Vader Passes Away

“It’s time! It’s time! It’s Vader time!”, so many wrestling fans were screaming in front of their television around 1996 when Vader was appearing in a WWF ring. I was one of these fans, even if I had the chance to find out about him in NJPW a few years before. Yesterday, Leon White, aka Vader or Big Van Vader, passed away at 63. We all knew he was suffering from severe heart failure and his time on Earth was limited, as he confessed himself. 

What made Vader so different, at that time, was his ability to do aerial manoeuvres despite being more than 450 pounds. He was widely considered as one of the greatest super heavyweight wrestlers ever, despite not being a WWE Hall of Famer, and a legend in Japan. The same way, if he earned so many titles in NJPW and WCW, he had never held a WWF title in his career. 

But let’s rewind… Leon White started his career as a football player. White was a nationally ranked centre who was recruited by forty colleges. He played offensive line at the University of Colorado, where he became a two-time All-American while earning a business administration degree. In the 1978 NFL Draft, White was drafted as a centre by the Los Angeles Rams. But the dream ended when he was forced to retire after only a couple of seasons due to a ruptured patella.

A few years later, he was spotted at the gym by a man who suggested he look into professional wrestling. “Baby Bull” got his first national exposure in the American Wrestling Association (AWA) where he honed his skills and was even granted a title match against Stan Hansen for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship.

White joined NJPW in 1987, was given the ring name Big Van Vader and began to wear a black wrestling mask. His new identity was based on a strong warrior of the same name from Japanese folklore. He was introduced as the crown jewel of the Takeshi Puroresu Gundan stable that was managed by Takeshi Kitano. Vader became the first gaijin to ever win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 1989 and would win it two more times before 1991. 

While working with NJPW, Vader started to wrestle in Germany and Mexico. Before Austin Aries did it, Vader became the first man to hold 3 World Heavyweight titles in three continents simultaneously. At the same time, he garnered the attention of WCW that convinced him to work for them while still the IWGP Heavyweight Champion and an active competitor in NJPW. Vader’s first match in WCW took place on July 7, 1990, at The Great American Bash. 

On March 1, 1992, he and Bam Bam Bigelow began teaming as “Big, Bad, and Dangerous”, and won the IWGP Tag Team Championship from Hiroshi Hase and Keiji Mutoh. Bu a knee injury marked the starting point of a decrease in his NJPW appearances. Vader then began to focus almost entirely on WCW and the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, a title he held 3 times in  1992 and 1993. His feuds against Sting, Ron Simmons or Ric Flair have become legendary. He also became the WCW United States Heavyweight Title once in 1994.

He parted ways with WCW in 1996 to come back in NJPW and face Antonio Inoki in his first comeback match. But he soon appeared on WWF screens with Jim Cornette by his side. “The Man They Call Vader” made his debut at Royal Rumble 1996. He feuded with Yokozuna, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Bret Hart or Mankind. He requested his release in 1998.

Very injury prone, Vader’s career was stopped by his own body way too many times. After WWF, he came back to Japan where he wrestled for AJPW and Pro Wrestling NOAH. He then appeared in a brand new US promotion called TNA, helping Dusty Rhodes. Ever since Vader had made some appearances in WWE and had never stopped wrestling all around the world. On April 2, 2016, he was the one who inducted Stan Hansen into the WWE Hall of Fame.

In November 2016, White revealed on Twitter that he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure due to his football and wrestling careers. He said that he had visited two heart doctors, who told him that he only has two years left to live. White underwent open heart surgery in late March and another in May. 

In April 2017, Vader wrestled one last match in Japan at Korakuen Hall as part of the Dradition show to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the debut of Tatsumi Fujinami, knowing his days were numbered. His son, and wrestler, Jesse revealed his father was diagnosed with a severe case of pneumonia last month.

Today the wrestling universe is mourning a Legend whose heart was so big he couldn’t stand all the love and acknowledgements he had received anymore. It’s now Vader time in heaven. 

All pics courtesy of WWE.com