Wrestlemania 39: How a Samoan dynasty became the greatest wrestling family of all time

Illustration by ESPN

Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of WrestleMania 39.

ROMAN REIGNS WAS 4 years old, playing on the side of his family's home in Pensacola, Florida. It was a sunny day in 1989.

Unexpectedly, at least to Reigns, a giant RV pulled up in front of the house. From the vehicle came Reigns' first cousin, Solofa Fatu Jr., who would become better known as Rikishi. Following Fatu were two twin boys, around the same age as Reigns.

Reigns was immediately suspicious. So he did the first thing that popped into his 4-year-old mind. He extended his arm, flexed his wrist and gave them the middle finger.

"I flipped them off," Reigns told ESPN with a laugh. "I was like, 'I'm so much smarter than these guys, they don't even know what this means.'"

Perhaps it's no surprise to anyone following WWE for the past three years that Reigns' first reaction to the sight of his cousins, who perform under the names Jey and Jimmy Uso, was passive aggression.

Since 2020, the three of them -- dubbed The Bloodline -- have been involved in one of the most compelling storylines in the history of professional wrestling, one that has made a mark in television ratings and at the box office. Reigns, in his role as Undisputed WWE Universal champion and "Tribal Chief" of the family, has ruled with an iron fist, mixing feigned affection for The Usos with a steady diet of manipulation and gaslighting.

The 37-year-old Reigns, closing in on 1,000 days with the pair of belts, will headline his third consecutive WrestleMania on Sunday in Los Angeles, defending his titles against Cody Rhodes at WrestleMania 39. The Usos, the undisputed WWE tag team champions, will put their titles up against Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens this weekend at SoFi Stadium.

There is no Bloodline story, however, without the real-life Anoa'i, Fatu and Maivia families, which have been christened together as The Samoan Dynasty by relatives. The Dynasty's takeover of the professional wrestling business started with "High Chief" Peter Maivia in the 1960s and 1970s, continued into the 1980s with The Wild Samoans and Samoan SWAT Team tag teams and exploded in the 1990s with performers like Yokozuna, Rikishi and The Rock. The latter, of course, is the wrestling moniker used by Dwayne Johnson, one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

The Samoan Dynasty was already on the wrestling map before now. But Reigns and the Usos have led it into this generation and, arguably, have elevated it to become the most significant family in the industry's history, save for the McMahons.

"The Anoa'i and Fatu Samoan family dynasty has become the dominant family dynasty," said Paul Heyman, the Bloodline's on-and off-screen adviser who has been close with the clan since the early 1980s. "More so than the Harts and more so than the Funks. More so than the Briscos. More so than the Rhodeses."

PETER MAIVIA, BORN on the South Pacific island of American Samoa, was a star during the territory days of professional wrestling, before cable and WWE's dominance. His longtime best friend from back home was the Rev. Amituana'i Anoa'i. The two were "blood brothers" and the men melded their families together.

In the early 1970s, Anoa'i's sons, Afa and Sika, would drive Maivia, who they considered their uncle, up and down the freeways of California to wrestling events. Maivia had a heated match with the legendary Pat Patterson in San Francisco in 1970, and the Anoa'i brothers got a little too rowdy in the crowd. Afa, Sika and the other Samoans in attendance rooting for Maivia were arrested.

"Peter decided he'd better train me to wrestle and put me in the business before we cause some damage and wind up in prison," Afa told ESPN.

Afa started training under Maivia and Maivia's son-in-law Rocky Johnson and got booked to perform in Arizona. Sika soon followed, and the tag team, The Wild Samoans, was born. Their gimmicks were stereotypical, portraying uncivilized islanders with the unspoken implication that they were cannibals.

"Our in-ring characters were old-school savage, non-English-speaking, fish-eating, tearing-off-your-head wrestlers," Afa said.

The team of feared heels, or bad guys, was a success. They worked the NWA territory circuit for most of the '70s before landing in the WWF (now WWE) in 1979. One year later, Afa and Sika met a 14-year-old kid from New York who was shooting photos for wrestling magazines: Paul Heyman. The brothers took him under their wings. Despite his age, the precocious Heyman, who had just gotten credentialed to cover WWF events, started to drive with The Wild Samoans to shows all over the Northeast. Afa's son Samu, only two years older than Heyman, would tag along, too.

Part of the Wild Samoans' gimmick was genuine, Heyman said. He said they were "legitimately very tough guys," but they also had hearts of gold. They visited any wrestler hospitalized with injuries sustained in the ring, even if Afa and Sika were not in the match.

"They could outdrink and outfight any other tandem on the face of the planet," Heyman said. "And had no quarrels proving that anytime any duo wanted to challenge them for either of those laurels."

