Wrestlers You Should Probably Know Better: Big Van Vader

Andre the Giant is a legend of the sport, but it’s revisionist history to say that he was a full-fledged main event star. Andre was an old school carnival freak, traveling from territory to territory, dominating rings full of midcarders to huge box office success. However, he was really never the champion of anything. Thanks to the brilliantly told Wrestlemania III story, many fans believe that Andre “passed the torch” to Hulk Hogan, but Andre was never a torchbearer himself. In fact, because Andre was so huge and so over, many promoters feared that too much of the Giant would burn out the territory. Big bodied wrestlers could be spectacles, but they were never seen as top dog standard bearers.

Leon “Big Van Vader” White changed that.

His gimmick and personality never quite meshed with the New York style — or Shawn Michaels at his Heartbreak Kiddiest  —  which has left many who only saw his WWF tenure unable to “get” what made Vader’s runs in Japan and WCW so legendary. His David Wells-esque physique doesn’t help communicate greatness either — if you saw White walking down the street, you might think that he would struggle to step into his truck — but seeing Vader in the ring was like watching an elephant riding a unicycle on a tightrope.

White broke in as the aptly-named “Baby Bull” during AWA’s fallow post-Hulk Hogan era. While he wasn’t necessarily a graceful or natural worker from the word go, the dedication to craft that would eventually turn him into one is evident even in awkward early matches, like this one with a man to whom he would later be compared — the great Bruiser Brody:

Like so many wrestlers of his era, Leon White sought money and fame working in Japan. From the mid-80s to the early-90s, Japan was experiencing one of the biggest economic bubbles in modern history, akin to the turn of the century “Dot Com Boom” in the United States. Everything in Japan was off-the-charts profitable: stocks, real estate, gourmet food, and even professional wrestling. Japanese wrestling of the era told the simultaneously complex and simple story of brave, honorable Japanese stars battling “gaijin,” (literally “foreigner,” but specifically mean, ugly Americans). In a poetic sense, this formula represented Japanese bookers undropping the atomic bomb and celebrating the new economic dominance of Japan over the West.

White debuted the Big Van Vader character in 1987 after a series of promos and hype videos,  becoming a made star immediately when he went over the legendary Antonio Inoki in his very first match in his new role. Inoki was the Vince McMahon and Triple H of New Japan Pro Wrestling, both the biggest star and founder of the (arguably) most popular wrestling organization in Japan.

Inoki gave White the greenlight to do whatever it took to get the new Vader character over. Vader, who never needed to be told twice to get himself over, beat the tar out of him so believably that there was a riot in which fans tore and burned the seating cushions placed on the floor of legendary Japanese venue Korakuen Hall, leading to wrestling temporarily being banned from the building. To compare this to the present-day WWE, imagine Triple H had put Curtis Axel over clean and been written off television in their first match… and then the fans tried to burn the arena down. Inoki stood for the “fighting spirit” of an idealized Japan, representing everything that was good and right to his millions of faithful fans. In one match, Vader established himself as a ruthless advocate for evil. Needless to say, there was money to be made.

Between 1987 and 1991, Vader became one of the biggest stars on the international scene with runs in the wrestling hotbeds of Japan, Mexico, and Western Europe. He feuded extensively in New Japan Pro Wrestling with Tatsumi Fujinami, having a series of matches that made them the first two three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champions. He also brawled with Stan Hansen during a one-shot All-Japan/New Japan super card, in the battle for the unofficial title of “Most Evil White Guy” in Japan.

The match was so stiff and Hansen’s sight so legendarily bad that he accidentally broke White’s orbital bone, causing Vader’s eye to repeatedly fall out of the socket during the contest, helping “The Mastodon” cement his tough man reputation by finishing the match. In the pre-YouTube tape trading era, this match was something of a must-see for American fans who had heard about the infamous Japanese “strong style”. Working in Europe, White (under the moniker “Bull Power”) became a three-time Catch Wrestling Association Champion, feuding with fellow big body Otto Wanz. Then, in the early 90s, the rapid expansion of cable TV happened, and American promoters wanted to make Leon White a star in his homeland.

Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling brought Vader onto their main roster in 1992, portraying him as an unstoppable monster managed by legendary NWA champion Harley Race. Vader and Race’s act was instantly over, as Race talked a vicious game and Vader played a vicious game. Unfortunately, however, Vader’s reputation as “too rough for the big time” gained traction early in his WCW tenure, as he ruptured Sting’s spleen during his first World Heavyweight Title match, broke the back of jobber Joe Thurman with a brutal powerbomb in a squash match, and ended the career of Nikita Koloff by hitting him with a shot so stiff he herniated a disk in his neck.

While hurting people obviously isn’t good, one of the things that made Vader truly special was his ability to get his matches over as “real.” While Vader wasn’t shooting in the ring, he made even the most cynical, trained eye doubt that professional wrestling was a choreographed show rooted in cooperation between two professionals. Vader beat people up. He did things considered taboo today including, but not limited to, stiff closed-fist punches to the head and quick, high-impact slams. Much like Stan Hansen, Vader was never trying to hurt anybody, but he had a clear image in his head of how he wanted people to perceive his character. His stiffness was never mean or meant to hurt anybody, but rather served as an act of marketing.

In spite of his rough style, Vader garnered both critical acclaim and big paychecks from his feud with Sting, winning his first WCW World Heavyweight Title from the Stinger at the 1992 Great American Bash. The two were perfect foils, with Vader playing a husky Goliath and Sting portraying a bleached-blonde David. Vader and Sting had more good matches than you could shake a stick at, and their feud easily holds up to any one-on-one series of the 1990s, including Hart-Michaels or Rock-Austin.

