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LOOKING AT THE LIFE AND CAREER OF LEON 'VADER' WHITE

By Mike Johnson on 2018-06-20 16:01:00

WHO’S THE MAN?

For many years, the answer to that question was Big Van Vader.  Vader, real name Leon White, passed away on Monday evening 6/18 it was announced today by his son, former WWE developmental talent Jesse White.

There had been many big men in professional wrestling before Leon White made his professional debut.  Some were great.  Many were no so great, but the prototype of what a big man, monster brawler could be in professional wrestling was changed forever when White hit his stride in the early 1990s.

At this peak, he accomplished the unthinkable when you look at today’s pro wrestling landscape.  At one point in time, he was the recognized World champion in the United States for WCW, in Germany for the CWA, in Mexico for the UWA and in Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling.  It would be the equivalent of the WWE Champion today being champion in New Japan, CMLL and also headlining for WXW in Germany, at the same time. It isn’t going to happen, but it did for Leon White, because at the time, he was awesome, and one could really make a case for him being the best performer in the world at that point in time.

Oh and by the way, Vader went on to hold the All Japan Triple Crown and the UWFi Championship.   In fact, in every major promotion he ever worked once he hit his stride, except WWE, Vader was, at one point, the top guy carrying that company.

White, as Vader, carried himself with an incredible physical presence.  He instilled legitimate fear into fans because in the ring, he was stiff and took it to his opponents.  While it was accidental, there was a legitimate car wreck’s worth of carnage left in his wake.  The broken back of WCW enhancement talent Joe Thurman.  The concussion given to Mick Foley.  The ear ripped off Foley’s head in the ultimate meeting of bad luck in one match.  People believed Vader could hurt you.  People believed Vader was a force of nature, because he presented himself as one and he backed up his boasts. 

There was a good reason for that.  Vader was tough.  After all, Stan Hansen once popped his eye out and Vader popped it back in the socket and kept going.    Vader was legit.  It was impossible not to watch his gloved hands pop back and forth boxing the head of his opponents and not cringe.  Vader was a phenom.  Who else at 400 plus pounds, when he’s already the top guy in the company, is going to start whipping out moonsaults on live PPV?  Vader did.

Long before Brock Lesnar was the beast with Paul Heyman at his side, Big Van Vader made his way to the ring with Harley Race.  If there was ever someone who set the stage for how Brock Lesnar, in his best days, was presented, it was Big Van Vader.

BABY BULL

Born in Lynwood, California, the son of a United States marine, White was an athlete his entire life.  He wrestled, competed in shot put and of course, played football.  He was a third-round draft pick in the 1978 NFL draft after attending Colorado University (where he was a two-time All-American) and played for the Los Angeles Rams in 1978 and 1979 when the team were the NFC Champions and completed in Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

When his football career ended due to a knee injury, pro wrestling came calling.  After someone suggested he try pro wrestling, White was trained by Brad Rheighans and made his debut in 1985 working for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, billed as Baby Bull Leon White.  He was obviously green, but extremely powerful and was thought highly enough of that he even once challenged then-AWA World champion Stan Hansen, who would later play a larger role in his career.

BULL POWER

White signed a deal to debut in All Japan Pro Wrestling, but instead a deal was made with New Japan to instead send White there to portray a new character Antonio Inoki wanted to debut.  That character, Big Van Vader, was originally slated to be portrayed by Jim Hellwig, who would instead go on to great heights at The Ultimate Warrior.

Vader was eventually placed in the role, at the time wearing a black mask and managed by Takeshi Kitano, appeared on the scene at Tokyo’s Sumo Hall, challenging Antonio Inoki to a match.  Inoki had just defeated Riki Choshu but agreed.  Vader destroyed him, making himself an immediate main eventer.  The unfortunate side effect is that the beating was so good, and the point was made so well, the audience lost their sh**, rioting and destroying the building.  That led to New Japan losing the venue for several years.

Almost immediately, Vader was pushed to the top of the promotion, winning a tournament to become the IWGP Champion, the first non-Japanese performer in the history of New Japan to do so.    It was a short run, but one that legitimized him even more.

At the same time, Vader, working as Bull Power (as New Japan owned the Big Van Vader name) defeated Otto Wanz to become the CWA champion in Germany.  Now there were two promotions where he was one of, if not the, main attraction.

The UWA in Mexico came calling and soon, Vader was feuding with El Canek there, winning the UWA World title.

In 1989, he held three “World” titles on three continents, sometimes, at the same time.

I FEEL NO PAIN!

Stan Hansen returned to his life in 1990 during a rare All Japan vs. New Japan event.  The two had an extremely brutal war that saw Vader end up with a broken nose and Hansen accidentally nail Vader so hard with his thumb during an exchange of punches that Vader’s eyeball popped up.  Vader shoved it back in and the battle continued to the planned no contest.  The battle left Vader with a metal plate placed surgically under his eye.

