There is so often a deep, unpassable chasm between man and myth.
The late James Rieher Snuka, the professional wrestling icon better known to his legion of fans as “Superfly,” who died last month, was a hero to a whole generation of TV wrestling fans. Inducted into the World Wrestling Federation’s Hall of Fame in 1996, Superfly’s legendary ringside feuds with equally colorful giants of the sport like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, back when an orchestrated wrestling match at Madison Square Garden was the biggest show on world television, made him the childhood idol of an army of juvenile 1980’s sports fans who thrilled to his daring and outrageous feats on the canvas. But the true story of Jimmy Snuka’s life left them all with a very different and darker legacy.
In 1983, at arguably the peak of his career, Snuka was linked to the death of a 23-year-old woman with whom he was romantically linked. Nancy Argentino, a native of Brooklyn and a regular road companion of Jimmy Snuka, was pronounced dead just two hours after authorities were called to a hotel room she and the wrestler were sharing near Allentown, Pennsylvania, on May 10, 1983. An autopsy identified brain injuries consistent with domestic abuse.
At the time, Snuka was a married man with four young children at home. He offered several inconsistent accounts regarding Nancy Argentino’s death, and police suspected foul play. The wrestler was the lone and obvious suspect, with a history of serious violence. Just four months earlier, he had pleaded guilty to assaulting Ms Argentino and a police officer. Based on the autopsy results it was recommended that the death be treated as a homicide and investigated accordingly. But unfortunately for Nancy’s family, that’s where the investigations ended. No inquest was ever held, no one was charged, and no evidence was ever presented to a grand jury. An audiotape that authorities claimed implicated Snuka was said to have been lost, and for years rumors circulated that one of Snuka’s entourage had driven into town to visit local investigators carrying a large brief case, which didn’t accompany them on the drive home.
They were different times back them. But still the scandal didn’t die, and 30 years later, in September 2015, Superfly was charged with third-degree murder after new evidence was brought to light. A Pennsylvania grand jury determined the aging wrestler had repeatedly assaulted Argentino on that fateful night, and left her in her bed to die.
But Snuka never truly faced the music. At 73, his health had so seriously deteriorated due to stomach cancer and dementia that last month, on 3 January 2017, Lehigh County Judge Kelly Banach ruled him unfit to stand trial. In making her decision Judge Banach poignantly observed, “Justice suffers after 30 years, because everything decays.” Snuka died 12 days later.
In reading of his death, I couldn’t help feeling deep discomfort in reflecting on cherished childhood memories of Superfly, the wrestling legend. Sadly, despite the horrible shadow that lingers over Jimmy Snuka the man, the obituaries celebrated stories of the myth – the childhood hero, the flamboyant entertainer, the legendary Hall-of-Famer – with little mention of a poor, dead girl in a lonely hotel room.