It should have been the simplest thing in the world. I mean, how do you mess up getting Vader over? Yet this is what the WWF did in 1996, taking their beast and, apart from one main event title clash, clipped his horns so that any fear and destruction he may have wrought was safely contained in the upper mid-card. In my mind, this is one of the greatest missed opportunities the WWF ever had.
With Vader, the WWF wasn’t just getting another generic big man, like an Earthquake, Akeem or (shudder) Bastian Booger. Vader could actually wrestle and wrestle exceptionally well.
He could move fast, a 450lb man who could flip off the top rope and land a killer moonsault. Fists like boulders, Vader could swing them with furious precision. He wasn’t playing in the ring; notoriously stiff, he left Mick Foley bleeding unintentionally on prime time TV, having battered him like a rag doll, breaking his nose, and leaving him requiring 27 stitches in his face. Ouch!
No wonder the Japanese loved him. He was a favourite of shoot specialist and NJPW founder Antonio Inoki, battling him in several hard-hitting collisions, and he was one of only a small group of western wrestlers invited to compete in the tough shoot-fight/wrestling organisation UWFi, where he had a particularly bruising contest with Nobuhiko Takada.
He had been a world champion in America, Japan and Europe, accumulating a trophy cabinet of titles that any other wrestler would kill to have a just a quarter of.
In short, the WWF had one of wrestling’s greatest big men on their hands; one of the toughest, stiffest, monster heels of all time. And they wasted him.
As guest booker, I’d like to put this right (at least in the realm of the hypothetical). In 1996, the “Man They Call Vader” should have been booked like Brock Lesnar has been since his return. Mean, unpredictable, destructive, near-invincible; Vader should have been a champion. He should have run roughshod over the entire WWF. He should have killed a few sacrificial lambs. Psycho Sid besting Shawn Michaels for the heavyweight title? Pah! Vader would make pig feed of Sid.
The NWO was cool, sure, but in hindsight wouldn’t you rather see a vicious beast of a man destroy his opponents, with fists and fury and not fake baseball bats and spray-paint? Wouldn’t you rather watch and see who will, after many false starts, finally be the one to slay the beast?
Let’s go back to 1996 and right a monster of a wrong. It’s time, it’s time. It’s Vader time!
Attacking The Loved
Let’s start at the beginning — where else? You would want the debut of your new monster heel main eventer to make the appropriate impact. WWF actually nailed this part of the deal. They had Vader emerge as a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble, one of the promotion’s major matches of the year.
Vader set out as he meant to go on, eliminating four men and brutalising anyone else he could get his hands on. While there were no real major names amongst Vader’s eliminations, what occurred when he was eliminated more than made up for it.
Eventual winner Shawn Michaels took out both Vader and fellow big man Yokozuna, sending them both out to the floor and out of the match. Except Vader refused to accept it as the end. He took out Yoko on the floor then proceeded to storm the ring and give Michaels a right pasting, eventually throwing him over the top rope in a highly symbolic act. The message was clear: this was Vader’s time and he was gunning for the big names. A match between Vader and Michaels would undoubtedly be on the horizon, which, of course it was. It was an exciting debut, making Vader look like an absolute beast.
But it was nothing compared to the next night on Monday Night Raw.
After demolishing Savio Vega, Vader got into a heated conversation with kayfabe WWF President Gorilla Monsoon. To the shock of many, Vader snapped and smashed Gorilla Monsoon with a “Vader Bomb,” hospitalising him. As a consequence, the unrepentant Vader was “suspended” (although it gave him a believable excuse to be off TV while he got some required shoulder surgery done).
The attack was a masterstroke on two levels. First, this occurred just before the on-screen authority figure got heavily involved in the in-ring action themselves. It just wasn’t something that happened, wrestlers attacking the men in charge. As such it felt like Vader had genuinely crossed over a line, giving him a real edge in how the audience perceived him.
