Leon White, known around the globe as Big Van Vader, passed away earlier this week after a bout with pneumonia that complicated his already extensive heart problems.
White’s family confirmed the news on his official twitter account, revealing that his death followed a month in the hospital because of the previously mentioned pneumonia. Sadly, the news of his passing was less than two years after he announced publicly that doctors informed him that he didn’t have long to live when it was discovered that he had numerous heart problems.
The career of Leon White is as extensive and accomplished as it is sometimes complex and misunderstood. A standout center on the gridiron for the University of Colorado, the native of Boulder was a two-time All-American that was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round in 1978. After just two seasons in the NFL, he was forced into retirement as a result of a serve knee injury, but played in Superbowl XIV that saw the Steelers defeat the Rams.
As a highly-touted prospect from his time in football, White had the athleticism, but needed a new venture to apply his skills. Brad Rheingans, an extremely accomplished Olympic Greco-Roman amateur, recruited him to learn the craft of professional wrestling. Through Rheingans’ association with Verne Gagne’s AWA, White got his start in the industry in 1985. Despite the inexperience, his size and football background garnered him a push in the AWA, which eventually got him noticed by Otto Wanz, the promoter of the Catch Wrestling Association in Europe. Debuting there in 1986, Leon White actually took part in a very unique aspect of history when he defeated Wanz for the CWA title at an AWA event in 1987, making it the only time that the championship was switched outside of Europe. White’s stay in the AWA was relatively brief, as he worked for the Minneapolis-based promotion during the latter stages of its existence, and was offered a much more intriguing opportunity that had a profound impact on his career.
New Japan Pro Wrestling was in the middle of an intense rivalry with All Japan in the 80s and looked to create another money-drawing star to counter the competition. After a few names were discussed, Leon White was chosen as the athlete to portray the Vader gimmick, a character based on mythical Japanese traditions. Wearing an ominous helmet that emitted smoke on cue, Vader made his NJPW debut in 1987, defeating Antonio Inoki in just minutes. As the company’s founder, Inoki had legendary status in his home country and the virtual squash match infuriated the crowd. The audience at the Sumo Hall threw garbage at the ring in protest to their hero’s defeat. For Leon White, Japan was ultimately the place where he developed the stiff style that he used to define his legacy. Granted, some might call it reckless, but Vader’s very physical, hard-hitting style was one of the reasons that he became a star around the globe, winning championships in different countries throughout his career.
Vader’s smash-mouth style made him a top draw in Japan, often drawing sell out crowds during his initial run there, but it also took a toll on his body. During a bout in early 1990 against Stan Hansen, the infamous “eye pop out” incident happened when Vader suffered facial fractures before a club to the face from Hansen accidentally knocked Vader’s eye out of the socket. The IWGP Heavyweight champion pushed his eye back into place, but surgery was required to repair the damage. Still, the match with Hansen got Vader noticed by WCW and after he recovered from the injury, he debuted for the promotion at The Great American Bash that year. While working full-time in New Japan, he appeared occasionally for WCW until he began a full schedule for the Turner organization in 1992, concluding his original run in Japan as a former three-time IWGP champion.
The next three years contributed much to Vader’s reputation in America as a brute with incredible agility, landing a moonsault from the top rope as a trademark move at over 400 LBS. He won the WCW World Heavyweight championship three times and worked as a main event star for a majority of that era. In fact, regardless of the criticism of his recklessness at times, Vader’s involvement helped make the career of many competitors that went on to become major stars. When Cactus Jack took risky bumps to secure a contract with World Championship Wrestling in the early 90s, it was brutal bouts against Vader that really elevated him to the next level. During Ric Flair’s two-year hiatus from the Tuner group after a dispute with former Pizza Hut executive, Jim Herd, it was Sting that had to step up as the top star for the organization. Sting’s series of bouts with the monster really did solidify him as a main event performer. Another very well-known example was when Ron Simmons pinned Vader to become the first African American world champion, a classic moment that had those in the audience crying tears of joy as Simmons made history.
On the flip side, Leon White was also known for being difficult to work with and that sometimes caused friction throughout his career. While the early 90s were arguably the best run of his career in terms of his in-ring performances and the big paydays he made, the WCW business was in a slump, as a revolving door of executives changed the direction of the company often, making it difficult for the organization to generate momentum.
