Saturday, August 1, 2015

RIP Rowdy Roddy Piper

The greatest villain, and one of the greatest talkers, gone
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Rowdy Roddy Piper, the greatest villain in professional wrestling history, passed away late Thursday/early Friday in his sleep at the age of 61. The cause of death was ruled as cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife, Kitty Toombs, and four children, including aspiring professional wrestler and mixed-martial arts fighter Colt Toombs. Piper leaves behind a rich legacy, if a bit checkered at times, in professional wrestling as well as in acting. However, regardless of anything else, Piper was one of the most effective performers for his unpredictability and his outrageousness, a quality that sometimes got him in trouble but many times was able to get crowds worked into the hottest froths, either for his opponents or sometimes for himself.

Piper first came into prominence on the west coast, mainly in the Los Angeles and Portland territories. In LA, he was an eternal thorn in the side of the Guerrero family, honing a villainous persona that needled the Latino superstars. In Portland, he was perhaps the biggest key to Don Owen's critically-acclaimed territory from the Pacific Northwest owning the hearts and minds of not only the local fans, but of wrestling observers around the country. His legend came east, and he got regular bookings in the Mid-Atlantic region. He participated in a heated feud against Greg "The Hammer" Valentine over the National Wrestling Alliance United States Championship, culminating in one of the most violent matches in wrestling history, a dog collar match where both wrestlers bled buckets. Piper himself suffered permanent hearing damage in the match.

Then, he would come into the focus of Vince McMahon, who snapped him to be the foil to his fledgling movement called Hulkamania. Without Piper, Hulk Hogan may have succeeded, but would he have reached the heights he did, especially early on? It is hard to imagine. His legend grew too unwieldy to remain a villain, and the fans began to cheer him. He had several feuds, though none as memorable as his tilts against Hogan and Mr. T through the first two WrestleMania events (the Mr. T feud was notable for real life tensions and bad feelings). His next great in-ring feud in the WWE was against Bret "The Hitman" Hart at WrestleMania VIII, which culminated in another match known for its blood.

Piper took a few years off from the ring as was his wont, returned to WWE for a couple of years where he feuded with Goldust at WrestleMania XII, and then he, like many other WWE stars of the '80s, jumped to World Championship Wrestling. He again was an antagonist to Hogan, only this time as a no-nonsense cutter through the nWo's bullshit into Starrcade '96. However, his run in WCW wasn't nearly as eventful as others who mad the jump, despite lasting in the company until 2001.

He went back to WWE twice, first in 2003, and then after a short stint in TNA in 2005 for good. He signed a Legends contract, made sporadic appearances, mostly do reprise his role in the iconic interview segment Piper's Pit. He would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005 in the Hulk Hogan-themed class that also included his eternal rival, Jimmy Hart, Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Cowboy Bob Orton, and Paul Orndorff. Even as his health declined, his spirit was as fiery as ever. Any time he appeared on RAW was appointment viewing.

Like many other of his peers among wrestling alumni, Piper started his own podcast, which he got on the Podcast One Network. After a tiff with Steve Austin, Piper's show was removed from the podcast conglomerate, and WWE cancelled his Legends contract. Something appeared to be wrong with the Rowdy Canadian Scot, even by his standards (which to be fair, he's always been an erratic individual), but he still remained as feisty as ever. He had other podcast appearances lined up, and he gave impassioned comments in defense of Hogan in the wake of his racial slur scandal.

I would imagine that Piper will not be remembered for the turbulence at the end of his life. Rather, he will be recalled as one of the most effective and beloved talkers of all-time. No one was better at lighting a fuse and inciting a crowd. His charisma was preternatural, matched only perhaps by fellow deceased-before-his-time '80s WWE megastar Randy Savage, and it helped him become perhaps the most decorated crossover star from wrestling into acting with the exception of The Rock.

To wrestling fans, Piper may be remembered fondly for his exploits while those cameras were rolling. However, he made another indelible mark on pop culture at large, first in the late '80s cult classic film They Live, where Piper had several quotable lines ("I'm here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I'm all out of bubblegum.") and one of the most legendary fight scenes in cinematic history. His acting roles may have skewed to B-movies, but he would come back to be the absolute best guest star in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia history as Da Maniac. He appeared in the iconic pro wrestling episode, which is on the shortlist of best episodes in the show's run, and he followed it up with another great appearance in the last season.

Piper's death has left an unimaginable hole in pro wrestling and pop culture all the same. If you're reading this blog, your life has been touched by Piper in some way, whether directly as a fan, or through his influence. Modern heels all over the continent try to emulate him to varying results, but even the best will admit that they don't do it as good as the Rowdy One did. His influence is even felt in the MMA world, as Ronda Rousey has taken the "Rowdy" moniker in his honor. Piper was a true titan, and in the grand tradition, the next week on TWB will be Piper Week.

But I would give all the tributes and all the great words to have Piper back. The age of 61 is too young to go. Rest in peace, Rowdy Roddy Piper. You're gonna be missed. A lot.