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Looking At The Career of Vader

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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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzFR9T29PoQ&w=560&h=315]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IB8DYpLAIfs&w=560&h=315]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFU416cWOgk&w=560&h=315]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49yZUIcMkzQ&w=560&h=315]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znOdXmOHiOc&w=560&h=315]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsQkzFGD61U&w=560&h=315]

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6eery9_irA&w=560&h=315]

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.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

For daily pro wrestling coverage — visit FightBoothPW.com

NJPW

Kenny Omega booked for Chicago ‘Global Wars’ show for first IWGP US title defense

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Ring of Honor announced a bonus date to their second American Global Wars tour of the year earlier today. In addition to Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Columbus, the honorable ring will also be headed to Chicago and they’ll be bringing one of New Japan’s biggest stars.

Kenny Omega will make the first defense of his IWGP United States Heavyweight Title in Chicago on October 15th against a yet to be named opponent. Omega won the title against Tomohiro Ishii in the finals of a 8-man tournament in Long Beach earlier this month.

As per usual, the Global Wars tour will feature stars from Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling. The Odeum Expo Center in Villa Park, which is technically right outside of Chicago, will be the final stop on the tour; tickets go on sale this Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET for ROH ringside members and at 10 a.m. ET Friday for the general public. You can get more details on Ring of Honor’s official website.

image credit – RING OF HONOR

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Kevin Kelly and Don Callis: New Japan’s secret weapon in taking over North America

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The first week of the G1 Climax 27 tournament is in the books and the buzz surrounding New Japan Pro Wrestling is building to a roar. After a spectacular string of shows in the first half of 2017 and hot on the heels of their successful G1 Climax in USA specials (the first of which was broadcast live across North America) NJPW has planted its flag in the States in bold fashion and declared its intent to return with force in 2018. And while NJPW will likely never surpass WWE in terms of “sports entertainment,” those that run the Tokyo promotion are positioning it as the number one wrestling promotion in the world. The mainstream fan is starting to take note.

But why now?

NJPW didn’t appear out of the ether, after all. This is a company with a 45 year history, and even casual fans of “sports entertainment” have heard of the company. The popularity of the Bullet Club and WWE’s high-profile signings of AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson to WWE contracts over the last 12+ months have forced WWE announcers to acknowledge that promotions other than WWE do, in fact, exist.

The internet, too, has played a massive role in NJPW’s latest rise. Whether it is the advent of the NJPW World streaming service–a service that is less polished than “The Network” but no less bursting with legendary content–or the ubiquitous and near-constant background hum of social media, Japan no longer seems far away. New Japan’s 45 years of content is more or less readily available and easily accessible to the English-speaking world with a couple clicks of the mouse.

Despite all the technological advances and bold business plans, New Japan’s current North American success boils down to one thing: people. The gaijin working for NJPW are true believers and they are working harder than ever–both in and out of the ring–to evangelize New Japan’s hard-hitting, athletic style of pro wrestling. They’re a new generation of wrestlers that are less concerned with the relics of a carny past and more concerned with creating a future in wrestling that is filled with viable opportunities for wrestlers of all stripes and styles. A future where success or failure isn’t measured by the relative popularity of a run in WWE.

Kevin Kelly and Don Callis, New Japan’s English announce team, are leading the charge. Kelly, a longtime announcer and interviewer with WWE and Ring of Honor, began calling New Japan Shows in 2015. Callis, better know to mainstream wrestling fans as The Jackal or Cyrus, was hired on the recommendation of Kenny Omega to replace Steve Corino on color commentary in January 2017. And while Corino (and to an extent, Matt Striker before him) were perfectly serviceable, Kelly and Callis have quickly turned into NJPW’s secret weapon in the war to take North America.

Callis, in particular, deserves a tremendous amount of praise for his work. What he has done since January has been nothing short of amazing. While his first few shows were a bit rough, Callis knows that an announcer’s job is to put the wrestlers over. To hilarious effect, Callis does so by weighing each and every minute he calls against the two things he loves the most: Kenny Omega and himself.

It’s genius, in large part because it isn’t shtick.

His unapologetic love and respect for Kenny Omega is the centerpiece of Callis’ announcing. It is through that lens he is able to convey not only Omega’s virtuosity, but talent and ability of every other wrestler on the roster. Whether Omega is involved in a match or not, Callis is quick to bring him up and craft a narrative that revolves around Omega and his fellow gaijin in Bullet Club.

Like a 21st Century Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Callis has an uncanny ability to make everything about him. Callis constantly injects himself into the narrative of nearly every match. Whether it is literally running away from Minoru Suzuki during Suzuki’s entrance, talking about partying with Bullet Club in Roppongi, or railing against “The Office” for being second-rate shysters, Callis is constantly giving the viewer information not only about the match in front of him, but about the larger NJPW meta-narrative. His little details and asides are the color for which the position of color-commentary was created.

Callis wouldn’t be nearly as successful without Kevin Kelly on play-by-play. Kelly is better than most when it comes to calling the action in the ring, but his true talent is knowing when to lead, when to follow and when to simply get out-of-the-way. He’s the perfect counterpart for Callis. They never range too far afield, and even at their most absurd they never lose sight of the sport-based presentation of the NJPW product. The end result is a Japanese story told from a North American perspective. It is subtle, it is genius and it had added a level of drama and accessibility to New Japan shows that transcends the action in the ring while never shifting focus from it.

If the first week of the G1 is any indication, the roster knows that the eyes of the wrestling world are on them. The first few days of matches have been top-notch. There is an intensity, an urgency to the action that leaps from the screen. These athletes know they are on the cusp of taking their company to the next level–on their terms–and they are doing everything in their power to put NJPW over the top. Gaijin talent is being showcased, but never at the expense of homegrown Japanese stars. And the Japanese talent continues to shine, with legends like Yuji Nagata and Minoru Suzuki delivering matches that were equal parts drama and athletic exhibition.

New Japan is firing on all cylinders and is showing no signs of slowing down. If they can maintain the drama and momentum of the first week of the G1 over the next three weeks, their stock will continue to rise in North America. With every amazing match, every GIF, every re-tweet from a WWE talent, NJPW is insinuating itself into the North American mainstream. Strong style is coming. And it won’t be denied.

This article comes to us via Zachary Matzo – give him a follow on Twitter @perch15

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Remembering Daryl Takahashi

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A tragedy occurred during day four of this year’s G1 Climax and it has sent fans of Hiromu Takahashi’s lovable Mochineko plush doll, Daryl, into utter shock and heartache. As you’ll see in the video below, Bad Luck Fale ripped Daryl into pieces during 6-man tag match between Los Ingobernables de Japon and Bullet Club. It’s with heavy hearts that we share the following video.

WARNING: This video is extremely graphic.

Here is a mix of Twitter reactions and messages fans of Daryl have sent us that we’d like to share to celebrate the life of this young creature that gave us so much happiness:

I was so distraught when Mr. Belt was taken from Hiromu. I didn’t think anything in life would ever be okay again. But then, along came Daryl. Daryl helped not only Hiromu, but all of the LIJ fans cope with the loss of Mr. Belt. The sun isn’t shining today, out of respect for the loss of someone who was too good and pure for our world. RIP Daryl. – @J_VFrankenstein

I loved Daryl so much I got my own Daryl from Hamee. Fale sucks. I especially enjoyed the way Hiromu treated Daryl like family.@jolietjake


This video of Hirmou and Daryl getting their hair done together just last week really pulls at the heartstrings following last night’s events. It’s a beautiful moment that we were lucky enough to have the Takahashi’s share with us.

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