”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is your favorite Vader match and/or moment?
Vader was the greatest superheavyweight wrestler of all-time. There have been other mammoth athletes tipping the scales at around four hundred plus pounds that have been very good. One even ranks higher than him because of overall contributions. Yet, none could top what Vader could do in the ring. As a performer, he could do things that no other man his size has ever been able to do in North American wrestling. He took his experience as an offensive lineman, with the combination of quickness and power that it required, and went to Japan. He was a huge star overseas, winning championships galore in a five year career abroad while being taught an artistry to “big man” wrestling not often seen in the WWE. When he came back to the States in the early 1990s, he was simply in a class by himself amongst super heavyweights.
The typical style for a super heavyweight, popularized by the WWE in the modern era, has been to have the larger man dominate and his smaller opponent work in short bursts of offense. Though it makes sense, it is a take on the “David vs. Goliath” match that is, by and large, pretty boring. Vader’s time in Japan taught him a different style. He did not use (or let promoters use) his gargantuan size as an excuse to no-sell for his opponents. Vader understood that he was telling a story, but that he was also expected to be entertaining. Coming from the gridiron, he knew that blowouts made many fans leave the stadium and viewers turn off the television. The more competitive the match is, the more exciting.
As first evidenced in his matches with Sting, he was more than willing to give as much as he dished out (within reason). Legitimately, he beat the hell out of every guy he got in the ring with – his punches and forearm shots perfectly exemplified the term “clubbing blows” – yet, when it came time for his oppositions’ comebacks, Vader bumped around the ring like no other 400+ pounder could/would. He made Sting look like one of the strongest men on the planet, allowing himself to be tossed around to the tune of German suplexes, back suplexes, over the rope suplexes, and powerslams. Subsequently, he was the other half of the most critically acclaimed big vs. small matches of that era.
I remember first seeing Vader, then known as Big Van Vader, at a WCW house show in the summer of 1992 after he burst onto the scene in the spring as a challenger to Sting’s World Heavyweight Championship. One look at him and you understood why this relative newcomer was receiving a title shot. As unusual as it may have been to see someone that new going straight to the main-event, you could not take your eyes off of him. He had an intimidating presence. He absolutely mauled Sting, failing to the win the title but capturing the psychological edge over all the little Stingers that had hopes of their hero being a long-reigning champion. When they faced again a few months later at The Great American Bash, it was a small wonder that Sting even put up a fight and no surprise at all that Vader won the championship.
When writing this book, I had a lot of fun going back and watching many of the old NWA/WCW matches that I had not seen in many years. The highlight of my NWA/WCW rewind was the Vader vs. Sting series. I was blown away by it. As modern fans, we become conditioned not to think highly of big men as workers. There have been so many untalented “hosses” that have come through the ranks and were solely given their opportunity based on their size rather than their skill that it turned a lot of people away from giving the bigger guys that could work a fair shake. I think every fan owes it to him/herself, if they want to be considered well-rounded, to take an afternoon and watch some of Vader’s matches. He represents the potential for guys his size to not only be monsters that the little kids in the audience get scared of (an important role), but for them also to contribute unique in-ring work. Matt Bloom, known as A-Train and more recently Tensai in WWE, followed Vader’s path to Japan and came back to the States a much better worker. I think that the WWE needs a wrestler or two like that and that they need to be allowed to do what they learn overseas.
The Vader vs. Sting series was special. Wrestling is all about making money, but the quality of the performance can make a one-time viewer into a lifetime fan. David vs. Goliath is merely a story of the underdog. One man seemingly cannot be beaten; the other is the protagonist attempting the impossible. It is a simple formula for making money at the PPV and ticket box offices. What made Vader exceptional was that he was a super heavyweight that could give you success, financially, while also providing the dramatic, Match of the Year candidate that both sells out the arenas and sends the crowds that fill them home happy and wanting to see more. There have not been a lot of guys his size who could do that.
Given the physically taxing and exciting nature of their initial encounters, the Vader vs. Sting rematch to determine the “King of Cable” at Starrcade ’92 was a must-see affair. Sting got in quite a bit of offense in the early stages, including an impaler DDT off the second rope that no other big man on earth besides Vader could have taken. Otherwise, Vader dominated much of the match, with the story being, as Jim Ross referenced numerous times on commentary, reminiscent of the Ali-Foreman “Thrilla in Manila,” which saw Ali force Foreman to “punch himself out” and allow Ali to move in for the knockout blow. After Vader failed to put Sting away, he went to the top rope for a splash. Sting, though, took advantage of the opportunity and countered in mid-air into a powerslam for the win. It was one of the great Starrcade matches of all-time. The WWE ranked it the 13th best Starrcade match in their special “Top 25” collection released several years ago. I would rank it in #5 (behind only Flair vs. Luger, Flair vs. Vader, Malenko vs. Ultimo, and Flair vs. Rhodes).
