It’s Time, It’s Time, It’s Vader Time…Big Van Vader or simply Vader is one of the best big men to ever step foot inside the squared circle. The super-heavyweight showed his agility by performing moves such as the moonsault and the drop kick.
Vader was also known for his distinctive masks, the 59-year-old, from Boulder Colorado made a name for himself wrestling in Mexico, Europe, Japan and America with WCW and WWE, winning numerous titles along the way.
We caught up with Vader to talk about, starting out in American Football, working with the likes of Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, if he will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame plus much more.
How did you first get into the sport of professional wrestling?
It was after I was done playing professional football for the Los Angeles Rams. I picked up a really bad injury that required nine surgeries – the Rams kept me on the team and under contract I guess because I had potential, I was big, fast, strong and mobile centre offensive guard.
But then I remember the general manager coming into the hospital saying they were thinking about me but at the same time they had to put the whole team first and we came to a settlement on the contract.
I went back home and got a real estate license and I was actually doing really well in real estate and began investing the little money I made with the Rams but I just got bored. So I got back in the gym, the next thing I know I was down in Minnesota training with Brad Rheingans who I had met at a local show in Denver through the AWA, that’s how I started wrestling. It’s something that I had always thought about doing and I was a big wrestling fan but that is how I began my journey in wrestling.
When growing up who were some of the wrestlers you enjoyed watching?
One of the individuals that caught my eye was Bruiser Brody, being based in Denver we got AWA wrestling with Stan Hansen, and Jerry Blackwell, some of the bigger guys. Occasionally we got some stuff from down south. With the WWF I would catch Andre ‘The Giant’ now and again and that was always a treat to have a man that size and being able to see him and gaze at him.
I don’t think it was any particular individual but for me it was more about just the sport in general. One of the big things for me about wrestling was performing and entertaining a crowd which is something I did with football and I think that was more of a lure for me.
What was it like when you made your professional wrestling debut with the AWA?
It was exciting, I remember going down to Minnesota and attending some of the local shows there. I was at Brad Rheingans school of professional wrestling and I was fortunate enough to be picked up by the AWA. I remember going to Las Vegas for a television taping and debuting in Denver in front of a sold out crowd, I actually had to wrestle Brusier Brody that night.
It was the night my son was born, my wife had been in labour from the Thursday and then my match with Bruiser was on the Saturday. I was getting dressed into my wrestling gear in the birthing room and I had a friend stand by and drive me down to the show. It was quite an exciting night, my son was born and I was racing down to Denver breaking all the speed laws, I walked through the crowd to get to the ring and went out there, fought Brody and lost the match.
As a Heavyweight you performed moves such as the Moonsault, when did you add the high-flying moves to your wrestling arsenal?
They were just something that I was always capable of doing and very few other 400 pounders could do. As a football player, an all conference and all American in college and as a coach of my sons team I always told him to be the most athletic guy on the field and the other things will fall into place.
Those high risk moves were things that I could do and I thought just because the other big guys aren’t doing it why shouldn’t I do it. I did those moves and I guess they were one of the things that made me unique as a 400 pounder doing a moonsault, moves like a Shawn Michaels or a Ric Flair would do – I thought it added to my character’s ability to entertain.
Another one of the iconic things about Vader was the mask, how did the ideas for those come about?
The Iron mask was something the Japanese came up with, it has nothing to do with Darth Vader out of Star Wars, it’s actually a samurai head gear and defensive wear for the shoulders and chest. In Japanese folklore to settle disputes the strongest men from villages would go to an island and do battle and Vader was given the title of ‘Emperor’s Warrior’. Antonio Inoki after watching me wrestle came up to me and gave me the iron mask.
The leather mask came about because they had me wearing a full mask over in Japan and they would get really hot, I would have three or four of them for a tour and they would stink to high heaven. I actually came up with the leather mask and it had a unique shape and look, no one else had one at that time – years later Mick Foley came up with something similar for Mankind, but I had the original. I actually designed and made the mask myself, basically it’s a series of V’s connecting with each other.
What was your time like wrestling across Mexico, Europe and Japan?
I had wrestled in Europe for three or four years and had won a number of world titles over there and had a solid run, that was with Otto Wanz, and at the time his promotion CWA was the largest wrestling organisation in Europe. We would do some big shows with 20,000 plus people across Germany, Austria and Italy. I was actually paying English referees who had come out to work to train me during the day and then I would wrestle at night.
I also had a spell in Mexico and held three World Titles down there, they were getting attendances of 30,000 to 40,000 people. In Japan I think I held a total of 10 World Championships, with all the companies, New Japan, All Japan and NOAH.
What was your experience in WCW like?
