Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Remembering the greatest super heavyweight: Big Van Vader

The best way to remember Vader, laying out the Bulldog and Hitman at the same time!
Before 1990, professional wrestling had Heavyweights, Cruiserweights and sometimes, even giants. But at The Great American Bash in the summer of that glorious year, America learned what a super heavyweight was, in the form of the monstrous figure of Big Van Vader. A four hundred pound American in a lucha mask that gained fame in Japan, he was like nothing anyone ever saw in wrestling before.

Leon White, the man behind that mask, died two days ago after pneumonia complicated his long running battle with heart disease. He was only 63.

Back when he first debuted, WCW was the B-league for an old northern boy like me. TBS was that weird southern channel and their talents were nothing compared to the almighty Hogan, Savage and Warrior. But even in my haze of northern viewing, when I did flip through to WCW, two figures always stood out to me as like nothing WWF offered. Cactus Jack was one of them, a figure I liked despite my brother's assurance he was pretty much just a Jim Duggan knockoff, and the beast called Vader.

By that time, he'd lost his crazy smoke shooting outer mask, which probably would have served the Shockmaster better than it ever did Vader. I only caught glimpses of his work in the promotion, usually in squashes to end all squashes. No one could stand against Vader. He would ultimately dominate the heavyweight scene in WCW for most of 1992 and 1993, putting on stupendous matches against Cactus Jack, Sting and Ric Flair. His final reign ended when he lost in a Ric Flair title-vs-career match, which also featured the onscreen debut of the future Charlotte Flair. By the company's finish, only two men would hold the title more than he did: Hollywood Hogan and Flair.

The advent of Hogan brought him into a monumental feud with the company's new babyface champion. He would do his best against the fading glory of Hogan, but Vader clearly didn't care for his presence or Bischoff's new direction with him. He ultimately left for WWF just as Nitro debuted, a decision that would haunt him for much of his life.

His WWF run was anything but spectacular and it would be shown for years afterward by the clear lack of respect Vince McMahon showed for Vader. During his three years up north, he would fail to win a single title and mostly be used as fodder in other people's storylines. Even as WWF struggled with a lack of big names, Vince seemed adamant against using the huge name he picked up from WCW. It basically destroyed Vader's career in the United States. After leaving the fed in 98, he would only make a handful of televised American appearances for the rest of his career.

Instead, Vader's career ended where it started, in Japan. He was a huge part of first All Japan and later Pro Wrestling Noah in the late 90s and early 00s. He would win the All Japan Triple Crown twice in that period as well as the coveted Champion Carnival tournament (think the equivalent of the G1 Climax.) He would become the inaugural Noah's GHC tag champion with 2 Cold Scorpio, a criminally under-rated tag team pairing.

After his Japanese run, he would pop up at various companies around the world, including a couple appearances for both Impact and WWE. He even made one stop here in Iowa for an SCW event back in 2013, teaming with major Iowa wrestling veterans like Marek Brave and Shane Hollister.
Much ado is put into the names that do and don't make it into the WWE Hall of Fame, but it is absolutely criminal Vince would not let whatever grudge he had against Vader go in order to allow the man to be inducted in his lifetime. (Though he did get to induct Stan Hansen in 2016.)

He announced around a year ago that a heart condition meant his time on Earth would be over within the next couple years. Sadly that has come to pass and history's greatest super heavyweight is gone. A better WWE would have Braun Strowman play tribute to him on Raw this coming Monday. I really only hope for a graphic, even if he's been a long time member of the WWE Legends program. Even death doesn't stop Vince from holding a grudge.

Let's look back at the man, the myth, the legend of Vader and remember all the great moments though. His career may not have ended on the highest note, but it's hard to argue against his place as one of the greatest of all time.

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