In January 1996, a man entered the WWF to forever change the perceptions of heavyweights in professional wrestling. A career spanning nearly 30 years saw Vader endear himself to the hearts of wrestling fans all over the world with his unique mix of power and surprising aerial ability.
There was so much more to the career of Vader than the WWF. Promotions such as WCW, AWA and NJPW were all blessed with Vader's presence over a remarkable career. Even to the present day, Vader's sporadic appearances in professional wrestling ensure he is one of the greats.
He is perhaps most fondly remembered for being involved with some gruesome and extreme wrestling moments, including several with the legendary Mick Foley.
Three reigns as the WCW World Heavyweight champion also secure him a place amongst the greats of the now-defunct wrestling promotion.
His career has been filled with memorable moments across a variety of some of the most impressive wrestling promotions across the globe. Here are just a few of them.
Vader's first steps into professional wrestling saw him wrestle for the American Wrestling Association under the monikers Baby Bull and Bull Power. He was spotted by a former college classmate who suggested he looked into professional wrestling, and he was trained by one of the great wrestling coaches.
Brad Rheingans has students such as John Layfield, Brock Lesnar and Curtis Axel to his name—and Vader was another who learned his craft under the stewardship of Rheingans. After a short period with the AWA, he headed to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
It was here where he was given the ring name Big Van Vader—and a legend was born. It wasn't all plain sailing in his early days with the company, though. The face of NJPW in the late 1980s was Antonio Inoki—the first man to win the International World Grand Prix (IGPW) Heavyweight Championship. After Vader defeated Inoki in a match at the home of NJPW—the Sumo Hall—the pro-Inoki crowd rioted in disgust, leading NJPW to be banned from their home until 1989.
And 1989 was the year Vader truly announced himself on the big stage in NJPW. He won the IGPW for the first of three reigns with the company when he defeated Shinya Hashimoto in the final of an eight-man tournament. His success with the promotion had not gone unnoticed, and World Championship Wrestling convinced him to wrestle for the stateside promotion whilst still working with NJPW, something he would continue to do until 1992.
The WCW Years, Part One
Due to his commitments with New Japan Pro Wrestling, WCW only used him sparingly until he left the promotion in 1992. When he did move to the company full time, he was paired with a manager in Harley Race. That move saw him swiftly move to the top of the list to face current WCW World Heavyweight champion Sting in April of 1992.
That match saw Vader disqualified and fail to win the championship, but it is perhaps more memorable for the match that put Sting out of action for a period of time. Due to a Vader Bomb from the big man, Sting suffered broken ribs and a ruptured spleen, leading to an injury layoff.
When Sting returned in July of that year, Vader finally won the belt for the first time at the Great American Bash. Injury, however, would cruelly cost Vader the chance to have a lengthy run with the title, as he would be forced to lose the title to Ron Simmons just three weeks later.
Vader's brute strength and power did have its downside in the ring—that injury to Sting was just a number of legitimate injuries suffered in his matches. In a match with a jobber by the name of Joe Thurman, Vader legitimately broke his back, which left him paralyzed for a few hours.
His first two reigns as WCW World Heavyweight champion accumulated to just 92 days—his third was far more impressive, though.
After winning the title in Dublin, Ireland, Vader would defend the title against the likes of Sting, Davey Boy Smith and Dustin Rhodes—all of whom would fail to beat the big man.
The WCW Years, Part Two
Perhaps Vader's most memorable feud throughout his tenure with the WCW was with Mick Foley, who was wrestling under his Cactus Jack guise at the time. That began in April of 1993, when Vader beat Jack via countout on an edition of Saturday Night. Throughout that match, Jack had suffered a broken nose and required 27 stitches for wounds on his face.
Jack returned for Halloween Havoc later that year to resume his rivalry with Big Van Vader—and it would produce even more shocking wrestling moments. Vader won the match when Harley Race stunned his opponent with a cattle prod to keep him down long enough for Vader to secure the win.
In March 1994, another Vader vs. Foley match saw the latter lose his right ear after his head became trapped in the ropes. It is perhaps the Foley feud that is Vader's most memorable with the WCW.
After five years with the company, Vader departed under bad blood in 1995, but his career was far from over, as the WWF came calling.
In the buildup to the Royal Rumble of 1996, the WWF teased his debut for the company with a series of promos, dubbing him "The Man They Call Vader." When he entered the Rumble at No. 13, he made his presence felt by eliminating four men. However, Shawn Michaels would dispatch Vader from the Rumble, leading him to re-enter the ring and viciously assault everyone inside.
The following night on Raw, he defeated Savio Vega before again launching another assault, this time on WWF officials. That led then-president Gorilla Monsoon to demand Vader halt his attacks—he received a Vader Bomb for his troubles.
It was a storyline that would see Vader suspended from the company, but in reality, he would take time off for shoulder surgery.
When he returned, he would take up a rivalry with Shawn Michaels in 1996, before Paul Bearer aligned himself with Vader at the Royal Rumble of 1997, when Bearer attacked Undertaker to give his new client the win over his former one.
Despite being in a four-man event for the WWF Championship—and the Tag Team title hunt with Mankind at WrestleMania 13—Vader would never win a belt with the company, which is bizarre given the caliber of people he had feuds with.
His final match in a WWF ring was in 1998, when he lost to Ken Shamrock at Madison Square Garden. He would make sporadic returns to the company over the subsequent years, most recently beating Heath Slater on an edition of Raw back in 2012.
He continues to sporadically wrestle all across the globe and is still renowned for his remarkable aerial ability, considering his size.
The phrase "It's Vader Time!" is one that will live with wrestling fans forever. As will the career of the great Vader.