WWE Hall of Famer was an All Star Wrestling tag team champion
By Vern May
In 1980, before the era of cable television, Vancouver wrestling fans had no idea that just two years prior, television heartthrob Roddy Piper was one of the most reviled wrestlers in southern California. No, to them Piper and his tag team partner Rick Martel were simply two fierce competitors that were willing to do anything that it would take to get things done.
Roddy Piper’s debut in All Star Wrestling on February 12, 1979 was a bit of a homecoming for him on two fronts. First, it marked his first appearance on Canadian soil in close to three years, but it also re-united him with promoter Al Tomko who was instrumental in helping Roddy achieve his first visibility in the sport. Tomko had been the local AWA promoter in Winnipeg when Roddy was making his first strides in the wrestling business and secured matches with the 18 year old aspiring superstar against the likes of Ric Flair, “Superstar” Billy Graham, and a fabled match with Larry Hennig (which is commonly erroneously billed as Piper’s debut).
Based in Oregon during his time here, Piper was involved in some historic matches and feuds. His battles against long-time rival Buddy Rose resulted in some memorable interviews that fans talked about for a generation.
“Buddy Rose, I heard that your girlfriend Lucy has been hanging around the arenas,” Piper snarled during a BCTV interview. “Yeah, around there, everyone calls her loose for short.”
However, the highlight of Roddy Piper’s run in Vancouver All Star Wrestling came in tag team competition when he and the popular Rick Martel waged war against the Sheepherders – Butch Miller and Luke Williams over ownership of the Canadian tag team titles. Leading into a May 19, 1980 cage match in Vancouver, Piper took to the BCTV studios and during a ringside interview to illustrate how far he was willing to go to secure victory. Check out the shocking clip here:
Piper was involved in another memorable match during his brief stay in Vancouver – Piper partnered with Andre the Giant and the recently honored Don Leo Jonathan in Jonathan’s last match to vanquish Rose and the Sheepherders.
Just one month after his final All Star appearance, Piper was off to the Carolinas, Georgia and then ultimately the WWE where he rose to the peak of the industry – serving as the antagonist which drove the fans in great numbers to Madison Square Garden in the very first Wrestle Mania, a wrestling tradition that has now continued for more three decades.
Since word of Roddy’s sudden passing last week, there has been lots written about his contributions to professional wrestling, his lasting impact as a pop culture icon, and even Entertainment Weekly spotlighted his body of work in more than 70 movies and television shows throughout his acting career. Though few have picked up on a key theme which repeats throughout Piper’s narrative at several times during his career.
Behind his carefully cultivated tough guy image, complete with the leather jacket to compliment his red and white plaid kilt, many never knew how he kept what truly mattered close to his heart. In the inside left breast zippered pocket of that jacket, Piper kept two items – one was his passport and the other was one that only a select few ever got to see. In a clear plastic shield was a well-creased photo of his family – Roddy all smiles at the centre of his wife and four children.
Sitting across the table from Vance Nevada in 2011, he pulled the photo from his pocket and placed it in front of him on the table. He paused for a moment, his finger tracing the creases on the weathered photo. There was a momentary flicker in his eyes that said that this was a photo that he had looked upon often during his travels, probably in airports, backstage in cavernous arenas and in lonely hotel rooms – his motivation for the gruelling schedule and the never-ending pace that he set for himself as a performer.
“See this,” he started, his tone getting serious. “When I go to work, I do it for my kids. I’d kill for them if I have to … I just choose not to.”
Few fans realize the risk that Piper was taking at the height of his career from 1984 to 1986 when he was the most notorious villain in the sport of professional wrestling. Antagonizing not only fan favorites in the ring, but also some of the most visible and iconic pop culture figures of the day including Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T, Piper was a hated man. His notoriety drew unwanted attention on his family, including from over-zealous fans who could not differentiate between the on-camera antics and the man born Roderick George Toombs.
At the height of his villainy, Piper called police one night to identify that he had an unwanted person on his property. When he explained who he was and why this presented a threat to his family, the authorities laughed it off – it was just a ‘phony’ wrestler and they weren’t dispatching an officer. Taking his life in his own hands, Piper ventured out onto his acreage to address the problem directly.
“Nobody died that night,” he told me. “But sometimes you need to break their spirit a little bit.”
His motivation to drive forward as a professional wrestler and as an actor was driven by his will to provide for his children in the best manner that he knew how – in bodies of work where his potential was limited only by his own drive and ambition. He wasn’t constrained to a nine to five lifestyle – but instead driven to be the example for others to follow. During filming of reality series ‘World of Hurt’ he told his cast mates on the first day. “I only ask one thing of you – to work as hard as I do. Give me your heart, and you’re going to be successful here.”
In fairness, Piper was well known for cutting a pace that was hard to follow. Whether on the microphone or in the ring, Roddy was out there to earn the biggest piece of the pie he could – talking people into arenas, raising their ire on television to get them out to the arenas. In 1982, while wrestling in the Carolinas, Piper was hospitalized for exhaustion for a week, the result of his gruelling pace. Upon his release from hospital he worked even harder – credited by Jesse Ventura for working 91 days in a row on the road with the WWE without a day off at the peak of his career.
In an interview with CBS in 2003, Piper was very candid: “I’m 49 years old, what do you expect me to do. My retirement benefits don’t kick in until I’m 65. Let’s face it, I’m not going to make it to 65. I’ve got four kids at home.”
At 61 years old, Piper was hosting a weekly podcast, still acting and producing films, was making regular appearances at comic conventions and fan festivals, had launched his own brand of soda, and was featured in a graphic novel. Even in retirement from the ring, Piper continued to be one of the most visible personalities of his (or any) generation.
Rest in peace, Roddy Piper. You have most certainly earned it.