The 50 Greatest Wrestlers Of The Last 50 Years: Former WCW World Champ Comes In At #34

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#34 Vader

Some people will think that this is way too high of a ranking for Vader, that he deserves to be lower on this list if he deserves to be on it at all. That is fine, I don't think my opinion is inherently more valid than anybody else's. However, I do think that Vader has had one of the most successful careers in wrestling of the last 50 years and he has accomplishments on his resume from all over the wrestling world. Vader was a big star in North America and had world title reigns, but he was an even big star in Japan where he got his career kicked into high gear and where he would return after he ran out of options in the United States.


Leon White grew up in Los Angeles where he was a top college football recruit, eventually going to the University of Colorado where he became a two-time All-American on the offensive line. He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. Despite showing promise as an NFL lineman and playing for the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, White was forced to retire after dealing with several injuries, including a ruptured patella. Following the end of his football career, White was told to give pro wrestling a try and he found an early home in the American Wrestling Association after being trained by Brad Rheingans, eventually wrestling under the name Bull Power. A fast learner, White quickly climbed the ranks and earned an AWA World Heavyweight Championship match against Stan Hansen and worked a series of matches against Hansen throughout 1986.


In 1987 White's career changed forever when he made his first appearance for New Japan Pro Wrestling, appearing as a member of Takeshi Kitano's Puroresu Gundan stable under a black mask and going by the name Big Van Vader. The name Vader came from a powerful warrior character from Japanese folklore. Vader immediately asserted his dominance in NJPW, running into the ring after Antonio Inoki defeated Riki Choshu and challenged Inoki to a match. Inoki accepted and Vader quickly defeated Inoki in under three minutes, which caused a riot at the Sumo Hall in Tokyo, leading to a temporary ban for NJPW at the Sumo Hall. Just four years into his professional career, Vader became a world champion when he defeated Shinya Hashimoto to win the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in the finals of an eight man tournament to crown a new champion, becoming the first foreign wrestler to win that championship.

Vader would drop the title to Russian amateur star Salman Hashimikov, who in turn would drop the title to Choshu. Vader would then defeat Choshu to win his second world championship on August 10, 1989. After winning the world championship Vader went on some international excursions, where he defeated Austrian strongman Otto Wanz to win the Catch Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship, the biggest title in Europe. In November 1989, Vader traveled to Mexico where he defeated UWA World Heavyweight Champion El Canek, becoming the first and only wrestler in history to hold three different world titles at the same time on three different continents.


Vader's wrestling style has become the stuff of legend within wrestling locker rooms. In wrestling, there is a philosophy behind putting in offense. There is stuff that doesn't really hurt that looks like it hurts, which is good. There is stuff that doesn't look good that does actually hurt, which is bad. Vader fell somewhere in the middle, where his stuff looked like it hurt, and boy did it. Vader has the reputation as being one of if not the stiffest worker in wrestling history, and it has been reported that undercard wrestlers would literally leave the arena when they found out they were working with Vader. Vader was a true gorilla in the ring, nobody ever watched a Vader match and talked about how fake it looked.

Vader found his way back into mainstream American wrestling when he debuted in World Championship Wrestling, squashing Tom Zenk at the 1990 Great American Bash. Vader would continue to make sporadic appearances in WCW while working mainly in Japan, working a feud with Tatsumi Fujinami over the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship and also with Keiji Mutoh. In 1992 he signed a big contract with WCW and began to work there more than in NJPW.

Vader was a godsend for WCW in 1992. With Ric Flair still in the WWF, WCW was struggling to find a top heel to work with their top babyface, Sting. Vader was paired up with Harley Race and was booked as unstoppable monster heel. Perhaps nobody was quite as good at being a tremendous monster heel as the Vader, who ran roughshot over the entire WCW roster. He immediately engaged in a feud with Sting and defeated Sting for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in July 1992. Unfortunately Vader suffered a knee injury and was forced to drop the title to Ron Simmons just three months later.


Vader's match with Simmons stands out as probably the best testament of his ability to be a monster heel. Simmons was a good wrestler and a solid babyface, but he wasn't overly charismatic and he never had anywhere close to a world title run outside of his work with Vader. With that being said, when Simmons toppled Vader he received one of the biggest pops of the 1990s, which is a testimony to just how over of a villain Vader was at the time.