The previously mentioned Jim Herd should’ve continued to make bread sticks, and when former Mid-South owner, Bill Watts was signed to replace Herd, the cowboy was too far behind the times and too uncooperative to work within the Turner structure. By the time Eric Bischoff took over as Executive Vice President in 1994, he knew he had to completely change the image of WCW, which meant an investment in more well-known stars from the WWF, such as Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. As a result of all this, some of the best work of Vader’s career in America either went under the radar or was simply lost in the shuffle when other stars arrived. Another problem that surfaced was that Vader’s weight ballooned at various times during the later part of his full-time career. He was still very agile for his size, but the excess weight undoubtedly took a toll on his body, which ultimately cut the prime of his career short.
In mid-1995, Vader reached a point of frustration, as his once monstrous persona was downgraded in some ways when his series of matches with Hulk Hogan earlier that year featured the Hulkster no-sell some of his trademark moves. The matches made Hulk look like a hero, and Vader was reduced to just another monster for him to slay. During a TV taping, Leon White got into a physical altercation with Paul Orndorff, who worked as an agent for the company after a serious neck injury ended his career. The details of the backstage brawl depend on who you ask, but the scuffle led to Vader’s eventual release from WCW.
Before he surfaced in the WWF, Leon White made a one-off return to New Japan for a rematch against Antonio Inoki at the Tokyo Dome, drawing 54,000 fans to witness Inoki’s victory in January of 1996. Just a few weeks later, Vader made his WWF debut in the Royal Rumble match on pay-per-view, but made an even more impactful start to his career on Raw the next night. Gorilla Monsoon, a legendary grappler and one of the most respected figures in the history of the industry, was the on-air president of the company at the time. After wrestling, promoting, and announcing for the previous few decades, Monsoon was nearing retirement so as a way to write him off of the show, Vader attacked the honorable Monsoon in one of the most memorable moments in the history of WWF TV. The fact that nobody dared to put their hands on such a respected figure made it that much more effective when Vader attacked. He was suspended in the storyline so that he could get shoulder surgery before he began to compete regularly for the company.
Unfortunately, despite the memorable start, Vader’s run in the WWF was a total flop for a variety of reasons. The more exposure he had in the United States was probably also the most underwhelming stage of his career. More than anything, his physical style wasn’t compatible with the WWF and he wasn’t able to adapt to the environment. His tendency to complain didn’t do him any favors either. Plus, the series of injuries prior to his arrival caught up with him and he gained weight again before he asked for his release in late-1998.
Leon White knew he needed a fresh start and slimmed down considerably before he had a stint in Japan that rejuvenated his career. This time under the All Japan banner, Vader had another big run in 1999 and won the All Japan title on two occasions. Eventually, he transitioned to the newly-formed NOAH in 2000 and had notable matches with Misawa. He and 2 Cold Scorpio formed a tag team and won the GHC tag team titles. He more or less retired from full-time competition in 2003, working random independent matches on a rare occasion or the sporadic Japan tour since that time. In 2012, he made a surprise one-night return to the WWE and defeated Heath Slater for a nice response from the crowd.
The reduced schedule allowed for Vader to heal his body, which saw him lose weight and quit drinking. However, some of the damage was already done from the years of punishment he took in the ring, and he developed serious health problems later in his life. As mentioned earlier, he tweeted in November of 2016 that doctors told him that he had less than two years to live. Earlier year, he was involved in a social media dispute with Will Ospreay about the British aerial wrestler’s thrilling match against Ricochet in New Japan. The veteran criticized the performance, and it led to a match against Ospreay in England. Unfortunately, Vader refused to lose the match and was reportedly very difficult to work with when the show took place.
I’m not sure what Vader’s motivation was for shoehorning himself into a match with one of the best aerial wrestlers of the current generation. Hopefully, he wasn’t doing it for the money, considering how much he made during the course of his nearly 30-year career as a full-time competitor. It would also be disappointing if Vader was still seeking the spotlight at 62 years old because he was already known as a legend. But, in some ways, it’s understandable because many grapplers from that era give their lives to the industry and some view their legacy as all they have to show for it. Maybe Leon White still searched for that validation? Clearly, he didn’t have to because his peers and fans recognized his legacy. It’s sad that Leon White passed away at a relatively young age, but Vader certainly reached legendary status around the globe during an accomplished and extensive career.
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