The recent news that Big Van Vader would be appearing at the December 6th show for Preston City Wrestling was no doubt met with loud war cries of “It’s Vader Time” from many long-time fans of the Rocky Mountain monster and air punches, high fives and cheers of support from every follower of the Lancashire based promotion here in the UK.
With Vader being one of my favourite wrestlers of all time, I naturally decided to dig out a few old tapes and DVD’s, cherry picking a handful of his classic battles to re-live. Without doubt one of the sport’s best ever, if not THE premier Big Man wrestler of all time, Vader truly epitomised the “monster heel” character during his run in WCW in the early 1990’s in battles against many other fondly remembered names from that time such as Sting, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat and Mick Foley.
Sadly failing to reach the same lofty standards during his WWF run in 1996 & 1997 before being totally underused in 1998 (with Shawn Michaels’ unprofessionalism being the reason universally accepted for that burial) the big man did however battle in a handful of memorable matches opposite main event calibre foes like Bret Hart, The Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin, including that fantastic Fatal Four-Way for the WWF Title against all three of the aforementioned opponents at the Feb’ 97 In Your House show.
And let’s not forget the absolutely awesome, brutal and pardon me; shit-kicking style he incorporated in exploits across every big-time promotion in Japan; New Japan, All Japan, UWFI and NOAH. In an era nowadays where so few superstars have a unique style of their own, Vader’s well-rounded approach, utilising influences from the world over and experienced throughout his lengthy career, showcased the man as a perfect example of such a talent. Competing internationally, and in 1990 becoming the only man to ever hold separate World Heavyweight Championships simultaneously on 3 continents, his exploits in Mexico, Europe and most famously Japan show that Vader truly was a global wrestling superstar.
For a man of his size, Big Van Vader is quite simply a fantastic athlete with an innovative style unto himself. So for such a legend in the wrestling business, whittling down a shortlist to compile this rather minimalist Fave Five was a bit of a struggle. But nevertheless, I’ve tried to be as all-encompassing as possible with these match choices, so allow me to bring to you my Favourite Five Big Van Vader matches.
vs Shinya Hashimoto (IWGP Heavyweight Championship Tournament Final – 24/04/89)
You really could take your pick from a long list of memorable matches and titanic tussles Vader contested over in Japan from any point during his career. Whether it was against fellow heavy hitters like Misawa, battling the old guard likes of Fujinami, the smaller, quicker grapplers like Muto or even in tag team action alongside fellow US superheavyweight Bam Bam Bigelow, the sheer volume of the back catalogue of classic matches he participated in over in the Orient is a superb testament to his enduring appeal as a bonafide legend in the annals of wrestling history. But for the hell of it, I’ll open things up with his victory for the IWGP Title over Hashimoto. Super-stiff (as you would expect) with a white-hot crowd, the whole presentation of this match including the addition of Lou Thesz as referee adds a whole air of legitimacy to the proceedings. The perfect match to introduce someone to the Japanese style, had they never seen it before.
vs Sting (King of Cable Tournament Final – WCW Starrcade 28/12/92)
Kind of a toss-up here, as to whether I chose this (their best match in all fairness or went for their hard hitting strap match at the subsequent Superbrawl 3 show in which Vader actually triumphs). WCW-era Big Van Vader found his greatest ever foe in Sting. The mega-popular company figurehead and lead babyface was brilliantly complemented by Vader’s hard-hitting, brutal bad-guy in battles over the WCW World Title throughout 1992, 1993 and into 1994. Vader toppled Sting at The Great American Bash in July ‘92 to capture the gold, however it was this super-stiff and awesomely believable match which remains the high-point of a feud which took in numerous other singles, tag, 6-man and even 8-man matches. Squaring off many times at Clash TV specials and other PPV’s including on opposing teams at the War Games match from Fall Brawl ’93 and dragging in names such as Ric Flair, Ravishing Rick Rude, Dustin Rhodes and Sid Vicious to name a few, this pre-Hogan era WCW had more than it’s fair share of memorable match-ups. Perhaps the most criminally forgotten series in the last 25 years. One of WCW’s best ever programs.
vs Antonio Inoki (NJPW Tokyo Dome Supershow – 04/01/96)
Only a matter of days before his first appearance in a WWF ring at the 1996 Royal Rumble, Vader contested this absolute scorcher with the then 52 year old NJPW supremo at the annual Tokyo Dome supershow. The big man’s first match since being fired from WCW the previous September lasted 14 minutes and largely consisted of him absolutely terrorising his much older foe with a methodical brutality reminiscent of the battles with Cactus Jack in 1993 and as far removed from his pitiful series with Hulk Hogan as one could possibly wish for. At one point, Inoki was seemingly out cold following the most insane-looking German suplex I’d ever seen performed in a wrestling ring up until that point. Indeed, the heavy hits just kept on coming with the fight even being taken to the crowd, ECW style whereupon Vader suffered a stinging chair shot that naturally drew crimson. It all added to the tension and drama of course and ultimately resulted in a must-see clash of the titans. Definitely an under-rated classic this.
vs Razor Ramon (WWF In Your House: Good Friends Better Enemies – 28/04/96)
Make no mistake, this is by no means on a par with the other bouts on this list when it comes to outstanding match quality but based on the fact that I could literally have chosen any one of perhaps twenty other classic encounters and couldn’t make up my mind, I decided to change tact here and list this somewhat forgotten little match instead of just another 5-star classic. Going into this battle (Razor’s last ever TV appearance in the WWF) the eventual result seemed a mere formality. Vader had only just arrived in New York, whereas Razor was on his way down south and so with Vader being built so heavily during his first 6 months in the company that spelled trouble for the Bad Guy. But despite all the signs pointing to a one-sided match, watching this as it happened, I was still glued to the action in the ring, as I believed that Razor, such a well-supported lead-babyface so many years really just couldn’t be used as expendable fodder and fed to the new monster-heel. And therein lay the intrigue. If only they’d have continued on this course of action with Vader, destroying everyone else put in front of him rather than losing interest when Shawn Michaels threw one of his all-too-frequent hissy-fits. As I said, the match was somewhat plodding in parts at the time but viewed now, it is nevertheless a cool, intriguing match between two of the standout stars of the 1990’s and definitely one of somewhat historical significance.
vs Owen Hart (WWF One Night Only – 20/09/97)
Going into this match, even though Vader was technically the face and Owen the heel, fan support was shifted around somewhat due to the awesome USA vs Canada feud still ongoing at the time which naturally blurred the whole face/heel divide. Being staged in the UK, Vader started the match with fan support solidly behind Owen and as with every other match ever contested under the David vs Golith premise, most of us who were lucky enough to be in attendance in the NEC that evening were cheering the Hart Foundation man on. However, even though I added my voice to the 12000 in attendance behind Owen, I was actually hoping for a Vader win even buying the Mastadon’s official T-shirt to show my support that night. Despite the match falling in the middle of the card behind Bret/Taker and HBK/Davey up top, it was still the bout I was most looking forward to seeing off the entire card and remains to this day one of the top ten matches I’ve ever seen live. Your typical big man vs little man tussle, these 2 consumate pro’s tore the house down and while it started a little tentatively by the end of the match, I was thoroughly engrossed.
– By Dave Green