I’m not sure why I have such a distinct recollection of Leon “Big Van Vader” White. He wasn’t my favorite wrestler, nor my least favorite—sorry Beefcake. I suppose any 8-year old would remember the first time they saw an amber-coated barking gorilla who preferred Mizuno's version of a Lucha Libre mask.
But, now that I’m mostly grown, I think my young mind attached itself to the presence of an anomaly.
Before Vader, big guys didn’t do much in wrestling—other than getting pinned by Hulk Hogan. In those innocent years watching one of the clumsy beasts
Vader dripped with professional wrestling's most precious commodity: realism. While we all know it’s a work, the tiniest glimmer of “Yo, was that real?” embeds wrestling’s magic trick even further into our imaginations. As fans, we want to play along, and Vader’s athleticism, strength, and comically stiff working style could give any wrestling skeptic pause.
Vader asks Shamrock to ease up on his strikes but Ken doesn't listen so Vader asks him a second time. pic.twitter.com/wXepTAiWpe— MaffewBotchamaniaGuy (@Maffewgregg) June 20, 2018
"He made it fun to have that type of heavy-handed, heavy artillery connection in there. But it made you really felt like you were in a war, so you were proud when you would come out of the ring from working with him. He was the consummate professional," said Hulk Hogan in an interview with Bill Apter.
Vader introduced the brand of instant gratification that Ken Shamrock, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar and now Ronda Rousey command. There’s never been a shortage of athleticism in the sport, but these names belong in their own category. It’s one thing to reach the pinnacle that is WWE but to have climbed the mountain in an equally exclusive industry—in Vader’s case the NFL—makes for quite the talented mutant.
I mean, Vader was the world's largest Cruiserweight.
When news of Vader’s death broke Wednesday, there was a common denominator in a number of tweets paying tribute to The Mastodon: “He legit scared me.” To the wrestling outsider, that may seem like an odd compliment to pay the recently deceased. But to those in the know, it’s one of the best things a person could ever say about a wrestling villain.
I can’t put my finger on why Vader’s death stung the way it did. Maybe it was his relative ubiquity in my 90's childhood. On top of watching him in both WCW and WWE, Vader infiltrated Boy Meets World and had an uncanny spiritual presence in favorite Super Nintendo game—Saturday Night Slam Masters. As a kid, I simply liked watching Vader, but as an adult, I have a reverent appreciation for what he did for the business that I kind of work inside.
It’s always different when a wrestler dies. Of course, they’re just as human as the rest of us, but something about their passing hits us in a hidden spot. Even though wrestling does its best to mimic professional sports, it’s really a sweaty version of theater. And when one of the cast members die, so does their piece of the story. So in a way, a wrestler’s death provides the standard chilling reminder that all of this is terminal, while also hitting backspace on something that once felt everlasting.
I'll miss Vader. RIP to one of wrestling's best.