wrestling / Columns

Big Van Vader: Reign of Terror

June 21, 2018 | Posted by Dino Zee
Big Vad Vader 3 Vader’s

As is my infinitely-frustrating-to-Boss-Larry practice, I usually wait until the very last minute before writing the weekly column. Sometimes it’s a Tuesday, sometimes it’s a Wednesday, but I like to wait as long as possible before turning something in. Part of that is absolutely due to my procrastination, and love of putting things off until it weighs on you with a crushing mass.

The other part is that I simply like to be as current as possible, which I know is a pretty silly concept for the guy that almost exclusively covers the promotion that tapes weeks and weeks of episodes at a time, but in that little corner of my kayfabe universe, if it hasn’t aired, it hasn’t happened, and I’m okay with that.

This week, I’m almost grateful for this practice. Almost. This morning I woke to the news that Leon White, better known to all of us goons as (Big Van) Vader, had passed away Monday night. I’m happy that I have the opportunity to talk about a man that, when I was a kid, absolutely terrified me.

Vader had been in WCW for about a year or two before he really made his big splash. During that time, he would simply show up and beat the crap out of some helpless preliminary talent, like Pat Rose. And even then, the dude was almost mystical in his presence. Granted, in 1990 I was still 9 years old, but the man looked like he didn’t have a conscience.

Plus, you know, he had that badass mask that was the stuff of nightmares.

Before he ever touched Sting, Vader had built up this reputation amongst me and my classmates as being unbeatable, and having some insane moves. Everything he did was bone-crushing and soul-stealing. Big slams, all manners of splashes, vicious strikes, and a powerbomb that seemed so much more powerful than ones done by his contemporaries at the time.

He was, in a sport where nothing can truly be considered one, a guarantee of a future champion. There was nobody, in our eyes at least, that could stand with him. And so, when he began that feud with Sting – that feud that, 26 years later still feels so incredible when I recall it – it was only a matter of time before he rose to the very top of World Championship Wrestling.

It should also be noted that the two of them – Sting and Vader – were simply magic together. Sting’s athleticism allowed him to keep up with Vader’s incredibly stiff approach to professional wrestling. Neither would be bullied by the other, neither was intimidated by the other, and both were looking to prove their worth to the company in a post-Flair world.

When Vader defeated Sting for the WCW Title, it almost sucked the life out of us. Not because it had happened, but because of how it happened. Sting had his moments, sure, but he was practically dominated by his massive opponent. We had never seen anyone do that to Sting before. Not by Flair, not by Rude, not even by Sid Vicious. Vader was clearly a different breed, and we just weren’t properly prepared for just how good he truly was. Putting Sting in the Scorpion Deathlock was the exact moment we knew that our guy was in trouble.

Vader would rule over WCW for the rest of 1992, and almost the entirety of 1993. Brief hiccup losses to Ron Simmons and Sting would be his only blemishes, and he’d quickly avenge those losses and regain the belt.

He seemed unstoppable. We were talking about who would win between Yokozuna and Vader (Vader, duh), because it appeared that there was absolutely no one on the WCW roster that could beat him and keep him down.

And then a funny thing happened at Starrcade at the end of the year.

Vader let his guard down, and the Greatest of All Time made him pay. They would have a rematch at SuperBrawl IV in February, which saw Flair win a Thundercage match after some questionable shenanigans by new WCW arrival and referee, The Boss(man).

From that point on, Vader would seem to lose a bit of his aura, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t still a terrifying man. He mauled The Boss (who would go on to change his alias to The Guardian Angel) in match after match in 1994, in a series that I quite enjoyed as a kid. Ray Traylor was a fun big man, and could definitely hang with Vader and his pace.

The arrival of Hulk Hogan pushed him further back in the title picture, but we all knew that a Hogan/Vader showdown was going to happen. There was no way Hogan could keep the hungry former champion away for long. And it’d be such a great collision, too!

Unfortunately, Hogan did the Hogan thing, and Vader was left treading water until he left WCW and headed to the WWF.

And the WWF would try to remind us all who this man was.

Vader and the WWF just didn’t mix completely, however. You can blame Shawn Michaels, or Vader not being a WWF creation, or anything else, but it just didn’t ever completely gel in the same way it did while he was in WCW. Still, I’d consider Vader’s WWF run an overall success. He got to main event SummerSlam, he had incredible matches with Shawn Michaels, Mankind, and Undertaker, and provided a nice test for a new guy like Mark Henry to learn his way.

But even as that was coming to an end, the internet was allowing us youngsters to actually see some of the history that we had read about for so long. Like, hey, did you know that Vader once had an eyeball pop out during a match, and he kept on wrestling?

And like that, the mystique was restored to levels even higher than his 1992/93 rampage. The man was tough. The man inspired legitimate fear, and concern for the well-being of everyone he wrestled. He was involved in so many great – and important – moments, too.

Sitting here now, just looking up his achievements, it’s clear that those of us who saw him witnessed one of the greats. Easily the most impressive big man wrestler, with his moonsaults and Vader Bombs to go with his lariats and elbow drops.

A two-time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion in All Japan. Three-time IWGP Champion. Three-time WCW World Heavyweight Champion. A United States Championship reign. Tag Team Championships in Japan with Steve Williams and Bam Bam Bigelow. He was a juggernaut of the 90’s, and even when he was past his prime, he was still content to show up and ply his trade, be it in Japan for NOAH, for TNA, or even for quick appearances in WWE.

At the end of the day, as I usually do, all I can say is thank you. Thank you to Leon White for sharing Vader with us. Thank you to his family for sharing the man with us. Thank you for all the moments, for all the vicious beatings, and for all the panic attacks.

I’m lucky to have witnessed Vader Time.

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Big Van Vader:, Dino Zee