After returning from his injury Vader would regain the title and continued to feud with Sting, as well as Dustin Rhodes and Davey Boy Smith. During this same period Vader began working for the Union of Wrestling Force International, winning their world title to add another world championship to his resume. Vader began feuding with Cactus Jack in 1994 and the two engaged in a violent and bloody feud. During a match on WCW Saturday Night, Cactus Jack suffered a broken nose and needed nearly 30 stitches to close the wound and the match ended up being so bloody that TBS refused to air it unless it was heavily edited. The matches between Cactus Jack and Vader set new levels of violence for mainstream American wrestling that would be used in excess in the future, particularly during the late 1990s in the WWF.


By 1995 Vader was losing steam in WCW, falling short in several world title challenges to Hulk Hogan, who was dominating WCW as the babyface champion of the company. A frustrated Vader ended up costing himself his job when he was involved in a backstage fight with Paul Orndorff, one of numerous mistakes that Vader made during his career that hurt his reputation and ultimately probably cost him a lot of money. After working a one-off match against Antonio Inoki at NJPW's annual January 4 Tokyo Dome show, Vader found his way to the WWF and made his debut at the 1996 Royal Rumble. Vader engaged in a feud with Yokozuna and Jake Roberts before moving up to the main event against now WWF champion Shawn Michaels. Vader worked the main event of SummerSlam against Michaels, winning by count-out and disqualification only for the match to be restarted both times, until Michaels finally pinned Vader for the victory.

In 1997 Vader would fall under the tutelage of Paul Bearer and began a feud with The Undertaker. He also teamed with former rival Mankind and the two formed a dysfunctional tag team that often saw them wildly brawl with each other mid-match while Bearer desperately tried to control his two monsters. Vader would wrestle The Undertaker at an In Your House event for 'Taker's WWF World Heavyweight Championship but lost. Vader would then end up turning babyface after assaulting Bret Hart after Hart disrespected the United States and Vader joined fellow WWF wrestlers in the fight against The Hart Foundation. Vader would then feud with Goldust through 1997 before starting a feud with Kane, eventually putting Kane over, which gave Kane a big boost before heading into WrestleMania against The Undertaker. After losing to Kane in a Mask vs Mask match, Vader cut a post-match promo announcing ""I made the biggest mistake of my life. Maybe Vader time is over. I'm a piece of s–t. A big fat piece of s–t." Subsequently, Vader began jobbing out losing on PPV to Mark Henry and Bradshaw. Seeing the writing on the wall, Vader was granted his request to be released from the company.


Although Vader was one of the best villains of the 1990s, what most people want to talk about when they hear Vader's name is his outstanding agility. A true super-heavyweight, Vader was an incredible physical athlete, capable of doing some impressive things in the ring, including his devastating moonsault. During a time when big men like Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, One Man Gang and Earthquake remained grounded and pretty limited in the ring, Vader set new standards for the athleticism of big men in wrestling.

Despite his time being a major player in North America coming to an end, Vader's career was far from finished. Finding himself in All-Japan Pro Wrestling, Vader formed a tag team with his former rival Stan Hansen and the team made it to the finals of the 1998 World's Strongest Tag Team Determination League final where they lost to Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyma. Vader would go onto to have a tremendous 1999, winning the vacated AJPW Triple Crown Championship when he defeated Akira Taue, making him one of the few wrestlers to win both the top championships in AJPW and NJPW. He would also win the 1999 Champions Carnival when he defeated Kobashi in the finals. He would drop the world title to Mitsuharu Misawa, but regained it shortly after before dropping the title for good in early 2000 to Kobashi.


Following his loss to Kobashi Vader began to wind his career down, appearing briefly for Pro Wrestling NOAH, TNA and WWE. Today he still wrestles on the independent circuit and remains an iconic wrestler in Japan.

In the United States Vader seems to fly under the radar, probably because he peaked in WCW before the company really took off in 1996 and left the WWF before it took over the industrial lead from WCW in 1998. With that being said, Vader had one of the most accomplished careers in the history of pro wrestling, becoming the only wrestler in history to hold the WCW, IWGP and Triple Crown World Heavyweight Championships during their career. The only real major title he didn't win was the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, and to be honest he easily could have gotten a championship reign somewhere during his time in the WWF. If Pyscho Sid can have two title reigns during that same time period, Vader could have definitely had one. Even without the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, Vader was still one of the top heels of the 1990s and one of the best super-heavyweights in history.

Next week #33 on the list will be revealed; an amateur star who become one of the most respected champions of all-time.


The Top 50 so far:

50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
48.Akira Maeda
47. El hijo del Santo
46.Gene Kiniski
45. Bruiser Brody
44.Mick Foley
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
40. Sting
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
34. Vader