Like most followers of Japanese wrestling, I was pleasantly surprised when Stan Hansen was announced for the WWE Hall of Fame last year. Surprised because, aside from a main event (W)WWF run opposite Bruno Sammartino in the late 1970s, and a reign as AWA Heavyweight Champion (which ended with him running the belt over with his truck after a dispute over booking), his best years were spent across the Pacific in promotions whose tape libraries Vinny Mac doesn’t own. But Hansen is, with the possible exception of The Destroyer, the biggest American star in puroresu history, and it isn’t unheard of for the Hall of Fame to honour those who made their name in Japan; for example, Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami.
I was also thrilled to see that Vader would be inducting him; the pair had a storied history as the world’s most terrifying tag team in All Japan and, most famously, opponents in a notorious match in which an errant strike from Hansen led to Vader’s eye hanging out its socket, after which Vader simply plopped it back into place and finished the match. Nice to see Vader welcome Hansen to join him in the Hall of Fame, I thought. Then I checked. Wait a minute; Vader isn’t in the Hall of Fame? What devilry is this?
To my mind, Vader should be a shoo-in for HOF status when you consider the entirety of his career. Which I’m about to, as briefly as I can manage. Strap in…
Like so many top wrestlers, Vader’s athletic background was in American football. As a big, tough bastard, he was able to excel as an offensive lineman, representing the University of Colorado and playing in the bloody Superbowl in his second season as a pro for the Los Angeles Rams. After being forced to retire due to a ruptured patella, he was headhunted by the American Wrestling Association (AWA) and made his initial forays in wrestling under the name “Baby Bull” Leon White. After a solid but unspectacular run in Verne Gagne’s territory, he became a star overnight in New Japan.
White made his Japanese debut in 1988 under the moniker Big Van Vader; a name taken from a mighty warrior in Japanese folklore. The role was originally slated for Jim Hellwig, later to become The Ultimate Warrior, and every day I give thanks to Satan that New Japan had second thoughts. Vader’s first match couldn’t have been a bigger deal; a main event, in Sumo Hall, against company founder Antonio Inoki, with Takeshi Kitano – yes, that Takeshi Kitano – as his manager. Vader pinned Inoki, who hadn’t taken a three-count in singles competition for around four years, in less than three minutes. Cue a riot which involved fans setting fire to the cushions on which they were sitting and which consequently led to New Japan being temporarily banned from running the venue (the riot also had a lot to do with the fact that it was around New Year, most of the crowd were on the piss, and the mooted main event – a long-awaited clash between Inoki and Riki Choshu – only lasted six minutes and had a screwy finish.) Within a year Vader had become the first gaijin (foreigner) to win the fledgling IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and was a made man.
During the first years of his New Japan run, Vader – under the name Bull Power – found the time to make waves in Europe. His 1989 match with Otto Wanz for Austria’s Catch Wrestling Association (CWA) does a lot to illustrate Vader’s growth in working a stiff, intimidating big man style at this point in his career. I’ve never seen a match with so little finesse but which was so utterly awesome. Wanz was Vader’s equal in size and a megastar in the Germanic world, and the result is what you would have got in Britain if Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were actually any good. The atmosphere’s also incredible. A football stadium in Germany! National anthems and giant fuck-off flags! End-of-the-Cold-War optimism! We shall not see its like again.
Vader also won gold in Mexico that year, but championship success in America eluded him until WCW, who had a working agreement with New Japan, came calling in 1990. Used sparingly because of his Japanese commitments for the first couple of years, Vader was pushed to the main event in 1992, beating Sting to begin the first of his three WCW World Championship reigns. He used his size and stiffness to great effect in madcap bouts with Mick Foley under his unhinged Cactus Jack gimmick, and in 1993 main evented Starrcade (WCW’s equivalent of Wrestlemania) against Ric Flair, the Nature Boy working in a rare babyface role whose effectiveness owed a great deal to Vader’s brutal efforts to make the long-time heel seem like a sympathetic underdog.
It was during these years that Vader added one of the most breathtaking aerial manoeuvres of all time to his arsenal. Not because of its degree of difficulty, but because of who was doing it. Loyal readers (assuming I have them); I give you the Vadersault.
Vader had always been a fast mover for his size, but this was something else entirely. Bear in mind that Vader weighed about four hundred pounds, and that even the vast majority of wrestlers half his size were either incapable of executing a moonsault or wouldn’t have even thought of doing one. This wasn’t 2017, where if you go to an indie show (or even Wrestlemania) the chances are that everyone and their mum will be doing flips. To see a man Vader’s size spinning backwards through the air was an unbelievable spectacle that just added to his aura of invincibility; not only was he strong as an ox and damned hard to get off his feet, but he could fly too! His wasn’t always the most graceful moonsault, but never failed to communicate a terrible beauty, and if nothing else, a four-hundred-pound man falling backwards on an opponent from a great height is one of the more believable match finishes you’ll ever see.
One company in which you wouldn’t have seen flips from the top rope was Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFI), a shoot style promotion which prized realism and (kayfabe) martial arts ability above all, and which marketed itself as MMA. Vader had no background in jeet kune do and the like, and many hardcore fans in Japan were critical of UWFI’s decision to bring him in in 1993, believing that employing someone so associated with traditional pro wrestling showed that UWFI was not the legitimate fighting league it purported to be.
