"Rowdy" Roddy Piper, WWE Hall of Famer, one of the greatest and most well known professional wrestlers of all time, has died. He passed away last night in his sleep, leaving behind his wife Kitty, four children, thousands of wrestlers/friends and millions of wrestling fans. I feel like I should say something more there, but I can't. I've tried; fuck, have I tried to get words out that seem profound, deep, worthy of such a great wrestler. I've attempted...about four or five times now to talk about how devastating a loss this is for wrestling, how great of a performer the Hot Rod was and what exactly made him great. Each time, I've hit the backspace button like a Syndicate member from The X-Files trying to hide the truth from Mulder. The truth is, I could easily spout out facts about how amazing a villain Piper was, how brilliant an in ring storyteller he was and how he's probably right up there with Dusty Rhodes (also recently lost), Mick Foley, Ric Flair and (in my opinion) CM Punk in terms of promos. And yet, every time I try that, my mind goes elsewhere. It doesn't go to him bashing Jimmy Snuka with a coconut, it doesn't go to his Wrestlemania main event with Paul Orndorff, Mr. T and Hulk Hogan, it doesn't go to Piper's Pit...hell to be honest, it doesn't even go to WWE, as blasphemous as that may be. When I think of the great "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, in the wake of him being taken from us too soon, my mind goes to October 27th, 1996.
That, wrestling fans, is the day WCW's Halloween Havoc took place, an event smack dab in the middle of WCW's rise to power thanks to the nWo (who surely need no introduction to those reading). In the main event, the newly heel Hollywood Hulk Hogan defeated "Macho Man" Randy Savage in a match full of Miss Elizabeth cameos, an actually interesting Big Show (then known as the Giant) and a whole lot of interference. For all intents and purposes, this was no big deal; just another nWo victory in a long line of nWo victories, followed by Hogan shining the spotlight on his favorite person (himself). Not this time. As Hogan celebrated, the sound of bagpipes filled the arena and sure enough, moments later Roddy Piper appeared from behind that curtain. He slowly made his way to the ring and launched into a scathing promo on Hogan, calling him out for his arrogance, his disrespect for wrestling and his disrespect towards Piper. The segment would lead to a year long feud between the two long time rivals, which featured headlining matches at Starrcade 96, SuperBrawl 97 and Halloween Havoc 97, bringing the feud full circle. It would prove to be one of WCW's most profitable programs they would ever produce in an era where the company could do little wrong.
Here's the funny thing about all that; you're probably not going to hear a single solitary peep about Piper's WCW debut, or anything that followed that. And, as my friend Pen would explain to me if we were having this discussion, it would makes sense why you wouldn't. Roddy Piper's legacy is WWE through and through; his best moments, his prime moments largely occurred there during the 1980's when he served as the CM Punk to Hulk Hogan's John Cena. His WCW run, from 1996-2000, has largely been whitewashed from history by WWE, a period of time most notable for Piper wrestling with a replaced hip (neutering his in ring ability) and his feud with Hogan (a surprisingly effective one despite the fact that their Havoc match is considered a laughing stock). Piper's WCW stay, in the grand scheme of things, really doesn't matter here, and to be perfectly honest, it shouldn't when compared to the first Wrestlemania, the battles with Hogan, Bret Hart and numerous others.
And yet, I keep going back to that night in Las Vegas where Piper, bum hip and all, slowly willed himself to the ring to confront the now evil Hogan. Perhaps it's because unlike most people, WCW was my promotion growing up, and Piper's appearance in WCW was the first time I'd ever seen him. Or maybe, just maybe, it's because Piper's work that night was some of the best work of his career, a glimpse into what made Hot Rod such a force in wrestling. Certainly, there have been better, more coherent promos from Piper in the course of his career than the one he cut on Hogan that night. And yet, many of his words remain mesmerizing to me. At the time, Hogan had become an even more unstoppable force as a bad guy, a man so above the rest of the peons that it looked like no one would knock him off any time soon. Entered Piper, there to break Hogan's monotony. He told Hogan that while he had become an icon due to his larger than life personality, Piper had become one through grit and determination, a misfit who had fought since he was seventeen and survived three stabbings along the way. He reminded Hogan that he had never truly beaten Piper. And perhaps most importantly, he dropped the biggest reality check to Hogan by recalling their battle at Wrestlemania. "If they hadn't hated me so much," Piper stated, "Do you think they would've cheered you so much?".
Now yes, in the grand scheme of things, that's just a really good line in a wrestling promo. But a really good line can also be the truth, and Piper's line is the truth. Hulk Hogan, popular as he was back in the 80's, would likely never have seen the heights he did if not for Piper, the smaller, rebellious, kilt wearing villain hadn't been his foil. Hogan may never want to admit it, and his fans (however many there may be left) may not want to, but it's the truth. And it was that sort of truth that made Piper the great wrestler so many will celebrate in the days and weeks to come. The truth is that Piper didn't just speak those words that night, he believed them. It's one of the many things that fascinates me about that night, that scene in Las Vegas. On one hand, there was Hogan, playing a that larger than life character at a much more annoying pace to fit his heel. Perhaps there's a bit of reality there, but I don't think it takes a genius to see there's a disconnect between Hollywood Hogan the character and Terry Bollea the man. On the other hand, Piper meant exactly what he said. He was once that seventeen year old boy who started fighting pro, got stabbed three times, and somehow worked his way to the top of the food chain as the loudmouth misfit in the kilt. You believed him. In a way, you knew him. In a way, that segment highlighted the difference in each man's rise. Hollywood Hogan may one day be considered greater than Roddy Piper, but the way he got there was in many ways manufactured, manipulated and, in a way, false. But Piper? He became an icon as himself, by grit, by determination, by sheer, unrelenting will. What greater achievement could you ask for?
In my write up of Hulk Hogan's fall from grace the other day, I opened the column with a line from The Dark Knight, "you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." For Hogan, the latter proved to be true following his scandal, which has shown the man to be obsessively dumb at best and racist at worst. For Roddy Piper, he got the former. In some ways, I'm sure someone could argue that's a good thing. Piper had his controversies over the years, but in the end, when I think of the man, I don't see those. I see that moment at Halloween Havoc where the misfit finally found acceptance from the fans against his greatest enemy. I see the man who, unlike many wrestlers, wore his wedding band to the ring every time he wrestled as a sign of how much he loved his wife. And finally, I see a man who made it in wrestling as himself, allowing wrestlers like Dean Ambrose and CM Punk, the greatest wrestler I've ever seen, to do the same. It's one hell of a legacy, and maybe even one worth dying a hero to keep. And yet, why do I find myself wishing he was still here, even if it meant the chance of becoming a villain like Hogan?
So with that, it's time to say good bye. Thank you Roderick Toombs, you brash, brave icon in the realm of mediocre Shakespeare's. Rest in power, and may we carry your spirit in our hearts, souls and fists.