WCW came calling in 1990 with Vader debuting at the Great American Bash PPV, adding a fourth company he was now working for at the same time – WCW, New Japan, UWA in Mexico, CWA in Germany.  While a number of stars wrestle all over the indies today, none are doing so at the level that Vader was pulling it off in the early 1990.  The crazy schedule continued until 1992, when WCW signed White to a full-time deal.  He remained with New Japan thank to their working agreement, but the other promotions saw the end of his runs there.

Under Bill Watts’ regime as the head of WCW, Vader received the biggest push of his career.  Managed by Harley Race in order to give him additional credibility, Vader became a walking massacre, taking out opponents left and right, building him to face the then-WCW World Champion and the company’s biggest hero, Sting.

Vader began the feud with Sting with a bout in April 1992 that saw him disqualified and in the course of the melee, Sting legitimately suffered a ruptured spleen and several cracked ribs.  Vader was put over Nikita Koloff while Sting was convalescing, setting up a showdown at the 1992 Great American Bash PPV.   Common wrestling logic would be that this was when Sting would get his revenge, but instead, Vader shocked everyone by winning the title cleanly.

It appeared Vader was on his way to dominate the company, but with a knee issue hurting him at the time, Watts instead went back to what worked for him when he ran Mid-South and that was to try and make an African-American superstar.  One fateful night in Baltimore, Vader was scheduled to face Sting, only to have Jake Roberts, fresh of WWF TV, hit the ring and attack Sting from the crowd, leaving him injured after a DDT.  The names of all the wrestlers on the card were put in a hat and the winner, Ron Simmons, went on to win the title in a scene so great that fans in the crowd were legitimately crying in the crowd.

Upon recovery, Vader was back to full form, going all the way the finals of a King of Cable tournament (don’t ask) that saw him have incredible matches with Dustin Rhodes and especially Sting in the final, which took place at Starrcade ’92.  While Sting’s rivalry with Ric Flair will always be celebrated, a big case could be made that Vader was the best rival of Sting’s career as the matches were always different and certainly were brutal. Their Superbrawl III strap match is perhaps the most underrated great match of Sting's entire career.

The WCW World title soon returned to Vader via a win over Simmons, who, for whatever reason, never clicked with the audience at the level WCW hoped.  Vader faced a bevy of challengers including Sting and Davey Boy Smith, who was pushed as a top star for WCW at the time.

Vader left New Japan in 1993, losing his “Big Van Vader” name in the process.  He signed with the UWFi company, billed as Super Vader (New Japan couldn’t go after him over the last name since obviously Star Wars popularized the name.)  Vader tore through the company as part of their Best in the World Tournament, including an insanely brutal battle with the centerpiece of the company, Nobuhiko Takada.  A financial dispute led to Vader’s exit.  White carried the rep that he didn’t like when he felt someone was screwing with his money and he was out to squeeze every last dollar out that he could.

If Sting was Vader’s most famous rival in WCW, second on the list would be Mick Foley.  Vader was so hated that he was able to turn Cactus Jack babyface.  The pair had several brutal matches on WCW Saturday Night, the flagship series for the company at the time that required heavy editing due to blood and brutal nature of the physicality.  In the first match, Cactus shocked Vader, beating him by countout.  In the second, Vader decimated him with a powerbomb to the exposed floor that legitimately sent Foley out in an ambulance.  The creative that followed it made the story more a joke than a seriously deadly issue for Foley, but eventually, Cactus returned for a brutal, excellent Texas Death Match against Vader at Halloween Havoc ’93.  While Cactus earned respect and the fans’ love, Vader remained the champion.

Just as legendary as their trio of matches was an incident that left Foley scarred for life.  During a hellish tour of Germany, WCW was left with one referee.  The ropes were loose, and someone told the ring crew to tighten them.  They were made too tight and during a match with Vader, Foley attempted to do a spot he routinely did at the time where he would go over the ropes and have his head entangled in them.  It always got a big reaction but this time, the ropes were too tight, and Foley was legitimately strangling himself.  He finally received assistance and pulled himself free but ripped his ear apart.  Vader began thrashing him with those mammoth punches and PLOOP – the ear fell off.  It was a horrible series of circumstances, but it added to the legitimacy of Vader’s ferociousness.

Vader dropped the WCW World title to Ric Flair at Starrcade ’93, a scenario designed to pay tribute to Flair chasing the belt ten years after the first Starrcade event.  In an amazing scene, as the Charlotte Coliseum chanted Flair’s name, Vader bloodied the mouth of Flair and presented himself as the greatest physical obstacle possible before Flair scored the win and the monster reaction that came with it.

