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By Ciaran James @TheCiaranJames
The Man, The Myth, The Legend, It’s Vader Time!
(Note, this was originally published in 2016)
Arguably the greatest super heavyweight in wrestling history, from the AWA, NJPW, WCW, WWF & NOAH, Vader has done it all in his career. He is known as being one of the best big men in the industry, in his 30 year career he has managed to capture multiple heavyweight titles and has earned the reputation as a super worker. For Leon White his career began as ‘Baby Bull’ in 1985 for the American Wrestling Association.
After having to give up playing professional football it was suggested by a friend that Leon look into wrestling as career choice. He was trained by the famous Brad Rheingans, who also went on to train future wrestling stars JBL, Brock Lesnar, Jerry Lynn and Curtis Axel. He got his first break in the AWA and was christened ‘Baby Bull, which soon after was changed to Bull Power, during his early days in the promotion Leon perfected his skills and quickly improved. The AWA were impressed with how easily White excelled and he soon found himself one on one with then heavyweight champion, Stan Hansen. He ultimately lost his first encounter for the title.
In 1987 White travelled to Japan to further his career and wrestling knowledge, he had originally signed an agreement with Giant Baba’s AJPW, but after arriving in Japan he found he now worked for NJPW. It was in NJPW that Leon White became ‘Big Van Vader’, and started to wear the infamous black mask that would become iconic to him, during his career. Vader was introduced as the newest member of the ‘Takeshi Puroresu Gundan’ Stable, he made his mark quickly in Japan, and he infamously caused a riot at the Sumo Hall after challenging Japanese icon Antonio Inoki, Vader won. This victory led to a full riot from Inoki’s loyal fans. Soon after NJPW were banned from performing at the arena until February 1989.
In April 1989 NJPW held a tournament to crown a new heavyweight champion; the event took place at the Tokyo Dome. Big Van Vader entered into the competition and was ultimately successful; in the final he beat NJPW legend Shinya Hashimoto. Vader became the first non-Japanese wrestler to hold the IWGP title. His first reign however ended soon after; on May 25th he lost the title to Salman Hashimkov, on July 12th Salman lost the title to Vader’s old stablemate Riki Choshu. This naturally set up a Choshu/Vader match, in the August of 1989 Vader once more captured the title for a second time. For the remainder of 1989 Vader travelled between Japan, Europe and Mexico, during this time he also held two more heavyweight titles. He went to fight for the CWA title in Austria and won their heavyweight title, and then he travelled to the UWA in Mexico to win their version of the heavyweight title. Leon White is and was the first man to ever hold three heavyweights title simultaneously in three different continents.
In February 1990 AJPW & NJPW held a joint supershow; a match was scheduled on the event between Big Van Vader and Stan Hansen. The match that then took place is infamous to any knowledgeable wrestling fan, before Vader had a chance to enter the ring Stansen accidently broke his nose with the Bullrope he carried to the ring. As the match continued the two warriors traded stiff blows, in the fury of all the punches Hansen once more injured Vader, as Hanse threw a punch, his thumb caught Vader right in the eye. This strike caused Vader’s eye to pop out of its socket, however he quickly removed his mask and reinserted the eye back into the socket, and he managed to hold the eye in place with his eyelid, the match ended as a no contest. In the aftermath of the event a metal plate was surgically fitted under eye, the brutality of the match garnered attention worldwide. WCW approached Vader while he was still recognised as the IWGP champion.
Vader began working for WCW in 1990, however due to commitments in Japan his visits to the U.S. were sporadic. He also dropped the IWGP title back to Choshu in August 1990. Around the time he made his debut in WCW he began a feud with Stan Hansen in AJPW, which obviously at the time was a more profitable opportunity for him. He finished off 1990 by once more capturing the CWA title for a third time. In January 1991 Vader defeated Tatsumi Fujinami to again win the IWGP title for a third successive time, however this third and final reign was short lived. In the March Vader lost the title back to Tatsumi. He also formed a successful and well received tag team with Bam Bam Bigelow, as a team they captured the IWGP titles on 1st March. Finally in 1992 Vader began working full-time with World Championship Wrestling, also at this time WCW were putting an agreement together with NJPW. The agreement allowed Vader to become more popular in the United States and made his schedule easier to manage. However as time passed his appearances in Japan decreased and he focused primarily on WCW and their heavyweight title.
Upon his full debut in WCW, Vader was recruited by legend Harley Race to join his short lived stable consisting of Kevin Nash and Super Invader. Vader received an opportunity to challenge WCW champion Sting in April 1992, this was again another brutal encounter but fortunately for Vader, Sting was the victim. The match ended in a disqualification, but not before Vader broke Sting’s ribs and ruptured his spleen, Sting took time off to recuperate. July 12th 1992 was the date that Vader added another world title to an already impressive list of career accomplishments, Sting, after finally recovering, returned to defend his title against Vader. The match took place at the Great American Bash, after another powerful display from Vader he successfully defeated Sting to capture the WCW world title. However his reign was cut short as the knee injury that Vader suffered in Japan returned to haunt him, he dropped the title to Ron Simmons. Vader underwent knee surgery shortly after.