Secondly, Gorilla Monsoon was a much loved figure to WWF fans (still is, and rightly so). He wrestled for the then-WWF from 1963 to 1980. He then took over on commentary and formed a great partnership with Jesse “The Body” Ventura and one of the all-time great partnerships with his close friend Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Certainly Gorilla and The Brain were the voices of a lot of people’s childhood —mine included.
So you can imagine the insane amount of heat Vader’s flattening of Gorilla Monsoon achieved. Backstage. Vader was seen threatening his manager Jim Cornette, throwing a rubbish bin around and putting every other WWF superstar on notice. In less than 20 minutes on a Monday night the WWF had created a new monster heel; vicious, unpredictable and, most importantly, over.
In this respect, the success of Vader puts me very much in mind of the way Brock Lesnar has been successfully booked as a beast since he came back to wrestling in 2012, but even more so of Lesnar’s booking since his infamous destruction of John Cena at Summerslam 2014.
Brock and Vader had a lot in common. Both are and were big, legitimate tough men, who had success in both Japanese pro wrestling and in shoot fighting and MMA (Vader in the UWFi and Lesnar in UFC). Both were also initially presented to their respective audiences as all-conquering destruction machines. Where they differ is that the WWE has been consistent with this projection of Lesnar.
WWE has actually gotten Lesnar’s booking as a main event monster pretty much right, although there is criticism of his relaxed schedule, infrequent appearances and over-dominance of the main event scene. Still, where Lesnar has been a complete success is in his presentation as a complete weapon of destruction. He comes out when he wants to and obliterates who he wants to. Case in point; Lesnar recently assaulted Rey Mysterio’s son Dominic, crossing the line much like Vader with Gorilla Monsoon.
Summerslam 2014 was the turning point. Lesnar clobbered John Cena with his finisher, the “F5,” in the first 30 seconds, and the match became an extended squash with Lesnar throwing Cena around like a rag doll, nailing with a total of 16 skull-crushing suplexes for the shockingly one-sided victory.
It was shocking, not only because of how dominant Lesnar was, but that a star like John Cena, the figurehead equivalent then of a Rock or a Hulk Hogan, would allow himself to be manhandled in such a way. It sold Lesnar as a beast, a man who could have his way with anybody.
If only someone would have had the same idea in 1996.
The Mastodon and The President
In reality, Vader returned from his shoulder surgery in time for Wrestlemania. The importance of a Wrestlemania moment as something defining in a wrestler’s career is well entrenched, not just in an audience’s expectations but now in a wrestler’s career objectives too.
The main event is usually the target (look at CM Punk’s comments on the subject). While this was undoubtedly not an option for Vader at Wrestlemania 12 —Bret Hart vs Shawn Michaels was the match fans were dying for at the time—a major Wrestlemania moment, Beating an established upper mid-carder in the same dominant manner Lesnar beat Cena, would continue Vader’s dominant streak and establish him as someone the winner of the main event would need to fear moving forward.
In reality, Vader was stuck in a six-man tag with Owen Hart and the British Bulldog against the rather motley crew of Jake Roberts, Ahmed Johnson and Yokozuna. A very strange way to treat your new major heel. The idea was to build towards a Vader-Yokozuna feud, a battle of the big men being fairly indicative of Vince McMahon’s attitude towards wrestling. Maybe this would have worked if Yokozuna wasn’t overweight, over the hill and ice-cold with the fans, who were fed up of Yoko’s increasingly limited ability.
In my mind, I would have Vader demolish a sacrificial lamb in as quick and brutal fashion as possible to continue pushing the agenda of Vader as a monster. But he couldn’t beat just anyone. It would have to be an established name that would enhance Vader’s reputation but also someone who could afford to absorb a loss without losing anything in terms of their position in the hierarchy.
My suggestion? Put Vader in the ring with Roddy Piper. He was at Wrestlemania anyway, and whilst losing out on his ridiculous yet entertaining “Hollywood Backalley Brawl” with Goldust would be a shame, Piper would have been much better served wrestling Vader on the grandest stage of them all.
