Written by jdw, Travis
Credit: PWI, WON, WWF, JWJ
Leon White began his wrestling career in late 1985. He was an offensive lineman at the University of Colorado and his "wrestling bio" lists White as playing five years for the Los Angeles Rams, but football registers are fuzzy on confirming it. White trained for his entrance into professional wrestling by accepting a position as a sparring partner for the former WBA Heavyweight boxing champ Mike Weaver, and by training with Brad Rheingans. White quickly adapted to a power-style wrestling technique, training himself to become a superheavyweight inside the ring.
Leon White first entered active competition in late '85 in the AWA wrestling promotion with the name "Baby Bull" which was quickly changed to "Bull Power". White also began wrestling abroad, in Austria and Germany for Otto Wanz' Catch Wrestling Association. It was overseas that White would find his greatest success, and train with some of the legendary names in the business. White would beat Wanz in Denver on March 22, 1987 to win the CWA World Heavyweight Title, the first of many world titles White would hold. Impressed with his performance in the CWA, New Japan offered White a contract in late '87.
Wrestling for New Japan, White was given the moniker Big Van Vader and wore a full mask as part of New Japan's attempt to debut a large wrestler that was designed to intimidate and impress the audience with his sheer size and quickness. Vader debuted against the legendary Antonio Inoki, handing Inoki his first singles defeat in more than four years. The match set off a fan riot that would get New Japan indefinitely banned from the Sumo Hall, and overnight Vader was catapulted to superstar status in Japan. After being turned back by Tatsumi Fujinami in several IWGP Heavyweight Title matches in 1988, Vader finally broke through in April 1989 at New Japan's first Tokyo Dome card. In a tournament to fill the vacant IWGP Heavyweight Title, Vader defeated Masahiro Chono, Fujinami and Shinya Hashimoto win the title.
Vader went on to carry the IWGP Title a second time after defeating Riki Choshu in August of 1989, and later that month traveled to Germany under the guise of Bull Power to defeat Wanz to regain the CWA Title. Vader then went on to defeat El Canek in November 1989 in Mexico for the UWA World Heavyweight Title. This feat made Vader the first man in professional wrestling history to hold three major titles from three continents simultaneously.
In July of 1990, Vader debuted in World Championship Wrestling, defeating Tom Zenk in under three minutes. His early push in WCW was inconsistent, in part due to his commitments to other promotions around the world, and also due to the instability of WCW's booking teams in that era. Unsure of what to do with him, and unable to use him full time, they would book Vader on only one additional PPV or Clash match between his debut and October 1991. That one match was his third singles match against Stan Hansen, the final in a unique series of battles between the top gaijin of the New Japan and All Japan promotions. The matches were notable first for their stiffness, including White suffering eye legitimate damage to the bones around his eye in the first match, and secondly for their non-finishes due to political considerations between their Japanese promotions.
Vader continued to wrestle regularly abroad through mid-1992, holding the IWGP and CWA Titles each for the third time. He also teamed with rival Riki Choshu to win New Japan's 1991 Super Grade Tag League, and then teamed with Bam Bam Bigelow to defeat Hiroshi Hase & Keiji Mutoh in '92 for the IWGP Tag Team Title. By 1992 White relationship with New Japan soured. With the promotion being able to get over the moderately paid Scott Norton as a top of the card monster gaijin, the front office believed they could create new top gaijin almost at will, and that their crew of workers were talented enough to get them over to the fans. White stewed over being asked to put over Norton and another new top gaijin, Tony Halme, in singles matches. The breaking point came in the summer and fall of 1992 when the promotion repeatedly freed White of bookings to allow him to get surgery on an injured knee, even agreeing to pick up the expenses. When Vader wouldn't get the surgery and instead accepted more bookings from WCW, New Japan stopped booking him entirely.
Vader's career in WCW took off as his relationship with New Japan disintegrated. When Lex Luger jumped to the WWF, at the end of February 1992, Vader was moved up into spot of being Sting's top rival for the WCW World Title, including being given Luger's manager, the legendary Harley Race. While the feud with Sting would become one of the more memorable in WCW history, for a while it looked to be little more than Vader playing a three week transitional heel champion bridging the title from Sting to new WCW promoter Bill Watts' chosen lead face, Ron Simmons. But when the Simmons bombed as a lead face, the belt was put back on Vader at the end of 1992.
1993 marked the high point of Vader's career as he dominated the WCW World Title throughout the year with defenses against major WCW competitors like the Davey Boy Smith, Dustin Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat, Cactus Jack and more matches with Sting, which included the title briefly changing hands in Europe. In Japan, he jumped to the UWF International promotion and was built towards an inevitable match with Nobuhiko Takada. The world champion vs. world champion match between the two took place 12/05/93, drawing 46,168 fans to Jingu Baseball Stadium in Tokyo to watch Vader submit to Takada's cross armbreaker. Vader capped of his year by dropping the WCW World Title to former World Champion Ric Flair at Starcade '93 in a memorable storyline where Flair promised to retire from the sport if he lost. Vader's "career year" won him both the PWI and WON Wrestler of the Year awards.
