After a two-year battle with congestive heart failure, WWE superstar Big Van Vader died at the age of 63. His son Jessie White reported the news on social media, using Vader’s account to reach out to his fans. He wrote, “It is with a heavy heart to inform everyone that my father, Leon White, passed away on Monday night (6/18/18) at approximately 7:25pm.” Jessie continued, writing that his father was diagnosed with a severe case of pneumonia. Though “he fought extremely hard and clinically was making progress”, Vader’s heart could not keep up with the larger-than-life man and his son cited his heart issues in the announcement.
The two family photos shared by his son highlight his WCW World Heavyweight Champion win and his easy smile outside of the ring. Whether he was wrestling in front of audiences in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Japan, he brought a sense of entertainment that made wrestling what is it today.
More than his theatrics, White was an incredible athlete and one of the best heavyweight wrestlers of his time. His aerial maneuvers alone, like the Vadersault, were impressive feats, especially when you consider that White himself was a 6’4″ monster.
In honor of his memory and his televised wrestling career, we’re throwing it back to our 5 favorite early career moments for Leon White. Why stick to the early days instead of his famous clashes with the Undertake and other WWF superstars? Because White was more than just a wrestler, he was a hulking athlete with surprising beginnings.
5. His debut for New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
Vader made his debut for NJPW in an epic match that pit him against Antonio Inoki, a long revered wrestler in the program who, at the time, was on a years-long winning streak. While his debut was what many fans consider to be the best debut of a monster heel ever, it was the aftermath of the match that brings it onto this list. Vader, after demanding to face Inoki, knocked the champion right off his block in about three minutes.
A riot from the pro-Inoki crowd ensued and NJPW was banned from Sumo Hall for years, along with losing their primetime television slot. This night changed the course of NJPW and Vader’s career forever.
4. His trip to the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams.
As a student at the University of Colorado, White played offensive line and earned the honor of first-team All-American in 1977 for the Buffaloes. He studied business administration, but was selected in the 1978 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams to play center.
His first season was a bust after being placed on the injured reserve list, but he went on to play in Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Rams. They lost, but it was only the beginning for White.
3. His days as Baby Bull.
Entering the American Wrestling Association (AWA), White went by the name Baby Bull, later changing it to Bull Power. He challenged Stan Hansen in a title match for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship, but didn’t win.
2. His first non-Japanese wrestler to hold the title of IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
Defeating Shinya Hashimoto, Vader took his place among the title holders as the world champion, but victory was short-lived. Only one month later, he lost it to Salman Hashimikov, who then lost it to Vadar’s rival, Riki Choshu. In a whirlwind summer, Vadar beat Choshu to regain the title as a two-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion.
1. When he pushed his own eyeball back into the socket and continued wrestling.
Yeah, the big man on campus had another thing coming during a February 1990 match when Stan Hansen unintentionally poked Vader’s left eye, causing it to pop out. Vader removes his mask and just his eye back into the socket. He even makes sure his eyelid will hold it in. The match continued and ended in no contest.
WWE legend Vader may be gone, but certainly won’t be forgotten. A holder of world titles, a father of two, and a United States citizen who brought his personality to the ring to Japanese, British, and hundreds of audiences, Leon White leaves behind a legacy of Vader Bombs and Vadersaults that will carry his name forever.