Friday, August 7, 2015

Roddy Piper: Larger Than Life, Unbelievable in Death

Piper was larger than life, and it's hard to believe he's really dead
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When I heard Roddy Piper passed away a week ago today, I didn't believe it. I thought it was another one of those hoaxes, and then when it started to look like it was true, I thought it was part of an elaborate work. He would show up on the live Steve Austin interview with Paige after RAW and smack him with a chair, setting up a big podcast feud. He couldn't die. He was just going to be around forever, one of those staples who'd always be there to come and do a Piper's Pit or ham it up on an inevitable future season of Legends House. This death was just another stunt by the second greatest actor in wrestling history, the second greatest worker, worker not in the sense that the community at large uses it to describe a wrestler's in-ring game. Guys in the business use the term "worker" to refer to someone's who can pull the wool over the fans' eyes, who can work them, if you will.

Of course, the greatest actor/worker in wrestling history is also dead. I also refuse to believe that Andy Kaufman is really dead. He was method as fuck in all facets of his career, whether in his lounge singer persona Tony Clifton or as Latka Gravas, or especially in a wrestling ring. If anyone was in it for the art and not the money, it was Kaufman. Piper had a similar vibe around him too. Of course, to say Piper was never in it for the money would be a lie. He was always doing something to get paid, even after his main WWE/WCW career was over, he would be milling around conventions, taking indie dates, showing up on the odd RAW here or there.

But it always felt something deeper drove Piper. He wasn't the mercenary that many of his peers appeared to be. Hulk Hogan probably would have worn a clown suit and read copy for Mountain Dew in the middle of a promo if the price was right. He was a company man, and in many ways, he still is, even as the company is trying to scrub his legacy. But Piper had some semblance of standards. As many have pointed out, from Dylan Hales to Dave Meltzer, his sense of loyalty made him stand up to Vince McMahon and refuse to work WWE shows in Portland and the Carolinas, the two territories who gave Piper some of his biggest breaks. He was staunchly for unionization, even as McMahon vised down harder and harder every year on his wrestlers. He walked away from the WWE when he felt like he needed to. Yet, every time he took a sabbatical, he was welcomed back with eager arms because he was special. He knew which buttons to push, and every time, he gave McMahon and WWE what they wanted. He, like Kaufman, was method as fuck.

It can be hard to discern who in wrestling is a method actor and who actually believes they are the characters they portray. Nearly anyone who's ever met Piper can attest that he took so much time to make any fan who met him feel like they were his friend. If you haven't read Brandon Stroud's anecdote in Best and Worst this week, do so now. That kind of person can't just turn on kindness and have it come off sincere. Wrestlers usually are good to their fans as a rule; yes, it's a generalization, but it's one that seems to bear out. But you can tell which ones are being cool because they have to and which ones are being cool because that's who they are. Piper fell into the latter category.

For as warm as Piper could be, he still always felt larger than life, because that side of him is what people saw most of the time. That Piper was insane yet calculating. He was always in control even when his actions didn't make any sense. He quipped and he quipped some more, and he always had a snappy comeback for anyone who dared question him. He was the edgy loner, and his portrayal of it felt immortal.

With Dusty Rhodes, while his death also came as a shock, it felt final. Rhodes, however, for as big a personality as he was and for how much he meant to wrestling and to his fans, felt like a father, or an avuncular figure at the very least. No one wants their dad to die, but in a just world, one where no parent ever has to bury a child, the children will always have to bury their fathers. While Piper's fans loved him (and I can say without any hesitation that I loved Piper as much as a man who never knew him personally could love a character on television), his devotion came from a different place. People felt awe for Piper. His character projected immortality, and thus, it's hard to believe he really could be gone.

But the cold truth is that the Hot Rod's fire has gone out, and even if he is functionally immortal however long his wrestling footage exists, for as long as They Live remains in circulation and people still watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he will have no chances to add to his legacy. That fact makes the wrestling world, the pop culture world, the world in general a colder place, and that's high praise for a man who was paid to piss people off for a living. Sometimes, he took it too far for real and legit pissed people off, but the reason his flaws are so visible and memorable is because he was larger than life.

But even the titans are mortal, even if it takes awhile to realize it. Piper is not going to pop up again, changing the questions when everyone else thinks they have the answers, and that sucks. But he left a mark on the world, indelible, unchangeable, everlasting. Thanks for everything, Hot Rod. Rest in peace. Rest in power.