The wrestling world lost a true pioneer and legend this week when Leon “Big Van Vader” White passed away at the age of 63 from complications of pneumonia.
In honor of one of the greatest “big men” in the history of pro wrestling Throwback Thursday turns Throwback Tribute as we delve into the archives of the WWE Network to look back at ten of Vader’s best matches and a few of the “Rocky Mountain Monster’s” hidden gems.
Leon Allen White was born on May 14, 1955 in Lynwood, California, at seven and a half month due to his large size (11-pounds 10-ounces). White grew up in Compton, California before settling in Bell, California where Leon attended high school and excelled at football as a nationally recognized center. Recruited by a number of colleges White ended up at the University of Colorado Boulder. After a successful career as part of the Colorado Buffaloes, earning second-team All-American honors, White declared for the 1978 NFL Draft.
Leon was drafted by his hometown L.A. Rams as the 24th pick of the third round of the 1978 NFL Draft (80th overall) and played in the Rams Super Bowl XIV loss to the defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers the following season, after which the Rams parted ways with the injured White. Eventually Leon began training for pro wrestling under Brad Rheingans where he was spotted by American Wrestling Association (AWA) promoter Verne Gagne, who gave Leon (as “Baby Bull”) his first break in 1985. In 1986, White debuted for Otto Wanz’s Catch Wrestling Association (CWA) where Leon, as “Bull Power”, would defeat Wanz on March 22, 1987 in Denver, Colorado to win the CWA World Heavyweight title, ending Wanz’s 3,100-plus day reign as Champion.
Leon’s career truly took off in late 1987 when Leon, traded from Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW) to Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), debuted as “Big Van Vader”. Vader’s debut, on December 27, 1987, sparked a riot that caused NJPW to be banned from the Ryogoku Sumo Hall for nearly two years. On April 24, 1989 Vader would become the fourth IWGP Heavyweight Champion, and first “gaijin” (foreigner) Champion, after defeating Shinya Hashimoto in a tournament final at the Tokyo Dome. Vader would win the title a total of three times, defeating Riki Choshu on August 10, 1989 and Tatsumi Fujinama on January 17, 1991 in the Tokyo Dome at New Year’s Dash.
Through Jim Ross World Championship Wrestling (WCW) brought Vader in for select dates in 1990, with Vader debuting at Great American Bash ’90: New Revolution where Vader squashed Tom Zenk in less than two and a half minutes, leaving the WCW fans in awe.
— “Return Grudge Match” (WATCH – 1:29:15)
Stan Hansen vs. Big Van Vader
WCW WrestleWar ’91: WarGames ● February 24, 1991
It was during Vader’s second IWGP Heavyweight title reign that Vader faced AJPW’s Stan Hansen at the February 10, 1990 Super Fight in Tokyo Dome ’90 event, an infamous match that saw Hansen accidentally pop Vader’s right eye out of its socket! This rematch, while not a gory as their first meeting in Japan, is an overlooked classic. Fans of physical, hard-hitting, stiff wrestling will love this old-school brawl that left the commentators and fans alike breathless. Following the match Vader returned to Japan full-time, making infrequent dates for WCW in-between tours. In the spring of 1992 Vader and the late Bam Bam Bigelow formed the team “Big, Bad, & Dangerous” which would win the IWGP Tag Team titles at New Japan’s 20th Anniversary show on March 1, 1992 in Yokohama, Japan. Vader’s NJPW run ended following the June 26, 1992 Budokan Hall show in Tokyo where “Big, Bad, & Dangerous” dropped the IWGP Tag Team titles to reigning WCW World Tag Team Champions The Steiner Brothers.
— WCW World Heavyweight Championship – “Grudge Match” (WATCH – 1:53:37)
Big Van Vader w/Harley Race vs. Sting(c)
WCW Great American Bash ’92 ● July 12, 1992
On April 12, 1992, at a house show at The Omni in Atlanta, Sting suffered a bruised spleen and two cracked ribs in a ferocious bout with Van Vader, which was all the backstory this match needed. This match is a prime example of not only the physical gifts that Vader possessed but Vader’s keen since of psychology as well. Another great, bruising, physical bout this marked the first of the PPV encounters between Vader and Sting, wars that would come to mark both men’s careers. This marked Vader’s first (of an eventual three) WCW World title victories, ending Sting’s first WCW World title reign at 134-days.
