Lei’D Tapa is still fairly new to the wrestling business, but the business is not new to her.
She grew up around it while her uncle was in it.
The Barbarian, who wrestled throughout the world including WCW and the WWF (now WWE), is her uncle, and Uncle Barbarian Sione helped her embark on a wrestling career about three years ago.
So far, so good.
Lei’D Tapa is TNA Impact Wrestling’s newest Knockout. An intimidating force, she could literally knock out opponents.
The 5-11, 215-pound tower is bigger, stronger, taller — a powerful wrestler like Awesome Kong, Beth Phoenix, Chyna and Tamina Snuka. Tapa learned the basics from her uncle as well as George South at his Rings wrestling training facility in Charlotte, N.C.
Proving herself against men at Rings training sessions, Tapa’s athleticism and upbringing helped her make the transition to the squared circle.
“It’s an honor to work with TNA and to be a Knockout,” Tapa said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
As intimidating and mean as Lei’D Tapa is in the ring, she is quite the opposite away from it — very humble and respectful.
“I grew up around professional wrestling,” she said, “and I know how tough it is to break through into the business.”
Tapa received her break during TNA’s Gut Check. The TNA Impact Wrestling TV segment gives aspiring wrestlers an opportunity to work for TNA.
In February, Tapa had a Gut Check. She then joined Ohio Valley Wrestling, TNA’s developmental group in Louisville. By October, she became a TNA regular.
“I’m just really grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the [TNA] Gut Check. That put me on the radar -- to get me out there and get known. It was the perfect opportunity for me and the right moment for me to be in front of the right people.
“For TNA to give me the opportunity to be with them and to grow as a wrestler and as an entertainer, I’m really honored and thankful.”
Progressing steadily, Tapa is in her third year in the business. Already making a mark, she helped Gail Kim win the TNA Knockouts title in October. Tapa is Kim’s enforcer.
Aligning the new star with Kim is a good move. Kim, one of the best professional wrestlers in the world, is in her 13th year. She also wrestled successfully for WWE and internationally. Kim enjoys getting physical in the ring, delivering tremendous matches when given the opportunity. Kim produced some stellar matches with Awesome Kong during her first foray in TNA and turned a lot of heads working gimmick matches with Taryn Terrell in her latest TNA stint.
“It’s an honor to work with Gail Kim,” Tapa said, “and I’m so glad I have the opportunity to be doing what we’re doing right now. She’s a great teacher to me. She’s helping me to keep growing and giving me advice.
“She’s a phenomenal athlete and a great, great talent. Before I started wrestling, I would watch her on TV to see how she works. Not only is she a beautiful woman, she’s a strong woman. I always believe that being a woman stands for something, and when I look at her, that’s what I see.”
Even though her birthplace is Germany, Tapa is of Tongan descent. Her parents (Saimone and Ofa Tonga) were born in Tonga. As an adult, her father joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany when she was born. With her father being moved continually by the military from various countries and states, the family had to adapt each time. Different culture, new residence, school transfer, leaving friends, making new ones. Just when you’re settled, time to pack and go.
No matter where he was stationed, two constants existed — each other and pro wrestling.
“I grew up a wrestling fan. When I was a little girl, my uncle [The Barbarian] lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and my father was in the military. So we traveled a lot,” said Tapa, whose father is currently stationed in Hawaii. “When we’d be able to go to the wrestling shows, we would go, or we’d watch it on TV.”
Life and pro wrestling came full circle for Tapa in TNA.
“I had a lot of favorites growing up. Hulk Hogan, being able to meet him and see him again, I remember when I was a little girl, I got to see him, and now that I’m older and I work for TNA and got to see him again...It’s a dream come true..I look up to these great wrestlers and performers and entertainers who are part of the business. I look up to The Rock and a lot of people who I remember growing up. Now that I’m doing it, it’s unforgettable.
“To be a big fan as a little girl and to be a part of it now is amazing.”
Tapa was always athletic. In middle school, she played basketball and volleyball and threw discus and ran some track.