Vader continued to feud with Ric Flair into early 1994, but WCW was anxious to bring their newest acquisition, Hulk Hogan, into the mix, and as a result Vader found his value to the company decreasing as Hogan was programmed straight into main event matches with Flair. Vader entered into a long feud with the Big Bossman that opened strong, then faded as repetition led to apathy for both the workers and the fans. In Japan, his star continued to shine bright. With the trio of Takada, Vader and Gary Albright at the top of UWFi's cards, the promotion averaged more than 14,000 fans per show in 1994. The highpoint of the year was once again a Vader vs. Takada match as they met in the 8/94 finals of UWFi's five month long singles tournament. Vader avenged his loss of the prior year by knocking out Takada to win not only the tournament, but also UWFi's version of the world title. Vader would defend the title over Albright in 1/95 before dropping it back to Takada in 4/95 and leaving the promotion.
At Starcade '94, Vader won the US Title and had a post card confrontation with Hogan to set up a program between the two. The series was creatively plagued, as neither wrestler would to a job for the other and Hogan being particularly unwilling to do anything to make Vader look good. Despite poor booking and lack of cooperation, their three match PPV series were very successful at the box office, drawing WCW's best buyrates between the Flair-Hogan series in 1994 and the late 96-97 Hogan vs. Piper series, eclipsing even the original nWo Invasion series of mid-96.
After finishing the series with Hogan, WCW turned Vader face and aligned him with Hogan, including having him be one of the faces to run in to save Hogan during the infamous "Dungeon of Doom" skit in the 8/95 Clash of the Champions. The Clash also featured his final major match in WCW, taking a handicap match over Flair and Arn Anderson. Later in the month, Vader involved in a backstage fight with Paul Orndorff that lead to White being fired from WCW on terms that remain bitter even today.
After the firing, Vader took some time off weighing his career options and resting a shoulder injured in his final PPV match against Hogan. He first agreed to work New Japan's 1/4/96 Tokyo Dome card against old rival Antonio Inoki, then signed with the World Wrestling Federation to begin with the promotion in January 1996. He match against Inoki was one of the best performances of his career, working with a still bad shoulder but carrying Antonio Inoki to what will go down as the last great match of Inoki's career. Vader debuted in the '96 Royal Rumble to a very hot reaction from the crowd. The following night on RAW he worked a hot angle attacking and injuring WWF President Gorilla Monsoon, leading to Vader getting suspended. The suspension was a cover story to allow White to get his shoulder operated on, but the angle was so strong that Vader's run in the WWF looked to be very promising.
He started fulltime with the WWF at Wrestlemania 96, but his honeymoon in the promotion was over by the following night when he was jobbed cleanly to the Undertaker in a short dark match at a RAW tapping. By May, he was also jobbing around the circuit to the likes of Ahmed Johnson, the Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, and Yokozuna at a time he'd yet to get his major TV and PPV push as a WWF World Title challenger. The jobs created heat between Vader and the front office, which along with series of injuries led to an erratic push for Vader and several mis-fires with planned angles. Vader did go on to wrestle Shawn Michaels for the WWF World Heavyweight Title at Summer Slam 96, but turmoil with the office and injuries caused him to be passed over for the role of short term champion with Sid Vicious being given the slot instead. He spent 1997-98 in and out of the WWF's doghouse, with an arrest in Kuwait and weight problems getting more attention that anything he did in the ring.
The WWF let White out of his contract in late 1998, after which he quickly signed with All Japan Pro Wrestling. The move not only revitalized Vader, but also proved at least initially to be a shot in the arm for a promotion that had been sliding at the box office. Vader formed a team with Stan Hansen that stormed to the finals of All Japan's annual Tag League before losing to Kenta Kobashi & Jun Akiyama. Vader continued his roll into early 1999, including pinning Akira Taue to win the vacant Triple Crown in 3/99.
A major drawing wrestler throughout the world for much of his career, Vader's drawing power in the US has fallen considerably from what it once was. In the WWF Vader was used to push upcoming stars, but too many of these matches have detracted from the overall value of Vader to the point he no longer was considered a main event class wrestler. Creatively, both US offices had difficulty in figuring out how to push and book him for maximum return on his potential. In addition, health problems and heat with the front offices plagued Vader and prevented him from being pushed in sustained feuds. His return to All Japan has shown he still has mileage as a top of the card draw, but there are already questions on how well All Japan's front office will be able to maximize and sustain what has fallen in their lap.
In his prime he was one of the best working big men the history of the business, with his strengths including a very stiff and wide moveset, exceptional bumping ability for a big man, the ability to carry most anyone, and a strong desire to not only perform at a high level, but also to improve. With rare exceptions such as the 2/97 Final Four PPV main event and the tag match on All Japan's 5/98 Tokyo Dome card, his work during the WWF years deteriorated due to weight, age, injuries, mediocre opponents to work with, and diminishing personal desire. There are some signs of his work picking up in All Japan, but given his age it is unlikely he will come close to his peak work. Still, given the quality of opponents he will be working with, if his old desire returns he may be able to raise his game like Stan Hansen did in 1993 and have a run excellent top of the card matches.