Over the course of a few weeks leading up to Big Van Vader’s debut with the promotion, World Championship Wrestling aired videos like this one that showed him making his way to the ring for matches in Japan. Usually, the ads wouldn’t even show him wrestling. They didn’t need to. It was enough to show a 400-plus pound beast of a man wearing monstrous metal helmet and carrying a staff with a skull at the top. That he was stalking towards the ring and sending Japanese fans scurrying served only to underline the point—here, every image suggested, is a monster. Oh, and when he got to the ring he could also make the helmet shoot steam into the air.
Big Van Vader had an aura unlike anyone I had ever seen before I had ever seen him wrestle. He more than backed it up in the ring as the greatest super heavyweight in pro wrestling history.
Vader, whose real name was Leon White, passed away from complications of pneumonia on Monday, his son Jesse confirmed on Twitter on Wednesday. White was an All-American offensive lineman at the University of Colorado and had a brief NFL career before he wrecked his knee and found his true calling as a wrestler, and he had not been in good health for some time. He had been dealing with congestive heart failure for a while, to the point that he tweeted in 2016 that he had two years left to live. Despite that, he had wrestled as recently as April 2017, when he appeared on the career 45th anniversary tour of Tatsumi Fujinami, one of his greatest career rivals.
My friend Rob Naylor, NXT Creative Assistant turned Fighting Spirit Magazine columnist, has always had the best way of describing the dichotomy that exists when it comes to super heavyweight pro wrestlers. Naylor’s rubric is that you have two archetypes when it comes to extra-large wrestlers: John Studds and Jerry Blackwells. The John Studd isn’t going to do much more than let everyone else bounce off of him unless he’s facing someone as big or bigger, as in Studd’s feud with Andre the Giant. The Jerry Blackwell, on the other hand, will fly around and make his opponent look good, win or lose, by letting him appear to knock the monster around a bit. Vader was the best possible version of the latter. When he was beating opponents up, he was frightening. But when they got to make their comebacks, they looked like even bigger world beaters than they ever had before, simply by overcoming what appeared to be such an unstoppable physical force.
This was never more true than in Vader’s matches with Sting. The popular sentiment is that Sting’s greatest opponent in pro wrestling was Ric Flair, and with good reason. The most famous match of Sting’s career, and the one that made him a superstar, was the night he went to a time limit draw with Ric Flair at the first ever live Clash of the Champions special on TBS. It aired opposite WrestleMania IV and drew a huge rating anyway, to the point that Flair-Sting was the most watched match in cable history for a few years. Flair may have made Sting a superstar, but Flair had the same match with Sting that he had with just about everyone. Vader, on the other hand, made Sting look like an absolute badass in a way that nobody else did.
Sting was never a better in-ring performer than when Vader was across the squared circle from him. Sting showed more fire and intensity, broke out all kinds of new moves for the occasion like somersault kicks, and seemed even to have better timing than he had against anyone else. When Sting would get behind Vader, get him in a waistlock, and sloooowwwwly cinch him up in a German suplex, the resulting crash to the mat felt like an earthquake. Their most famous trilogy of matches, all of which appeared on WCW pay-per-view cards over the course of just eight months, are the best matches of Sting’s career and probably the best in-ring main event feud in WCW’s 12-and-a-half-year history.
Vader was a lot more than just Sting’s greatest rival, though. While he was in and out of WCW starting in the Summer of 1990, Vader split most of his time between Japanese tours for the first 18 months or so of that stint. Japan was where he had picked up the Big Van Vader gimmick—one initially earmarked for The Ultimate Warrior, of all people—and grew into a superstar. When Vader showed up in New Japan Pro Wrestling with Takeshi Kitano—yes, the film director—as his manager, he made short work of living legend Antonio Inoki and was instantly something special. Being a main eventer off the bat showed that he was bound for stardom, and the athletic prospect previously known as “Baby Bull” Leon White in the AWA got a crash course with the best wrestlers in the world.
Less than two years into his run in the gimmick, Vader progressed to the point that in late 1989, he simultaneously held world heavyweight titles with three different promotions (Japan’s NJPW, Mexico’s UWA, and Germany’s CWA) on three continents. Photos of Vader with all three belts were routinely featured in the newsstand wrestling magazines and the achievement was regularly touted on commentary when he was in WCW. If you were a hardcore fan, even if you had not necessarily ascended to the Insider Fan Newsletter level of obsessiveness, the unmistakable perception was that Vader was either the best wrestler in the world or at least the best wrestler not consistently plying his trade in the United States.
