An Ode To Vader

Who's the man? Vader's the man!

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Big Van Vader – WCW Magazine Collector Series Special #3 [December 1992]

In the two and a half years I’ve been doing the Wrestling 20 Years Ago Podcast, has there been a better, more consistent act than Vader? “At the time” of writing, we’re 20 years removed from Vader’s WWF debut – a run that I’m sure will frustrate and dumbfound in equal measure as we go through it, but Vader was one of the few men who was a name in WCW long before Hulk Hogan arrived, and long after he did too. What exactly made him so special?

There’s a temptation to compare Vader to a modern day Brock Lesnar. Hell, there’s many people like myself that would consider that a cross-generational dream match. Both were ludicrously athletic (in their own way), both hit very hard and both were garguantuan’s even in a sport where being big and muscly is common place. If wrestling “super-heavyweights” existed, these two would be #1 of their era.

But the bigger element of the comparison centres around one key element that both men shared: believability. With Lesnar it came from a legitimate background as an amateur wrestler and later as an MMA star. With Vader, in an era where kayfabe (while still dead) was stronger, look like an absolute beast and wrestled like an old fashioned bruiser. In a world of fake, Vader blurred the line of real more than anyone else.

Vader also benefited, it should be said, from very strong booking in his early WCW run. While it was hard not to make an impression looking like he did, keeping that impression meant creating an aura that matched the mask – Vader’s close hitting style, along with opponents willing to sell for him and being a three time Champion (the third a 285 day period in 1993) meant that he was over with WCW’s fans.

Did it stick for the following two years? At times it felt like WCW were doing everything they could *not* to book Hogan vs Vader, seeing him put in matches with Sting that while still excellent had been seen so many times you imagine the pair could wrestle a three-star match blindfold. Hogan, once he was done with Flair, moved onto facing Butcher (friend Ed Leslie) in what was by any stretch a gigantic come down in the 1994 Starrcade main event from Flair/Vader the year before.

But at a time where WCW’s main event group was changing before your eyes (within 18 months, Rick Rude, Sid Vicious and Ricky Steamboat were replaced by Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage) – Vader was one of the few constants. In truth, booking a guy of Vader’s size any other way would be extremely difficult but not, as his run in the WWF shows, impossible. Still, Starrcade 1994 did end with a Vader and Hogan confrontation. Hogan had been in the company since May, been the Champion for six months… how could he have gotten this far without doing the match?

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Hulk Hogan vs Vader – WCW SuperBrawl V [February 19th, 1995]

Despite the two-month hiatus against the Three Faces Of Fear, Hogan vs Vader was unavoidable at the start of 1995. Ric Flair was “retired” (well, he would be until April anyway), Sting and Randy Savage were both around but both still had mileage as babyfaces. Vader was the last heel standing, and in the eyes of longer term WCW fans still had bucket loads of credibility.

I’ve written extensively about the Hogan and Vader program here, but suffice to say it suffered essentially due to politics. Buyrates showed that people wanted to see it, the atmosphere surrounding the first encounter at Superbrawl was great and for the first time since the first Flair/Hogan match had WCW had a genuinely big fight feel about one of their matches.

But Hogan had an ego to feed, and as it turned out so did Vader. That essentially meant neither was willing to give an inch and caused both of their winter/spring matches to end after interference from Ric Flair (yes, he was retired but the interference lead to an angle where Hogan wanted Flair reinstated. Clever, right?).

Not far from Vader’s side during much of his WCW run was Harley Race. It would be less accurate to call Race a manager for Vader… more a handler. Vader’s spit-laden promos while often incredibly incoherent were delivered with such a ferocity they fit exactly the image they wanted to convey. Race made more sense when you considered Vader’s image – why/how would a guy like Vader conceivably deal with the logistics of being a wrestler?

What’s really quite surprising about Vader’s run in WCW was that he really didn’t have a bad match with anybody, certainly not when given the opportunity. Guys like Flair and Sting were a given, and the Hogan matches were hardly stellar, but take a guy like Big Bubba Rodgers (wrestling as his final night under “The Boss” gimmick before WCW changed it citing legal pressure from the WWF). Two 400+ lb guys could’ve stunk up the joint at Spring Stampede in 1994, as it was Vader and Rodgers beat the piss out of each other for ten minutes. As a fan of “hard hitting” matches, this was a great advert.

But the Hogan/Vader feud fizzled out, so much so Vader actually ended up turning babyface – the superstar team of Hogan, Savage and Sting wasn’t enough, apparently, to take down the Dungeon Of Doom. Vader turned, promised a title match that he would receive on the second edition of WCW’s new Monday Nitro show in September. He would be suspended just days before the debut Nitro, and would never appear for WCW again.

The suspension came following a fight at WCW TV tapings with Paul Orndorff, despite Vader’s size and his perception as a tough guy it was Orndorff who got the better of the exchange – having lost his temper at Vader following him arriving late to the tapings. Orndorff hit him with the “perfect left” and Vader was supposedly left cowering on the floor. Vader departed, ego damaged, replaced on the first Nitro by the returning Lex Luger.

Big Van Vader - WCW Magazine [September 1993]
Big Van Vader – WCW Magazine [September 1993]

It was a disappointing anti-climax for a character that, face turn or not, seemed to remain one of the constants within WCW during an incredibly transitional couple of years. Despite not being booked like a star since the back end of 1993 WCW fans wouldn’t let Vader be presented as a lesser star, even after Hogan arrived. That star power, combined with his ability to have really good matches with almost anybody, ensured that. How did the WWF get it so wrong with such a talent… that we will find out!

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