— Finals of the ‘King of Cable’ Tournament – “Grudge Match” (WATCH – 1:58:10)
Big Van Vader w/Harley Race vs. Sting
WCW Starrcade ’92: BattleBowl – The Lethal Lottery II ● December 28, 1992
Thanks to a knee injury Vader was forced to drop the WCW World title to Ron Simmons on August 2, 1992 in Baltimore, Maryland. Following the Clash of the Champions XX on September 2, 1992 Vader underwent surgery for the injury and wouldn’t return until October 25, 1992 where Vader embarked on a monstrous path of destruction. From injuring Nikita Koloff and breaking the back of enhancement talent Joe Thurman, it seemed Vader was an unstoppable monster hellbent on regaining his World title from Ron Simmons. This match, the finals of the “King of Cable” tournament, is another forgotten classic and stands as one the greatest matches in the careers of both Sting and Vader and one the greatest Starrcade matches of all-time.
— “Tag Team Grudge Match” (WATCH – 2:27:59)
The Masters of the Powerbomb (WCW World Heavyweight Champion Big Van Vader & Sid Vicious) w/Harley Race & Col. Parker vs. The Superpowers (Sting & “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith)
WCW Beach Blast ’93 ● July 18, 1993
Vader regained the WCW World title from Ron Simmons on December 30, 1992 in Baltimore, Maryland. Vader would briefly lose the title to Sting on March 11, 1993 at Wembley Arena in London before regaining it for the third and final time on March 17, 1993 in Dublin, Ireland at The Point. On the June 12, 1993 edition of Saturday Night Vader and Sid officially joined forces as “The Masters of the Powerbomb” with the sole mission of driving both Sting and Davey Boy Smith out of WCW. Overshadowed by the hokey Beach Blast mini-movie this tag team dream match stole the show and exceeded any and all expectations.
— “Spin the Wheel, Make the Deal: Non-Title ‘Texas Death Match'” (WATCH – 2:29:15)
WCW World Heavyweight Champion Big Van Vader w/Harley Race vs. Cactus Jack
WCW Halloween Havoc ’93: Spin the Wheel, Make the Deal ● October 24, 1993
One of the most violent feuds in the annuls of World Championship Wrestling began on the April 17, 1993 edition of Saturday Night when Vader beat Cactus Jack to a bloody pulp before losing via count-out. The next week, on the April 24, 1993 edition of Saturday Night, Vader and Jack had their rematch. In the end Vader punished Cactus Jack before powerbombing Jack on the concrete floor. After weeks of amnesia, told in the infamous “Lost in Cleveland” vignettes, Jack returned at COTC XXIV on August 18, 1993 after Vader defeated Davey Boy Smith to retain the World title and would chase Vader away with a shovel on the October 9, 1993 edition of Saturday Night as Vader attempted to injure Ricky Steamboat. This match remains one of the wildest, craziest matches in WCW history. Botched finish aside these two men beat the high holy hell out of one another with nothing on the line but pride. This match is must-see material for any old-school wrestling fan. The war between these two was far from over, however. On March 16, 1993 in Munich, Germany Cactus Jack would famously lose an ear in yet another physical brawl with Vader.
— WCW World Heavyweight Championship – “Career vs. Title Grudge Match” (WATCH – 2:13:24)
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs. Big Van Vader(c) w/Harley Race
WCW Starrcade ’93: 10th Anniversary ● December 27, 1993
Months of WCW television had built towards the demise of the “Masters of the Powerbomb” and Sid Vicious taking the World title from Vader at Starrcade ’93. However, in the wake of the “scissor fight” in Blackburn, England that nearly ended with Sid stabbing Arn Anderson to death, Sid was fired from WCW and a new Starrcade ’93 main event was needed. Cynical fans rolled their eyes when they heard Ric Flair, at 44 years old, would step in to save the show. The match didn’t just steal the show, it became the greatest Starrcade match in event history.
— “Gigantic Grudge Match” (WATCH – 1:48:05)
The Boss vs. Big Van Vader w/Harley Race
WCW Spring Stampede ’94 ● April 17, 1994
Not much needs to be said about this one. This is one of the best big-man matches you’re likely to find on the WWE Network or anywhere else, for that matter. This war is filled with brutal bumps, stiff shots, and jaw-dropping ferocity that left the fans and announcers stunned. If you haven’t seen this overlooked battle you need to go out of your way to see it. You will not be disappointed!