Once Vader became a WCW regular it became clear that this was more or less true. He tore it up right away and soon slung another world title belt over his shoulder. In a promotion that was often too sanitized by executives at parent Turner Broadcasting who had not yet realized that WCW’s strength was as the anti-WWF, Vader was intense, scary, and real. Whether it was the aura he brought with him, his physical style, and/or the result of him legitimately injuring other wrestlers on a few visible occasions, fans bought into Vader is being legitimately tougher than everyone else in wrestling.
That made him extra valuable to promotions looking for big names who could deliver an extra sense of realism; in 1993, he signed with the UWFI, which (falsely) claimed to be a legitimate sporting alternative to “fake” pro wrestling. It likely helped that Vader was WCW World Heavyweight Champion, as Nobuhiko Takada, the UWFI’s champ, had issued a grandstand challenge to all of the other pro wrestling world champions to “fight him for real.” According to the May 17, 1993 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, this netted Vader $25,000 per match (over $43,500 adjusted for inflation), a $50,000 signing bonus, and whatever legal assistance was needed to fight a lawsuit from NJPW, where he was still under contract. On a per-match guarantee basis, he was the highest-paid wrestler in the world.
The tough guy aura greatly dissipated in September 1995, after a locker room fight with the much smaller Paul Orndorff. According to the September 9th Pro Wrestling Torch and September 11th Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Vader was being belligerent about recording an interview when a TV taping was running late. Orndorff, who doubled as a member of the creative team on top of his in-ring wrestling duties, confronted him, and it got to the point where Vader either slapped or shoved him. The fight escalated from there, and the consensus was that Vader lost it. The perception, relative to Vader’s mythos, was even worse than Vader getting beaten up by an older, smaller man. See, Dave Meltzer reported in the Observer that not only did Orndorff drop Vader with a punch, but that it was a punch with his weak arm, which had visibly atrophied after he delayed neck surgery during a particularly lucrative main event run. Vader, for his part, was insistent in later interviews that he stopped fighting back after dazing Orndorff on the initial shot, though WCW announcer Tony Schiavone’s modern account matches what was reported in 1995.
That was it for Vader in WCW. He made peace with NJPW long enough to get Inoki’s last great match out of him, then bounced to the WWF, where he attacked figurehead president Gorilla Monsoon in his first television appearance. Since his retirement in the early 1980s, Monsoon had only been bumped once—by The Brooklyn Brawler, of all people, in the Brawler’s debut under that name. Nobody really remembered that. Setting Vader up against the powerful Monsoon was a brilliant bit of television, but given that Vader immediately took some time off to heal up some nagging injuries, it didn’t go anywhere. After his return, Vader ended up working with then-world champion Shawn Michaels, who was vocal about Vader working too rough and even browbeat him live pay-per-view during the SummerSlam ‘96 main event for botching a planned sequence of moves. That was basically the end of Vader being taken seriously in the WWF, even if he lasted another two years. He was rarely used to his full potential, and even called himself “a big fat piece of shit” in a post-match interview after one of his last major matches. He did get something of a victory lap, though, going back to Japan to work for All Japan Pro Wrestling and later Pro Wrestling Noah, where he got to win more world titles and have more great matches. He ended his full-time career where it first fully took off, and went out on a high note.
Vader wasn’t the star he could have been in what’s now WWE because fans were deprived of “the real Vader.” The rest of his career is a testament to how brilliant he was as a performer, but if you were primarily a WWF fan back then, you never really got to see him at his best. Thankfully, though, his legendary matches are out there to find. If you get a chance, watch Vader’s major WCW matches on WWE Network this weekend. Then check out some of his earlier work on NJPW World, or search for his AJPW matches on YouTube. Big Van Vader may have been denied the opportunity to give his best performances when the western wrestling world’s biggest spotlight was on him, but that almost adds to his mystique. Vader was one of the last truly great attractions in pro wrestling and one of the last truly scary pro wrestlers in general, but he was also never going to be right for the WWF. His career was no less great for it—he was a triple world champion and a gateway to WCW and Japanese wrestling, and innumerable fans are richer for that.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.