In 1982, Solofa, the nephew of Afa and Sika, referred to by the family as Junior, sustained a gunshot wound in a drive-by shooting in the San Francisco Bay Area. When the then-teen recovered, his mother, Elevera, sent him to train in pro wrestling with her brothers.

Like his elders before him, Junior took to the medium quickly. He and his cousin Samu began to team up as The Samoan SWAT Team in WCW and were later a trio, joined by Junior's twin brother, Sam Fatu (character name: The Samoan Savage), who was already a star in WWF in the mid-1980s as The Tonga Kid. Their on-screen manager? None other than Heyman, who had remained close to the family.

One day in 1989, Junior brought his twin sons to a WCW television taping. At the time, they were just 4 years old, but, Heyman recalled, within five minutes of playing around the ring, the kids were landing top-rope splashes onto each other.

"I went on television the next weekend and I said, 'What a revelation it was for me to see that,'" Heyman said. "Because like a bird to air, like a fish to water, is a Samoan to the wrestling ring. It's the same thing. It's instinctual, it's in the blood."

Junior's twin sons were named Joshua and Jonathan. But they're better known to WWE fans as the Usos -- Jey and Jimmy, respectively.

A year before Heyman's introduction to the future tag stars, he ran into Sika backstage at a show in Panama City, Florida. Sika had his then-3-year-old son Joe with him. Joe is, of course, now known as Roman Reigns, pro wrestling's top star. And the 57-year-old Heyman is on television weekly at his side, holding his championship belts as Reigns' "special counsel."

"[Reigns] had more charisma at 3 years old than an entire locker room filled with future Hall of Famers," Heyman told ESPN last year. "You could just tell right there there's something very special about that young man."

TWO CHILDHOOD MEMORIES stand out to Reigns and the Usos: wrestling and barbecues.

Reigns remembers a wrestling ring built in the back of an apartment duplex his family owned in Pensacola, about a mile from their home. As a kid, Reigns would pull up and see his father training the likes of Junior, Sam Fatu and Rodney Anoa'i, who became WWF champion as the character Yokozuna. Reigns' older brother, Matt Anoa'i, who later wrestled in WWE as Rosey, would be there, too.

And then there were the cookouts.

"Imagine you walking in a backyard, and you see big Yokozuna sitting there, Barbarian [Sione Vailahi], my dad, Samu, Tonga Kid, the Wild Samoans," Jimmy Uso said. "You see this big cooler of turkey tails -- it's turkey butt. I didn't even know they made coolers that big. It was huge. And they're marinating at least 100 pieces of turkey tails. Yoko is sitting there, slabbing on the grill, eating damn near half of them, and dipping it in mayonnaise. That's how I found out how everyone got so big.

"They call mayonnaise Samoan steroids."

The most notorious dipper was Junior's younger brother Edward "Ecky" Fatu, who gained stardom in WWF as Umaga. Jey said "Ecky" would take the already-cooked chicken and dip it back in the marinade, which had been mixed in the coolers with raw chicken.

"I'm like, 'What, bro? You're going to get sick,'" Jey said. "He's like, 'Nah, I don't get sick.' OK, you a savage."

The Anoa'i and Fatu family were made up of larger-than-life men. Most of them played football, including Reigns, who was an All-ACC defensive tackle at Georgia Tech and then signed with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings before a bout with leukemia derailed his gridiron career.

Like most men in the family, pro wrestling would be there, though. And Reigns and the Usos benefited from learning by watching, sometimes without knowing it. Yozokuna was tangling with the likes of Hulk Hogan in the early 1990s. Umaga was involved in a WrestleMania match opposite Donald Trump. Junior went from teaming with Samu as the Samoan SWAT Team and the Headshrinkers to becoming a wildly popular singles star in the late 1990s as Rikishi, who could dance and have fun as quickly as he could lay down a beating on an out-of-line heel.

"I always thought everybody's dad was on TV," Jey said. "I ain't know no better, man. I was just like, everybody wrestles, everyone's dad wrestles. ... I didn't know until probably middle school and I'm like, 'Oh, no, I get it. Like, we got a special family going on here.'"

Reigns said he'll channel one of his relatives while playing his character now on TV without even knowing it. But Heyman will catch it.

"He'll be like, 'Oh, I saw Junior in your eyes there,'" Reigns said. "I'm like, 'What?' Paul sees that type of stuff. I don't necessarily see it, because it's just normal to me. I will see stuff that I do that I didn't notice. But Paul will be able to label it like, 'Oh, you look like Big Sam [Fatu] right there.'"

