Pro wrestler Big Van Vader’s feats of strength are one of Oliver Lee Bateman’s few distinct childhood memories. Here’s why.
I refuse to dwell on my childhood, which means I’ll probably never be able to write the kind of abuse-laden bildungsroman that winds up getting selected by Oprah’s Book Club. That’s a shame, because I could really use the money right now.
Professional wrestling, particularly the NWA-into-WCW wrestling of 1989-1995, occupies a place of prominence in those few memories I’ve bothered to keep around. No one else in my family cared about it—rightfully so, given that it’s ridiculous—and thus I was left alone to consume as much of it as I possibly wanted.
Each appearance by a wrestler who struck my fancy prompted an expensive dip into the archives. I bought back issues of the “Apter mags,” participated in VHS tape trading, and, upon becoming fascinated by NWA promoter Jim Crockett’s importation of Japanese talent in late 1989, began purchasing Japanese wrestling videos.
It was a huge waste of time, to be sure. While I became knowledgeable about pro wrestling, it was to the detriment of other aspects of my life. I was never picked on by the other kids in school, but I didn’t enjoy their company.
What I did enjoy were performances by Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes. Rhodes, who was probably the favorite wrestler of at least half of the kids from the Deep South, never let his obesity get in the way of scintillating interviews and well-worked “broadways” with the likes of Ric Flair and Ole Anderson. During his most important matches, he almost always “bladed” or “gigged” the purplish patch of scar tissue on his forehead—a decision that enhanced the legitimacy of his efforts, and distinguished Southern wrestling from the bloodless squash matches staged by Vince McMahon’s cartoonish WWF.
By 1990, though, Dusty had begun to decline as an in-ring performer. When he bolted WCW for a brief, polka-dotted run in the WWF, I gave up on him. Not that it would have mattered: Once I saw Leon “Big Van Vader” White demolish Tom “Z-Man” Zenk at the Great American Bash in 1990, I had a new obsession.
I had always admired the sport’s so-called “giants”—huge, overweight men like Bam Bam Bigelow, Kamala, John “Earthquake” Tenta, King Kong Bundy, and the One Man Gang—but most of these grapplers were immobile and unathletic. Some, like the legendary British superheavyweight Giant Haystacks, appeared to be in danger of suffering from heart failure each time they stepped into the ring. Promoters went out of their way to depict these men as unstoppable monsters, but few of them seemed particularly imposing.
Big Van Vader, on the other hand, was an absolute beast: He wrestled stiff, often throwing real punches instead of the lazy “potatoes” delivered by most grapplers, and manhandled the opposition. Unlike other wrestlers of the era, he didn’t need his foes to leap into his power bombs or assist him when he pressed them overhead. From the outset, he struck me as more than a mere performer; what he did looked real.
In 1992, I watched a tape of a match where Vader, representing New Japan Pro Wrestling, wrestled Stan Hansen, another badass gaijin performer for Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling outfit. This is still the match most people associate with Vader (well, this match or the one in Germany where he was wrestling Mick “Cactus Jack” Foley and Foley wound up losing his ear).
Hansen, who was near-sighted and even more prone than Vader to landing stiff punches, opened the match by breaking Vader’s nose with his bullwhip. After an exchange of blows, Hansen dislodged Vader’s eye from its socket. What followed was a wonderful moment in which Vader, who was wearing a black mask, leaned back against the turnbuckle to remove the mask and push the eye back into its socket. When he turned to face the camera, we saw that Vader’s injured eye had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. And then: he went on to complete the match.
In the early 90s, I still didn’t grasp the intricacies of the pro wrestling industry. Although I consumed SLP tape after SLP tape of un-dubbed, un-subtitled NJPW matches, I remained unsure of what was happening in Japan. I realized Antonio Inoki, the owner of that promotion, was some kind of a big deal. I understood that wrestlers like Keji Mutoh and Tatsumi Fujinami were top stars, and far superior performers to juiced-up freaks like the Ultimate Warrior and Sid Vicious. Nonetheless, everything that was happening over there was unique and compelling: the matches were presented without storyline buildup, almost as if they were actual sporting events, and the quality of the work—the so-called “strong style”—was far rougher than the US equivalent.
Even by those standards, what happened between Vader and Hansen was unbelievable. It was, for reasons that are now obscure, perceived by my ten-year-old self as the greatest thing that ever happened. I had always viewed sports stars with a certain kind of apathy—Joe Montana and Michael Jordan were too slick, too polished for my liking—but Vader was just awesome.
I still stand by that assessment. Judged purely by his in-ring performance, Leon White—who began his sporting life as an offensive lineman for the LA Rams, segued into real estate development, lost a crapload of money in that venture, started wrestling in the AWA as “Bull Power” under the tutelage of Greco-Roman specialist Brad Rheingans, and was given his Big Van Vader gimmick by Inoki—was probably the best super heavyweight of all time. He moved better than the Undertaker, he was scarier than Andre the Giant, and he had as much raw strength as Mark Henry. Here, for all to see, was a 400-pound man who could perform moonsaults, hurl wrestlers unaided into the air, and take ridiculous bumps.
His matches against Sting, who was himself the best worker of the various domestic face “superstar” wrestlers of the late 80s and 90s, were classics. His series against Mick Foley in 1993, including a bloody bout on WCW Saturday Night and a Texas Death match at that year’s Halloween Havoc, trumped anything Foley did before or since, including his legendary Hell in a Cell showdown against the Undertaker. Even Vader’s WWF work, most notably his feud with Shawn Michaels, still holds up.
But Vader proved a very difficult man to work with, at one point brawling backstage with Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff and later attacking a talk show host on Good Morning Kuwait. He got fatter and slower as his career progressed, understandable given that his peak years had come during middle age. His final appearances in TNA and WWE were phoned-in, lackluster.
I suppose many people wallow in the past—how else to explain the spate of raunchy teen comedies written by 40-year-olds and marketed to 30-year-olds?—but I have nothing especially noteworthy about which to wax nostalgic. My youth is a faraway and alien country, accessible only through YouTube videos of bloated men trading chair-shots and dragging razor blades across their foreheads. Those grainy clips remind me that Vader used to be my hero, whatever that meant at the time.
It’s one of the few things I don’t want to forget.