Last week, Vader (real name Leon White) tweeted that his doctors had given him only two years to live because of congestive heart failure, which he put down to years of strain from football and wrestling. Not surprisingly, this has come as a big shock and upsetting for the fans and wrestling world alike, as some such as Mick Foley have come out publicly in support of The Mastodon. This article I wish to dedicate to the man himself, for a great career filled with championships and great matches to go with the great rivalries. A career where he accomplished a lot but could have won so much more.
After a short football career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1978-79, White began to train as a professional wrestler, with his first national exposure coming in the old American Wrestling Association (AWA) as Baby Bull in 1985. White’s skills improved during this period, which allowed him to challenge unsuccessfully for the AWA Heavyweight Title against Stan Hansen.
However, it was not until White went to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) that he started to gain international recognition and acclaim. After the birth of his most famous gimmick Big Van Vader, he famously became the first Non-Japanese wrestler to win the vacant IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the finals of a tournament in 1989, defeating Shinya Hashimoto. After dropping the title one month later to Salman Hashimikov, White won the title a further two times until he began to focus exclusively on WCW from 1992.
White made his debut as Big Van Vader in July 1990 at the Great American Bash, defeating Tom Zenk, but did not feature much because of his commitments to NJPW, especially as the IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the time. It was also around this time when, in a match against Stan Hansen in Japan, Vader had his eye poked out of his socket accidentally by Hansen. Amazingly, he continued the match after pushing his back in place and required surgery shortly afterwards.
No sooner had Vader started appearing more often on WCW television in early 1992, White received a shot at Sting’s WCW Title, which saw him disqualified, before winning the title in an upset at Great American Bash ’92. Although his first world title reign was short (three weeks), White would the WCW Title a total of three times. But the one opponent fans remember about Vader (aside from Sting), was Cactus Jack.
Vader and Cactus Jack faced off in April 1993, with Jack beaten so badly, he required time off for concussion and amnesia. This was turned into an actual storyline with Cactus leading a new life, supposedly forgetting he had been a wrestler. As soon as he remembered though, Cactus came back and went after Whites WCW Title, including in the well known Texas Death Match at Halloween Havoc ’93.White won the match, thanks to a cattle prod by his manager, Harley Race, and crushing Cactus with a back bodydrop onto the ramp. It was also against White that Cactus lost over half his ear because of tightly wound ropes in April 1994.
After losing the WCW World Title to Ric Flair at Starrcade ’93, White floated around the midcard until he challenged a certain icon… Hulk Hogan. The two clashed for the WCW World Title at SuperBrawl V and Uncensored ’95 (White was also United States Champion at the time), with White not successful each time. It was a shame that White left WCW around September 1995, allegedly due to a backstage brawl with Paul Orndorff, as White never made an appearance on Monday Nitro as a result.
Almost inevitably, White ended up debuting in the WWF at the 1996 Royal Rumble under the name of Vader, supported with Jim Cornette as his manager. After his feud in the Battle of the Big Men with Yokozuna, White pinned WWF Champion Shawn Michaels in a six man tag match at In Your House 9, leading to a World Title match at SummerSlam ’96. Although Vader beat HBK by disqualification and count-out, the match was restarted each time, before HBK won with the Sweet Chin Music.
A famous incident fro White occurred in Kuwait, April 1997, where in a n interview a journalist brought up wrestling as being fake. White, known for a vicious temper, grabbed the journalist whilst verbally abusing him. Needless to say, Vader was demoted for a while as a jobber to the stars, which is the role he would play for the remainder of his WWF career. He eventually left the company in October 1998, with sporadic appearances in NOAH; NJPW; TNA and WWE to follow over the years.
For me, Leon White is one of the best big men ever to step foot inside the squared circle. His athleticism (if you have ever seen a moonsault from Vader, you will know what I mean). As Vader, he played the big man persona perfectly, especially against the smaller guys in his era like Sting and Shawn Michaels and in hardcore brawls against Cactus Jack. As mentioned at the beginning, had backstage politics not got in the way in the WWF, Vader would most likely be adding the WWF World Title to his already impressive resume.
Like everyone else, I hope pulls through his illness, as losing someone the calibre of Vader would be a blow to the wrestling world. It’s Time! ITS VADER TIME!!