Vader’s was effectively the default champion in WCW for about a year and a half — his reign was divided by the historically important, but completely forgettable, reign of Ron Simmons — holding the title for a combined 377 days between the summer of ’92 and winter of ’93. However, his run as top dog in WCW was halted by the return of longtime NWA standard bearer Ric Flair. Once Flair was back from the WWF, it became clear that the old guard in WCW (and, maybe, the fans) wanted Flair as champion again. Vader did the honors for Flair at the tenth anniversary Starrcade show, beginning the second half of his career — the one in which politics would keep him away from the World Heavyweight Title.

***

After losing the title to Flair, Vader stayed in WCW for two more years, but never reached the same level of success he had previously enjoyed. He had one last run at the pseudo-big-time in the promotion, being built up to face Hulk Hogan as an associate of the Dungeon of Doom. This was around the nadir of Hulk Hogan’s popularity as a babyface, and it was plain to see that WCW’s only interest in Vader was making him a “jobber to the stars.” Vader’s WCW tenure ultimately ended strangely, following a legendary backstage shoot between White and wrestler-turned-agent “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. There are ten thousand versions of the Vader-Orndorff story, but almost all of them end like this: Vader got knocked down by a single punch from Orndorff, causing him to lose face in the locker room and fall out of favor with the Hogan-Bischoff clique. He was fired shortly thereafter.

After his unceremonious removal from WCW, Vader found his way to the WWF, debuting at the 1996 Royal Rumble and getting the now-hackneyed “monster treatment,” in which a large number of men in the Rumble work together to eliminate a big man. Vader feuded with Yokozuna (who was rapidly falling out of favor as the WWF’s resident big man over weight control issues), ultimately replacing Yoko as Jim Cornette’s pet monster.

Following this less-than-spectacular introduction to the WWF crowd, Vader embarked on the second most famous feud of his American career: a series of matches against Shawn Michaels. Much like his politically awkward feuds with Flair and Hogan, White was not in a position to succeed against Michaels who, in the throes of drug addiction, professional paranoia, and general malaise, was difficult to work with and particularly outspoken regarding Vader’s notoriously stiff style.

The two had a much-hyped match at Summerslam 1996, which is famous for all the wrong reasons. At one point in the match, Vader was supposed to roll out of the way of Michaels’ signature top rope elbow drop, which he forgot to do. Instead of landing the move, Michaels landed on his feet, stomped Vader in the head, and audibly shouted “Move!” It was one missed spot in a long match, but it was all the ammunition the paranoid Michaels needed to make Vader look bad to management.

Following his unsuccessful run against Michaels, Vader swapped managers, joining forces with Paul Bearer against the Undertaker. Vader and the Undertaker’s feud culminated in a four-way match also featuring Bret Hart and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. For at least one night in the WWF, Vader seemed like his old self, facing off against three of the biggest superstars in WWF history. Vader’s face was the enduring image of the match, as he was busted open the hard way after being whipped into the steps early on and ultimately had to pull off his mask in order to see. While he didn’t win the WWF title that night, Vader had his signature WWF moment.

The Undertaker feud staggered to an end, followed by Vader bounced around with minimal direction. He and Mick Foley had a shot at the WWF Tag Team Titles at Wrestlemania 13, but Owen Hart and The British Bulldog retained in an Attitude-era appropriate non-finish. Thanks the booking logic of the time, Vader actually turned babyface by virtue of being from the right country during the Hart Foundation angle. Playing the good guy was (at best) a clunky fit for the Rocky Mountain Monster, however, and he engaged in less-than-memorable feuds with Goldust and Kane. By the end of 1998, there was clearly no place for Vader in the WWF. During a post-match interview on Raw, White seemed legitimately emotional, lamenting, “I ain’t nothing but a piece of shit. A big, fat piece of shit” on live TV. That was it for Vader in the WWF.

Vader licked his wounds, then returned to Japan where he still had a marketable name. While he was successful, he never got close to the heights he had once attained. He did a few shots for the fledgling TNA, had an unsuccessful comeback in the WWE, and quietly faded out of the big league wrestling world, becoming a high school football coach.

In spite of his relatively short peak and precipitous fall from the top, Vader is remembered fondly by a large number of fans. During the buildup to Raw 1000, he received by far the biggest reaction of any of the returning WWE Legends and worked a match that, while uncomplicated, was a worthy capstone to the legacy of Big Van Vader.

***

For more reasons than can possibly be listed, there will never be another Big Van Vader. The environment that made him a star, the bubble economy in Japan and the mercenary, big money period that followed for tough American wrestlers, simply does not exist anymore. A man of Vader’s size, regardless of his football background, would never be signed or pushed in the modern WWE. The tough, stiff in-ring style that made him unique is exactly the kind of work that gets wrestlers fired and blacklisted from major wrestling promotions.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Vader played the Goliath character, a wrestler who needed to go over the entire Hebrew army one by one until David showed up. Modern professional wrestling companies build their top characters through one-on-one feuds with other top stars. Vader wrestled other top stars for big money, but he really got over by destroying wrestlers lower on the card — a booking tactic that has fallen out of favor in the “we need to build toward our next pay per view match” world of twenty-first century wrestling.

Vader as a package may be a wrestling anachronism, but what he stood for is as important as ever in the wrestling business. Some people complain about the lack of chair shots or blood in the PG era of wrestling, but the fact of the matter is that what’s missing is a heel that people are scared of — a guy you wouldn’t ask for an autograph if you saw him in the hotel lobby or at the airport, a guy even the most confident babyface isn’t truly sure he can beat, a guy smart mark wrestling writers say is “dangerous.” Vader was all those things, and when he asked “Who’s the Man?” it was a rhetorical question — everybody knew it was him.

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