REIGNS WAS 12 years old when his father, Sika, took him to visit another cousin. WWF was running its television show, Raw, in Biloxi, Mississippi, on Aug. 11, 1997. They went backstage to meet an up-and-coming wrestling prospect who had borrowed from family names to call his character Rocky Maivia.

His real name was Dwayne Johnson, the son of Rocky Johnson and Ata Maivia, Peter Maivia's daughter. The Anoa'is and Johnsons were very close when Dwayne was growing up. Afa and Sika, who often wrestled with or against Rocky on the same cards, would attend Dwayne's high school football games when they all lived in Pennsylvania.

Reigns said he met Dwayne several times when he was young, but has no memory of it. He does recall watching him on TV right before he broke out into a megastar as The Rock, as that was around the same time as their backstage meeting when Reigns was a preteen. It was brief, Reigns said. Dwayne greeted his younger cousin by calling him Sole (pronounced SOH-lay), a Samoan term of endearment akin to "bro" or "dude."

Over the years, Reigns said, he and Dwayne have gotten "really close." Given their busy schedules, it can be challenging for them to talk often. But shared experiences, like their time together on the movie set of "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw," have made it easy to "fast track" discussions.

"It's weird, because the paths and experiences are so similar that when we are together it's like we cover a month's ground of conversation and things," Reigns said. "Some stuff just doesn't have to be said, because we've experienced the same stuff. And I have the mindset to experience a lot of things that he's gone through since he's been done with wrestling."

Family remains a big part of Dwayne's life. His network television series "Young Rock" chronicles his childhood in a wrestling family, with actors playing the Afa and Sika roles. Last year, Dwayne surprised his cousin and WWE wrestler Tamina, the daughter of the late WWF luminary Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, with a new home in Los Angeles.

"He's a huge mentor to me," Tamina said, fighting back tears when asked about the surprise. "You never know what he's going to do. He's always going to hit you with something. That's just how he is. ... I couldn't believe he did it and I was so grateful."

There were rumors that WWE was trying to set up a family vs. family battle to main event WrestleMania 39 between Reigns and The Rock. It didn't materialize. Heyman said Dwayne wouldn't have enough time with his acting schedule to get into the kind of cardiovascular shape he would want to be in for a match of that magnitude. Dwayne last appeared in WWE in 2019; his most recent full-length match was 10 years ago.

"I think anybody would love to have that match," Reigns said. "They'd be lying [if they said they didn't]. I could 'Tribal Chief' you and say blah, blah. But at the end of the day, I want what's going to be biggest for the fans, because that's going to reflect what I was able to accomplish. And if that's one of the biggest ones out there, let's do it. But if not, like everything else in life, we're going to roll with the punches.

WHILE REIGNS MIGHT be the "Head of the Table" in storyline now, but when he first signed with WWE in 2010, he was in Florida Championship Wrestling (the promotion's developmental territory). Jey and Jimmy were already traveling with the main roster, accompanied by Tamina. Three months older than the twins, Reigns said he would watch the Usos much like he'd watch the player ahead of him on the depth chart in football.

Reigns and Jey were neighbors then, in what Jey describes as a "raggedy little" apartment complex in the Tampa area. When Jey got home from the road, he'd bang on the wall to let Reigns know he was back, and the two would go out onto their shared porch, crack open cans of Coors Light and talk into the night about the "ABCs" of wrestling, like how to lay out a match, Reigns said.

"I could watch the twins, because our movement patterns are far more similar than like me and 'Ecky' or Rodney or even Junior," Reigns said. "Me and the twins have a closer build and a closer athleticism. So, I can look at the basics like, 'Oh, that's how he did that hip toss. OK. That's how he does a suplex.' Not necessarily their signature stuff, but the early basics."

"I always thought everybody's dad was on TV. I ain't know no better, man. I was just like, everybody wrestles, everyone's dad wrestles." Jey Uso

By 2012, Reigns was already called up to the main WWE roster as part of a group called The Shield. The promotion had tabbed the handsome, square-jawed, well-muscled Reigns as a future top guy. The Usos were also having success, embracing their Samoan roots in their characters -- complete with face paint similar to their uncle "Ecky" -- en route to winning the WWE tag team titles for the first time in 2013.

Reigns headlined his first WrestleMania in 2015 and found himself in that prestigious position for the next three years, firmly entrenched as WWE's No. 1 superstar.

"I knew he would take off," Jey said. "He's just always had that 'it' factor in him, man. Like, we all got it. But he's the type that would just, if he's focused on something, man, he's going to go grab it. Like, he's going to be the best at it."

But many fans and pundits rejected Reigns initially. The knock on him was that he wasn't authentic in his role as WWE's lead babyface, or good guy. During a hiatus in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reigns and Heyman devised a plan that would change Reigns' character -- and eventually turn the entire industry on its head.