Although he had a run with the United States title and even faced off with Sting again at the 1994 Slamboree, the door was set for the end of Vader’s run on top with the arrival of Hulk Hogan.  Although the two had several matches in WCW, Hogan popping up immediately out of the powerbomb that crippled and destroyed others undermined Vader’s credibility.  By the end of the program, designed for Hogan to emerge victorious, the man who had conquered continents was dumbed down to Hogan’s speed and never regained that momentum.

The eventual idea was for Vader to become a babyface and be aligned with Hogan and Sting, but after a backstage incident with Paul Orndorff that saw Vader on the losing side of the fight, Vader was released by WCW.  He appeared for New Japan again but was soon on his way to the WWF.

IT’S TIME!

Billed as “The Man They Call Vader” (who was they, anyway?), Vader debuted at the 1996 Royal Rumble, eliminated four men before Shawn Michaels took him out.  WWF gave him a big second appearance the next night on Raw as Vader destroyed Savio Vega and then took out then-WWF President Gorilla Monsoon, who after retiring had never been involved with anything physical beyond skits with Bobby Heenan. 

Managed by Jim Cornette (which would have been a million-dollar combination anywhere else), Vader had some initial steam but in WWF, was never going to be presented as the beast that he had portrayed in the past and certainly was never going to be allowed to beat someone bloody or stiff them so hard with a powerbomb they were temporarily paralyzed.  The initial plan was a program with Yokozuna.  Vader got the better of him, but Yokozuna’s babyface turn didn’t make the former WWF Champion a bigger star.

This led to a Vader program against then WWF Champion Shawn Michaels, including a headline bout at Summerslam 1996.  It was the most spectacular Vader looked his entire WWF run from an in-ring standpoint up until this point, but still lacked the ferocious nature of his past work.  Later, stories would leak that Michaels had warned Vader that should he get stiffed, he’d ice Vader politically out of the company.

After Michaels, Vader was fed to The Undertaker, even being managed by Paul Bearer, Taker’s former charge.  The feud led directly into a Fatal Four Way with Bret Hart and Steve Austin at an In Your House PPV that was absolutely brilliant and saw a bloody Vader rise like a Phoenix to look like his former WCW and New Japan self.  It was likely his best match during his WWF run.

In 1997, the decision was made to go with Vader as Intercontinental Champion but during a tour of Kuwait, a televised interview with Vader and The Undertaker ended up in a scene where Vader menaced the host for questioning the legitimacy of pro wrestling.  Vader ended up under house arrest (as it turned out, in a five-star resort) and was unable to leave the country until the situation was resolved.  While it was, WWF changed their plans, leaving their company as the only one since his rookie years in the AWA where Vader didn’t have a run with a major title.

Vader was eventually turned babyface, defending the United States when Bret Hart (then a Canadian sympathizing heel) disrespected the United States by laying the Canadian flag over The Patriot, who Vader had just defeated.  This made Vader a babyface for the first time since his AWA days, leaving him to feud with Kane and Goldust, including losing a mask vs. mask match to Kane.

After the Kane feud, Vader was used to put over other talents including Mark Henry and Ken Shamrock before finishing up in October 1997.

IT’S VADER TIME!

Vader returned to Japan, reuniting with former rival Stan Hansen, this time as a tag team for All Japan Pro Wrestling.  As a single, he captured the All Japan Triple Crown title, batting the likes of Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Akira Taue.  After Misawa led an exodus of talent to Pro Wrestling NOAH, Vader followed there, teaming with close friend 2 Cold Scorpio.

Vader made several appearances for TNA, including teaming with Dusty Rhodes against Ron and Don Harris during a time period where the company was bringing in talents as surprises on a regular basis.  At the same time, for the first time, Vader worked the independent scene, even creating a dream team with Mike Awesome for Jersey All Pro Wrestling.

Although he would make appearances from time to time and even return for matches for WWE, Vader never worked long-term for any promotions for the last decade of his career, but would occasionally return to Japan to team with his son Jesse.

White, who had invested a lot of money in real estate during his careers (he would often tell others that strip malls were the way to go) would later work as a High School football coach.  WWE also brought him in to coach developmental talents at times.

White announced several years ago that he had been given only a few years to live due to congenital heart failure, but still wrestled from time to time all the way through last year.  Even after finally undergoing surgery, White promised he would return to the ring one last time.  Sadly, numerous battles with pneumonia prevented that from ever happening.

Just as sad, a campaign by his former foe Mick Foley to see White inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame before his passing did not result in Vader being honored.  While undoubtedly, he is a Hall of Famer by every measure, when the induction happens, it will have to happen without White being there to tell the story of his life.

However, work on White’s autobiography had been underway well before his passing, so it’s possible that his personal perspective on a truly remarkable life and career could one day see print.

Leon White, at 63 years old, leaves behind an incredible legacy.  There will never be another like him, because the world has changed and so has wrestling – but what an incredible journey and series of life experiences are left behind, many for fans to discover and experience for generations to come.

 

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