The 50 Greatest Wrestlers Of The Last 50 Years: WrestleMania Headliner Comes In At #31

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#31 Roddy Piper

A charismatic motormouth whose charisma captured a national audience and helped Vince McMahon and the WWF dominate the wrestling universe, Roddy Piper became one of the most culturally significant wrestlers of the last 30 years. While he rose to national prominence as an excessive villain, he would spend the final decade of his career as a tremendous babyface hero.


Contrary to popular belief, Piper is not actually from Scotland. He was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and grew up in northern Manitoba. From a young age, Piper was a rebel, who was kicked out of junior high school for carrying a switchblade to class and eventually he ran away from home, staying at youth hostels and growing up on the streets. As a teenager Piper found stability in athletics at the YMCA, becoming proficient in boxing, judo and amateur wrestling.

Piper began his career in professional wrestling by running errands for wrestlers when they visited Manitoba. Eventually he broke into the business by Al Tomko, a local promoter who took a liking to the youngster. Piper's debut was as humble as his childhood had been, he made his debut at 15 wrestling midgets at a lumberjack camp in Churchill, Manitoba, an area so northern and remote it has the nickname "The Polar Bear Capital of the World." Needless to say, his start in the industry was unbecoming of someone who was destined to be an international star.


Piper got his feet wet in the industry as a comedic jobber, who came out to bagpipes and handed out dandelions to the audience. Piper gained experience throughout the early 70s in several different territories, most notably working for Verne Gagne and the American Wrestling Association. By 1976 Piper had found a home in Southern California, working as the top heel for Gene LeBell's NWA Hollywood Wrestling promotion. It was in California that Piper perfected his character, using his charisma and off-the-cuff timing to infuriate audiences. Piper engaged in a long feud with Chavo Guerrero Sr. and Piper made a habit of consistently insulting the large Mexican-American population that came to the arena to see Guerrero. After one particularly bad exchange, Piper announced that he wanted to make amends with the Mexican-American community by playing the Mexican National Anthem on his bagpipes. With the arena silent, waiting for Piper's performance, he played "La Cucaracha" instead, inciting a near riot. Piper eventually lost a hair vs hair match to Guerrero and was shaved bald.

Piper then moved onto Don Owen's Pacific Northwest promotion where he continued to perfect his character. For most wrestling fans, when it comes to imagining the ideal, sneaky heel, it is Piper who comes to mind. Piper did everything you would want out of such a character, he had an endless arsenal of dirty tactics, from eye gouges to sneaky pins to holding onto the ropes for support. He could beg, bump and sell with the best of them and was a famous bladder. More importantly, Piper had a once-in-a-generation ability to speak on the microphone, combining fiery arrogance with a healthy dosage of sarcasm that always drew the ire of fans.


Piper began to climb to the top when he worked in the Mid-Atlantic territory, defeating fan favorites Jack Brisco and Ric Flair for regional championships. The enigmatic Piper also began working as a color commentator for Ole Anderson's Georgia promotion, working with legendary play-by-play man Gordon Solie. In 1982, Piper made an unexpected babyface turn, saving Solie from an attack by Don Muraco and Ole Anderson, who were tired of Solie questioning their heel tactics. The event turned Piper into one of the biggest babyface stars in the South, and he eventually found his way to Jim Crockett Promotion, at time the biggest territory in the South. There, Piper engaged in memorable feuds with Sgt. Slaughter and Greg Valentine. His feud with Valentine would culminate in a vicious dog-collar match at the very first Starrcade event. In a bloody and violent affair, Piper beat Valentine into submission using the chain wrapped around his fists.

Piper would then move onto the national stage, as he was brought in by Vince McMahon Jr. to help bolster the roster as McMahon attempted to take over the national wrestling stage. It turned out to be one of the most brilliant decisions McMahon ever made, as Piper proved to be an excellent foil to the consummate babyface champion, Hulk Hogan. When Piper first debuted in the WWF in 1984, Piper couldn't work in the ring because of injuries he sustained during the dog-collar match with Valentine. To keep Piper relevant, he began managing several wrestlers and hosting his own talk-show segment, Piper's Pit. Reprising his hated heel character, Piper's Pit became one of the most influential segments in wrestling history, paving the way for numerous other talk-show related skits that heel characters would use to insult their opponents.