Why Piper? Well first off, he took over from Gorilla Monsoon as on-screen president, so the returning Vader would certainly catch his ire, especially if Vader was booked on Raw to continue his path of destruction. Piper could get in Vader’s face, with Vader only just barely resisting the urge to smash Piper, until he inevitably loses control and he and Piper have a wild brawl, setting up the match at Wrestlemania where Piper will try to lay down the law the hard way.
Piper may seem like a strange choice to wrestle Vader and put him over, but hear me out. Whilst not a regular in-ring competitor by this point, Piper was still a big name. Remember, shortly after this Piper would go on to have three pay-per-view main events with Hollywood Hulk Hogan in WCW which would draw substantial live gates and buy rates. People still wanted to see Piper, whether that seems crazy in hindsight or not.
Imagine then if Vader entered the ring at Wrestlemania and proceeded to obliterate Piper in brutal fashion, say, within 10 minutes, with minimal offence from Piper. The audience would have been stunned to see Piper treated like a jobber. Sure, a certain amount of people would expect Vader to win but they would also expect Piper to put up a fight, make it competitive. They wouldn’t expect Piper to be demolished. If Piper sold well enough and Vader was his usual brutal self, such a scenario would have elevated Vader even further while not causing Piper any embarrassment to speak of (he would be in WCW by October ‘96 anyway.)
Kicking In The Klique
With a sacrificial lamb slaughtered, Vader should then have started the slow build to a main event battle with then-heavyweight champ Shawn Michaels.
I’d begin with Vader calling out Shawn on Raw demanding a title shot. Shawn could use the tried and tested “there’s a list of title contenders” explanation to put the match off for now and allow the build-up.
Vader would be fuming, of course. To get Shawn’s attention I’d have him go on a personal mission to hurt his friends until Shawn grants the title match. This allows Shawn to main event against other people whilst having that slow build to the Vader match, while also allowing Vader to get mad heat by attacking Shawn’s friends and brutalising them, giving Vader substantial opponents to beat on the PPVs leading up to Shawn.
Vader could interrupt matches and attack people backstage, giving people like Razor Ramon, The 1-2-3 Kid, Ahmed Johnson, Marc Mero and even The Warrior a severe beating in a manner which you see Brock Lesnar exemplify now: no punches held, no prisoners taken.
In reality, Vader did wrestle Razor Ramon at the April “In Your House” PPV and I would copy this except, whilst the WWF decided to make it a competitive match, even having Ramon kick out of the “Vader Bomb”, I would have Vader beat Ramon in a quick one sided affair to further enhance him. I might even have Vader batter Ramon after the bell, forcing Shawn to make the save. Razor could afford to take the loss. He was finishing off working his notice anyway, and by May he would appear in WCW as one of The Outsiders. I think he’ll be ok, that Razor Ramon fella…
King of the Ring – Vader 3:16?
This is where things get controversial. But if I’m focusing solely on the booking of Vader my next move makes sense.
It’s a bold man or a fool —that’s me—to argue against Steve Austin’s King of the Ring win, with its defining “Austin 3:16” speech. In reality, I’m not that stupid. But if I’m focusing solely on Vader, then I’m going to have to argue for his claim to the throne. And remember: if Triple H had not taken part in the infamous “Curtain Call” incident, he would have been King of the Ring that year, not Austin. Easy come, easy go.
Looking at the list of participants that year (Austin, Vader, Marc Mero and Jake Roberts), and assuming I wouldn’t change them, I think a Vader vs Marc Mero final would be the right way to go. Face vs heel, Mero’s inclusion in the final would hopefully elevate him in the eyes of the audience. And a Vader win would do two things. One, it would cement Vader’s status as a deserving main eventer and two, the winner of King of the Ring usually gets a title shot. This was more common later and had only really started the year before with Mabel’s win (*shudder*).
