Tuesday, 22 December 2015

In Memoriam: Rowdy Roddy Piper

31st July 2015 – Roddy Piper, 61

("HOT ROD!" by Ming - originally posted to Flickr as HOT ROD!. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - )

“Just as soon as they think they know the answers, I change the questions!”

“Do not throw stones at a man whose got a machine-gun!”

One of the most recognisable stars in professional wrestling. The life story of Roderick Toombs, from homeless child to millionaire celebrity, was astonishing, although sadly the demons attracted in the former meant the latter suffered. 

The son of a policeman, Roddy wound up expelled from school aged thirteen (the official story involved a penknife, though Piper would later claim it was self-defence) and walking the streets, feeding at youth hostels when possible. “I was a delinquent with a knack for finding trouble, or it finding me” he later wrote.

An ability to play the bagpipes brought in some money, but when he was fifteen, he had the moment which changed his life, meeting an amateur wrestling coach in a youth hostel who found Roddy had a talent for the sport. Much to his own surprise, he was a natural learner, and won his first tournament against much more experienced wrestlers, a confidence booster.

Becoming an amateur wrestling champ attracted the attention of the local pro-wrestlers. Roddy was trained by a host of people, including Tony Cadello and Gene LaBell, and, after a ring announcer fluffed up by calling him, in one of his first matches, “Roddy the Piper”, a ring moniker was born. He was billed from Glasgow, Scotland, and despite being born and raised Canadian, this tended to be taken as good enough by most Glaswegian fans!

“The first professional match I saw, I was in. I was living on the streets of Winnipeg and a guy offered me $25 to wrestle. I had been a boxer and an amateur wrestling champion (Piper won the 167-pound Amateur Wrestling Championship of Manitoba at 15) so I thought it sounded good. I was 15 years old and weighed 167 pounds. My first match was against Larry Hennig, who was a former world champion, 35 years old, and weighed about 320. I lost the match in 10 seconds."
Roddy Piper, Oregonian interview, retold by Slam Wrestling

Rowdy Roddy Piper spent the late 70s and early 80s gliding around the territories, picking up titles and lifelong friends (and antagonists) wherever he went. He was able to become friends with the Hart Family, Ric Flair, and Hulk Hogan, despite all of their own intertwined hates and egos. In the NWA, he got his first nation wide exposure, winning the Television and the US titles. He had a violent dog collar match with Greg Valentine at Starrcade 1983, the first ever pro-wrestling PPV.

He was rapidly becoming one of the most popular names in pro-wrestling, and one man had certainly noticed. Vince McMahon, owner of the World Wrestling Federation.

Roddy Piper showed up in the WWF, as a villain, in 1984. The landscape, despite the appearance of Hulk Hogan as WWF Champion, did not look that different from the 1970s style.

Boy, was that going to change in a hurry!

Due to injuries suffered in the aforementioned dog collar match, Piper started as a manager and interviewer. He received his own talk segment on the TV, entitled Piper’s Pit, and gave the audiences a taste of the future by beating up jobber to the stars Frank Williams, ending with his iconic phrase: “Just when they think they’ve got the answers, I change the questions!” Feuds with mainstay WWF wrestlers Jimmy Snuka and Bruno Sammartino followed, but Piper (and Vince’s dreams of money) had their views on one man: Hogan.

There was a WWF show on MTV, The War to Settle the Score. Many a curious eye were on the show, due to the Piper v Hogan main event. Cyndi Lauper showed up to hand over an award to legendary wrestling manager Lou Albano, and during the in-ring ceremony, up shows Roddy Piper, who, after a few words, smashes the award over Albano’s head, and beats up some of Lauper’s heavies.

If you ever wanted a moment that pro-wrestling exploded, there you have it. Hulk Hogan was slightly popular (Glaswegian understatement) as Champion, but he needed his Joker, his Lex Luthor. In the psychotic motor mouthed honorary Scot, he found one.

The seeming hatred between Hogan and Flair launched WrestleMania, the McMahon flagship PPV, in huge style, and the real life hatred between Piper and Mr T fueled the sequel the next year. So much bad blood passed between Roddy and Mr T, even up to Piper's death, he could not speak well of his former adversary. Famously, Mr T was shocked anyone would stay in character at a press conference before the press had even bothered to show up!

Hogan vs Piper draw big crowds around the country, and TV ratings, and international TV deals, and the WWF exploded into pop culture.

By WrestleMania III, in which Hogan took on Andre the Giant, and Roddy Piper wrestled his first retirement match, they able to draw crowds of over eighty-thousand people.

“He was my closest friend in the business, a man that schooled me and guided me throughout my career. In fact, if it wasn’t for Roddy Piper reaching out to help me, I’m sure I would’ve been a mere footnote in wrestling. He totally made me at Wrestlemania 8 in our classic match. (Piper) passed a torch that many from that era couldn’t conceive of doing. He was always there for me. He was family to me, a brother who loved me and was there for me through my darkest days. I loved you Roddy, and I’ll miss you and your laugh for the rest of my days. “
Bret Hart, Facebook post (Piper was the only wrestler to visit Hart in hospital after his near fatal stroke in 2002)

Piper never gave up the wrestling bug though, returning in 1989, and winning the IC title in 1992, before dropping it to his lifelong pal Bret Hart at WrestleMania 8, in the only time Roddy Piper lost a match in the WWF by pinfall.

