The death of Leon "Vader" White this week shook up the wrestling world, with fans and performers alike taking to the internet to share their love for the man and his legacy in the world of professional wrestling.
Perhaps one of the greatest compliments being directed at Vader by some is the assessment that he is one of the best big men to ever compete in the squared circle.
I'm going to take that one step further: Vader is the greatest super heavyweight in wrestling history. Period.
Vader changed the game for big men and did things we had never seen in pro wrestling (or maybe, in life, anywhere) from a man his size. He was a gigantic force in popular culture that transcended the wrestling industry.
While Vader's character (and name) changed several times over the course of his career, there's no denying that it was an ultra cool gimmick. His legendary red ring mask is known throughout popular culture (thanks Boy Meets World).
But what about that other mask?
The cool factor of Vader's character was perhaps never better illustrated than by the helmet (complete with steam on demand) that the big man wore in New Japan Pro Wrestling early in his career.
The helmet reportedly weighed in at nearly 70 pounds and was a pain to travel with but it looked absolutely awesome. Vader even brought it over to WCW briefly until legal threats from NJPW forced him to leave it strictly for his Japan appearances.
Did we mention it had a steam effect on demand? Yes, but it bears repeating and a visual.
Very early in his career, Vader became one of the most decorated wrestling stars in history. He held top world titles in the United States, Japan, Mexico, and Europe. In fact, he held the top world titles in Japan (IWGP), Mexico (UWA), and Europe (CWA) simultaneously.
All told, Vader was a 3-time IWGP World Champion (the first from North America), a 3-time CWA World Champion, a 3-time WCW World Champion, a UWA World Champion, and the UPWI World Champion (a short-lived Japanese shoot-style promotion).
The only top world title that Vader never won was the WWE's top prize, and he was in fact scheduled to win that title in 1996 before Shawn Michaels put a stop to it. The plan was for Vader to defeat Michaels for the title at Survivor Series '96 at Madison Square Garden and go on to lose it back to HBK at the 1997 Royal Rumble in San Antonio, Shawn's hometown.
Instead, Michaels decided he didn't want to work the program with Vader and the spot was given to Psycho Sid. Vader worked against Michaels at SummerSlam that year instead, a very good match (complete with a vintage Michaels' tempter tantrum) that showed the pair could have (and should have) had more great matches down the line.
While it may not have been the most graceful, Vader's moonsault was probably the most impressive in the professional wrestling industry.
In an era where moonsaults were incredibly rare, mostly limited to luchadores, Vader perfected the move as a 350+ pound man. Not only was the move physically impressive, but the rationale behind it was as well.
Vader reportedly developed the move in an effort to steal the show in matches where he wound up on the losing end. He would go up top, moonsault to the mat below, and miss. This would often cause Vader to lose the match, but when it was over, fans weren't talking about the fact that he lost the match, they were talking about the fact that they just witnessed one of the biggest men in the wrestling industry do a backflip off the top rope.
Ironically, WWE put out a poll on Friday asking fans who did the best moonsault and Vader was nowhere to be found. Amazingly, this was done during the very week that Vader died. While the poll was certainly a tone deaf moment by whomever created it, there's no doubt Vader belonged on that list.
One of the great things about Vader was that he could work against so many different opponents with vastly different styles so effectively.
Here's a man that could have a great brawling match with Stan Hansen, a great technical match with Ric Flair, a hardcore match with Cactus Jack, and a high flying match with Sting or Shawn Michaels. When it comes to versatility, there's arguably never been another big man with as much of it as Vader.
Despite being able to adapt to virtually any style, there's one thing Vader couldn't control: his stiffness in the ring. The man had a legendary streak for being rough on his opponents, perhaps most famously beating the absolute tar out of Mick Foley (Cactus Jack) during a 1993 WCW feud. In one year, Foley suffered both a concussion from a powerbomb and a broken nose from a punch.
Even so, Foley was crazy enough to take (and ask for) the punishment for the good of the cause and the duo had one of the best feuds in company history.
Speaking of toughness...
Despite being labeled "big baby" backstage in the wrestling industry due to his kind-hearted, gentle nature, when he got between the ropes, Vader was known for a toughness that few men in the business have ever had.
After all, you don't wrestle a series of matches against the likes of Stan Hansen without some measure of testicular fortitude. Especially when that opponent once accidentally dislocated your eyeball.
If you've never heard this story, prepare to be amazed. Vader was wrestling Hansen for New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1990 at the Tokyo Dome in a superfight for the IWGP world title when early in the bout, an errant punch by Vader accidentally popped Vader's eye out of it's socket.0comments
Yes, there is footage. You can watch it below, but be forewarned, it's graphic.
Even more impressively, Vader pushed his own eye back into its socket so that he could finish the match. If that's not toughness, I don't know what is.