One area where I have constantly been kicking myself for allowing my emotional state to drive me to neglect this site, is the lack of writing tributes to figures who have at some point been a prominent pop culture figure in my life. I keep telling myself that I need to play catch-up and at least write some short tributes to major figures like Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan, Gordon Downie, and Margot Kidder. Those days will hopefully come soon, but I mind as well get back on the blog writing horse with a very timely tribute.
It has been announced today that Leon White, better known to wrestling fans as Vader, passed away this past Monday from complications with his heart. Many wrestling fans will agree that Vader was one of the all-time best super-heavyweight wrestlers. The super-heavyweight wrestlers usually succeeded by their massive stature and intimidating look rather than anything they could do in the ring. Simply put, many big heavyweights made their way up to the main event because they looked like monsters but then stunk it up in the ring and were largely left to flounder for years with vague memories of when they had a chance on top. Vader looked the part of a fearsome monster, but then backed it up by being entertaining and skilled in the ring. He was the first 400 hundred pound plus behemoth that I saw do a top rope moonsault and it is still one of the most amazing wrestling moves to witness.
In 2017, Vader was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame (the prestigious place that celebrates such legends like Koko B Ware, The Bushwhackers, and a limo driver), but if you only ever watched WWE/WWF then you probably do not realize how deserving he is of wrestling legend status. He got a few PPV main events and WWF World title shots during his 1996 to 1998 run, but he never won a title and most of his time was not very memorable. The WWF ended up really being the only place where he was not a world champion and the top guy of the promotion after he took on Vader persona (he was a lower card guy as Baby Bull in 1980s AWA when he was first starting out).
Vader had numerous titles and big time main event matches in Japan, before I first saw him in WCW. WCW was smart in constantly letting us know he was an international star and a multiple time champion (maybe the one time they were smart enough to use other promotions to help make a star for them). While WCW had a lot of issues and probably mismanaged more wrestler then they made into stars, Vader was one where they easily outdid the then WWF. From mid-1992 to 1995, Vader was the monster that ruled WCW and had several world title reigns. Not only did he play the part of the unbeatable evil beast to perfection (think a classic Rocky villain that the hero must dig deeper than ever before to finally best), but he delivered some of the most intense and thrilling main events of the era. WCW was a mess back then, but if Vader was defending the title, you almost were always promised a thrilling main event.
One of my all-time favourite main events was the big Halloween Havoc 1993 Last Man Standing main event between Vader and Cactus Jack. The ruthless Vader had injured Jack earlier in the year after powerbombing him on the concrete floor and had left Jack injured for several months (some would say he also got amnesia and became a philosopher for the homeless but this storyline is all your imagination -- or, WCW had some awful storylines at least once were smart enough to abandon midway through). It was an intense and brutal match where Jack was out for revenge, and even though both guys were professionals, it looked like they were brutally pounding each other for real. It was a well-worked match that while there were some great stunts, everything meant something and told a story. The match also was great at making Cactus Jack into a sympathetic hero and it was this match that cemented him as one of my all-time favourite wrestlers. Vader apparently had a reputation as a bit of a bully, but from what I saw, he knew how to be generous in the ring and make the other guys look like a hero. Jack lost that night, but Vader made him into a legit main eventer, and Jack would have been that in WCW if the people running it had a clue. I just wish we got the big rematch when both were in WWF (it was hinted and set-up, but never happened to my recollection).
Two months later at WCW's biggest yearly show Starrcade, Vader defended his WCW World title against Ric Flair, who promised he would retire if he could not defeat the seemingly unstoppable monster. It was a great old-school story, and the match was another instant classic. It was another match where Vader seemed to brutalize Flair and the stiff moves added to the intense drama where Flair tried to win the title in his adopted hometown of Charlotte. It was another match where it was about two guys building a story and doing moves that heightened the drama rather than just trying to 'wow' a crowd, It is still one of my all-time favourite matches and one of the moments where wrestling had true emotion. It ends with a great feel-good moment as the legend sneaked in a win over the monster.
Vader also had an insane chemistry with Sting, and they had several great main event matches. If those two were going against each other, it was almost guarantee to be one of the year's best. I think, their final match together was Slamboree '94, where Sting finally got a pinfall victory against Vader in a PPV main event.
Though I watched WCW, I was always a WWF guy since that was the promotion that was most prominent in my area. I watch it loyally since I became a fan in late 1987. Vader was always the guy that I wanted to eventually make his way to WWF. My belief was since WWF put guys like King Kong Bundy, Earthquake, and Yokozuna into the top heel spot because they were huge that Vader was destined to be a mega star as he was big plus could put on incredible matches with almost anyone. I was thrilled along with my wrestling watching friends when in 1996 it was announced Vader would be debuting in the WWF as a participant in the Royal Rumble.
Vader did not end up doing anything too big in the 1996 Royal Rumble, but I still remember the next night. He had easily dispatched of Caribbean Legend Savio Vega in his Raw debut and decided he needed a bit more of a work-out so he continued to splash Vega. Well, WWF officials could not allow that, so they tried to convince him to leave the ring. He said 'no' in the form of beating up every referee that entered the ring. Finally, wrestling legend and then WWF President Gorilla Monsoon entered to ring to get Vader to leave. Vader refused, and so Gorilla suspended him. Vader was not such a huge fan of this decision, so in something that was a shocker at the time, he attacked and Vader Bombed (it was a form of a slingshot splash) the 60 year old retired wrestler. It was a really hot way to get Vader over as a ruthless bully and unstoppable monster, but sadly, that may have ended up being the height of his WWF career.
Vader still was able to produce some great matches while in WWF including his Summerslam '96 main even and world title match against Shawn Michaels and he also had some decent throwdowns with the Undertaker. When he debuted, I had imagined that he would win several world titles and be a long term main eventer, but he still delivered a few great WWF matches. I am still glad he had a stint there and without it, he probably would not be in the WWE Hall of Fame where at least new fans have a chance to learn about him.
Vader was one of my favourite wrestlers in the early 1990s. He may have been the main reason I stuck with WCW during that dreadful time. He was a definite wrestling legend.
For today, I ask what time is it? It's Vader Time!
RIP Vader May 14, 1955 - June 18, 2018