Leon 'Vader' White sadly passed away this week and in honour of one of the best big men to ever grace the squared circle, we look back on the career of the man they called Vader.
Before becoming a wrestler, White was an offensive lineman and was drafted 80th overall by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1980 draft. He played in Super Bowl XIV before a ruptured patella cut short his NFL career. While he was working out at a gym someone suggested that he look into professional wrestling, and another career was born.
White started his career in the AWA, wrestling as Baby Bull and later Bull Power. During his time in the AWA he improved quickly and was given an AWA Title match against Stan Hansen. In 1986, he also made the first of numerous trips to Europe to wrestle for Otto Wanz's CWA. In 1987, he ended Wanz's near 9-year CWA Title reign.
During 1987 he was also signed by AJPW but had his contract traded to NJPW. It was there that he was given the moniker of Big Van Vader, complete with mask. In his first appearance, he beat Antonio Inoki and ended his 4-year winning streak, which caused the heavily pro-Inoki crowd inside the Sumo Hall to riot. It was a hell of a debut.
In 1989, Vader would become IWGP heavyweight champion for the first time, beating Shinya Hashimoto in the final of a tournament. Vader would win two more IWGP Heavyweight Titles during his time with New Japan, firstly beating Riki Choshu, and lastly, Tatsumi Fujinami. During this time he also won the UWA Heavyweight Title from El Canek and held it for a year.
In 1990, Vader faced Stan Hansen in an AJPW vs NJPW encounter. During this match, Hansen caught Vader in the eye with his thumb, causing Vader's eye to pop out of the socket. Vader popped the eye back in and continued the match but would require a metal plate to be placed under his eye.
Vader's work had garnered the attention of WCW, and he started working for them in 1990, though only sporadically at that point. A working agreement between WCW and NJPW in 1991 would mean that he could split time effectively between the two. During the early part of his WCW career, he was part of the hilariously bad Chamber of Horrors match.
Back in New Japan, he formed a team with Bam Bam Bigelow, called Mad, Bad, and Dangerous. A thoroughly underrated team, they won the IWGP Tag Titles from Keiji Mutoh & Hiroshi Hase in a great match. During their title reign, Vader suffered an injury and would cut back his appearances in NJPW and mostly focus on WCW.
After becoming a full-time wrestler for WCW, Vader was put straight into a title feud with Sting. At the 1992 iteration of the great American Bash, Vader defeated Sting to claim his first WCW Title. He would lose the title to Ron Simmons after suffering an injury and was forced to undergo surgery. Upon his return, he reignited his feud with Sting, with the two putting on a great match at Starrcade. He also regained the WCW Title and traded wins for it with Sting.
Following this, he was part of a high profile feud with Davey Boy Smith before becoming embroiled in a violent set of wars against Cactus Jack, culminating in a Texas Death Match. During this part of his career, he also wrestled for the UWFi. He won their Best of the World Tournament and was awarded the UWFi World Title for his efforts.
During the latter part of Vader's WCW career, he was involved in a feud with Ric Flair that saw Flair put his career on the line. He was then dragged into the all-encompassing orbit of Hulk Hogan, but this story never came to fruition as Vader was fired from WCW following an altercation with Paul Orndorff.
After a very brief return to NJPW, Vader was signed by the WWF and made his debut as the thirteenth entrant in the 1996 Royal Rumble. The following night he would be suspended after attacking WWF President Gorilla Monsoon. After returning, he spent some time as part of Camp Cornette with Owen Hart and the British Bulldog. Looking back, that was a great faction.
Vader transitioned to a feud with Shawn Michaels over the WWF Title. Vader pinned Michaels in a 6-man tag match at In Your House 9 and, from accounts at the time, was scheduled to win the WWF Title at Summerslam. He became another victim of Michaels and the Kliq though and this never came to pass. Their Summerslam match was still really good though.
Vader faced with the Undertaker in his last really meaningful feud for the WWF. Vader beat the Deadman at the Royal Rumble and the two were involved in a 4-way match at In Your House 13 that I consider to be the best of Vader's WWF career. Vader had his final WWF Title match, against Undertaker, at the spectacular In Your House 16: Canadian Stampede.
The remainder of his WWF tenure was spent in the mid-card against the likes of Goldust and Kane, who defeated him in a Mask vs Mask match, and had his final WWF PPV match against Bradshaw at Breakdown: In Your House.
Upon leaving the WWF, Vader returned to Japan and started wrestling for AJPW. He formed a successful team with Stan Hansen before turning his attention to the singles ranks. He became number one contender to the Triple Crown Title by defeating Kenta Kobashi in an excellent match and won the vacant title by defeating Akira Taue.
Vader would lose the title to Mitsuharu Misawa in another very good match but would regain it a few months later. This would be his final reign with an established world title and he would drop the strap to Kobashi in February of 2000. He took some time off and when he returned it was for the newly formed Pro Wrestling NOAH. During his time with the company, he won the GHC Tag Titles with 2 Cold Scorpio.
Vader wrestled on and off up until 2017, mostly on the independent scene, but he did make a few appearances for WWE, TNA, NJPW, and AJPW, including an appearance at Raw 1000.
Vader will go down in history as one of the first names in the argument when talking about the best big man in wrestling history. He was a champion wherever he went, with the exception of the WWF, and won somewhere between eight and twelve world titles, depending on whether you consider the CWA and UWA Titles as world titles. He was also voted wrestler of the year by PWI in 1993 and was the most feared heel on the planet at the height of his powers. His impact is unquestionable and his legacy will be remembered for many years to come. He will be sorely missed.