It’s time. It’s time. It’s Vader time. To a generation of WWE fans, those words signalled the arrival of ‘The Mastodon’ as he marched down the ring to inflict a beating on a hapless opponent. On April 1, 2022, Vader will finally be enshrined into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Born Leon White on May 14, 1955, Vader was a successful college Football player. He played as an offensive line for the University of Colorado and was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams as a third-round pick in the 1978 NFL draft.
Unfortunately, his promising professional Football career was cut short due to a severe knee injury and he was forced to look elsewhere for employment.
He did not have to wait very long. After a chance encounter in his local gym in 1985, Vader got his start in professional wrestling. Cutting his teeth in the AWA, he initially went by the ring name, Baby Bull. However, it wasn’t until he swopped the United States for the Orient, that his wrestling career really took off.
Vader joined New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1987 and would adopt the moniker, Big Van Vader. An elaborate ring entrance and attire set him apart from the pack. Vader entered arenas with a huge black mask that billowed smoke. The 400 Ibs monster instilled fear into his opponents and fans alike. In his NJPW debut, he squashed company founder and figurehead, Antonio Inoki in three minutes which incited a riot inside Sumo Hall. That resulted in the company being temporarily banned from running events at the venue.
NJPW’s commitment to ‘The Mastodon’ was clear. On April 24, 1989, Vader would become the first American to capture the second version of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. He won a one-night tournament inside the Tokyo Dome, rolling over a who’s who of Japanese legends, Masahiro Chono, Tatsumi Fujinami and finally Shinya Hashimoto to claim the title.
Vader’s success in Japan did not go unnoticed in the States. Jim Ross and Jim Cornette, who were both members of WCW’s booking committee in 1990, made a deal for the behemoth to wrestle for WCW.
‘The Mastodon’s’ big break would come at the 1990 Great American Bash event when he squashed Tom Zenk in under two minutes. Vader would split his time between WCW and NJPW for the next couple of years before he committed himself to WCW full time. When he did, more success followed. Vader captured the WCW World Championship from Sting at the 1992 Great American Bash. He would trade the belt with Ron Simmons and Sting over the next 12 months. His final defence of the WCW World Title occurred when he dropped the gold to Ric Flair in the stunning main event of Starrcade 1993.
When Hulk Hogan signed with WCW in the summer of 1994, fans salivated at the prospect of ‘The Hulkster’ and ‘The Mastodon’ locking horns. They first collided at SuperBrawl V in a choice match-up that ended in a disqualification victory for Hogan. The subsequent rematches disappointed.
After an unseemly backstage brawl with Road Agent, Paul Orndorff in August 1995, Vader was initially suspended, then released from his WCW contract. The former three-time WCW World Champion was now a free agent.
In late 1995, Ross and Cornette now occupied positions on the WWF’s booking committee and both recommended to WWF Chairman, Vince McMahon that he add the Colorado native to the Federation roster.
Much was expected of Vader in the WWF. His debut could not have been better. ‘The Mastodon’ entered the 1996 Royal Rumble match and quickly eliminated Jake Roberts, Doug Gilbert, one half of The Squat Team and Savio Vega before being ejected by the eventual winner, Shawn Michaels whilst brawling with Yokozuna by the ropes. As a measure of revenge, the WWF’s latest signing re-entered the ring and smashed every participant in it before departing.
On the post-‘Rumble Raw, Vader crushed Savio Vega in his first WWF singles bout, before brutalising a number of Federation officials. When WWF President, Gorilla Monsoon instructed the big man to cease and desist, Vader battered him as well. The WWF’s new signing was suspended, but he had made quite the impression in his first 24 hours on the job.
The suspension was a cover story so Vader could undergo shoulder surgery. He expected to be sidelined for most of 1996. However, McMahon insisted he returns to the squared circle in time for WrestleMania. Vader obliged, but his ring performances suffered as a result.
Despite that fact, ‘The Mastodon’ was positioned for a title programme with WWF Champion, Shawn Michaels over the summer, culminating in an energetic clash in the main event of SummerSlam. However, backstage politics were about to hinder any further progress in the company.
With WWF business struggling in the summer of 1996, McMahon considered switching the WWF Title from Michaels to Vader. The feeling was a title loss could reinvigorate Michaels’s clean-cut babyface character and establish him with a new, sterner edge. The idea was ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ would regain the strap in front of his hometown, San Antonio fans at the 1997 Royal Rumble event, inside the Alamodome.
The title switch never happened. Their series which commenced at SummerSlam 1996 and was scheduled to run throughout the Autumn was nixed after the SummerSlam clash. Michaels used his backstage clout to sabotage Vader’s standing in McMahon’s eyes. ‘The Showstopper’ claimed Vader was too stiff in the ring and a long programme with ‘The Mastodon’ would result in him being sidelined with a serious injury. Michaels suggested Sycho Sid be substituted in Vader’s spot. It was Sid who dethroned Michaels for the gold at the 1996 Survivor Series and defended the belt at In Your House: It’s Time, the following month. The event name, bearing Vader’s catchphrase was a tell-tale sign of the changes to booking plans. Michaels regained the title as scheduled at the 1997 Royal Rumble in his hometown.
Vader next engaged in an on/off feud with The Undertaker but slipped down the card as 1997 drew to a close. After putting over a new character, Kane, in high profile matches in the first half of 1998, Vader unceremoniously called himself a “big. fat piece of sh*t” following his loss to ‘The Big Red Machine’ at Over The Edge on May 31, 1998.
Unfortunately for him, worse was yet to come. He suffered humiliating losses to then-opening card acts, Mark Henry and Bradshaw in his next two pay-per-view outings. He subsequently requested and received his WWF release in October.
Thankfully, for ‘The Mastodon’ he was greeted as a returning hero when he returned to the Orient. Vader joined All Japan Pro Wrestling and won the coveted Triple Crown, by defeating Akira Taue in a rewarding battle on March 6, 1999. He dropped the belts to Mitsuharu Misawa in another electric clash in the main event of the Giant Baba Memorial card at the Tokyo Dome on May 2, 1999. He would lose and regain the Triple Crown in a blistering series of bouts with Kenta Kobashi.
His reputation was restored, Vader was on top of the world at the turn of the new millennium. He followed Misawa to the Japanese legend’s fledgling Pro Wrestling Noah promotion and wrestled for the company until January 2003.
Vader drastically reduced his schedule from that point forward and enjoyed stints for a wide array of independent promotions and made several guest appearances for WWE.
‘The Man They Call Vader’ continued wrestling sporadically until 2017 and even caused a stir with a high profile match with Will Ospreay in RevPro in the summer of 2016.
Vader passed away on June 18, 2018, at the age of 63. His official cause of death was pneumonia but he had been dealing with congestive heart failure for the previous two years.
Vader had long lobbied for induction into the WWE Hall of Fame prior to his passing. He had hoped to survive long enough to experience his induction. Sadly, his enshrinement into the hallowed hall will be posthumous.
On April 1, 2022, Leon White will finally take his place alongside his fellow legends in the WWE Hall of Fame. It’s time.