R.I.P. VADER – The Best Big Man Around

For roughly the first five to seven years of my wrestling fandom, I was exclusively a WWE (then WWF) kid. Part of this was the WWF’s ubiquity – it was on everything from trading cards to ice cream bars. Sure, I’d get glimpses of people like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes in the non-WWF magazines I’d read, but without the benefit of the internet, and being located in Canada where there were really no other wrestling options on television beyond WWF Superstars on Saturdays, the WWF’s main competitor WCW was almost completely off my radar.

That is, until the day that I found, completely by accident, that WCW’s main weekly show – Worldwide – was being carried on a local Canadian TV channel. I can’t say I was hooked from the start, since to my eyes people like Sting and Lex Luger were flea-market knockoffs of the WWF stars I loved, like the Ultimate Warrior and Randy Savage.

And then I saw Big Van Vader. Imagine it. A gigantic man, even by 1990’s pro wrestling standards, in jet-black armour and a helmet that made him look like a robotic mastodon. As he walked slowly and deliberately down the aisle, towering over the crowd, he’d stop, wait a beat, and the armour would shoot plumes of steam into the air. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, up to that moment. But that didn’t last long, because that cool moment was supplanted when Vader would step between the ropes and do things that no person of his size should rightfully be able to do. Here was a legitimately four hundred pound slab of beef doing a moonsault (a backwards flip off the ropes) and other high-flying moves that are normally reserved for wrestlers half his size, and in that era, even that was rare. I was in awe.

With the mastodon armour giving him all the aura of a video game villain (Vader was the inspiration for both Fatal Fury’s ‘Raiden’ character, and ‘Alexander The Grater’ in the Saturday Night Slam Masters series), Vader was both the Platonic ideal of a wrestling “heel”, huge and menacing, and something very unique with his scarily agile moveset and offense. There was also the fact that his offense in matches looked very real, because it often was. Vader was a notoriously ‘stiff’ worker, laying his punches and throws in heavily enough to legitimately injure his opponents.

Because his peak in WCW was in the early 90’s, Vader did his fair share of hokey drama between matches. His turn as a pro wrestler on Boy Meets World wasn’t exactly a stretch, but it was still memorable. Most, if not all, of this would fall squarely into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory, but to my unspoiled eyes, the White Castle Of Fear was Oscar-worthy.

It seems that every wrestler from that time period has a story about Vader, some good, some bad, depending on the mood you caught him in. There are a hundred stories about Vader snapping on a Kuwaiti reporter for asking if wrestling was real, being fired from WCW for a legitimate fight with Paul Orndorff, and of course the stories of his legendary toughness, like the time Stan Hansen hit Vader the wrong way, literally knocking out his eyeball, and Vader popped it right back in and continued the match (it happens about four minutes in).

So I sit here, watching Vader matches on the WWE Network and NJPW World, and I think about my childhood self, watching some of those original matches on a tube TV in my parents basement. The things Vader does, just the paradoxical idea of a high-flying but massive guy, are a little more commonplace these days, but only a little. Watching Vader have outstanding matches that by all rights should be awful, like perhaps the only great strap match (a famously-terrible match variant where the two opponents are tethered together with a long leather belt) against Sting at Superbrawl in 1993, have much of the same aura and the same effect they had on me as a kid.  Big Van Vader was everything you could ever expect from a ‘big man’ wrestler, and then some.

Rest In Peace, big guy.

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