Wednesday, June 20, 2018

RIP Big Van Vader

The best big man in wrestling history has passed away
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Leon White, known best as Big Van Vader, has passed away at the age of 63. According to his son using his Twitter, White died Monday night after a protracted bout with pneumonia. He is survived by his two children and his ex-wife. White was most famous for his main event runs in New Japan Pro Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling, but he wrestled for several notable companies in his career. He is and will forever be known as the prototypical modern hoss, a superheavyweight wrestler whose agility put him in a class with wrestlers a quarter of his size.

White began his adult life as a football player. He was an All-American offensive lineman at the University of Colorado and had a short career in the National Football League with the Los Angeles Rams. After his NFL career ended, he began to train for a wrestling career. He got his start in the American Wrestling Association, but he gained his biggest early notoriety in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He rose to the main event, capturing the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and gaining the attention of WCW. He was an awesome force of nature in the early '90s, terrorizing WCW with big feuds against Sting, Ric Flair, and most famously Cactus Jack. His matches against Mick Foley's most hardcore persona were renowned for bloody violence. It was in this feud where Foley lost part of his ear. Around this time, he also dabbled in acting, not only as a foil to Hulk Hogan in his Thunder in Paradise series, but on Boy Meets World, where he played the father of one of main character Corey Matthews' classmates.

Vader left WCW and went to WWE, where political machinations left him floundering creatively, especially against Shawn Michaels. The most notable portion of his WWE career came when the company toured Kuwait and he flipped over a table on a talk show when asked if wrestling was fake. He was detained and fined for the outburst. After leaving WWE, Vader would bounce around various promotions, including All-Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and TNA. Most recently, he got into a feud with Will Ospreay that started as a Twitter beef that turned into a date for Revolution Pro Wrestling where he beat Ospreay in a match. He revealed last year that he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure from the toll years of wrestling and football put on his body. He received surgery and hoped to continue his career into his twilight years.

Vader had a relatively brief time on top of the wrestling world. Thanks to an ill-advised in hindsight jump to WWE, his career was stopped nearly in its tracks. The damage the feud with Michaels did to his character was huge, and it remains one of the most egregious booking decisions of the tail end of the New Generation. Remember Vader not for his time in WWE except for the rare bright spots. Remember him for how titanic he was for two influential and successful companies in the early '90s, where he was the closest approximation to a real life version of The Juggernaut as one could get. The footage is easily accessible. Massive amounts of WCW footage is available on WWE Network, and New Japan World's archives are sure to contain some gems. Just be warned that if you come across a match between the big man and Stan Hansen, you might see the infamous moment where his eye pops out of its socket.

Whenever someone dies, the urge to lay superlatives at their feet is great, but with Vader, those superlatives are deserved. The amount of influence he has even today is staggering. Anytime you see a big guy head up to the top to do more than a splash or a headbutt, that's Vader living in his head and guiding him. Anytime someone just goes in hard with clubbing, swinging arms or throwing their body with no caution whatsoever, that wrestler is trying to do Leon White proud. I don't know if Vader is the most influential wrestler ever, but I'm struggling to come up with individual names that would compete with him.

Dying at age 63 is still a bit too young nowadays, even for a guy his size. Still, the amount of work he put into his wrestling career up to the very end was worthy of praise and hagiography. Very few wrestlers can say they left the same mark on the business that he did, and that's why the news of his passing feels like it has left a meteor-sized crater in the hearts and minds of wrestling fans all over the globe. Rest in peace, Big Van Vader. Rest in power.