During her high school years, she attended three: Leesville High School in Leesville, Louisiana and two high schools in Charlotte (South Mecklenburg and West Charlotte).
Tapa played basketball and starred in volleyball, making All-State twice in North Carolina. In her junior year she was All-State for South Meck. In her senior year, she and her younger sisters (Carolina and Loleini) teamed to help the West Charlotte High School volleyball team win the state title. Tapa was MVP and again All-State. She earned a scholarship to Southwest Missouri State where she played NCAA Division I volleyball with her older sister. Carolina later attended Eastern Wyoming College and Loleini NC A&T University.
“For my size, everyone looked at me like I’m this big amazon,” said Tapa, a college graduate. “When I was younger, it was more guys picking on me than girls. The girls were really nice. The little boys would pick on me, saying I had big feet; I was big.
“I really liked the way my parents raised me and my sisters and my brother. They said that, in life, people will say things to you, but you have to be happy with yourself. You can’t make everybody in the world happy, but as long as you’re happy with how you are, inside and out, that’s all that matters. That’s something that was always instilled in me by my parents, and I believe that for anybody.”
Tapa’s athleticism and heart are just as big.
“I’m so aggressive. I love sports, and I love being athletic,” she said. “I think being able to play all these different sports helps make you a better athlete, and in wrestling, I’m just so excited to see what I’ll be doing in the future. With training and all the stuff I’ve learned, I can’t wait to use it in the ring.”
Ashley Flair, another volleyball standout who is training to become a wrestler, competed on a club volleyball team in North Carolina with Tapa’s younger sisters. Ashley, the daughter of two-time WWE Hall of Famer Ric Flair, is with NXT, the WWE’s developmental group based in Orlando. TNA Impact Wrestling (9 p.m. EST Thursdays on Spike TV) is also in Orlando.
Volleyball ended with college for Tapa. She took a break from sports, but her competitive nature still remained. It was her core.
Before embarking in more athletic endeavors, Tapa helped her mom who runs an elderly care agency.
Eventually Tapa turned to football — women’s tackle football. Her husband [J.R./Royal Red] played high school football, and his coach later coached a women’s professional football team.
Tapa tried out and made his team, the Carolina Queens in the Independent Women’s Football League, a full-contact women’s American football league that was founded in 2000 and began play in 2001. It is one of three full-contact, 11-on-11 football leagues for women.
Tapa played tight end and middle linebacker for the Queens. She spent four seasons in the IWFL, before turning to pro wrestling.
“I like to stay healthy, and I like to do something athletic and physical,” Tapa said. “When I was done with football, I was talking to my husband. My husband is a big supporter of whatever I do. He said, ‘Call your uncle and see where you can go and train.’ I did that the next day, and my uncle sent me to George South.”
George South, who worked the indies in the Carolinas, was enhancement talent in WCW and WWE. He did a good job in the ring, helping put over the stars. It’s like coaching baseball. You don’t have to be the best baseball player to be a good coach. George South wasn’t a top star on the big stage, but he is a good wrestling trainer.
“He took me in and taught me the basics,” Tapa said. “I trained there for six months, and when they felt I was ready, they put me in these independent shows. I then happened to go to a TNA Gut Check seminar in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A week after that, I got a call from Al Snow, and TNA wanted to give me an opportunity to do the Gut Check Challenge, and I went form there.”
Football and wrestling are physical sports.
“I think football prepared me for taking bumps and falling,” Tapa said. “Some of the things we would do in the ring kind of reminded me of football. When you’re training to tackle someone, you’re trained to hit them, and they fall back. So I know how it feels to get hit by another woman on the field playing football. It’s real intense. That kind of reminds me of a bump in wrestling. When a person hits you, you’re going back, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In a way it’s similar, and in a way it’s not.
“Football is very physical.
“Everything about wrestling is very physical. It takes a toll on your body, especially when I first learned how to take a hip toss, learn how to bump and hit the ropes. That’s a different feeling from any kind of sport I played. It made me look at wrestling in a different way. After I would train, I would have bruises, and I would wonder where I got this bruise from and how I got it.