Vader returned to WCW at the Halloween Havoc PPV and in the process he retired Nikita Koloff and injured jobber Joe Thurman. In December be captured the WCW title for a second time by defeating Ron Simmons. Vader carried the title through into 1993; in WCW’s UK tour he traded title wins with Sting. In April of 1993 Vader ignited a feud with Cactus Jack; arguably this may be his finest feud ever. The feud played out over the next few weeks on WCW TV, the footage from their first encounter was heavily edited by WCW due to the brutality. After the match concluded Cactus required 27 stitches to his face, they had a rematch weeks later which was equally brutal. During their second encounter Vader powerbombed Jack onto he concrete floor surrounding the ring, this once more resulted in injuries to Cactus. He suffered a concussion and loss of feeling in his left arm. Vader then naturally moved onto a feud with new WCW talent the late Davey Boy Smith. The pair met for the heavyweight title at the Slamboree PPV, which through a DQ Vader retained. He then formed an imposing tag team with Sid Vicious, this led to a tag match at Beach Blast between the team of Vader/Sid against Davey Boy & Sting. The tag team with Vicious ended as Vader renewed his personal feud with Cactus Jack, they faced of once more in a Texas Death match at Halloween Havoc. This was again another brutal encounter between the two; Vader dealt out more punishment on Jack, after 15 minutes of action Jack was finally defeated.
The following month at Starrcade Vader put up his title against the career of the ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair, the match was well received by critics and fans alike. Vader was superior to Flair and controlled the contest, however due to Harley Race getting involved Flair was able to take advantage and roll up Vader for the title. This feud continued on until SuperBrawl IV, this time their rematch was contested inside a Thundercage, Flair again came out on top. Following the losses to Flair, the Vader character needed replenishment, this came in the way of the late Ray Traylor AKA, The Big Boss Man. The issues between the two led to a match at Spring Stampede, where Vader was victorious. The following month at Slamboree Vader faced Sting for the International World title, Sting came out on top in another physical match between the two. In December of 1994 Vader recaptured championship gold again, at the Starrcade event he defeated Jim Duggan for the US Title.
In January of 1995 Vader’s manger Harley Race suffered a career ending car crash and unfortunately had to step away from professional wrestling. Vader was left to his own devices and his first act was to confront Hulk Hogan, who at the time was WCW champion. Vader told Hogan what was coming and that he could not avoid the monster, a match between the two was inevitable. In February of 1995 the two met at SuperBrawl V in a wild match, Vader once more exhibited his pure strength and power; he even managed to kick out of Hogan’s Leg Drop! The match unfortunately for Vader ended in a DQ as Ric Flair got involved and attacked Hogan. The two met once more at the Uncensored PPV in a Strap Match, again Flair decided to get involved, his caused a distraction which allowed Hogan to touch the turnbuckle pads and gain victory. Due to Flairs constant interference Vader was granted a Cage match with Hogan for the title at the Bash at the Beach PPV. Although he colluded with the Dungeon of Doom & Kevin Sullivan before the contest even they couldn’t help him, Hogan escaped the cage and retained his title. Following his hostilities with Hogan, Vader turned his attentions to Ric Flair, due to the fact Ric was interfering in his matches with Hogan. He clashed with Flair & Arn Anderson at Clash of Champions in August and was victorious. 1995 would be the final year for Vader in WCW, due to a backstage incident with Paul Orndoff he was fired and left WCW.
In January 1996 Big Van Vader made a brief return to NJPW for their New Year spectacular Wrestling World. The event took place at the Tokyo Dome was attended by 54,000 fans, Vader faced off against the legendary Antonio Inoki in a losing effort.
Van Vader’s debut was a heavily hyped affair, he made his debut for WWF at the 1996 Royal Rumble. Vader came out and eliminated four guys right off the bat, He also fought with his stable-mate Yokozuna, before being eliminated by Shawn Michaels. He returned to the ring and assaulted everyone including Shawn Michaels. After assaulting WWF officials on a Monday night Raw, WWF President Gorilla Monsoon demanded that Vader cease his attacks, and received a Vader Bomb for his efforts. Vader was suspended for his actions, in reality Vader took time off to recuperate from a shoulder injury. Jim Cornette campaigned for Vader’s reinstatement, at February’s In Your House PPV, Vader returned during Yokozuna’s match against The British Bulldog. Yokozuna was about to pin The Bulldog, when Vader attacked him, handcuffed him, and delivered a severe beating. This led to what was supposed to be a one-on-one encounter between Vader and Yokozuna at Wrestlemania XII. The match instead became a six-man tag team match consisting of Vader, Owen Hart, and The British Bulldog against Yokozuna, Ahmed Johnson, and Jake Roberts.
