As a wrestling fan in the 1980s, I found myself drawn to the super heavyweights. I was something of a super heavyweight myself, 200 pounds at age 10, and my heart went out to those big bruisers. I loved them all, from Kamala to King Kong Bundy, but the majority of these men lumbered around like Easter Island statues or kegs with legs. Then I laid eyes on the Leon White, an ex-NFL lineman and American Wrestling Association midcarder who had been repackaged as Antonio Inoki’s monstrous Big Van Vader, and realized that the game had changed forever. White died of heart failure on Monday at age 63, but this nimble 400-pounder had long ago moonsaulted (or Vader-saulted) and potatoed his way into the history books.
The bar for super heavyweights had always been pretty low, owing to how their super-heaviness alone could help them get over with the crowds. It was considered an object of wonder when a great big man could hurl himself in the air to perform a dropkick, à la 1970s-vintage Andre the Giant or Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell. And those who could perform cartwheels, like Bam Bam Bigelow, or work lengthy broadways, such as Bruiser Brody and Angelo “King Kong” Mosca, were high up in the super heavyweight firmament.
But Big Van Vader was something different altogether. On grainy traded VHS tapes, I first caught a glimpse of Big Van Vader—later shortened to just Vader here in the U.S.—during his stint in New Japan, including his vicious eye-popping brawl against All Japan standout Stan Hansen. It blew my tween mind to see him getting a major push in the WCW, since he was the first wrestler I recognized from elsewhere—from somewhere that wasn’t the WWF or WCW or the various domestic federations highlighted in the Apter mag—who absolutely deserved to defeat the likes of Sting and Ric Flair and hold the world title.
If Vader had merely been a big dude with an All-American college football background, he still could’ve been a star. Yokozuna, John “Earthquake” Tenta, One Man Gang, and King Kong Bundy were “only” huge, and they got over as monster heels. And other All-American collegians, like burly Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, wore their university-colored singlets with pride. But Vader was way more than that: He was the first enormous guy who could work in the hyperathletic way demanded of wrestlers by knowledgeable critics like Dave Meltzer—the first elephantine heel who could move like a ballerina.
Former NWA champion Harley Race, who was Vader’s manager for much of his WCW run, had high praise for the big man. “He was as round as Lex Luger was chiseled, but don’t be fooled because he was the most agile big guy I’ve ever seen,” Race wrote in his autobiography. “In fact, he might be the best big man to ever enter the ring.”
Race, a man known for his harsh temper and gruff manner, isn’t loose with praise, and this is right on the money. All of Vader’s fans knew this since they had lived through Vader’s epic showdowns against Hansen, Inoki, Sting, Ron Simmons, Mick Foley, Flair, and—after he had signed with the WWF and taken on Jim Cornette as a mouthpiece—Shawn Michaels. In one recent interview, Vader claimed that Simmons beating him clean to become the first African American world heavyweight champion produced “the loudest pop I’ve ever heard in my entire career, the greatest moment, such a well-worked match.”
Vader pushed the envelope, adding high-impact aerial moves to go along with vicious powerbombs and unpulled punches. The results were often as gruesome as they were spectacular: Vader had his own eye knocked out of the socket by a stray Stan Hansen punch, then somehow managed to be in the ring with Foley when the latter’s ear was ripped off. (Both Vader and Foley finished the matches in which they had been maimed.)
Race thought Vader took the potatoes and hard punches a bit too far. “Vader was a monster who portrayed his football player/brawler image well—probably too well, and wasn’t well known for taking care of opponents in the ring,” he wrote. Race then goes on to recall a match when Vader was batting Ric Flair around the ring, a brutalization that ended only when Race ordered Flair to hit Vader and Flair responded by giving Vader a black eye.
The interesting thing about Vader was how late he peaked and how he continued evolving long after most athletes would have hung it up. Vader already had a pro football career in the books and a few failed real estate ventures in Colorado to his name by the time he started pro wrestling, and he hadn’t started making a name for himself in Japan until 1987, when he was 32. He dominated the WCW as a world-beating badass from 1990 to 1995, then arrived in the WWF in 1996 at 41. His run there had some high points, including the aforementioned match against Shawn Michaels, but it mostly involved a lot of losses to everyone from Kane to Ken Shamrock.
The saddest thing about Vader was how, despite the fact that he peaked so late and pushed monster heel workrate to new heights, he barely had a chance to enjoy it. According to Harley Race and others, Vader wasn’t an easy guy to get along with, drinking heavily and sometimes winding up on the wrong side of a scrap, such as when aging veteran Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff more than held his own against him in a fight in the WCW locker room or when he created an international incident by manhandling a Kuwaiti TV host who asked him if wrestling was fake.
“Leon was fine when he was sober or when he wasn’t in the ring, but when he was either drunk or wrestling, he was your typical bully,” Race observed. On the big and small screen, Vader made the most of his bullying persona, playing himself on an episode of Baywatch in which he and Flair fought Hulk Hogan and later making several appearances as the father of a school bully on Boy Meets World. (“Your little bully tactics didn’t work back [when you were my student] and won’t work now,” William Daniels’s George Feeny tells him during their first confrontation.)
The Vader moment that has lingered with me the longest was his brief speech to the camera after losing a pay-per-view match. “Maybe Vader time is over,” he wailed. “I’m a piece of shit. A big fat piece of shit.” But it wasn’t quite over, because Vader would eventually make a few returns to the ring and occasionally boasted on Twitter about how he was getting back in good physical condition. His son Jesse White had been a top football recruit to the University of Oklahoma in the early 2000s, but he was sidelined by injuries and enjoyed only a two-year run in WWE’s developmental territory as “Jake Carter” before hanging up the trunks in 2013.
None of that matters, though, because Vader’s legacy won’t be his son’s short-lived wrestling career, his own gridiron glory, his in-ring bullying, or his struggles with drinking. No, his greatest accomplishment was pushing the limits of his body well past what seemed possible for super heavyweights during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whenever an agile behemoth like Keith Lee frog-splashes a foe or leaps out of the ring, the resounding echo reminds older fans it’s still Vader Time somewhere.
Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.