The year was 1992. As I was randomly channel surfing one hot, Saturday afternoon, I happened to stumble upon a WCW program, the name of which I cannot recall. In any case, I was drawn in by this gigantic figure that pretty much had his way with anyone who stood across from him. His name: Big Van Vader.
The name was intimidating enough, but combined with his physical presence and overall demeanor, it wasn't very hard to pick him out of a crowd.
I was more a fan of the WWF at the time, as WCW storylines were far too mature for any 8-year-old to handle. But I was still familiar with all of the major players that WCW had to offer, and I think Vader would have been at the top of that list. He had one of the most successful rookie years in WCW history, as he had just defeated WCW's top babyface, Sting, to capture the WCW World Title that summer. Even as a child, I knew that a heel getting a clean win over a top babyface at the time was practically unheard of. But Vader may have changed the way I looked at wrestling from that day forward, and he is often regarded as one of the best big men that the wrestling industry has ever produced. I will take it a step further and say that he's simply one of the best that the wrestling industry has ever produced.
Vader was well before his time, and he had a gimmick that I think would still be relevant in today's business. I would say that he was the previous generation's Brock Lesnar. He had the attitude of a UFC fighter before the UFC even existed.
Upon entering WCW, Vader was immediately paired with former World Champion Harley Race, giving him some instant "street cred," as if his massive frame wasn't enough. I never thought that Vader was the type of athlete who needed a manager, but Race was more of an adviser than a mouthpiece. He was simply a handler to keep Vader in check. After all, if a 7-time world champion and the man who was recognized by many as the toughest wrestler of all time couldn't keep the big man under control, who in the world could?
I liked that WCW had so much faith in Vader that they constantly positioned him at the top of the card, even after Ric Flair re-entered the promotion in mid '93. Vader later had a world title program against arguably the industry's biggest star, Hulk Hogan. He was one of the few men who was able to stand toe-to-toe with Hogan and no-sell the majority of Hogan's offence. That feud culminated in a steel cage match at the Bash at the Beach pay per view, which Hogan won. Following Bash at the Beach, someone in creative made the suggestion that Vader turn babyface, and he was scheduled to join forces with Hogan, Randy Savage and Sting at the Fall Brawl pay per view in '95, as part of War Games. Shortly afterwards, Vader was involved in a locker room brawl with Paul Orndorff, which led to his eventual firing from WCW. This incident may have been a blessing in disguise though, as I don't think anyone would have taken Vader seriously as a babyface. He was eventually replaced in War Games by Lex Luger, who had just parted ways with the WWF.
Many would argue that Vader achieved his most success in Japan, which is where he returned after WCW. But I don't think his WCW run was anything to scoff at, as he was always involved in main event programs.
Vader also had a brief acting career, as he played a minor role in ABC's hit '90s sitcom Boy Meets World, playing his on-screen wrestling character. I always liked wrestling crossovers in popular sitcoms, and that one may have been my favourite.
I remember watching an episode of WWF Superstars on a Saturday afternoon in December '95, as they were introducing some of the participants in the upcoming Royal Rumble event. For some reason, I always loved that part, but I especially love when they announce participants that I had either never seen before, hadn't seen in a while, or previously seen elsewhere. Vader was one of the big surprise announcements that year, and caught me completely off-guard. Keep in mind that Internet was not nearly as big as it is today, and I was only 11 years old, so I had no idea that Vader had even left WCW, which was even more surprising. I actually had to double check TV Guide to make sure I was watching the right program. I didn't know what to expect at the time, but I'd say that Vader immediately grabbed a lot of attention, and was instantly positioned at or near the top of the card.
His first year in the WWF was definitely his best. This time he was paired with Jim Cornette, who, unlike Harley Race, was more of a mouthpiece for Vader. Again, I never really thought that Vader needed a manager, but if he was going to have one, Cornette was the best one at the time. Following his participation in the '96 Royal Rumble, Vader was involved in a huge angle where he attacked then President Gorilla Monsoon. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time that a wrestler had physically attacked an authority figure, so it was a huge deal at the time. It may have kick-started what we know now as The Attitude Era. Vader was also involved in one of the featured matches at that year's WrestleMania, and received a world title match against Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam. The booking of that match left a lot to be desired, especially with the number of restarts, but I thought the match itself was pretty good.
Unfortunately, Vader's career went downhill from there. The WWF was headed in a different direction, and Vader had a new manager in Paul Bearer, which I never thought was a great pairing, as the two characters could not have been more different.
I can't pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, nor under what circumstances, but I recall Vader as a babyface in the Fall of '97. He was involved in the feud against The Hart Foundation at the time, which I didn't think was a great career move for him either, as he wasn't ever booked as a patriotic character. Vader was the victim of a lot of bad booking decisions at the time, and he just kept falling farther down the card.
He eventually did return to Japan, and was able to relive some of his glory days, but as his career was winding down, I think it was appropriate to end it in the same place that it started.
Vader's son Jake was recruited to NXT in 2012, but his career never took off, and he was eventually forced into early retirement due to a series of injuries.
I remember seeing how happy Vader was at a Wrestle Reunion event in Toronto in 2012. He was absolutely thrilled with the idea of being surrounded by fans and peers. It was one of those rare times that fans got to see the human side of Vader, and I'm so happy to say that that was the final memory I have of him.
In November 2016, Vader was involved in a rollover car accident, after which he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and given only two years to live.
On June 18, 2018, Vader passed away after a month-long hospitalization for pneumonia. He was 63 years old.