Yet Vader’s presence in the company, including one reign with the UWFI World Championship, provided numerous matches which told the fascinating story of a near-immovable object without martial arts training and possessing a vulnerability to leg kicks, but who could destroy you with one swipe of his arm if you got too close. His trilogy with company ace and full-time crazy person Nobuhiko Takada is well worth checking out, and really shows you Vader’s versatility.
Vader was fired from WCW in 1995 for starting a backstage fight with Paul Orndorff, and left the ailing UWFI over money the same year. Before returning to America full-time, he swung by New Japan to conclude his rivalry with Inoki in a huge show at the Tokyo Dome, putting an almighty beating (complete with Vadersault!) on the 53-year-old legend that helped create one of Inoki’s best matches. Normally when people talk of someone who can “carry” a match well, they mean a technical standout like Daniel Bryan or Cesaro who can use their skill to guide green workers through performances. However, the Inoki encounter speaks to Vader’s ability to carry matches in quite a different way; like latter-day Brock Lesnar when he can be arsed, he could propel a bout via pure force of violent domination and an eye for when to give the face hope spots.
Vader joined the WWF in 1996, and it’s his tenure here that provides the only possible reason, to my mind, why some people might not think him a Hall of Fame candidate. Simply put, it didn’t turn out that great. He made a huge impact at the Royal Rumble by laying waste to swathes of the roster, but soon had to take time off for long-overdue shoulder surgery, and upon his return was politicked out of a title run by Shawn Michaels because Ol’ H-B-Shizzle reckoned he worked too stiff. Try and contain your shock at the suggestion that 90s Shawn Michaels would have used his backstage stroke to fuck someone over. Thereafter, notwithstanding a feud with The Undertaker, he slowly slid down the card until he was being portrayed as a figure of fun, jobbing to Bradshaw’s feared neckbreaker and cutting promos about being “a big fat piece of shit”. It was jarring to see someone who had spent their entire career being feared reduced to a clown, but such is so often the fate of mastodons in Vince McMahon’s company. Look at, well, most of Big Show’s career.
Making up for lost time, Vader got his career back on track by joining All Japan as the new top foreign wrestler, and before too long had become the first man to win both the Triple Crown and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. He main evented the Tokyo Dome in 1999 and remained a top star when All Japan’s successor promotion Pro Wrestling NOAH was founded in 2000. Unbelievably, he was still pulling off Vadersaults (from the second rope!) in his 40s, before finally winding down his full-time career.
I had the pleasure of seeing Vader live last year. The situation came about following a Twitter beef with UK indie wrestler Will Ospreay over what Vader considered an excess of flips and a dearth of selling in his Best of the Super Juniors match with Ricochet in New Japan. Vader later admitted that he had formed his opinion based solely on a gif that was doing the rounds and had actually liked the match when he watched it in full, but not before Ospreay had let rip with some choice invective, upon which Vader responded, not unreasonably, in kind. Later I saw a poster online promoting a Vader vs. Ospreay match and assumed some silly shit had been dicking about with Photoshop. Then I learned that Revolution Pro Wrestling (RPW), a British promotion with deep pockets and a willingness to stage dream matches for the benefit of Bethnal Green’s denizens, had actually booked it. The absolute madmen. I have to go to this, I thought. And go I did.
I’ll preface this paragraph by saying that I only got to see about half the match because they brawled all over the building, which limited visibility, and because the motherfuckers in front of us kept standing up at inopportune moments. York Hall security wouldn’t allow my friends and I to stand on our seats, in the only instance about which I will ever use the phrase “Health and Safety gone mad” with a straight face. So that didn’t help. But the parts I did get to view with my own eyes were a magnificent spectacle. The crowd heat – kindled by the debate as to who was in the right in the aforementioned Twitter exchange, widespread support for the home-town boy Ospreay, and the shared thrill of being in Vader’s presence – was off the charts. At the age of sixty-one, the deceptive mobility Vader was known for was all but gone, but the unreasonably athletic Ospreay bumped around like crazy to make him look like the monster he’s always been, and the former Baby Bull showed that he still had the charisma and the ability to make a crowd hate his guts. Something I’ll never forget.
It genuinely baffles me that Vader isn’t in the WWE Hall of Fame already. This is not only someone who has been bestowed with major championships on multiple continents, but a performer who redefined what super-heavyweights could do in the ring. His uncanny agility and generosity in selling babyface offence (defined by some as excessive generosity considering his size) helped create some of the greatest David vs. Goliath contests, and his brute strength, power, and willingness to give and take a beating meant that he was equally great with fellow big brutes like Stan Hansen. Putting Vader in the Hall of Fame would be a nice gesture considering the sad news that doctors have given him less than two years to live due to congestive heart failure, but his induction would by no means be a sympathy pick. His WWF run may have underwhelmed, but his career elsewhere more than makes up for it. Hopefully, come 2017, we’ll be able to refer to him as The Man They Call WWE Hall of Famer Vader.