Vader went on to feud with Shawn Michaels; Vader attacked Michaels which earned him a spot in a six-man tag team match at In Your House 9. Vader, Owen Hart, and The British Bulldog teamed up against Michaels, Ahmed Johnson, and Sycho Sid. Vader pinned Michaels to win the match for his team. Vader faced Michaels again at SummerSlam, where Vader won by count-out. Cornette, however, realised that the title could not change hands through a count-out and got the match restarted. HBK this time used Cornette’s own racket and struck Vader, this led to another DQ. Again the match was restarted, this time Vader was pinned 1, 2, 3.
Following his unsuccessful run against Michaels, Vader swapped managers, joining forces with Paul Bearer against the Undertaker. Vader and the Undertaker’s feud culminated in a four-way match also featuring Bret Hart and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. For at least one night in the WWF, Vader seemed like his old self, facing off against three of the biggest superstars in WWF history. Vader’s face was the enduring image of the match, as he was busted open the hard way after being whipped into the steps early on and ultimately had to pull off his mask in order to see. While he didn’t win the WWF title that night, Vader had his signature WWF moment.
After unsuccessfully going after the WWF title, Vader teamed with Mick Foley, who was Mankind at the time. Part of what made their team interesting was that they never agreed on anything and would end up brawling between each other during their tag matches. In 1997 Vader again received an opportunity to face The Undertaker this time for the WWF Championship at In Your House 16, but lost. On the following night’s Raw is War, Vader wrestled and lost to The Patriot and then went after Bret Hart, who came to ringside during the match. Vader attacked The Patriot, and then brought him back into the ring, where he went for the Vader Bomb. During his time in the WWF Vader went on to have many different short term feuds with the likes of Goldust, The Hart Foundation, and Kane, Vader’s last match in a WWF ring was on October 25 at a Madison Square Garden house show in a Triple Threat Match with Mankind and Ken Shamrock, which Vader lost after he tapped out to Shamrock’s ankle lock.
Following Vader’s departure from the WWF he travelled back to Japan for stints with AJPW and NOAH. In AJPW he partnered up with former nemesis Stan Hansen, they formed a formidable tag team. In 1999 he defeated Kenta Kobashi to become the No1 contender to the Triple Crown; he eventually won it on March 6th by defeating Akira Taue. He held the title until May 2nd when he dropped it to Misawa; he then once more won the Triple Crown in October before losing the belt to Kobashi, after the title loss Vader allowed himself some time to rest. Vader’s time in Japan was ultimately successful, by winning the Triple Crown he became the first wrestler in history to hold the biggest titles in Japan along with the IWGP title. He also, alongside Steve Williams, captured the All Japan Tag Team Championships, unfortunately due to an injury in April, Vader and Williams had to vacate the titles while he recovered. While Vader rested due to his injuries there was a mass exodus of performers who moved from AJPW to the new kids on the block Pro Wrestling NOAH. Upon his return to wrestling Vader made the decision to sign with NOAH and continue his career. He again had a championship reign in NOAH as he teamed with Too Cold Scorpion; together they became the first wrestlers ever to hold the GHC Tag Team titles. Vader stayed with the company until late 2001, he returned to the United States to work for smaller promotions.
In 2003 Vader returned to mainstream US television as he made his debut for TNA. He briefly feuded with the Harris Brothers along with Dusty Rhodes and also reignited hostilities with Nikita Koloff. His stay in TNA was short and sweet as they soon parted ways. He also returned again briefly for the WWE in 2005, he participated at the Taboo Tuesday PPV assisting Jonathan Coachman. After this brief stint he once more returned to Japan. He wrestled for the World Japan Promotion, HUSTLE and in 2006 Wrestleland. He also made appearances in the US for Jersey All Pro Wrestling. Since 2007 Vader has sporadically performed for multiple promotions in the US & Japan, He made a notable appearance for WWE in 2012 in a nostalgia filled match against Heath Slater, in 2015 he returned to TNA to face Bram in a singles match on Impact TV.
In 2016 he was reintroduced to a new generation of fans via Twitter, after giving his opinion on the widely respected match between Ricochet and Will Ospreay the backlash was huge. Fans and Ospreay himself called out Vader on social media to put his money where his mouth is, and he did just that. On August 12th 2016 Vader arrived in London and appeared at RevPro to accept the challenge of the ‘Aerial Assassin’, he much to the surprise of everyone won the match. He then went on to participate at XWA event where he defeated Sid Scala. In the past year concerns over Vader’s health has been revealed from the man himself, he informed the world on Twitter that he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. The condition has been linked to his Football & Wrestling careers.
There is no argument that Vader is one of the greatest wrestlers ever and without a doubt one of the best big men in the industry. His accomplishments in Japan and WCW made him the legend he is; it’s just unfortunate that WWE fans never got to see his true potential. The WWE seemed to really curb the Vader character; he was nowhere near the unstoppable monster he was in Japan. He also became the first wrestler ever to capture both the IWGP and Triple Crown World Heavyweight titles. There will never be another Vader, his look, agility, skills and accomplishments are unparalleled. In the past, present, future it will always be Vader Time!!!!
Since writing the original piece about the career of Vader much has happened, I have also via YouTube found a great insightful shoot interview with Hannibal TV which is included here. You can check out their twitter @GNWWrestling