So as I type this, I’m once again saddened to be writing about the loss of yet another piece of my childhood. Leon White, a.k.a. Big Van Vader, who had been in bad health for the last couple years after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure. For the last month, had been fighting a bad case of pneumonia, and passed away Monday night.
A tweet was sent out on his twitter account by his son, former WWE Developmental talent, Jesse White stating: “It is with a heavy heart to inform everyone that my father, Leon White, passed away on Monday night (6/18/18) at approximately 7:25pm.”
It is with a heavy heart to inform everyone that my father, Leon White, passed away on Monday night (6/18/18) at approximately 7:25pm. pic.twitter.com/dP4CNaMuXa
— Big Van Vader (@itsvadertime) June 20, 2018
So let’s talk about the mountain of a man that was Leon White, better known to us wrestling fans as Big Van Vader…
As I’m sure you can surmise strictly from the name alone, Vader was a large man…billed as being 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighing a whopping 450 pounds! And while you’d imagine a man of his stature would move around a bit slower than you or I, nothing could be farther from the truth with Vader!
Vader was extremely agile for a man of his size and Vader was a heck of an athlete! Prior to making his mark in the world of Professional Wrestling, he played Center in the NFL for the Los Angeles Rams, being picked in the third round of the 1978 NFL draft from the University of Colorado, where he was a second team All-American. He even managed to play in the Superbowl (XIV) in only his second year in the league in a losing effort to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the last year of that team’s dynasty and the heyday of the Steel Curtain.
After rupturing the patella in his knee, he was forced to retire from professional football and it was suggested to him to give professional wrestling a try. Leon went to be trained by Brad Rheingans and upon completion of his training, found his first national exposure while wrestling for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association where he wrestled under the monikers of Baby Bull & Bull Power. He had improved so much to the point that he had even managed to be booked into a match with then AWA World Heavyweight Champion at the time, Stan Hansen.
His next stop would land him in Germany, wrestling for Otto Wanz’s Catch Wrestling Association, where he won his first World Heavyweight Championship, defeating Wanz for the CWA World Heavyweight Title, which he would trade back & forth with Wanz a few times.
In an interesting turn of events, White signed with Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling only to have his contract traded to Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he would debut as Big Van Vader (a figure from Japanese folklore), donning a black mask. During his time wrestling for NJPW, Vader went on to become the first non-Japanese wrestler to hold the IWGP Championship, which he would hold a total of 3 times!
Due to a working relationship between New Japan Pro Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling, Vader started to transition to working more WCW dates here in the states and eventually would leave New Japan to concentrate his career on WCW. Working for WCW in 1991 was where he really made a name for himself among US-based wrestling fans since back in those days, the only way to get a glimpse of either CWA or NJPW was by trading video tapes, which was a highly exclusive group of die hard wrestling fans.
Vader hit it big in WCW, winning their World Heavyweight Championship a total of three times. This is where I first saw Vader wrestle. It was during my early years as a wrestling fan that I found WCW by flipping through the channels one night and when I found the show — I believe it was a Clash of Champions — I was surprised to find that there was this whole other group of wrestlers I had never seen before as I really only knew wrestling to be what the WWF would put out on Saturday & Sunday mornings.
I can remember seeking out WCW Saturday Night, where it seemed the ongoing feud over the WCW World Title was always a tightly fought match between Vader (with his manager, Harley Race) vs. Sting. Sure, Sting was real flashy with all his bright colors, bleach blond buzzcut hair and painted face, but there was something very real & scary about Vader, who would punish his opponents in the corner with repeated bodyshots that looked absolutely devastating. His finisher was a move he called the Vaderbomb, where he positioned his opponent on the mat in the corner and then after climbing the ropes, would spring himself backwards, landing a body splash on his opponent. It usually got the job done. Occasionally, he would even hit a moonsault which is quite a feat for someone of his size! And for as well as I can remember, I can’t recall anyone else wrestling with MMA-style gloves that we see pretty commonly these days prior to Vader.
His matches in WCW with Sting, Ric Flair, Ron Simmons & Cactus Jack are things of beauty. Each one of them different since Flair, Sting, Simmons & Jack are each very different competitors in their own right with very different styles and Vader matched up with each of them amazingly! With Harley Race as his manager, when Vader would ask “Who’s the man?” it was pretty hard to come up with any other answer than “Vader’s the man!”
Later in WCW, when Hulk Hogan burst into the promotion after a lengthy WWE run, Vader started to take a back seat to some of Hogan’s buddies he brought along with him to WCW, and not long after, Vader was headed out of the promotion. This was when Vader made his way up north, to the WWE. Sadly, it’s these years that most current wrestling fans actually remember him from and while he was still the same guy, the way WWE used him was vastly different than the way he had been portrayed down in WCW.
He still had good matches and the manager they stuck him with (Jim Cornette) fit pretty well, but it just wasn’t the same presentation and while he did beat up then-WWF Interim Commissioner, Gorilla Monsoon in storylines, and break Yokozuna’s leg with repeated Vaderbombs, he would never win any championship gold in WWE. And while he would be used to help build younger talent like The Rock and Kane, the end of his run in WWE was nothing like any fan of his would have hoped it to be. He lost an insipid mask vs. mask match with Kane in which the commentators wondered aloud all match long what Vader looked like under his mask (which was just a few straps of leather that barely covered up his face). And in his post-match interview, he referred to himself as just a “fat piece of shit.” And while I’d like to think that was scripted for him to say, I can’t help but believe that he really did feel that down on himself by this point in his career and really needed to get out of the WWE.
In the years following WWE, he returned to Japan while wrestling for New Japan Pro Wrestling and Pro Wrestling NOAH and even popped up TNA Wrestling for a short time. In 2005, he made a spot appearance for WWE, backing up Jonathan Coachman alongside Goldust before continuing to work for a number of independent promotions over the years.
He was welcomed back once again in 2012 by WWE in the leadup to the 1000th episode of Monday Night Raw during a series of weeks in which Heath Slater would take on people from Raw’s past (Diamond Dallas Page, Lita, Bob Backlund & Sycho Sid just to name a few). And at one point that night, “Vader Time” was the #1 trend worldwide on Twitter!
Finally, he was called upon once more by WWE to induct Stan Hansen, whom he had had a number of great matches with over the course of his career, into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016. He told the story of how Hansen had knocked his eye out of its socket during one of their matches in Japan, where he popped his eye back in and kept his eyelid shut to FINISH THE MATCH! All the while, you got a sense that as he stood up there at that podium in a sold out American Airlines Center in Dallas prior to WrestleMania 32, that he kind of took it in as his own Hall of Fame moment even though he was there to do the honors for his friend.
As I had said earlier, Vader had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2016 and was told he only had about 2 years left to live. Sadly, that timeframe came to be. We’ll never get to see Leon accept a much deserved induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, and we’ll never get to hear him ask the question “Who’s the man?” again. Every time someone passes away who you were a fan of, who you grew up watching on a weekly basis, it just underlines not only how much time has passed since those days from the past but also our own mortality.
He was 63.
Rest in peace, Leon. You’ll be sorely missed.