October 23, 2008
Lia Maivia was a pioneering woman promoter
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
Lia Maivia, who died on Sunday at the age of 81, was one of the first female promoters in wrestling, running Polynesian Pro Wrestling in Hawaii. Yet there was a time in the early 1960s when she wasn't smart to the business at all -- and an in-ring incident nearly proved the end of her husband "High Chief" Peter Maivia's career.
Ata Maivia, daughter to Lia and Peter Maivia -- and mother to "The Rock" Dwayne Johnson -- shared some memories of growing up in a wrestling family a few years back with SLAM! Wrestling.
"My father was so protective of the business that for the first few years he even protected it from my mom and I," she said. "Hence during a match in London, England during the early sixties, my mom jumped in the ring, her stiletto heel in hand, to beat the pulp out of the guy that was beating my dad. -- and my dad selling so fantastic that she was convinced he was done for. The fact that it made headlines the next morning, plus the injuries sustained by dad's unsuspecting opponent, led to a very serious discussion between Dale Martin Promotions and my dad -- to smarten the family up!"
She was born Ofelia Fuataga in Lalomanu in Aleipata, Western Samoa, and was know as "Leah" or "Lia" to friends and family after her marriage to Peter. Their years together were comprised of raising a family as Peter solidified his career around the globe. His greatest successes would come in the 1970s, in San Francisco and in the WWWF.
Lia was as much a part of the business as her husband, and just as respected, wrote Superstar Billy Graham in his autobiography: "And he and his wife, Lia -- The Rock's grandmother, who could fight like a man -- once got into a crazy brawl with a bunch of drunks in a bar directly across the street from the Cow Palace." Later, when she ran the Polynesian Pro Wrestling promotion, Lia was considered a strong-willed businesswoman, demanding and challenging of her employees.
Wrestling lore is rife with stories of the fights between the husband and wife, arguments where Lia would pound on Peter's chest, and then later, Peter would pull out his ukulele and serenade her. "Their relationship was wonderful and crazy and full of passion," wrote The Rock in his autobiography.
Despite all the traveling, Maivia would work regularly for Ed Francis' 50th State Big Time Wrestling promotion, starting in 1968. By 1980, Ed Francis had eased out of the wrestling business, and Steve Rickard, of New Zealand, sold the rights to the territory to Peter Maivia. He would promote weekly wrestling programs in Hawaii until his death in July 1982 of cancer.
Business was tough, said Ata Maivia. "My parents just wanted to make an impact in Hawaii, simple stuff like local promoter does good. They worked hard, and it would have been a dream come true for them if they ever had a sell out show at the Blaisdell Arena (then known as Hawaii Convention Center), but as hard as they worked, a sell out never happened," she said. "Dad certainly was not a threat to any other promoter. My dad was a wrestler, one of the boys, who wanted to promote the business that he loved. I often thought that the big promoters in the mainland, Vince McMahon Sr. and Jim Barnett, felt sorry for my dad and would send guys in just to help him out. I never forgot that. Getting booked in Hawaii meant beach, sun, great food. Therein was what differentiated Hawaii wrestling from other territories -- after all Hawaii is paradise, guys loved to come in, enjoy a couple of days on Waikiki beach and work the show, all fun and no stress."
Ata, her husband, Rocky Johnson, and their son, Dwayne, moved to Hawaii in 1980 to help with the family promotion.
"When my grandfather passed away in 1982, he was running the wrestling promotion in Hawaii and his dying wish was that my Grandmother continue with the business, and she kept it going," explained The Rock a few years back to SLAM! Wrestling. "So she then became the first woman promoter in professional wrestling. So she kept the business going, but at that time, there wasn’t a million dollar contract. There wasn’t a lot of money to be made. You know, the wrestling business at that time, and essentially for us, was like very hippsiesque lifestyle. So it was tough. It was really, really tough in Hawaii. It was tough, kind of all over. Like the movie, things are tough all over. But again, it was everything that life is to us today. It was awesome, it was the sh**s. It was wonderful and beautiful, and it was tough too as well."
The biggest show Lia Maivia ever promoted was 1985's A Hot Summer Night at Aloha Stadium. "On this show, it was the first time in wrestling history that all the big time promoters from around the world, worked together and sent their biggest talents to make this show happen," said Ata Maivia. "It was also in memory of my dad. I still get choked up when I think of how my dad would have been so proud and happy to see such a momentous coming together, of promotions and talent...and in the beloved territory that he died trying to keep afloat."
That August 3rd, 1985 show, which had an announced crowd of near 20,000, had quite the lineup: NWA World Champion Ric Flair lost to Siva Afi by DQ; Antonio Inoki and Bruiser Brody went to a double countout; Rocky & Ricky Johnson beat the Dirty White Boys to win the Polynesian Tag Titles; Lars Anderson beat Bad News Allen for the Polynesian Title; Dusty Rhodes & Magnum TA beat Nikita Koloff & Krusher Krushev; also on the show were Andre The Giant, King Kong Bundy, Kevin Sullivan, Jimmy Snuka and Tatsumi Fujinami.
A similar show a year later didn't far nearly as well and the promotion fell into decline. The rise of the renamed WWF would lead to similar failures of regional promotions across North America. Lia and her booker, Lars Anderson (Larry Heinemi), and Ati So'O, faced controversy over extortion charges in regards to a competing promotion in Hawaii; they were acquitted in November 1989.
The Maivia legacy would live on, of course, through grandson Dwayne Johnson, who took the name Rocky Maivia as a tribute to his father, Rocky Johnson, and his grandfather, Peter Maivia. In 2002, The Rock made his first appearance in Hawaii, at The Blaisdell Center, which sold-out in four hours.
"It was his first time wrestling in Hawaii, in the same arena that his grandfather High Chief Peter Maivia, and his father Rocky 'Soulman' Johnson, and his uncle Ricky Johnson wrestled in years before him. The same arena that his grandfather tried so hard to sell it out... and now 17 years later, his grandson comes in and makes his grandfather's dream come true," recalled The Rock's mother, Ata. "I was sitting at ringside, surrounded by family and most of my father's former wrestlers and students, as my son entered the ring, to a thunderous, emotional crowd. His body was covered with goosebumps as he pumped his heart and pointed upwards, towards my father's resting place on Diamond Head, as if to say... Grandpa, this is for you. There wasn't a dry eye at ringside. We all felt my Dad's smiling spirit."
After the closing of the Hawaiian promotion, Lia Maivia moved to Florida, to be near her daughter.
Lia Maivia is survived by her daughter, Mataniu Feagaimaleata Johnson (Ata).
-- with files from Jon Waldman and S. Rennie
Greg Oliver is the Producer of SLAM! Wrestling. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.