camera flash would strike the Hulkster. Yokozuna would follow up with a big leg drop and cover Hogan for the win, following this up with a Banzai Drop in the corner after the match.
Hogan would disappear from WWF television again here, this time for many years, allowing Mr. Fuji to declare they had "ended Hulkamania."
On the same show, Bret Hart would win the King of the Ring tournament after defeating Razor Ramon in the first round, Mr. Perfect in the second, and Bam Bam Bigelow in the final. Hart put on three mini classics on one night.
His matches showed how talented "The Hitman" was, and crowd reactions displayed how popular the Canadian hero had become. Bret’s display of skill in this event quickly made this the most watchable WWF pay-per-view of 1993 and is well worth revisiting.
After his second title win, Yokozuna and Fuji declared an open bodyslam challenge on July 4th. The simple premise was that after running the American Hero Hogan out of the WWF, the USA had no real challengers worthy of a shot against the "Japanese" champion, and Fuji declared no one could slam Yokozuna, never mind beat him.
In hindsight, these words may have rung truer than people realized at the time. With Hogan gone, and Hart having a series of matches with Jerry Lawler and Randy Savage spending more time in a commentary position, genuine challengers to the behemoth champion were scarce.
Cue: Lex Luger, a helicopter, and a McMahon attempt to create a new star.
Luger, making his WWF debut as "The Narcissist" at the 1993 Royal Rumble, arrived at the visually striking location for The Body Slam Challenge, showing no signs of his arrogant on-screen persona. Instead, he stepped out of a helicopter and onto the hot deck of the battleship USS Intrepid wearing jeans and a flashy American flag shirt.
In quite a spectacular moment, Luger slammed the now 565lbs Yokozuna and instantly started to garner cheers instead of the Narcissist’s standard boos. After a lengthy and costly promotional campaign, Luger was now the next challenger to Anoa’i and his title.
Lex Luger and Yokozuna Feud
The match was set for SummerSlam 1993. In a lengthy and relatively dull main event, Luger defeated the champion, yet oddly via countout. As Lex celebrated with other wrestlers and confetti rained down in the arena, Yokozuna slipped away, still clutching his WWF Title.
In another twist to the tale, Jim Cornette (now acting as Yokozuna’s American spokesperson) declared that the contract Luger signed for the title match stipulated he would not get another opportunity at the championship if he failed to win it.
As 1993 headed towards its close, Luger and Yokozuna continued to be in each other’s picture leading into Survivor Series. Both would lead a team in an elimination match, yet it was not Luger with who Yokozuna had the most memorable exchange.
The WWF Champion was eliminated from this contest in a double countout with The Undertaker after the Deadman sat up from a Banzai Drop.
After a loud and shocked crowd reaction, the pair brawled on the outside. In theory, Luger could not face Yokozuna for the title anyway and was placed on the backburner. It was now The Undertaker with his eyes fixed upon Yokozuna’s title.
Feud With The Undertaker, 1994 Royal Rumble
Undertaker and Yokozuna met with the championship on the line at the 1994 Royal Rumble in Rhode Island. The added stipulation was that this would be a Casket Match, in theory favoring the challenger. In one of Yokozuna’s better in-ring showings, he and Taker tussled for close to fifteen minutes, each trying to fit their expansive opponent into the casket.
Eventually, Yokozuna would get the win, assisted by what seemed like half the locker room, and disposed of the Undertaker.
In another moment of early ’90s silliness, The Undertaker then appeared on the big screen before ascending to the heavens (or maybe even merely floating away).
This led the WWF and Vince McMahon back to the familiar territory they had first encountered throughout the previous year.
With Hogan gone, Undertaker now seemingly absent, Savage still not fully active, and Luger unable to wrestle for the title, where would a credible main event challenger come from, especially with WrestleMania again approaching so quickly?
In a novel move for a company so thin on top-tier talent at the time, that evening’s Royal Rumble match would not just produce one challenger, but two.