Another way around this, and getting the best of both worlds, would be to have Austin beat Jake in the semi-final and wrestle Vader in the main event. Just when it looks like Vader is going to win, Shawn Michaels could interfere and give Austin the win. Call it revenge for seeing Vader attack all his friends. Austin gets to be King and can still make his “Austin 3:16” speech by referring to beating Jake in the semi-finals. He can even call Shawn out for interfering, saying he doesn’t need any help. Vader, meanwhile, furious at being denied his title as king, could demand Shawn’s head on a plate. Both men could surprise attack each other on Raw, the attacks getting wilder and wilder until officials have no choice but to make the Shawn-Vader title match for Summerslam. Time to put your money where your mouth is.
One of the problems of the real-life Shawn/Vader build-up was that Shawn was beating Vader quite cleanly on the house show circuit only the month before. Not only that but the Summerslam match, as good as it was, became a debacle when Shawn had a hissy fit on-air because Vader was out of position to receive a top rope move. Not only that but the match had not one but two false finishes courtesy of a count out and a disqualification, which Jim Cornette demand be overturned, until Shawn finally put Vader down for the three count.
Supposedly, Vader was supposed to go over but Shawn had a tantrum over it backstage and the result was changed to protect both men, although the mess of false finishes only damaged Vader’s momentum. In his autobiography, Shawn disputes that he had a tantrum backstage and that he would have done the job if asked to but the plan was always for Shawn to win. Who knows? Whatever the truth, it doesn’t change the fact that the booking of the match was flawed.
For one, Vader should have taken the belt, just like he had in WCW. While Shawn was on fire at the time as a wrestler, he wasn’t selling the tickets and drawing in the crowds that were expected of him. There was a contingent that were riled by his pretty-boy appearance and antics, which is a shame because Shawn was astonishingly good in the ring at this point. However, a win for Vader could have been beneficial to Shawn also. If Vader was established as an ultra-masculine fighting machine, once Michaels beat Vader in the rematch to regain the title, as long as it was a competitive match Shawn would get the respect of those fans who had dismissed him as a pretty boy and in turn become a more substantial draw for his second reign.
For Vader’s win, though, a Lesnar-Cena scenario would not be appropriate. If we want Shawn to come back and win the rematch, then this should be the most competitive match of Vader’s WWF stint so far so as not to make Shawn look too weak. Vader should batter Shawn when he gets too close but Shawn should use his speed so he can hit and run. In the end, though, Vader’s strength should prevail. Maybe Shawn misses the “Sweet Chin Music,” maybe Vader hits him with a nightmare of a clothesline or blow to the face, then hits the “Vader Bomb” for the clean, decisive win. WCW might have had the NWO, but WWF would have the most vicious, bruising beast in the business destroying all comers. Who would you rather watch?
For the sake of conciseness I will end my guest booking there. If you have any ideas as to how you would book Vader once he had the title, please do let me know in the comments, I’d love to know. I personally think the challengers would get bigger, harder, more bruising; Undertaker, Psycho Sid, maybe even the revival of a certain classic feud with a certain Mick Foley. When Shawn finally did take the title back, at the 1997 Royal Rumble perhaps, the WWF would have a killer heel they could use, which they really didn’t have outside of Mankind at that point in time. Shawn would get a new lease of life from slaying the beast. Everyone’s a winner.
Righting any wrongs in wrestling is a dangerous business. To right Vader I had to potentially write off Steve Austin’s King of the Ring win, which is wrestling sacrilege really. Still I believe Vader was one of the greatest to step into a ring and I think the WWF totally dropped the ball with him. This is my attempt to see how this wrong could have been righted. If nothing else, this has been a little bit of a love letter to one of my all-time favourites. Go back to whatever videos you have, go on to the WWE Network and look back at Vader. Never forget him.
1996, it should have been Vader time.