When I first arrived there Dusty Rhodes was the booker, Dusty is an extremely talented man and he was a great verbal coach for me in terms of giving interviews. It was great learning in the ring from Dusty and Harley Race, who was my manager at the time as well – that’s about as good as it gets in terms of coaching.
Sting was the face of the company and I think I was the number two guy there. We built it up and then it started getting the attention of guys like Ric Flair who came back, Hulk Hogan, then Hogan turns into the whole NWO with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.
I don’t really remember how long I was in WCW for but it was a great time of my career flying in and out of Atlanta. I felt during that time my wrestling knowledge, skills and physicality had caught up with each other – I was young and strong, able to wrestle hard and long, it all just kind of fell into place during my time in WCW.
In 1993 you were Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Wrestling Observers, Wrestler of the Year, what were those achievement like?
I was the first 400 pounder to win the Wrestler of the Year, there had never been a guy that size ranked that high. Contrary to what WWE says I was the first 400 pounder to do a moonsault from the top rope and I guess being 400 lbs just made it more unique when I did it. 1993 was a great year, WCW as a whole was going really well, I was mostly having matches with Sting, Cactus Jack and Ron Simmons, as well as teaming with Sid Vicious that year.
It was just before Ric came back and Hulk joined, after that it changed the dynamics of the company and it became the Hulk Hogan show.
In 1996 you joined WWE, What was it like making your debut at the Royal Rumble?
That night was a good night! I got a phone call from Vince McMahon out of the blue, after leaving WCW I was actually ready to go back to Japan to finish my career. Vince asked if I would be interested in going to work in the WWF but I needed surgery on my shoulder so we weren’t sure if I was going to debut and then go have surgery or delay my debut and have surgery and come in fully fit.
When I debuted at the Royal Rumble I was 400 lbs plus and I was Vader, I was the same guy I had been in WCW. After my debut Vince told me to go have the surgery and that everything was set up for when I came back. Next thing I know I had 90 days to get well and I knew there was no way that was going to be possible. I remember coming back weighing 360 lbs but I was fatter, I couldn’t even do a push-up or raise my hand over my head due to my shoulder.
They were excited about me coming though and Vince had made plans for me and I had come in but I was physically not who I had been my whole career. I was successful everywhere I had been up until that point and then all of a sudden I couldn’t perform, that first year in WWE I was working with only one arm and I was in a great amount of pain.
After the pain had gone away and I was ready to perform at my best, I was already established as a mid card guy, you get one chance to make a good first impression and I wasn’t physically able to do that in WWE.
You got to work with guys like Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker, what were those moments like?
The atmosphere was everything I expected it to be, WWE is the greatest wrestling company in the world, ran by the greatest promoter in the world. I had some very big matches during my time in WWE despite my injury, Shawn was an incredible worker, Undertaker was just phenomenal and I would say he is the best big man in professional wrestling history, without a doubt.
You made an appearance on Raw leading up to the 1000th episode and also appeared on the 1000th episode of Raw, what was it like returning?
It was fantastic, there were about 23,000 people in the crowd that night and I received a great reaction. I thought it was a really good little match that I had with Heath Slater, he is a very nice guy and he wrestled quite a few of the legends leading up to Raw 1000.
Who are some of the current guys you like watching?
I think Brock Lesnar is just a beast, he’s an incredible athlete and he would be great at anything he turned his hand to, I would love to see Brock featured more than he is.
Triple H is doing a fantastic job running the company now but I would love to see more of him performing in the ring as he is still a tremendous athlete.
I like Big Show and Mark Henry as well, as a big guy myself it is always satisfying to see those guys performing the way they do and for the period of time they have been doing it at the top level.
Are we likely to see Vader inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame soon?
I heard rumblings about it a couple of years ago, but I’ve not heard anything for a while now. I would really like for that to happen, I think I’ve earned it. Yokozuna, Bam Bam Bigelow, King Kong Bundy and myself would be considered super-heavyweights, and I would rank myself very high out of that group, and there is a time in my career in the early nineties where I considered myself to be the best big man.
How would you compare your two bosses, Eric Bischoff and Vince McMahon?
Eric was put into a situation and I think from a wrestling standpoint he wasn’t really ready for it at that time. He became very educated and excellent at what he did but it was kind of like we had one guy running the wrestling part and then two weeks later we had another guy doing it and so on and so forth until Eric did it. I think Eric was way in over his head initially but he certainly figured it out with the help of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan and there were times when it became a biased situation but he achieved some great things, he is one of the most successful promoters in the history of professional wrestling.
What can I say about Vince, he’s a genius, he is the most successful wrestling promoter of all time and just works so hard. He was very approachable and he has done nothing but treat me like a gentleman.
For more information on Big Van Vader you can follow him on Twitter @itsvadertime