That idea was to make the stories feel more natural and relatable. And the way to do that was to go back to what Reigns knew best: family. His first storyline after returning in August 2020 as a heel was with Jey and Jimmy, emotionally (and physically) breaking them until they had no choice but to acknowledge him as their Tribal Chief. It was and continues to be the best work of all three men's careers. Heyman and Reigns have been the creative forces behind the years-long Bloodline arc.

"I'm glad we're able to elevate this family to a new level and I'm just really glad we get people to see like, the Usos are here now," Jimmy said. "Roman Reigns is here now. Like this is what we've been waiting on. ... I always used to think like, 'I can't wait for one day to do this with Roman and my brother.'"

In October 2020, Afa and Sika made an appearance to formally crown Reigns as the Tribal Chief in storyline with a traditional floral necklace. Backstage, off camera, the former Wild Samoans pulled Heyman aside and bestowed his own beaded necklace upon him.

"I was stunned," Heyman said. "And Afa said, 'When you were a kid, we looked after you, because we loved you like family. And now, you look after our family.' That is the history that was meant to be. It's just one of the heaviest things anybody has said to me in my life."

Last fall, another family member debuted in WWE after a run in NXT, the promotion's developmental successor to FCW. Solo Sikoa, the younger brother of the Usos, showed up to help Reigns beat Drew McIntyre in a title match in Wales. Sikoa has become the quiet, intimidating enforcer of the Bloodline group, alongside Reigns, the Usos and Heyman, the consigliere they call "Wiseman."

"This is everything to me," Reigns said. "This is our art form. This is the way we feed each other. This is how we provide. This is our way of life. This is all we've ever known, is this carnival business. Going out there and stretching the imagination and being creators and tapping into that performance and freeing ourselves. This is the way we express ourselves."

REIGNS WILL BE inside his home gym, running on the treadmill, when thoughts of his brother Matt inevitably enter his mind. Matt, who spent five years in WWE during the 2000s, died in 2017 because of congestive heart failure at just 47 years old.

A day doesn't go by that Reigns doesn't miss his brother. When asked what Matt would have thought of his on-screen "Tribal Chief" status, Reigns lets out a slight chuckle.

"He would have been like, 'You already know who the real Tribal Chief is,'" Reigns said. "He would've been ribbing me nonstop."

The Samoan Dynasty has dealt with a lot of loss over the years. Rodney died at just 34 years old in 2000, and Ecky died in 2009 at only 36. Both men had heart issues, compounded by the physical nature of their profession (and their size) and, in the case of Ecky, a problem with pain medication. The Bloodline story, Reigns said, is as much for them as anyone else.

"We say it quite a bit and everything we say has meaning," Reigns said. "And that's why when I say we represent the Bloodline, we represent our family, that's what I mean. The stakes are high for us, because we've put so much into this business. We lost people -- I'm not going to say because of this business, but maybe some of us got lost in this business. It's something that we carry with us every single day."

Reigns and his cousins have portrayed complex, three-dimensional characters, a significant progression from the days of The Wild Samoans biting off fish heads and being cast as one generation evolved from cannibals. Afa said this generation of characters is "more educated and pretty -- not like me and Sika, who were very feared." Heyman said he doesn't think there is a character on television "that offers as much sophistication in as many layers" as Reigns, and he doesn't limit that to pro wrestling.

WrestleMania 39 is the next chapter in this unusually long, multifaceted pro-wrestling story. Reigns will defend the championship against Rhodes, but there is much more to it. Rhodes is part of his own familial dynasty. His father, Dusty, is one of the greatest performers the business has ever known, and his older brother, Dustin, has had an essential role in wrestling for decades, most notably as Goldust. Dusty Rhodes also had a hand in training Reigns in FCW, which has been leveraged as part of the lore of the big match.

Ultimately, though, the remarkable story that has been featured as the biggest part of WWE since the summer of 2020 has been about Reigns, the Usos and their relationship as kin. The Bloodline, in the script, is showing some cracks. Jey has been rebelling and having his loyalty questioned. That could be art imitating life.

In 1989, on that sunny day in Pensacola, the 4-year-old Reigns, decades before becoming "The Head of the Table," shot his cousins the middle finger during that initial meeting. And Jey, stunned by the profane display, ratted Reigns out.

"I'm still defiant," Jey said with a laugh.

The crude gesture earned Reigns an "ass whooping" from his father, Sika, he said. And Reigns said that day had been burnt into his memory ever since. WWE's Bloodline story is almost three years old. But maybe The Tribal Chief's origin story can be traced back to then.

"That's where it started," Reigns said with a laugh. "That's why I am who I am. ... He tattled on me, so I had to assume power for the rest of our lives."