Two Winners at the 1994 Royal Rumble
The finish of the 1994 Royal Rumble was an excellent piece of storytelling. With Luger and Bret Hart as the final competitors in the match, the two tumbled over the top rope at the same time, causing the match to be declared a draw.
Suddenly, Yokozuna had the potential of twice as many challengers at WrestleMania 10 than first thought.
Hart, firmly receiving backing from the fans, was again in the title picture, having been absent from it since losing to Yokozuna at the previous ‘Mania.
Luger’s Rumble win overruled his "cannot compete for the title stipulation," and it threw him back into the title picture yet again. Both would end up receiving a title match at Madison Square Garden, the setting for WrestleMania X.
In winning a televised coin toss, Luger went first.
In a slightly improved match to their SummerSlam contest, Lex again would not secure the title against Yokozuna. Guest referee Mr. Perfect would disqualify Luger, leading to his disappearance from the WWF title picture for the very last time.
Half of the job was complete for Yokozuna. The massive champion would defend his title again in the closing match of the show against The Hitman.
For Rodney Anoa’i, this event was his peak in the WWF. Being the centerpiece in this three-way story for the championship was a career highlight for Yokozuna, still less than 18 months after his TV debut.
The Luger match was passable, and a man of his physical stature returning to the ring for another contest less than 30 minutes later deserves to be looked at with respect. The second title match with Hart is arguably Yokozuna’s finest in-ring contribution to the company as a singles competitor.
Yes, a great deal of that has to do with the talents of "The Hitman" and interactions with guest referee Roddy Piper. However, Yokozuna was still the unbeatable monster champion going into the match.
A persona made for him yet carried off brilliantly by the now 560-plus-pounder. After 10 minutes of action, which the New York crowd went wild for, Bret Hart finally regained the WWF title by pinning Yokozuna.
Looking Back on the WWF Title Reigns of Yokozuna
WrestleMania 10 signaled Yokozuna’s end as a main event-level talent in the WWF and the experimental nature of the WWF title picture, which began shortly before 1993’s Rumble.
Bret Hart moved onto a rivalry with his little brother, Owen, and Kevin Nash as "Diesel," and Shawn Michaels started to enter the main event picture a little later. Anoa’i himself went on to work in the tag division with Crush and eventually Owen Hart, sandwiched either side of a set of matches with the returning Undertaker.
Starting with a very lackluster Royal Rumble match, 1993 was an unusual period for the WWF. From that January’s event through to the following year’s WrestleMania, Yokozuna was realistically the only main event constant.
In there lies yet another odd anomaly as the dominant two-time champion, holding onto the championship for an impressive 280 days, never defended the belt successfully via pinfall or submission on pay-per-view.
The Tragic Death of Yokozuna (Rodney Anoa’i)
Rodney Anoa’i sadly passed away on October 23rd, 2000, in Liverpool, England, from pulmonary edema. At the time of his death, he was in the United Kingdom for a tour with an independent wrestling company. Anoa’i was only 34 years of age.
Mark Canterbury, better known to fans as Henry O. Godwinn, looked back fondly on his close friend by saying, "Rodney was awesome, in the ring and out. He would invite us to huge barbecues where he lived in California, and we always felt invited and comfortable around his family."
Bret Hart shared in his autobiography, "Yoko was agile for his size and was a hard worker. He’d come off the ropes for his big leg drop, and my head would disappear under his [big] thigh with the crowd gasping out of fear. The truth was he never, ever hurt me with it."
Yokozuna was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012 by his cousins, Jimmy and Jey Uso and Rikishi Fatu.
A monster of a man, Yokozuna’s main event and title reign run helped bridge the gap between the Hogan era and the Hart/Michaels period of a few years later.
Perhaps overlooked at times, Yokozuna played a crucial role in an unstable and slightly odd period for the WWF title. However, perhaps most unusual of all, he never reached those heights again.
These stories may also interest you:
- YOKOZUNA – Untold Stories on the Man That Was Larger Than Life
- Lex Express and The Failed Lex Luger Experiment
- The Undertaker’s First Year in WWE: Rise of The Dead Man
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