— Singles Match (WATCH – 49:24)
Big Van Vader w/Harley Race vs. “The Natural” Dustin Rhodes
WCW Clash of the Champions XXIX ● November 16, 1994
The arrival of Hulk Hogan in WCW in June of ’94 spelled the end of Vader’s bruising time at the top of WCW. Already the number one contender to Hogan’s World title thanks to a “triangle” match win at Fall Brawl ’94, Vader would, as a result of winning this wild bout, become the number one contender to Jim Duggan’s United States title, which Vader would win at Starrcade ’94. Yet another lost gem in the career of Vader, this is an exciting, wild fight that kept the tradition of heavy-hitting WCW action alive in the face of Hogan’s growing influence and desire to “work light”. The last seven months of Vader’s time in WCW would largely revolve around a program with World Champion Hulk Hogan that included some of the worst booking of Vader’s career, particularly the Uncensored ’95 “strap” match in which Hogan dragged Ric Flair, who wasn’t in the match, to the four corners to defeat Vader, and a terrible Slamboree ’95 tag team main event. After Vader’s house show “Road Kill Tour” Vader earned a final title match with Hulk at Bash at the Beach ’95 in a sloppy, disappointing “steel cage” showdown that marked Vader’s final WCW PPV match. Vader would be fired from WCW after a legendary and infamous August 30, 1995 backstage fight between Vader and Paul Orndorff.
— WWF World Heavyweight Championship – “Grudge Match” (WATCH – 2:19:43)
Vader w/Jim Cornette vs. Shawn Michaels(c)
WWF SummerSlam ’96 ● August 16, 1996
Vader debuted in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) at the 1996 Royal Rumble as entrant #13 (1:20:40). A pre-existing shoulder injury, though, led to Vader spending the first month in the WWF recovering from surgery. After a feud with Yokozuna, which included Vader’s first WrestleMania appearance at WrestleMania XII, Vader moved on to a program with new WWF World Champion Shawn Michaels. Vader pinned Michaels at In Your House 9: International Incident on July 21, 1996 (Throwback here) in the tag team main event to earn this title match at SummerSlam ’96. This match was to be the first in a long program between HBK and Vader that was to include Vader winning the WWF title at the 1996 Survivor Series before dropping it back to HBK in San Antonio at the 1997 Royal Rumble. Michaels pulled the plug on the program following this match, however. Between Vader’s stiff work and the few glaring mistakes HBK wanted no more of the “Rocky Mountain Monster”. Backstage drama aside this was an excellent main event that was, to that point, the best WWF World title match in SummerSlam history behind only the Bret/Owen “steel cage” classic at the 1994 SummerSlam.
— Vacant WWF World Heavyweight Championship – “No Disqualification ‘Final Four’ Elimination Match” (WATCH – 1:07:53)
Vader w/Paul Bearer vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. The Undertaker vs. Bret “Hitman” Hart
WWF In Your House 13: Final Four ● February 16, 1997
This classic war for the vacant WWF World title, vacated after HBK lost his smile, was as close to old-school Vader as fans ever got in the WWF. A bloody, punishing battle, this match at long last proved that Vader could not only hang in the WWF but that he truly belonged. And while Vader would have a handful of other great matches with Undertaker and Kane later on the bloom was off the rose by the fall of 1997. Vader’s last WWF TV match was the October 11, 1998 edition of Sunday Night Heat and Vader wrestled his final match in the WWF as a full-time talent on October 25, 1998 at Madison Square Garden.
After leaving the WWF Vader returned to Japan and eventually won AJPW’s prestigious Triple Crown Heavyweight title on March 6, 1999 and again on October 30, 1999. This AJPW run effectively ended Vader’s full-time wrestling career. And while Vader would appear in NOAH and NWA-TNA, even making surprise appearances on WWE TV every few years, Vader would never again achieve the heights of his early- to mid-’90s peak.
The 2000s saw a double knee replacement go awry, leaving Vader bed-ridden with an infection for some six months. This was followed by an automobile accident that left Vader in a coma for nearly 30 days. In 2016 rumors of Vader’s declining health had been making the rounds for some time, including from Vader himself, before an April 20, 2017 Dradition show saw Vader collapse in the ring following a six-man tag team match. Though Vader denied the incident had anything to do with his heart it was soon revealed that Vader did in fact have Congestive Heart Failure.
On March 12, 2018 Leon underwent successful open heart surgery only to be operated on again in May 2018 to correct an arrhythmia. On June 18, 2018, after fighting pneumonia for weeks, Leon White passed away at the age of 63.
Though the man is gone the legacy and memory of Big Van Vader will live forever in the hearts and minds of the fans Leon entertained and appreciated so deeply.
Part Brock Lesnar, part Andre the Giant, part Sherman tank, Leon White proved that the big men could be as agile as the cruiserweights and, in doing so, redefined the role of the “big man” in wrestling, opening the door for the likes of Kevin Owens, Mike Awesome, Big E, and so many more.
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Thanks for reading – until next week, see ya at ringside!
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