“With my size being so big, it’s even harder, but once I got used to the feeling and learned what I can do and how I can control my body to do certain things, it turned out great, and now I’m loving it.”
Lessons in the ring is just one aspect of pro wrestling. Uncle Barbarian told Tapa to always be humble, work hard and don’t give up. She also gained experience and knowledge in OVW.
“It’s a great experience to be able to learn the technique and be able to learn the psychology and physicality of wrestling and to be able to train with such great trainers who pushed me to my limits to understand how to take moves and how to give moves and how to portray your character.
“If anyone’s out there that wants to wrestle one day, if you have the opportunity, go for it and try it, because it’s something you won’t forget.”
Uncle Barbarian not only offered advice to his niece but also his expertise first-hand.
“My uncle is very strong. I think that runs in our family. I come from a family where they’re all big people,” Tapa said. “The Polynesians and Samoans and Tongans are known for their strength and for their size.
“Working out with my uncle is very good. He pushes me. It’s great.”
He wasn’t the only man she wrestled.
“When I first started training, all I trained with were guys,” Tapa said. “Some of the guys were smaller than me. Some of the guys were bigger than me.
“Oh my goodness, we would do a lot of conditioning where we would get a deck of cards and they would flip the card, and if it was a 9 of diamonds, then we would do nine push-ups, until the whole deck was gone, 10 of spades, we were doing 10 squats. Then we would do three minutes of hitting the ropes, before we even trained. The guys would push me to my limit, and that made me stronger as a woman, a female, as a person.”
• Lei’D Tapa is into fashion. Tapa designed her elaborate ring gear which her mother, Ofa, made.
“I wanted something to wear that symbolizes me...especially from my culture,” she said, “and my name Lei’D Tapa is from my culture, too.”
In Hawaiian culture, a Lei is a wreath of flowers. Tapa is a flat bark cloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Tonga.
“They use black ink on it to draw symbols of your ancestry, the story of your family and your generation,” she said. “My older sister helped me come up with this name Lei’D Tapa, and Tapa represents me every time I step into the ring to tell my story of who I am.”
Family is very important in their culture. Tapa has three sisters and one brother. Tapa’s father has 14 siblings and her mother nine.
“I’m used to big families, and to me our size is normal, but when we’re all around other people, they get intimidated. They say, ‘Man, you guys are huge,’” Tapa chuckled. “It’s normal to me, and family is very important.”
They support each other in whatever they do.
Tapa’s father, Saimone Tonga, is a highly decorated Chief Warrant Officer Level 5 in the U.S. Army, serving the country 36 years and counting.
YouTube video interview with Saimone Tonga.
• Lei’D Tapa on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/leidtapa.
• Lei’D Tapa on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LeiD_Tapa.
• TNA Impact Wrestling’s Thanksgiving spectacular is 9 p.m. EST Thursday, Nov. 28 on Spike TV.
• The stars of Spike TV’s must-see Thursday night action-packed show, IMPACT WRESTLING, will compete at Universal Studios Orlando Soundstage 19 for three shows (Dec. 3-5).
Doors open at 6 p.m., with bell time at 7 p.m.
General admission is free. VIP packages with meet-n-greets are available for a fee.
TNA recently announced Universal Studios in Orlando will serve as a primary hub for TNA programming, including the IMPACT WRESTLING weekly broadcast. In addition, the company announced a new 24/7, #IMPACT365 cross-platform programming initiative, “Where Action Never Ends,” giving fans unprecedented access to TNA Superstars and exclusive content via broadcast, social and digital channels.
“Fans in the Orlando area, as well as Universal Studios park patrons from around the world, have an incredible opportunity to be part of these globally televised events as TNA cameras return to Florida,” TNA President Dixie Carter said. “TNA has broadcast countless hours of unrivaled and unforgettable professional wrestling from this great location over the last decade, and we are excited to be back as we launch the next evolution of how fans will experience our programming through the #IMPACT365 initiative.”
For information about IMPACT WRESTLING and upcoming tour dates, visit www.impactwrestling.com.