The last of their classic PPV trifecta took place at Super Brawl III. It was a Non-Sanctioned Strap match. I have always enjoyed Strap matches – two men each tethered to one another by a long strand of rope/chain/strap. Its infrequent use makes it one of my favorite gimmicks. Over the last thirty years, I would struggle to name more than five high profile versions of the match on PPV, but I would easily rank Vader vs. Sting as the best. Most critics would likely award WCW’s 1993 Match of the Year to either Vader vs. Cactus Jack at Halloween Havoc or Vader vs. Ric Flair at Starrcade, but I would give it to the Strap match, personally. Vader and Sting beat the living hell out of each other, with each getting naturally busted open. It was the most brutal of their matches and included a plethora of high risk moves off the ropes. How many 450 pounders in wrestling history can you say came off the top or second rope five or more times in one match? I was always impressed with Vader’s willingness to put his own body on the line. He walked away from this bout with several open gashes on his back from being whipped with the leather strap and a horrible cut around his ear that bled like he had been shot.
1993 was Vader’s year. He was World Champion for nine months of the calendar, during which time he had some incredible matches with a variety of opponents. In Sting, Foley, and Flair, he found three different styles to work with and had matches that were critically received as four-stars or better against them all. His title defenses against British Bulldog were also quite good, albeit nowhere near as heralded.
The biggest match of his life was the Starrcade ’93 Title vs. Career match with Flair. Because of the stipulation that Flair had to retire if he lost, the match was very dramatic. The potential last match of an all-time great during a period when rumors spread slowly evoked a lot of emotions from the fans. I think most of the credit should go to Vader for this being regarded as the best match in Starrcade history by the WWE. The drama had to carry it, as the wrestling on Flair’s end was below the standard that he had set in the past. For all intents and purposes, it was a “Vader” match. The big man did most of the work and Flair simply bumped for him. I loved watching Vader brawl. His opponents, especially an all-time best bump taker like Flair, looked like they were legitimately getting their heads knocked off. Vader lost the title that night by a roll-up, but his performance was the talking point coming out of the match. He dominated its entirety and, in what was perhaps his most athletic display, he missed a top rope moonsault. The visual of Vader performing a moonsault is something that has to be seen to be believed.
If you asked the casual fan to pick between Vader’s top 1993 matches, the most common answer might be the Texas Death match with Cactus Jack. Halloween Havoc was the setting, but the stage had been set months prior when two brutal matches left Foley with a wicked concussion and in need of two dozen stitches. Remember that ECW, which popularized hardcore brawls, had not gained traction as of ’93, so the Vader-Cactus bouts were eye opening in that “I’ve never seen this before” type of way. Foley was such an innovator, in general, but I think he found the perfect dance partner, in Vader, with whom he could play his sadistic game. Put yourself in the 1993 mindset of a fan that had not seen a match quite that hardcore. This was a fight that broke new ground; that entered uncharted territory, in terms of violence, in North America’s mainstream wrestling scene. Months later, a match between the two in Germany cost Foley most of his right ear.
1994 was an unremarkable year for Vader, compared to his first two years. The lone highlight was his match with The Big Bossman. Maybe two or three super heavyweight matches were better in the last three decades. It was an excellent example of Vader’s ability to work very good matches with other super heavyweights. Most “big man” matches in American wrestling’s modern history have been an exercise in how to adequately bore the audience into doing something else, but Vader seemed determined to bring a bit of Japan’s more “gloves off” style to his bout with The Boss. It was anything but a typical big man contest. Vader, in the opening minutes, took a running leap from the ring-height ramp and jumped over the top rope for a diving splash into the ring. They slammed each other from the top turnbuckle, Vader took a DDT from the middle rope, and Vader finished off Bossman with a Vader Bomb from the second turnbuckle followed by a moonsault from the top.
Part of the reason for Vader’s ’94 demotion, of sorts, was to make way for a new top star. Hulk Hogan signed with WCW that year and the product was, subsequently, built around him. There were two feuds that immediately jumped off the page for the Hulkster upon his arrival. The first and most obvious was the dream feud against Ric Flair that spanned 1994. Once he had dispatched of Naitch, Hogan’s attention turned to the other: Vader. Hulkamania had run wild over a lot of big guys in its heyday, but very few of them were capable of working a main-event caliber match at Vader’s level. Vader was in the prime of his career and was capable of helping Hulk to a classic rivalry.
