Monday, August 3, 2015

Piper and the Edge

Moments like these highlighted Piper's dedication to controversy
Photo Credit:
Roddy Piper was a part of several of the most memorable angles in wrestling history, but not all of them were remembered positively. WWE likes to say wrestlers are "controversial" without ever saying why or embracing the definition of the word. CM Punk was "controversial" because he said scandalous things about Vince McMahon and Triple H as characters, but what did he do that was really edgy, like, genuinely edgy?

Piper, as a comparison, skirted the line as a rule, and while many wrestling fans counted him as a favorite, whether as a hero or a villain, he offended a lot of people, even before wrestling even started getting caught up with the times in terms of diversity. The most prominent example of times he's missed the mark was at WrestleMania VI, when he painted half his body black in feuding against a mixed-race wrestler in Bad News Brown. But the WrestleMania III feud with Adrian Adonis felt a little embarrassing, and even his finest moment as a WWE employee, the legendary Piper's Pit where he babyfaced Jimmy Snuka, felt a little on the offensive side when he hit a Pacific Islander with a coconut.

To discuss his legacy without noting the times he messed up would be to do it a disservice, to be honest. Piper had warts, but did they define him? It's a hard question, and for those whom Piper's antics hit hardest, the memories may or may not be as flowery and happy. That elephant in the room has to be addressed because Piper and anyone who booked him had to know that was a true result for what he did. I don't think that makes him a bad performer, but those wrinkles come with the territory for a truly controversial wrestler.

Much in the same way that WWE can't really walk back ever knowing who Hulk Hogan was or is because of the racist things he said, Piper's negatives can't be divorced from his legacy. But in a business that demands controversy, Piper delivered it in spades. He didn't half-ass it, which is why he generated such a reaction in either direction. It's easy to say he was a product of the kind of wrestling industry he existed within, but it's definitely true.

As wrestling grows with society, and believe me, society is still moving glacially, can someone like Piper thrive in today's industry? Of course, but that person won't survive doing the exact same things Piper did and said. Art can skirt the edge without seeming damaging, but if film and theater and music have trouble finding that edge, then wrestling, especially when most if not all promoters have that "make a buck" mentality (which to be fair, may be the only way to survive when wrestling promotions aren't getting the same grants and room to fail that other arts have), is never going to have incentive to try.

In that respect, Piper was one of a kind, and yes, he should be remembered as one of the greats. He can and probably should be remembered fondly if that's the impression he left on you. At the same time, remembering anyone with a perfect ledger is a foolhardy venture, and additionally, thinking warts and mistakes make someone terrible or not worth remembering is even more of a ninny's errand. But when someone is truly controversial, that person doesn't necessarily need to be liked to be respected. Then again, the consensus seems to be that Piper is beloved, and that maybe folks can separate art from humanity a little more easily than what is expected.