His inner nomad saw him bounce around the big two promotions, including a box office smash reuniting the Hogan v Piper feud in WCW, and frequent appearances in the WWF as guest referees and commentators.

“When I was 19, I won the light heavyweight championship of the world in Los Angeles. The next day, my bag was 10 pounds heavier, but my bank account was the same. I have turned 3 world championships down. The only people that need title belts are the ones who can't get over by themselves. That I'm proud of.”
Roddy Piper, Slam Wrestling interview, c. 1999

When Hulk Hogan re-appeared in the WWE in 2002-3, it was not long before his old nemesis Roddy Piper showed up again, once more in his path. There was an amusing take on the old feud, as, due to losing a retirement match, Hogan was using one of pro-wrestling “masked” gimmicks, as Mr America, and Roddy Piper and Vince McMahon were the gormless foes trying to unmask Hogan but never succeeding. Alas, Piper was mentally drained, and stepped away from pro-wrestling not long after this started. Later he said that he “needed to use that time to show everyone that I’d stepped away from the brink, that I was going to get better, even if I wasn’t better then.”

You can’t keep a legend down though. In 2005, the WWE announced that Roddy Piper was taking his just place in their Hall of Fame, and the following night, he appeared once more at WrestleMania, to interview Stone Cold Steve Austin, two icons of the business in the ring for the first time. This began a decade of continual returns, bringing back Piper’s Pit to help promote today’s storylines. Sometimes, Roddy Piper felt a bit like the “break glass in case of emergency” tool use to drum up business when the writers hadn’t done their job properly, and do you know, single-handedly, Piper would talk a million miles an hour and get that interest in the moribund storylines.

“Vince and I are very much alike, and we fight all the time. But that’s a healthy relationship. At the very first WrestleMania, I crossed a lot of boundaries. Vince had everything on the line. He put his house up, and I wasn’t going to back off from Mr. T or anybody else. And that mentality still carries over a little bit today. It’s pretty cool.”
Roddy Piper, Wrestlezone interview, 2013

In 2006, he won a public vote to become Ric Flair’s tag team partner, and the old friends won the tag titles. It was meant to be the start of something bigger. But on the night they won the belts, Piper looked notably and shockingly gaunt. Tests revealed Hodgkins Lymphoma, and a two month dose of radiation put the cancer into remission, though he needed treatment for the rest of his life. Piper believed the cancer had been caught just in time, and was only found because he needed tests because the fans had chosen him to wrestle that night. If they’d chosen Sgt Slaughter, he figured, he’d have been dead.

"It seems like I have been fighting someone, something, someplace, in some manner, my whole life. But this fight is one I am gonna win!"
Roddy Piper’s 2006 statement on cancer diagnosis

Naturally, Roddy Piper chose the most natural Piper like way to show he was recovering from the cancer. Yes, he showed up as a surprise participant in the 2008 Royal Rumble match, in front of a packed out Madison Square Garden, and got one of the biggest cheers of the night!

Piper continued to show up on WWE TV right into 2015, but he was weaker from the cancer fight than he was letting on. [He’d publicly claimed he’d beaten it in 2007, until later admitting it was only fully in remission in 2014.] 

Roddy Piper died in his sleep of a pulmonary embolism.

What can you say about Rowdy Roddy Piper? A pro-wrestling legend, one of the great orators in history, star of a number of cult films!

He was a star, and loved by millions. If only he’d been able to love himself.

“ I remember having to call Piper about a live chat. I couldn't attend or be a part of it because my son was sick at the time. Once he answered, Piper didn't even want to talk business. All he wanted to know was if my son was doing better. We spent the next 15 minutes or so as just two dads talking about our kids, Piper sharing his personal stories with me. I was amazed and genuinely touched by his concern. Roddy Piper is one of the very reasons why I do what I do and why I became a wrestling fan to begin with. Historians cite Hulk Hogan and in turn Hulk-A-Mania as what paved the way for pro wrestling as we know it today. While that may be true, in my mind, Roddy Piper deserves just as much credit. Without Piper, there would have been no Hulk Hogan. Piper truly set the standard for what a heel should be.”
John Powell, Slam Wrestling

"I am so sad to tweet that my friend Roddy Piper passed away last night. He was really such a sweet man. My heart is with his family."
Cyndi Lauper

“When I was first starting, it wasn't a place to bring your children.  It was a place for rough people.  Now it’s a place where a huge company like Klondike would allow me to represent them.  Klondike is obviously such a family friendly company and how they got stuck with me I don’t know because I wrestled a bear once named Victor. That’s a story I can’t tell ya.
Roddy Piper, 2013