As Vince McMahon was planning the first WrestleMania, he turned to Piper to carry the feud. In 1985 Piper began feuding with Hogan, leading up to a championship match in February that was called "The War to Settle the Score" and was broadcasted live on MTV. Piper would lose the match by disqualification, when his partners Paul Orndorff and Bob Orton ran in and beat down Hogan. During the beatdown, actor Mr. T ran in and saved his friend Hogan, setting the stage for WrestleMania, which pitted Piper and Orndorff against Hogan and Mr. T. Piper lost the match when Orton accidently hit Orndorff with his trademark cast, giving the babyfaces the victory. The feud not only put Piper, but the entire WWF into mainstream pop culture.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment in Piper's career was his ability to maintain his heat while feuding with Hogan. Piper was not a very big man, and he was trying to get heat while wrestling the mountainous Hogan. Yet no one ever doubted who the bully was in the situation, a tremendous testament to Piper's ability to work as a heel.

Piper would then engage in a feud with legendary champion Bruno Sammartino, culminating in a steel cage match at the Boston Garden, which Sammartino won. Piper would then rekindle his feud with Mr. T for WrestleMania II, taking on Mr. T in a boxing match. The match ended when Piper was disqualified for body slamming Mr. T., sticking to the wrestling rule that all boxing matches have to end when the heel uses a wrestling move to get disqualified.


Piper would go on a leave of absence, eventually returning to the company in August of 1986. When Piper discovered that his Piper's Pit segment had been replaced by Adrian Adonis' segment, The Flower Shop, Piper in Adonis engaged in a feud that eventually saw Piper beaten down by Adonis and his former bodyguard Orton. This turned Piper babyface, in a dramatic move that delighted wrestling fans. As good of a heel Piper was, he was just as talented as a babyface. While the fans detested his behavior, there was always a sense of nobility to Piper's energy and conviction. Now that he was a good guy fans had carte blanche to cheer for him as their hero.

Piper defeated Adonis at WrestleMania III, but just as soon as he had turned babyface, he retired from wrestling, dedicating himself to acting full-time. Piper had a moderately successful career in Hollywood, most notably starring the cult-classic They Live but it couldn't compare to his success as a professional wrestler. Piper returned to the WWF in 1989 and began working as a color commentator who wrestled occasionally, engaging in feuds with Rick Rude and Ted DiBiase. He would eventually capture the Intercontinental Championship from The Mountie at the 1992 Royal Rumble, before dropping the championship to his long-time friend Bret Hart, in a bloody battle at WrestleMania VIII. Piper would continue to appear in various roles for the WWF before leaving the company in 1996.


Piper would have one last great moment in wrestling later that year, when he appeared in World Championship Wrestling to challenge then-WCW World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan. Hogan, who was leading the nWo and was the biggest heel in professional wrestling, was insulted repeatedly by Piper who claimed that he was the only guy that Hogan never beat (hilariously untrue but the crowd ate it up anyway) and challenged him to a match. Piper, despite coming off of hip surgery that made him severely limited in the ring, rallied the crowd behind him at Starrcade 1996 and defeated Hogan with a sleeper hold. Due to wacky WCW booking, the match was inexplicably not for the world title, so while Piper won the match, Hogan was still the champion. Piper would challenge Hogan for the title unsuccessfully at SuperBrawl 1997, and continued to feud with various nWo members. Piper remained a part of WCW through 2000, but never again engaged in any truly notable feuds.

Piper would continue to appear for major promotions throughout the new millennium while also acting in films and appearing on TV shows. Tragically, Piper died in 2015 after suffering a heart attack in his sleep. Piper left behind a legacy that has him noted as being one of the most charismatic villains of all-time, while simultaneously being one of the most sympathetic, never-say-die babyfaces in history. His contributions to wrestling as one of the top talkers and storytelling remain his biggest legacy, surely inspiring wrestlers for decades to come.


Next week, #30 will be revealed, a wrestler who had tremendous success in multiple promotions, including one that he founded.

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
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper