To get an idea of how the Tongan wrestling legacy began, it’s necessary to first get an understanding of the Kingdom of Tonga.
The Kingdom of Tonga is home to just over 100,000 people. Despite their small population, the Tongan people and culture have spread globally through sport. Much of that has to do with their success in professional wrestling.
Mini-Documentary on Haku, the Barbian, & the King of Tonga:
The Kingdom of Tonga officially consists of 169 different islands, though 70% of the Tongan population lives on the main island, Tongatapu. It is believed the first people to settle the island were from Lapita culture, a tradition of prehistoric Polynesian, Micronesian, and Melanesian people who settled on islands in the Pacific.
Oral traditions state the first Tu’i Tonga (King of Tonga) was crowned around 900. Ahoʻeitu is believed to have been the first Tongan King and the son of a God from Tongan mythology, Tangaloa, who produced several offspring with mortal women.
the Tongan Empire
Under the rule of the Tu’i Tonga lineage, the Kingdom would expand its territory for the next several hundred years, adding additional islands including parts of Fiji and Samoa. As what happens with most Kingdoms, however, success led to infighting and eventually civil war. By the time of European contact in the 16th and 17th century, the Tongan Empire was in decline.
For the next 2 centuries, as European colonialists were planting flags across the globe, Tonga would never relinquish sovereignty. Tonga would sign a “Treaty of Friendship” with Britain which would essentially make them “run-in buddies”. The agreement was signed by Siaosi Tupou II in 1900.
Siaosi Tupou II was the 20th King of Tonga in the Tu’i Tonga lineage. After his death in 1918, the 1st Queen of Tonga, Sālote Tupou III, was crowned. Her rule ended upon her death in 1965 and her son, Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, became King. It would be the 22nd King in the Tu’i Tonga lineage who would make the fateful decision to select the future Faces of Fear members to study the art of sumo. While Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV’s reign also consisted of economic misfortune, he will always be able to claim success in creating a 2nd sport the islands are known for.
the Tongan Pro-Wrestling Empire
Rugby Union is Tonga’s national sport but Tupou IV had an idea to create a 2nd national sport for his people. His idea was to send a handful of the islands most gifted teenage athletes to train in sumo wrestling. Many have stated the case that Tongans are naturally built for the sport.
“Tongans are naturally built for Sumo” sumo wrestler Siosifa ‘Isama’u at the 2014 USA Sumo Open
“Representing Tonga is a great honour especially here in the States where literally 99.9% don’t know about us. Their first guess is always Samoan or Hawaiian. So, for me to raise the Tongan flag over my head and shoulders is my proudest moment.”
“I know I’m getting old for the sport but I want to inspire our Tongan youths, both male and female, to explore this sport as we are naturally built for it. There are a lot of opportunities out there that sumo will open the door to, as many of my fellow wrestlers have been cast in movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean, Ocean 12, Keisha and, lately, Let’s Be Cops as well as TV shows and commercials…”
In 1975, representatives from the Asahiyama stable in Japan toured the islands. They demonstrated sumo and scouted for talent to train in their dojo. The King issued an official order for 4 teenagers to train with the stable in Japan.
One of the teenage boys selected by the King to train with the Asahiyama stable in 1975 was Tonga Fifita, better known to wrestling fans as Haku/Meng/the Tongan Kid, and another was Sione Vailahi, better known to wrestling fans as the Barbarian.
The Asahiyama stable of sumo wrestlers has a history dating back to 1896. They just recently closed down their doors in 2015, though an unrelated stable of sumo wrestlers began using the name in 2016.
The Tongan teenagers flew to Japan on the order of the King of Tonga. Tevita Vaiola Falevai was among the boys and told the Japan Times in 2015 he was scared to fly to Japan. He said he believed at the time that the country was filled with sword-swinging Samurai. It was an order from the King, however, and so he had to go. Falevai would take the sumo name, Minaminoshima, as the King wanted each sumo wrestler’s name to reference a place in Tonga.
Sione Havea Vailahi (the Barbarian) competed under the name Sachinoshima. Tonga Fifita (Haku) would compete under the name Fukunoshima.
Death of Asahiyama Stable Leader
The boys’ sumo careers were cut to a short end when their stable master, Futaseyama, died suddenly. Confusion followed over who the new leader of the stable was, putting the teenagers in an awkward position. Futaseyama had been the man who toured the country and promised the King of Tonga he would take care of the boys. When he died the Tongans were told by his wife that a new wrestler, Ryuo, would be taking over the stable.
Unfortunately, there was disagreement amongst Futaseyama’s wife, Ryuo, and the eventual new leader of the stable, Wakafutase. Making matters worse was the boys were not fluent in the language and didn’t fully understand what was going on. They chose to support Futaseyama’s wife as Futaseyama is the man who had made the promise to the King of Tonga. When they were told by the Japan Sumo Association to either study under or Wakafutase or retire from sumo, the boys ultimately decided to return to Tonga.
“We were facing one trouble after another during our stay in Japan,” Falevai said. “We thought we’d better return to Tonga.”
According to the Japan Sumo Association, the boys officially retired from the sport in 1976.
Giant Baba had formed All-Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972, the same year Antonio Inoki would form New Japan Pro Wrestling. Sumo wrestlers were a talent pool All Japan was recruiting from at the time, and with Tonga Fifita officially retired from the sport, he became someone the company was willing to invest in.
Baba had scouted sumo wrestlers Genichiro Tenryu and Takashi Ishikawa in 1976-77. Both men retired from their sumo careers upon being scouted by All-Japan. They were then sent by Baba to the United States to be trained. They would both train under the Funk brothers in Texas as well as with Pat O’Connor before returning to Japan. It is said that Fifita agreed to train with AJPW under the guidance of Tenryu and Ishikawa, who competed in sumo the same years he did.
He would begin his career wrestling under the name, King Tonga. As AJPW had talent sharing agreements with promotions all over the world, Fifita began traveling the world as a pro-wrestler. In 1980, Fifita’s former sumo stablemate, Sione Havea Vailahi, would begin his pro-wrestling journey as well. It would be many years before they would be teammates again, however.
Fifita would sign with the WWF in 1986 and begin wrestling as 1/2 of the Islanders, along with Sam Fatu (Tama). Wrestling as the Barbarian, Vailahi would wrestle with Jim Crockett promotions until signing with Vince McMahon in 1988. In 1991, they would team together as members of the Heenan Family. It was the 1st time they competed together since retiring from sumo 15 years earlier.
Tongan Wrestling Legacy
Fifita would father 2 children and adopt 2 more. 3 of his 4 boys, Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, & Leo Tonga are wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Tama Tonga is a founding member of Bullet Club and multi-time tag-team champion. While training in the New Japan dojo he met Fale Simitaitoko, better known as Bad Luck Fale. They had both grown up in Tonga but never met. They would only discover they are cousins while training in the dojo. Fale is also a founding member of Bullet Club, as well as a former IWGP Intercontinental champion.
Tevita Tu’amoeloa Fetaiakimoeata Fifita, better known to wrestling fans as Tanga Loa, wrestled as Camacho in WWE from 2009-2014. He would join New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2016 and formed the Guerillas of Destiny with his brother, Tama Tonga.
In December 2017, Tama Tonga, Tanga Loa, and Bad Luck Fale won the NEVER 6-Man tag-team championships.
Leo Tonga, the youngest of the brothers, made his NJPW debut earlier this year as well.
With 4 Tongan wrestlers representing the islands on the world stage, one has to wonder if it would have been possible had the King of Tonga not sent those 4 teenage boys to Japan back in 1975.