In his ground-breaking career as a professional wrestler, “Prince” Neff Maiava survived brutal exchanges with such ursine figures as Gene LeBelle, Fritz Von Erich and Killer Kowalski.
By his own account, however, nothing could have properly prepared him for the evening he faced an actual bear in the ring.
During one National Wrestling Alliance match, it was decided that the top wrestlers would draw names to determine the card for the evening. When it was his turn, Maiava drew the bear — whose appearance was a one-time promotional stunt — much to the amusement of the rest of the locker room.
At 6-feet and 285 pounds, Maiava cut a menacing figure, but even he was dwarfed by the massive, lumbering animal. Maiava gamely jabbed and feinted with the bear to start the match before executing his winning gambit: slathering honey on his chest and lying down on the canvas while the bear happily licked it off, eventually flipping the distracted bear over for the pin. For Maiava’s legions of fans, the stunt demonstrated once and for all that the Prince’s success in the ring was owed as much to sweetness and guile as it was through brute physicality.
Maiava died April 21 at the age of 93. He is survived by his brother Salesa Maiava; sons Richard, Neff Jr., Pisaga, Scott Mahoney and Calvin Kanoa; and daughters Pamela, Anona, Sri Maiava Rusden, and Michele Pouvave.
“He was a very colorful man,” said daughter Pamela Maiava. “He was also the nicest man I’ve ever known. So many of his friends have told me how much he helped other people.”
Born in Samoa and raised in Laie, Neff Maiava was among the first Polynesian professional wrestlers to achieve wide success and acclaim, essentially setting the template for successive generations of Samoan, Tongan and Hawaiian wrestlers, from Peter Maivia (whose stage name was derived from “Maiava”) to the Wild Samoans to current stars like the Usos and the Rock.
An elite draw
In the decades before regional promotions were consolidated into the likes of expansive, national entities like the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling, and long before professional wrestling was rebranded as “sports entertainment,” Maiava established himself as an elite draw with a combination of athletic ability, comedy and exotic flair the likes of which might send today’s more culturally sensitive viewers to the fainting couch.
Before matches, Maiava sometimes would work the crowd by breaking wooden boards over his head, walking on a real board of nails and performing a fire knife dance. He was often accompanied by his manager Coconut Willie, whom opponents accused of using a drum to send instructions to Maiava.
The “hard head” stereotype for Polynesian wrestlers has its origins to Maiava’s infamous “coconut head-butt,” a move Maiava reportedly developed after he and Bobo Brazil collided head-to-head while bouncing off the ropes. Maiava was also known for his wild mane, which he would use to “cut” the hands of opponents who dared try to grab it.
Like other foreign or otherwise exotic characters, Maiava was often presented as primitive and non-verbal. Following the strict “kayfabe” ethic of the day, Maiava was careful not to break character in public, so much so that he made it a point never to speak English while traveling outside of Hawaii.
Maiava’s wrestling career spanned some four decades, with his peak coming in the 1960s, when he held the NWA Hawaii heavyweight championship and teamed with Lord James “Tally-Ho” Blears to win the NWA Hawaii tag team title.
Maiava was so skilled with his in-ring storytelling, and his fans so invested in the outcomes of his matches, that when he “lost” to Curtis “The Bull” Iaukea at a 1961 event at the old Civic Auditorium on King Street, a riot broke out outside of the venue. According to a Honolulu Police Department account of the incident, eight people were arrested and four police officers were injured.
After retiring, Maiava started a successful tree-trimming business and leveraged his earnings to purchase several rental properties on Oahu. He also wrote several children’s books, including “Da Grouchy Moocher Boogie Man,” published by Island Heritage.
Pamela Maiava said her father’s comedic performances in the ring were a reflection of his actual personality. A recalcitrant jokester, Neff Maiava often saved his best pranks for his family.
“One Saturday, he woke us up and said, ‘Hey, come downstairs. I made you breakfast,’” Pamela Maiava said. “So I went down, and he was serving pancakes from the pan. He never did that. But then we saw the little packets of butter on the table so we looked in the garbage and saw the (take-out) bags from the restaurant. And we had to wash the pans!”
Another time, Maiava’s aunt recovered a car that had earlier been stolen. The aunt drove home and rushed into the house to tell her mother the good news. While she was inside, Neff Maiava returned home with his sons. Noticing that the stolen car was back, he instructed his sons to push the car out of the driveway and out of sight up the block.
“My aunt went outside and was shocked,” Pamela Maiava said. “She was like, ‘Where’d my car go?’”
Maiava said her father retained his warmth and humor through his final days, charming the nurses at his care facility and feigning heart attacks, Fred Sanford-style, to avoid his scheduled exercise sessions.
The night before he died, Pamela Maiava said her father said “aloha,” and thanked his doctors, nurses, family and everyone who had come to visit him.
“He died in his sleep,” Maiava said, “gracious to the end.”