Their first match at Super Brawl V took a page from the Rocky III playbook. Hogan had defeated the man previously thought to be his greatest challenge in Flair, just as Rocky Balboa had overcome Apollo Creed in Rocky and Rocky II. Yet, it turned out to be a dominant, relative newcomer in Clubber Lang that gave Rocky his biggest test. Similarly, Vader presented Hulkamania with the most significant threat to its hope to “live forever.” In the film, Lang utterly decimated Balboa. Vader did the same to Hogan, taking everything that the Hulkster could dish out. The same things that had led both Hogan and Balboa to previous victories were not enough to put down their brutish competition. At one point, just as Rocky had said to long-time manager, Mick, Hogan told his long-time friend, Jimmy Hart, that “he is too strong.” Vader even kicked out of the big boot and leg drop combination at the count of one. Hogan managed to escape, unlike in the movie, with the title still around his waist thanks to a dusty finish, but it was clear that Vader owned Hogan.
The two rematches were solid, but less dramatic than the original. At Uncensored, Hogan defeated Vader in a Strap match. It was the kind of brawl that you would expect from a Vader-led gimmick. They also had a Steel Cage match at The Bash at the Beach PPV, which Hogan also won. It was more like the second Balboa-Lang fight in Rocky III, in that the dominance once shown by the antagonist was absent in the rematch, giving the hero the definitive victory. Hogan’s ability to complete the comeback story was far from what it once had been, but his matches with Vader were top notch.
Vader saw the writing on the wall. He had lost to WCW’s top act, booked in such a way that rematches seemed unlikely. So, in 1996, he left for the WWE, debuting at The Royal Rumble and making a huge splash the following night on Raw when he unleashed a full out assault on everyone that dared cross his path, including WWE legend, Hall of Famer, and then-storyline-WWE President, Gorilla Monsoon. Just as in WCW, he was pushed straight to the top and, by Summerslam, he was main-eventing and wrestling for the WWE Championship. That year, Shawn Michaels was the WWE’s top star. Michaels was arguably the greatest in-ring performer of all-time and had made a name for himself as a guy that could have outstanding matches against larger athletes due to his ability to physically sell a story about a little guy beating a bigger guy like nobody else in history. Given their respective resumes – HBK as the master of David vs. Goliath and Vader as the greatest super heavyweight in history – it made for quite the exciting affair to see Vader vs. Michaels on a major PPV.
Unfortunately, Vader never fully clicked in the WWE. I saw a noticeable difference in his WCW vs. WWE matches. One thing that WCW did right with Vader is that they allowed him to be the worker that he had been overseas. They did not ask Vader to conform to their standards. To me, it seemed as though the WWE failed to give Vader the same courtesy and got a lesser version of “The Mastodon” as a result. I thought Vader was somewhat handicapped in the match with Michaels, perhaps not allowed to unleash his full repertoire. Plus, the booking was terrible. They did a restart and a disqualification all within the same convoluted finish and it never did lead to another PPV match. Despite the booking, he and Michaels put on a heck of show, but while you cannot take anything away from the performance, I will always submit that it should have been the best match of Vader’s career. It was a still a four-star effort, but it was not four-stars in execution. Most have pegged it as Vader’s finest in the WWE, but I would give that nod to the July ’97 title match at Canadian Stampede between him and Undertaker.
Vader’s WWE tenure could have been so much more. I believe that he should have been the one to win the WWE Championship leading to Wrestlemania 13, where he could have dropped the title to Undertaker, as scheduled, in place of the far less talented Sycho Sid. He had not lost clean in previous title bouts, so he had the credibility and the push from the previous year to step in. He defeated Taker at The Royal Rumble, too, which gave him even greater standing. Of course, it is easy to look back and state that Vader vs. Taker would have been a much bigger draw than what actually took place since Mania 13 drew the worst buyrate in Mania history, but Vader had the track record and the fan respect to do good business with The Deadman. As evidenced by their match from a few months later, it would have also been far better than the actual Mania 13 main-event.
If the WWE had not been so greatly challenged by WCW, thus making them more cautious when making decisions about their World Champion, then I believe that Vader probably would have won the WWE title at some point. He just came in at a bad time and was forced into working a style that made him less compelling.
Vader will be best remembered for what he accomplished in WCW. His run as the top heel in the early 1990s was the highlight of his career. He provided several classic matches en route to winning the WCW Championship 3 times.
The preceding tribute was an excerpt from The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment